Welcome to the June 2015 edition of Righting Crime Fiction. In this month’s segment, I will discuss the keys to a proper fighting stance, the mechanics involved, and some tips to ensure your fighting stance is solid. It might be unnecessary to describe the exact position your character will be in during a fight, but if you, as a writer, can “see” it and “feel” it, you can convey your message more clearly.
Note: If there are no objections (and I don’t hear any:-), I will speak directly to your law enforcement characters, as this will help simplify the writing for me. Additionally, keep in mind that these techniques can be used in fight scenes between anyone (not just between a law enforcement officer and a suspect), and they can also be utilized in real life situations.
Immediately upon recognizing that a physical confrontation is imminent, you should get into your fighting stance and prepare to defend yourself. Since physical confrontations often develop unexpectedly, it is imperative that this stance be as naturally a part of your everyday life as walking. You will not have time to think about proper body positioning. If you stop to think during a full-contact fight, you could get knocked out. If you stop to think during a fight with a suspect, you could “get dead”. Thus, you must spend hours upon hours in your fighting stance so your body will instinctively know what it “feels” like to be in the proper position. Developing this “muscle memory” is crucial to surviving a physical encounter.
This fighting stance is derived from boxing, and it is the only stance you will need to utilize during an unarmed (or armed) confrontation. It offers a solid base and fluid mobility, enabling you to shift your body weight effortlessly from one technique to the other, while maintaining your balance and defensive posture. It is wider and more balanced than the ready stance, while providing optimum mobility.
KEYS TO FIGHTING STANCES
1. In life we usually begin and end our days at home. Similarly, your fighting stance should be considered “home” and everything you do in a fight should begin and end there. You will launch every technique from your fighting stance and, upon completing the technique, you must immediately return to your fighting stance, or your “home”.
2. The base of your fighting stance, which consists of your legs and hips, should remain centered at all times. You accomplish this by keeping your groin area centered between both feet. Even when you are moving, you should keep your groin area centered. You will shift your body weight while executing techniques, but your base should remain centered, except when you execute kicks.
3. To shift your body weight properly while maintaining your centered base, simply move your head slightly in the direction you want your weight to shift, while simultaneously bending or twisting at the waist. This shifting of your body weight is important to power striking and defense. Once the technique is completed, you must return your weight to center-line. You accomplish this by moving your head to its original position over your groin.
4. You must strive to always maintain your balance while in your fighting stance. This can be accomplished by focusing on proper foot position, which will be described in detail in the following section, keeping your knees bent, and supporting your body weight evenly on the balls of both feet. Also, remember to never turn your firearm side toward the suspect.
5. Keep your chin tucked and your hands up at all times. Additionally, if your suspect’s hands are up and in plain sight, focus on your suspect’s chest area. This will afford you a good peripheral view of his four primary personal weapons; his arms and both legs. If your suspect’s hands are hidden, it is imperative that you focus on them—while keeping track of his feet in your peripheral vision—because they could produce a deadly weapon.
Step One: Begin by standing with your feet parallel and a little wider than shoulder-width apart (see Fig. 1.13). Remain relaxed with your head centered above your midsection. Imagine a suspect is directly in front of you and you are standing squared-up to him.
Step Two: Take a full step forward with your left leg (see Fig. 1.14). Your left leg has now become the lead leg, while your right leg has become the rear leg. The step will have turned your body at an approximate forty-five degree angle to your imaginary suspect, putting the lead leg closest to the suspect and the rear leg farthest. This simple maneuver places your right hip and firearm out of the suspect’s reach.
Step Three: Turn the toes of your right foot outward at an approximate forty-five degree angle, while keeping the toes of your left foot pointed at your suspect (see Fig. 1.15).
Step Four: Bend your knees slightly and distribute your weight evenly on the balls of both feet (see Fig. 1.16). Your heels should be raised ever slightly—they could remain in contact with the floor, but the contact must be “light”. This is important because you will be pushing off with the balls of your feet when you move and you will also be twisting on the balls of your feet when striking. If you bear your weight on the heels of your feet, you will limit your mobility.
