Thursday, March 7, 2002
Moderator is Kristi Holl, web editor of this site and author of 24 books for children and teens, plus l50+ articles for adults and children. Kristi also taught writing courses for fifteen years.
Dolph is Dolph LeMoult, author of police novels and true crime stories. He's written such police procedural novels as STREET DANCE, DREAM STREET, THE KILLING MOON, and BLOOD TIDE. Compelling true crime books include ROCK SOLID and IN THE HANDS OF THE ENEMY.
Names in blue are viewers who had questions.
Interviews in the Professional Connection room begin at 9 Atlantic/Canada, 8 Eastern, 7 Central, 6 Mountain, and 5 Pacific.
Moderator: Good evening, everyone! I'm Kristi Holl, your moderator, and tonight we have with us Dolph LeMoult, who will be talking about writing and marketing "True Crime and Police Procedurals." He's written such police procedural novels as STREET DANCE and THE KILLING MOON, plus true crime books like ROCK SOLID and IN THE HANDS OF THE ENEMY. This should be a fascinating discussion tonight, so let's get started. Welcome, Dolph!
Dolph: Hi, glad to be here.
Moderator: Dolph, how did you break into publishing?
Dolph: Well, I'd been writing for quite a few years, short stories, poetry etc. I'd even begun a few novels, but never finished any. Then one day I walked into a Hallmark card store and started talking to the man behind the counter, who turned out to be Bill Kelly, a NYC homicide detective, and we ended up writing six police procedurals together in the 80s. Before I met Kelly, I didn't think of myself as a crime writer. I wanted to be James Joyce.
Kevin: Did you have an agent when you started out, and do newer writers need one?
Dolph: I sent our first procedural out to about twenty NYC agents, and about half of them responded favorably. We visited a few, and chose Julius Bach Literary Agency. It's not always that easy. And yes, I'd recommend that anyone trying to sell a novel length project get an agent. Publishers just aren't accepting unsolicited manuscripts anymore.
Moderator: Dolph, do all your ideas for true crime and police novels come from the news and current events?
Dolph: Some do. I've gotten some great ideas from the newspapers and on TV, but when you're in the cop loop, you get calls and e-mails all the time. Every cop who ever walked a beat thinks he or she has the best story around.
Moderator: What kind of ideas do you look for? (What furnishes you with the germ or seed of a marketable story?)
Dolph: Good question. If I have a personal barometer, I'm not aware of it. I guess I'd have to say that if it interests me, I figure it might interest someone else. It doesn't always work out that way though.
Kevin: If you get the idea from a cop friend or get information from them to write the book, do you sign contracts together and split the money too? How does that work?
Dolph: Hi Kevin: You bet we sign contracts. And all the contracts are different, depending on who's involved and what the situation is. But for a true collaboration, the benchmark is 50-50.
Moderator: Does that mean you both write it 50-50?
Dolph: No, no, no. I do all the writing, but my collaborator usually supplies the details of the story and the authenticity. Even a police procedural has an element of fiction in it, even if the story is a true one. There's dialogue, plotting, focus; I don't expect New York City cops to have those skills.
Moderator: Research is certainly necessary for both your fiction and nonfiction books. What's it like working with a police force?
Dolph: Fun. I don't know about anyone else, but I have an insatiable desire to find out what happens there. When I was in college, I worked as a stringer on the night beat of a local police precinct in Cincinnati, and it opened my eyes.
Moderator: Have you actually gone out on investigations of crimes?
Dolph: Sure. I was working on ROCK SOLID with Detectives Frank Bose and Bob Barchiesi. They took me to a building in Alphabet City, NY where some of the action in the story had taken place. and we were attacked by a knife-wielding maniac!
janp: Have the crimes or mysteries always (usually?) been solved before you get involved ?
Dolph: So far, yes, but I'm on the lookout to get involved with one that's just getting started.
Audrey29: How did you publish your first book? What steps were involved and did you have a "name" for yourself by then?
