Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Weekend At The Writers' Police Academy

What’s your idea of a fun weekend?

How about learning how to conduct a building search? Or how emergency responders react to a mass casualty event? What about discovering how blood spatters or how to take prints from all kinds of surfaces? Or the differences between the various departments of law enforcement, the varieties of multiple murders, or the role of bugs in crime?

Wait a minute… did I say fun?

This may all sounds intense, gruesome and downright scary, and it is, but at the Writers' Police Academy in Greensboro, North Carolina, it is sessions such as these that result in an event that can only be described as a mystery/crime writer’s dream come true.

“Write what you know” is the oft-recited advice to novelists and this weekend offers a chance to learn more than you could ever imagine, first-hand from experienced officers, emergency responders and world-renowned experts.    

This was my second year at the academy and yet I still found myself struggling to decide which sessions to attend. Some sessions were offered more than once, but given there were up to nine different options at any one time, even ignoring the ones I’d done last year didn’t make the choices much easier. In the end, I tried to pick those that I thought most relevant to my current writing projects, even as I was aware that you can never tell what tidbit of new information could spark the muse to go in an unexpected direction.

Before the event started I’d already signed up for the building search, a session which confirmed my belief that I would never have made a good police officer. The adrenaline flowed as we moved from room to room seeking out the bad guy, the tension ratcheting up with every door opened, even though the guns we carried were fake and the bad guy was one of the other participants! No way could I do it for real.  

Afterwards, I went to check out the live display and demos provided by the police, fire department and EMTs. Talking to bomb disposal experts, SWAT members, and hostage negotiators all reinforced the dedication of those who do these jobs. They patiently answered questions which I’m sure they’d already answered several times before and provided fascinating human insight into roles which I’d previously only read about or seen in news clips.

My favorite sessions were one where I finally learned what the difference was between a Police Chief and a Sheriff (very relevant to my writing) and another on what it takes to manage SWAT operations (not so relevant but so fascinating, I’m glad I didn’t miss it). That said, every session was well-presented and delivered with just enough humor to counter the underlying seriousness of the issues being discussed.

The afternoons were rounded off with talks by Dr. Dan Krane, who talked about the dangers behind the belief that DNA testing is infallible, and Dr. Kathy Reichs, a forensic anthropologist and the author whose books form the basis for the television show “Bones.”

If all that sounds exhausting, I’d have to admit it was, but believe it or not there was even more! On Thursday evening there was an introductory presentation on felony traffic stops, which was followed on Friday evening by a demonstration in the hotel car park—one can only wonder what the other guests at the hotel thought! On Saturday morning, what was supposed to be a K-9 demonstration involving a bomb-sniffing dog turned into a full demo by the bomb disposal unit when the dog sensed explosives in a backpack mysteriously left unattended.

And let’s not forget the banquet on Saturday evening, when author Lisa Gardner gave an inspiring speech about what it means to be a real writer and how we should remember that the journey (the writing) is more important than the destination (sales).

Everyone, from participants to speakers to those helping with the administration, was genuinely friendly and helpful, making this one of the best writing events ever.

All in all, it was certainly a fun weekend for this writer.



  1. You are so fortunate to be able to attend that conference, Mel...

    1. I know - it really is a dream event for a mystery/crime writer.

  2. Wow, that sounds like such an awesome conference to go to. I never even knew they had such things. You should post a list of really conferences to go to (even if it just includes this one). I think a conference on psychology for writers would be cool. All the interesting characters could probably be diagnosed with something significant.

    1. It is an awesome conference - certainly the best that I've ever been to. I discovered it by chance last year and couldn't believe that such an event existed - and was even more impressed when the actual event far exceeded my expectations.

      The idea of a conference on psychology would be good too - you could learn so much to help create all sorts of characters. The WPA does have a forensic psychologist as a regular lecturer - Katherine Ramsland - I'd highly recommend you look her up online (www.katherineramsland.com)if you want some background into the criminal mind!