Step Five: Tuck your chin by tilting your head forward in a bowed-head position, and lift your eyes to look directly forward at your suspect’s chest area (see Fig. 1.17). To assume the correct position, imagine you are looking down at a ticket book to write a citation. You merely need to lift your eyes to look directly in front of you. As long as you can see your eyebrows, your head will be tilted far enough. I call this “looking at life through your eyebrows”.
Step Six: Form a fist with your right hand (more on this later) and bring it up to the right side of your face, with your right elbow pointed directly downward and near the right side of your torso (see Fig. 1.18).
Step Seven: Form a fist with your left hand and bring it up to the left side of your face, with your left elbow pointed directly downward and near the left side of your torso (see Fig. 1.19). This hand and elbow positioning will provide protection against sudden and unexpected attacks, while keeping your arms in proper position for you to immediately defend yourself (see Fig. 1.20 and 1.21).
TIPS TO IMPROVE YOUR FIGHTING STANCE
Tip One: A good drill to help you focus on keeping your chin down is to clamp a tennis ball between your chin and your neck (see Fig. 1.22). Next, perform fighting techniques in this position. If the tennis ball falls, you lifted your chin too far. (I have to constantly remind myself of this.)
Tip Two: I have always preferred to keep my right elbow pressed against my firearm when in my fighting stance (see Fig. 1.23 and 1.24). This serves as a second line of defense for weapon retention, with the first line being the distance between the suspect and my firearm.
Tip Three: The muscles in your arms and shoulders should be relaxed. Tense muscles hamper speed and accelerate fatigue, so you should always focus on staying relaxed.
Tip Four: From the ready stance (described in the May 2015 segment of Righting Crime Fiction), you are halfway into the fighting stance and would only need to take a half step forward with your left leg to assume the fighting stance.
That will wrap up the June segment of Righting Crime Fiction. If any of you have any questions or comments or suggested topics, feel free to contact me and I will reply as soon as I can.
Until next time, write, rewrite, and get it right!
© 2015 BJ Bourg
Welcome to the May 2015 edition of Righting Crime Fiction. This month begins a series of blog posts about self-defense—one of my favorite subjects. In order for writers to create characters who can fight, they must learn how to fight.
I’m a self-made fighter. At the age of about twelve, I began researching and studying every martial arts and full-contact fighting system/style I could find. I learned the techniques, perfected them, and then applied them in full-contact sparring sessions. I retained what worked and discarded what didn’t, developing my own fighting style using the best of each system I studied. Basically, I was mixing martial arts long before it became cool. Along the way, I joined a karate school so I could have regular sparring partners and even competed in several open karate tournaments, taking first place in all of them. The point system structure of tournament karate does little to prepare someone for brutal combat, and I eventually quit doing it. When a boxing gym opened up near where I lived, I joined and became a professional boxer (2002 through 2005) at the age of 31. I hung up my gloves in late 2005, because training at the boxing gym every night took me away from my children too much, and they were my priority. Currently, I continue to remain in fighting condition and I train my son, who is an amateur boxer, and my daughter, whose interest in fighting can be traced back to watching Ronda Rousey fight (she practically begged me to preorder Rousey’s MY FIGHT / YOUR FIGHT).
In 1990, I embarked upon a career in law enforcement and went through the police academy, where I was exposed to law enforcement’s defensive tactics. I found many of the techniques to be impractical. During my career, I’ve been attacked by many suspects while trying to arrest them. I’ve found myself facing individual suspects of various skill levels, multiple suspects at one time, and suspects armed with various types of weapons (firearms, knives, bats, etc.), and I’ve succeeded in apprehending all of these subjects with very minor or no injuries. Unfortunately, my success can’t be attributed to my training in the police academy. Rather, I survived those encounters because I’d made a lifestyle choice as a child—and that was to train everyday as a full-contact fighter in order to defend myself and those I loved from anyone who might try to do us harm.