Dolph: Hi Audrey. Basically, it was a matter of sending the manuscript to various publishers. This was done by my agent, who sent me copies of the rejection letters. Rejection letters are great; they give you a pretty good idea of how your self-esteem is going!
Moderator: Have you ever followed an investigation from start to finish?
Dolph: Unhappily no, not as a writer. I have, however, written a book about a 25-year-old unsolved homicide that had gone into the cold case files. The case was reopened by Detectives Rolf Rehbein and Vicky Meiers of the 25th homicide squad in Harlem. And I went through it step-by-step with them until it was eventually solved, so I guess that's sorta the same thing.
Moderator: Are you ever allowed to interview the suspects or see videotapes of questioning, etc.?
Dolph: Not legally.
Moderator: Hmmm....have you done it illegally?
Dolph: You don't want me to get in trouble, do you?
Moderator: Okay, you can plead the Fifth!
james55clinton: I note that the TV show "Law and Order" is being sued by Mrs. Gary Condit. Do you worry about being sued?
Dolph: Good question, James. There are a lot of safeguards in place to prevent that. Publishers take out libel insurance for any author they publish, and they're fanatical about changing names, dates, places, anything that's remotely recognizable when they go through the vetting process.
Kevin: What is a vetting process?
Dolph: That's basically a lawyer's edit. They'll cut out anything they think will get them sued.
Audrey29: Can you tell us how you schedule your day? (With writing AND instructing through Long Ridge?)
Dolph: I write early in the morning, Audrey. Depending on how it's going, I'll keep it up until noon or shortly after. Then, I attend to other matters, Long Ridge included.
Moderator: Can a new writer get an accurate "feel" for police procedures or trial procedures from watching TV and movies?
Dolph: Yes. Some of them are very good and realistic. My personal favorites though are THE JOB and 100 CENTRE STREET.
janp: Do you spend much time in court, observing the proceedings of the case?
Dolph: I've done that, but I find it much more helpful to read trial transcripts if they're available. Courtrooms can be really boring.
Kevin: Why were the actual court cases in the courtrooms boring? Is it that the cases themselves were boring?
Dolph: No, the cases are usually gripping. But so much of court procedure is taken up with motions, and paper shuffling, and pretty much dead air, that a transcript is better for research.
Moderator: If a new writer wants to get firsthand experience from the "inside," what procedure should he/she follow?
Dolph: If by "the inside" you mean a police precinct, I'd advise that he or she visit one. Cops love to talk about the job, especially to writers. He or she can hang around and shmooze. Who knows? Something might happen.
Moderator: Are most true crime writers male?
Dolph: I'd hazard a guess that they are, but I know there are some pretty good women in the field too.
pebbles: What is the basis of most of your research? Do you travel much to get a feel for the site of action?
Dolph: I travel to the actual locations whenever I can. It just gives me a better feel for the atmosphere of the book. But sometimes that's not possible so it's helpful to talk to eyewitnesses or local inhabitants, and to have a good imagination.
Audrey29: Have you ever done a completely fictional crime story?
Dolph: Sure, a few of them. But since I've been involved with so many cases, it's awfully hard not to take something from them into the fiction project. I think that's where the term INSPIRED BY TRUE EVENTS got started. Life is a true event, and we take it from there.
Moderator: What about police brutality--did you see any? Do you use it in your writing?
Dolph: I've never actually witnessed any police brutality, although like everyone else, I know it exists. And I do use it to an extent, but not in a derogatory way. I think police should be seen as human beings, not as monsters, and so I try to paint a realistic face on them. If they're brutal, I don't see much point in advertising that fact. Cops are like anyone else--some are good, some bad.
Moderator: You once mentioned a "Blue Wall of Silence." What is this?
Dolph: Cops covering for other cops. I don't think it's as institutionalized as it once was, but it's still around. Primarily, I think, because the relationship between cops is so well defined. They cover each other's backs. That's not just figuratively. If your backup isn't covering you, you can end up dead at the end of the day. That mentality carries over to everything on the job. Cops literally love each other. You have a hard time getting them to separate the street from the rest of their lives.
