I recently attended the 50th Bouchercon World Mystery Convention, in Dallas, Texas. As far as conferences go, this is the biggie, and there were over 1700 book lovers in attendance. I was one of four authors who participated in the Career Crimes panel, which addressed the careers of our protagonists—and of course, the why behind our choices.
For those who don’t know me, I’m a cop by profession, a medievalist by education, a scuba diver by choice, and a writer by…compulsion? The protagonist of my first two books is Mer Cavallo, a teuthologist—a marine scientist who specializes in the study of cephalopods, specifically octopuses. The question often posed to me is why, in light of my 22 years of experience in law enforcement, didn’t I create a professional sleuth?
The short answer is I tried. The result of that first attempt is languishing on my hard drive because as bad as it is, I can’t bring myself to delete it.
The longer response is that in the beginning, I hadn’t yet learned how to dribble bits of my experience into the narrative, and like over-salting a stew, that lack of restraint overpowered the other elements of my story. I also recognized that I needed to decompress after so many years in a high-stress profession.
Neither of these answers would register deceptive on a polygraph test. Yet the truth that held me back was more elemental. I was scared. Law enforcement is akin to a masters-level course in humanity. I’d risen through the ranks, held numerous specialty positions, retired as a captain. What if something I wrote was wrong?
Now, it’s no secret that novelists get things wrong all the time. Sometimes it is intentional, because, let’s face it, facts should never get in the way of a good story. They just have to conform to the world the author built. It’s the unintentional error that pops readers out of the story and cause them to throw the book across the room.
As a younger woman, I had considered being a marine biologist—until I realized biology was a pretty hefty part of the program. And yes, I recognize the irony of choosing to write about a woman who held an advanced degree in a discipline that was beyond my ken, when I was reluctant to write about a profession I had experienced first hand. But I’m a curious person and I love research.
My mysteries take place in the Florida Keys. In the first book, a crime occurs underwater. In the second, a nautical archeological component runs through the mystery. I had the diving aspect down pat. I also had the theoretical knowledge of underwater investigations, but darned if I didn’t have to research the practical aspect of working an underwater crime scene.
I learned two things from the experience:
1. Research is your friend
2. No one knows all there is to know about a topic— even if he or she is a subject matter expert.
The cop who claims never to be scared is a liar. Fear is a survival instinct that good cops learn to listen to, and then manage. Writers fear many things, but most often it is the fear of failure (and each writer tailors the definition of failure to fit their own fear). I owe Mer a debt of gratitude. That character taught me how to tell a story. She stood next to me as I revised my mistakes into more honest truths. Mer even introduced me to a new character, a police detective who now has her own story. She makes a mistake—a couple of them, in fact. But the detective owns them, learns from them, and refuses to let the errors stop her from achieving her goals.
As writer Elbert Hubbard observed, “The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one.”