Later, in 2003, I went to work as a fulltime police academy instructor and became certified as a defensive tactics instructor and instructor-trainer. I quickly realized they were teaching the same techniques I’d learned in 1990, many of which were impractical and some even dangerous to employ. When I started teaching law enforcement officers how to defend themselves, I taught them how to survive a full-contact fight, because law enforcement is a full-contact profession. Through those teachings, I coined the phrase “The Full-Contact Officer”, and I subsequently wrote a series of related articles that appeared in Law and Order Magazine.
In the upcoming series of blog posts—which will be based upon applied knowledge and not supposition or mere training—I’m going to share some of these fighting techniques and principles to help writers 1) develop characters who can take care of themselves and 2) write convincing fight scenes. Additionally, writers can use the information provided to develop their own self-defense skills
Balance is an essential component of self-defense. Whether interviewing subjects or making arrests, your cop characters must always maintain a position of balance while keeping their firearms away from the suspects. When cops lose their balance, bad things happen. Some of those bad things could include them being slammed to the ground, knocked out or disarmed, none of which are conducive to a long and healthy lifestyle.
IMPORTANCE OF A PROPER FIGHTING STANCE
Before a house can be built, a sound foundation must be constructed. Similarly, before your characters can learn other aspects of fighting, they must first develop a solid fighting stance from which to launch their attacks and from which to thwart the attacks of their suspects. While a wider and deeper stance offers greater balance, it restricts mobility; and while a narrow stance offers greater mobility, it doesn’t provide sufficient balance. A solid fighting stance is one that offers an even blend of balance and mobility.
While the stances of most law enforcement self-defense systems are based upon traditional martial arts, the fighting stance I recommend derives from boxing. As a student of both, traditional martial arts and boxing, I learned very early in my life/law enforcement career that the boxing stance is more applicable to law enforcement work than those of the traditional martial arts.
The various martial arts stances, such as the front stance, back stance, straddle stance, and cat stance all lack the even mixture of balance and mobility that are necessary for your characters to survive a physical confrontation. By virtue of body positioning, they’re static and limit options, thus they’re not effective for real-world situations. They might be fine for performing kata or point sparring, where there are specific rules that all participants must follow, but they’re not appropriate for realistic combat.
Here are some of the reasons these stances aren’t suitable for practical law enforcement defense:
Back Stance: The back stance requires officers to place about two-thirds of their body weight on their rear leg by positioning their hips over the leg (see Fig. 1.1). This greatly hampers mobility and leaves them vulnerable to a number of attacks, especially takedowns. It also inhibits them from delivering effective power kicks with the rear leg.
Cat Stance: The cat stance is similar to the back stance, but there is more weight on the rear leg and the legs are closer together (see Fig. 1.2). The problems are also similar to those of the back stance.
Front Stance: The front stance requires officers to place the majority of their body weight on the lead leg by positioning their hips forward, while the rear leg is straight and extends behind their body (see Fig. 1.3). This also hampers mobility, and makes it difficult for them to quickly defend against a kick to the lead leg.
Straddle Stance: The straddle stance calls for an unnaturally wide stance (see Fig. 1.4). If the suspect is to one side of them, officers wouldn’t be able to launch an effective attack with the rear leg and arm from that stance, because the rear leg and arm would be positioned too far to the rear, and the stance would greatly hamper their mobility and prevent them from being able to launch kicking attacks. Also, the lead leg could easily be swept or broken with a roundhouse kick to the lower leg. If the suspect is in front of them, the “squared-up” position would leave them vulnerable to being easily knocked backward or taken to the ground.
STANCES FOR LAW ENFORCEMENT
I advocate two stances for law enforcement officers: the ready stance and the fighting stance (I’ll detail the fighting stance in the June segment of Righting Crime Fiction). Officers will perform most of their duties in the ready stance. I call it the ready stance because officers must constantly remain vigilant as they perform their duties—always ready for the unexpected. When a suspect becomes aggressive, your officer would then switch to the fighting stance. Some law enforcement trainers and administrators prefer to refrain from using the term “fighting” as it relates to an officer’s stance, choosing to call it a “defensive” stance instead. While I understand the logic behind this, I unapologetically call it a fighting stance. I want officers to realize that when they drop into the fighting stance, they are absolutely in a fight—potentially a fight for their lives.