Sharn: How much verification [supporting sources], as a minimum, do you look for when writing true crime?
Dolph: Hi Sharn. I'm usually willing to accept what the courts will accept. It's not like being a newspaper reporter, where you need three confirmations for every story. The fact is that most often the only word that counts is that of the detective or arresting officer. I've written one novel with a convicted criminal, but you couldn't get anyone in the law enforcement community to vouch for his facts.
Moderator: Is there also a magazine market for true crime stories?
Dolph: A large and healthy one. I'd recommend you research them in your local library. Magazines like Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Glimmer Train... There are dozens. They can be referenced in catalogs like 2002 The Best of the Magazine Markets.
Kevin: Was the novel with the convicted criminal written from the criminal's viewpoint, like an anti-hero?
Dolph: Yes, it was. It's pretty hard to find anyone behind bars who sees things from the cops' viewpoint.
Moderator: What sells better, true crime stories about fairly current crimes, or unsolved crimes from the past?
Dolph: I honestly don't know. I'd suspect that the current cases are more likely to end up on the bestseller lists, but there are old mysteries that just won't go away. Jack the Ripper comes to mind.
Moderator: Do crimes from certain states or cities sell better, like New York City over Ames, Iowa?
Dolph: Crimes from big cities are easier to sell to publishers. They figure that nobody's interested in crime from the heartland, unless the case has made the papers or nightly news.
Audrey29: I've heard that criminals cannot benefit (monetarily) from their crimes; is this true? (What is the name of the novel from the convict's perspective?)
Dolph: I've heard that too. I think it's called the Son of Sam law, which prohibits a criminal from profiting from his or her crime. That's probably why you won't find my novel written with Rodney Skinner on any bookshelf. (By the way, it's titled BROKEN EYES DON'T CRY.)
Moderator: Talking about crime fiction, I know that you had a new crime novel out in December, an e-book this time with www.puppetpress.com Can you tell us something about it?
Dolph: Ah, shameless promotion. Actually it's a psychological thriller titled MESSAGES FROM ENRIQUE. It takes my experiences in both police procedurals and reporting, and combines them. It's not for the faint of heart, but it does have a great twist though. That's with www.puppetpress.com, my first venture into e-publishing, which I think will be the wave of the future. Thanks for the plug.
Moderator: Is there what you'd call a "formula" for writing police procedurals?
Dolph: Not exactly a formula, although the very fact that it's a procedural limits it in scope. Like every other job, there is a flow and routine to police work that must be followed. By the way, the harshest critics of police procedurals are cops themselves - they'll crucify you if they catch a mistake or inconsistency- but they love to read them.
Audrey29: Now that you've published an e-book, which do you prefer? Do you make the same kind of money with either print or e-books?
Dolph: Here's a tough question. Since MESSAGES FROM ENRIQUE at www.puppetpress.com has only been online for a few weeks, I don't know yet whether it will make huge sums. Theoretically, though, since it's almost all profit, I could end up making as much or more as a paperback original. A published writer receives what is called an advance--a cash payment from the publisher before the book comes out. After the book hits the shelves, it must "earn out" before the writer sees any more money. What that means is that the publisher must recoup his costs from paper, printing, distribution, publicity, AND the writer's advance before the writer receives any royalties. Many, probably most, books never earn out. That's why publishing is in a sorry state today. E-books have no paper costs, no printing costs (except to the buyer), no distribution or publicity costs--and no advance--to earn out. Hell, whatta you got to lose?
Moderator: Good luck with it! Dolph, how do you make sure your fictional cops and your private eyes don't come across like stock or cardboard characters?
Dolph: That's the writer's job. I'll go back to the question about police brutality. Even if your cop is a real person, he is also a character in a book. If he comes across as the stereotypical brutal, dumb, Neanderthal that some people think cops are, he's not likely to be a very interesting book character. If on the other hand he is nuanced, if he reminds people of themselves, they're more likely to identify with him. I want my readers to root for my characters. That's why I go to great lengths to avoid cardboard stereotypes.
pebbles: Do you ever allow yourself to get emotionally involved with the character you are writing about?