Whether writing citations, interviewing witnesses, or ordering a hamburger, your officers should always remain in the ready stance. They should never stand flatfooted and squared-up to anyone while performing their duties—especially when wearing their firearm—as it would place their gun closer to the suspect’s reach (see Fig. 1.5). Standing flatfooted will also make them susceptible to being pushed backwards (see Fig. 1.6) or taken to the ground (see Fig. 1.7).
Note: For the purposes of this blog, I will explain and demonstrate each technique for right-handed officers facing right-handed suspects, as most people are right-handed. If you’re writing a left-handed character (commonly referred to as the “southpaw” position in fighting), simply reverse the hand/foot/body positions.
Step 1: To assume the ready stance, officers begin by standing with their feet parallel and shoulder-width apart (see Fig. 1.8). They should remain relaxed with their head centered above their midsection.
Step 2: They would then take a half step directly forward with their left leg, maintaining the shoulder-width distance between their feet (see Fig. 1.9). Their left leg would become the lead leg, while their right leg would be the rear leg. The step will have turned their body at a slight angle to their imaginary suspect, putting the lead leg closest to the suspect and the rear leg farthest. This simple maneuver places their right hip, which is where their firearm is located, farther from the suspect’s reach.
Step 3: They would then turn the toes of their right foot slightly outward, while keeping the toes of their left foot pointed at their suspect (see Fig. 1.10).
Step 4: They should keep their knees “soft” and loose while distributing their weight evenly on both feet. They shouldn’t bear their weight on their heels, as this would greatly limit their mobility.
Step 5: They would raise their hands above their waist, at chest-level, and keep them out in front of their body (see Fig. 1.11). This will enable them to more readily defend a sudden and unexpected attack. It is also a natural position for their hands to be while taking notes, writing citations, or merely motioning while talking.
Tip 1: Don’t have your officers clasp their hands together or interlock their fingers, as the suspect could grab and trap both of their hands with one of his, allowing him to pound on your officers with the other (see Fig. 1.12).
NOTE: I heard one law enforcement officer tell a group of writers that real cops use “teepee” hands when talking to people—um, only if they want to get knocked into next week and wake up not knowing their name. If you’re describing an interview scene and you want your officer to be tactically proficient, don’t have her interlock her fingers or use “teepee” hands. She can simply gesture with her hands as she talks, keeping them above her waist.
Tip 2: Your officers can distribute their weight evenly on both feet by simply keeping their head above centerline (centered above their groin area).
Well, that will wrap up the May segment of Righting Crime Fiction. If any of you have any questions or comments or suggested topics, feel free to contact me and I will reply as soon as I can.
Until next time, write, rewrite, and get it right!
Welcome to the April 2015 edition of Righting Crime Fiction. Before I get started, I want to mention how much fun I had at the Jambalaya Writers’ Conference in Houma, LA earlier this month. I presented a session on interrogating suspects called “Two Routes to the Truth” that relates closely to what I’ve been discussing here for the last couple of months. In the session, I talked about lying suspects and how to obtain admissible confessions from them. Today, I’ll discuss lying witnesses and victims.
While most witnesses and victims are usually willing to speak to investigators, there will be times when your fictional detectives encounter witnesses who lie or who will refuse to speak with them. There are many reasons why witnesses and victims lie, and the sooner your sleuth can discover the reason behind the lie, the sooner s/he will be able to get to the truth.
WHY VICTIMS LIE OR REFUSE TO TALK
Some of the reasons victims refuse to talk to investigators include embarrassment, fear of retaliation, or they want to protect someone. If the crime is of a sensitive or private nature, such as sex offenses, the victim may deny it ever happened out of embarrassment. If it is a crime involving spousal abuse, victims may refuse to talk to authorities because they feel they will be punished more severely when their spouse bonds out of jail. If the crime is of a sexual nature and involves an immediate family member, victims may refuse to speak because they don’t want their loved one to go to jail.
Victims may lie to investigators for the very same reasons they refuse to talk, but there is another very common reason they lie; because they are covering up their own crime. Some of these situations might include lying about being the victim of a burglary to cover-up abusing or selling their prescription medication, or lying about being the victim of a rape to cover-up having consensual sex with a minor.
WHY WITNESSES LIE OR REFUSE TO TALK
Witnesses withhold information for various reasons. They may think the information they possess is insignificant, may be afraid of retaliation, may distrust the police, or may be afraid of subsequent publicity. I have interviewed many witnesses who saw things but did not fully recognize the importance of what they saw. Had I not asked probing questions, I might never have gathered the information. I have also interviewed many witnesses after they had already been interviewed by other officers and learned new information. Some of the information was crucial to the cases I was working and, early in my career, I would ask them why they had not divulged that information to the previous officers. Many of them had similar answers: “They never asked the question.”
Witnesses lie for different reasons, such as trying to cover-up for a friend or family member, trying to cover-up for their own criminal activity, not wanting to reveal a moral indiscretion, or they feel they may be implicated in the offense if they talk. I worked a case once where a kid was the passenger in a car wherein the driver was murdered. During the interview, the kid provided details about what happened in the car that only a passenger or the driver would know, but he claimed to have witnessed it from across the street. As I interviewed him, he continued to deny being in the car, and I realized he was afraid of going to jail for accessory to murder. I explained that he could not be charged with murder if he had no involvement in the commission of the offense. I also told him that, as a passenger in the car, he was also a victim. Since he had earlier stated the passenger had tried to steer the car to safety, I also told him he was a hero for trying to save his friend under the threat of gunfire. He nodded and said, “I am a hero.” He then began telling the truth about everything. He was not a bad kid or a lied for some sinister reason—he was simply scared.
TRANSFERRING TO FICTION
Witnesses and victims lie or withhold information every day during real police investigations, and writers can use this to their advantage when trying to create compelling and believable crime stories. It would not be realistic for every witness and victim to tell the truth about everything in crime fiction, so writers should definitely sprinkle in some lies here and there and offer credible reasons for the lie.
Here is an example of how a witness from one of my short stories (MUDDY WATERS, Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine, Summer 2004) lied to detectives because he was having an affair with the victim and he did not want his wife to find out:
When we were seated in the interview room, I offered Andrew a cigarette. He took it.
“Tell me about your relationship with Cynthia Coleman,” I said.
His brow furrowed. “Who?”
I propped my elbows on the desk and leaned close to him. “Don’t play stupid. You know who.”
Andrew licked his lips and shifted in his chair. “I don’t know anyone by that name.” He fumbled in his pocket for a lighter.
“Andy, you’re fixing to cause yourself a world of grief. Tell me about your relationship with—”
“I don’t know who you’re talking about. And if I did, what business is it of yours?”
Rick jerked a Polaroid of Cynthia Coleman’s body from his pocket. I winced when he threw it on the desk. Andrew recoiled in horror. His cigarette spat from his mouth and fell to the floor.
“It became our business when we pulled her out the bayou.” Rick’s voice was loud. “If this doesn’t refresh your memory, a punch in the head will!”
I put my hand on Rick’s outstretched arm. He jerked it from me and stormed out the room.
Andrew’s face was ashen. “Is that really her?”
I nodded. He buried his face in his hands and it was then that I noticed the gold band around his ring finger. I collected his cigarette from the floor, handed it to him. He stuffed it in his mouth and I held the lighter for him. He nodded his thanks. A couple of drags later he was calm.
“Want to tell me about your relationship with Cynthia?”
“I’m married with three kids. If my wife finds out about this…”
As a writer, you have the power to pick and choose who lies and why they lie. Whatever you do, make sure the lie is well placed, it is believable, and it advances the story or widens the suspect pool. Your detectives must work to determine the reason for every lie, and you can use this to lead them to the actual evidence that solves the case and closes out the story.
Well, that will wrap up the April 2015 segment of Righting Crime Fiction. If any of you have any questions or comments or suggested topics, feel free to contact me and I will reply as soon as I can.
Until next time, write, rewrite, and get it right!
©BJ Bourg 2015
I will be presenting TWO ROUTES TO THE TRUTH at the Jambalaya Writers’ Conference in Houma, LA on April 11, 2015. This lesson will help writers move their fictional sleuths convincingly–and legally–through the interrogative process. I will offer examples of how I have used these same techniques to elicit confessions in real cases, as well as illustrate how I have applied these techniques to my own fiction.
The conference will be held at the Terrebonne Parish Main Library, which is located at 151 Library Drive, Houma, LA 70360. The conference contact is Lauren Bordelon. Here’s a link to register for the conference or to contact Ms. Bordelon:
The line-up includes New York Times Best-Selling Author Wally Lamb and Louisiana’s own Award Winning and Best Selling Author Debra LeBlanc. I heard Ms. LeBlanc speak several years ago at the Bayou Writers’ Group Conference in Lake Charles and it was amazing! You won’t want to miss her!
Here’s a link to the agenda:
Hope to see you there!
Welcome to the March 2015 edition of Righting Crime Fiction. Last month I defined what an interview is and I discussed “breaking the ice” and building a rapport. Next, I will discuss a few different ways your fictional detective can locate potential witnesses.
As I mentioned last month, every question a detective asks during an interview must have a purpose. This is never truer than when writing fiction, where every word counts. While a real detective can take her time getting to the point in her interviews, your fictional detective does not have that luxury. You need to pick your fictional witnesses and interviews carefully, decide what you want to accomplish with each interview, and then have your detective execute the interview with concision. How and where will your fictional detective locate her witnesses? The same way real detectives do . . .
Law enforcement investigations often begin when people contact the police to report crimes or file complaints. These people may or may not be a witness. They could be an eyewitness to the crime—as in, they could have actually seen what happened with their own eyes—or someone could have simply asked them to call the police. In any event, the person who first makes contact with the police to report an incident is commonly referred to as the “complainant”.
Some complainants might prefer to remain anonymous when making a complaint and this could present a number of questions for your detective. Did the complainant actually witness the incident? If so, does s/he have information that might assist in the prosecution of the perpetrator? Why does the complainant want to remain anonymous? Is s/he afraid of retaliation? Is s/he the perpetrator of the crime?
In order to answer these questions, your detective should attempt to identify the complainant. If the complaint was received via 9-1-1, there should be a record of the number from which the call originated, possibly the name of the caller, and an audio file of the actual call, which might yield some clues as to the identity of the caller. Interviews with people at the scene might also help to reveal the identity of the complainant.
In many cases, detectives are among the last to arrive at a crime scene. By the time they do get there, the patrol officers have usually determined the identities of the victims and witnesses and already performed a walk-through of the crime scene, so it is vital that detectives stop and consult with these officers before diving into their investigation. It can involve a detailed conversation between your characters, if warranted, or it can be a simple exchange.
If you are writing the story from your detective’s point of view, this is easy to convey. What follows is an example from my current work in progress—a follow-up to my crime novel HOLLOW CRIB (Five Star – Cengage, 2016)—that describes a patrol lieutenant identifying and interviewing a witness before the detectives even arrive:
Dawn was already at the edge of the crime scene tape when I walked up. She shot several photographs of the area while I walked over to Lieutenant Jim Marshall.
“Hey, Lieu, what gives?”
Jim Marshall hitched up his patrol belt. His breath was labored and beads of sweat raced down his forehead, but it was not unusual for the three-hundred-pound man. “This lady was driving by and saw something on the highway. She wasn’t real sure what it was, so she pulled over and backed up. Well, I tell you, she ‘bout shit her pants when she saw that bloody mess. She whipped it around in the road and drove like hell out of there. She called nine-one-one and waited by Gretchen’s One Stop until I got there.”
The importance of the patrol officer’s role at a crime scene cannot be overemphasized. They are the first trained law enforcement personnel on the scene and they will get to view it while it is relatively “fresh”—usually long before the detectives arrive. The information they gather is almost always vital to the investigation, and a detective would be foolish to ignore their efforts and proceed without first consulting with them.
In addition to patrol officers, it is important to identify all first responders and interview them to determine what they observed when they arrived. This includes paramedics, members of the fire department, volunteers, etc. These first responders often possess valuable information that can greatly assist detectives in determining what occurred and what the scene looked like at its earliest moment.
While it is important to understand the many sources of information at the crime scene, it is not always necessary to include all of them in your story. If the first responders have nothing to offer that advances your story, you wouldn’t want to fill pages of mindless conversation that leads nowhere just for the sake of padding your word count.
In the earlier example from my current work in progress, the woman who located the “bloody mess” is a witness, but her information is restricted to discovering the body, so I didn’t feel the necessity to have a full-blown conversation between her and my detective, Brandon Berger. It is true that the person who discovers and reports a crime in real life is always important to the investigation, so I felt it deserved some mention. I simply passed the pertinent information on to the reader in a realistic manner—the lead detective stopping to speak to the first responder. Had she possessed more information, Detective Berger would have conducted an “on-screen” interview, such as in the following example from JAMES 516 (Amber Quill Press, December 7, 2014):
Starla threw the door open and stepped back. “Come in, I guess, but I don’t know what good it’ll do. I already told them other detectives that Anthony never got into it with nobody.”
I nodded when I walked by Starla. She nodded back and said, “Your name is…let me see if I remember…London Carter, right?”
“Yes, ma’am, that’s right. Anthony was like a father to me.” I thought I saw Starla’s face lose a few shades of color. I followed Bethany Riggs into the double-wide and we took seats around a small dining room table.
“Want something to drink?” Starla asked. “All I have is milk and beer.”
We both declined the offer, and Bethany opened her notebook and set it on the table. “Can you begin with the night before Anthony was killed and tell us what he did leading up to the last time you saw him or spoke with him?”
Starla propped both elbows on the table and rested her chin in her palms. “He got home from work at about seven o’clock. We ate supper and then he watched TV while I ran to the store. When I got back, he was sleeping on the couch. I left him there and went to bed. When I woke up yesterday morning, he’d already left for work. I ran some errands during the day and then I went to my sister’s in the afternoon. I’d planned to spend the night there because we were going shopping today.
“So…I guess the last time I saw him was when I got home from the store the night before he died.” Tears welled up in Starla Landry’s eyes and rolled down her face. “Had I known what was going to happen, I would’ve stayed home and spent time with him.”
Starla was bawling now, chin trembling, hands covering her face.
Bethany waited patiently until Starla Landry regained her composure and then asked, “What store did you go to?”
Starla wiped her eyes. “Excuse me?”
Bethany glanced down at her notes. “You said you went to the store after you and Captain Landry ate supper. What store did you go to?”
Starla stared blankly from Bethany to me and back to Bethany before she spoke. “I…I went to the store up the road. Um, Food and Stuff Supermarket.”
“What time did you go?” Bethany asked.
“It was after we ate, so it had to be about eight-thirty or nine o’clock.”
“What did you buy?”
“Yes, ma’am. What did you buy at the store?”
Starla Landry began wringing her hands. “I don’t really remember.”
Bethany raised a single eyebrow, fixing Starla with a cold stare. “I understand you’ve been through a lot, but we’re only talking about the night before last. Surely you remember what you bought.”
Starla nodded nervously. “Sure, I remember, it’s just… I’ve been through a lot. Um, I bought some eggs and milk.”
“How did you pay for it?”
“What does that have to do with Anthony’s death?”
“Please, Mrs. Landry, these are important questions. Even though it might not seem like it right now, they all have a purpose and they’ll help us determine what happened to your husband.”
Starla Landry nodded her understanding. “I usually always pay with my debit card.”
“Did you do so that night?”
Starla nodded, then hung her head.
“Okay,” Bethany said. “Do you have a receipt?” Before Starla could answer, Bethany waved her hand. “Never mind. I’ll get that from the bank. It’ll help us establish a hard timeline.”
As Bethany questioned Starla Landry, I studied Starla’s face carefully. I was no detective—well, technically I was, but hadn’t been for long—but I could tell she was hiding something. I was certain Bethany was on to her as well because of the questions she was asking.
FAMILY AND FRIENDS
How did Bethany Riggs and London Carter identify Starla Landry as a witness? She is the wife of the decedent, so she would most likely possess direct information about the victim’s activities and possible enemies. Anytime there is a murder, interviewing friends and family members of the victim might help to open many investigative doors for the detectives and should lead to other witnesses.
Have you ever watched true crime documentaries on television, where they take you from the crime scene (or earlier) to the courthouse? Other than those involved in the criminal justice process, who do they interview for the program? That’s right . . . family and friends. The reason is simply because those are the people who knew the decedent the best and who can shed the most light on the situation.
ONE THING LEADS TO ANOTHER
I have always said that every interview should lead to another witness or another source of potential evidence, and this process can easily transfer to fiction. Let’s say fictional detective Grace Winston is investigating the murder of a businessman who is married and has two grownup children—a son and a daughter. Grace interviews the wife and she says she suspects her husband was having an affair because he was always working “late”, but she does not have a clue who with. Grace then interviews the daughter, who says she called and spoke to her dad the night before his murder and he told her he was heading home from the gym. Lastly, Grace interviews the son and he says his dad recently told him he wanted to buy a gun for protection and asked his opinion regarding what type to buy.
While the information Grace learned from these family members/witnesses did not tell her anything conclusive, it did give her several directions in which to go. She needs to visit the gym and interview the employees who work there to find out the victim’s habits while at the gym—what time does he workout, who does he workout with, any problems with other members, etc. She also needs to visit his place of business and interview his coworkers and supervisors to obtain work schedules, find out if he really does work late, determine who goes to lunch with him, uncover any workplace gossip about him, etc. Lastly, she needs to check with all the local firearms dealers to see if he purchased a gun for protection.
All of the work and gym interviews should then lead to other interviews or evidence until the case is resolved.
THE NEIGHBORHOOD CANVAS
Another technique for locating witnesses is the neighborhood “canvas”. This involves investigators knocking on every door in the neighborhood or location where the crime occurred and obtaining as much information as possible about all of the occupants, whether permanent residents or visitors. Things like names, dates of birth, and contact information for each occupant should be gathered. Investigators should seek to interview every occupant who was in the area around the time of the crime to determine if they saw or heard anything that might assist them in identifying the suspect.
Transferring a neighborhood canvas to fiction is quite simple. Here’s an example from JAMES 516 (Amber Quill Press, December 7, 2014) where a canvas is suggested:
“How about you follow-up on that angle when we’re done here, Gina,” I suggested. “Check the complaint database to see if there were any complaints filed against him that never made it to IA, and canvass his neighborhood to see if anyone saw anything suspicious…”
Since canvasses are a “hit and miss” effort, you can realistically have your detective strike investigative gold during one, or you could have her strike out. Real detectives must report all of their investigative results, even if they turned up nothing, but it is not necessary for writers to do this. In fact, you risk boring your readers if you write pages and pages of canvas interviews and introduce characters that serve no purpose in the story.
In the above excerpt, Gina was asked to conduct a canvas of a particular neighborhood. She turned up nothing valuable, so it is not necessary to take the reader along for the boring ride, but I think it is important to let the reader know what became of that canvas, so they are not left “hanging”. Here is a brief mention of the negative result of the canvas, which appears about a dozen pages farther:
Bethany bit her lower lip as she studied her notes. She glanced up and nodded toward Gina. “Did you ever get to complete the canvass of Captain Landry’s neighborhood?” . . .
“Yes, ma’am,” she said in a strained voice, “I did canvass Anthony’s neighborhood—like I said I would—and I also checked our database to see if there’d been any suspicious person complaints filed. No one from Anthony’s neighborhood saw anything suspicious and the only complaints we’ve had out of that neighborhood over the past six months have been for lock-jobs”—someone locking their keys in their car—“and animals roaming at large.”
For the most part, victims and witnesses will be willing to talk to your detective. However, there will be those who, for different reasons, will either be reluctant to talk to your detective or will downright lie to her. My plan is to explore some of those reasons in next month’s segment of Righting Crime Fiction.
Until next time, write, rewrite, and get it right!