Dolph: Pebbles, all the time. I can't imagine a writer who doesn't.
Moderator: If your book is set in a particular city, do you need to acquaint yourself with the police organization in that particular town, or does it matter if it's fiction?
Dolph: I live and work in the New York area, and so I'm most familiar with the police here. I've written books where out of town police come into play, and I've never felt the need to go there for research. So far New York has served as a pretty good model. Police work is police work. It ain't rocket science.
Moderator: In dialogue, do you use slang or "underworld" speech? How can you make sure it's authentic?
Dolph: Sure. It adds to the authenticity. For STREET DANCE, for example, I spent days on the streets of the Bronx with a micro-cassette recorder, getting the patois and the inflections right.
james55clinton: In NYC dialect do you ever use words like dese, dem, & dose for these, them, & those?
Dolph: Nope, James. That's just a bit obvious. Street slang makes your work believable, but used too broadly, it can become irritating to your reader.
Moderator: In fiction, is it too easy or too coincidental to have an "informer" give or sell the hero critical pieces of evidence? Or have anonymous phone tips? (Or is it true-to-life?)
Dolph: Contrary to popular belief, very few crimes are solved by sleuthing. Police rely to a great extent on CIs (confidential informants) as well as phone tips and eyewitnesses. An investigator's instincts are honed by experience, but without help from a number of outside sources, he's got his work cut out for him.
Moderator: How up-to-date should a writer be on using forensic evidence in his novels? Are all cities and towns really using up-to-the-minute techniques?
Dolph: I can't say how up-to-date all cities and towns might be, but a crime writer had better have the latest information, or he's in trouble. Both publishers and readers are sophisticated. They demand it.
Moderator: Since you've done both, would you rather write alone or with a collaborator? Why? What are the pluses and minuses?
Dolph: There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Working with an enthusiastic collaborator can be a stimulating experience. But there are collaborators who can make the task grueling. I guess it's best to take it book by book, whatever presents itself. First, you should look for a good story. In the hands of a skilled writer, even a bad collaboration can lead to a good book if the story's there. But a lousy story won't ever make a good book, no matter how good the collaboration is.
pebbles: What is the most intriguing (or exciting) case you have studied and written about?
Dolph: It would have to be ROCK SOLID, the story of two hero cops who brought down a homicidal drug lord in New York single-handedly. Not only was it a fascinating true story, but it gave me the opportunity to delve into the police psyche as I'd never before been able to do.
Sharn: Do you prefer to fictionalize true crime? Is that more popular now?
Dolph: I've done that (it's called faction). Truman Capote probably carried it off best with IN COLD BLOOD though. My e-novel MESSAGES FROM ENRIQUE is faction. In the prologue I state that it is based on an actual crime, but much of the material relating to the crime and the investigation are pure fiction. Pardon the plug, but you oughta read it--at least the free chapter posted on their website.
Audrey29: Where can I get a copy of BROKEN EYES DON'T CRY (if it's not on any bookshelf?)
Dolph: Sadly, you can't, Audrey. It sits in a drawer on a disc, waiting for Rodney's appeal to be granted, or for him to finish his sentence for double homicide. Sometimes the world ain't fair.
Moderator: I'm sorry to have to interrupt this fascinating discussion, but we're out of time for tonight. Dolph, thank you so much for coming tonight and sharing all this "insider information" with us! This is an area I knew very little about, and I've learned a lot! We appreciate your time.
Dolph: Thanks for having me. It's been fun.
Moderator: Do come back in two weeks when our guest will be Valerie Harms, speaking on "Fiction or Memoir? How to Use Your Real Life Stories." Many writers want to use their own experiences but don't go about it in a successful way. Valerie offers tips on shaping material and avoiding pitfalls. She is the author of eight books in various genres: nature, psychology, biography, and juveniles. A graduate of Smith College, she has taught workshops across the US and in Greece. She has long used real life experience in her nonfiction and is currently working on a novel. Come back in two weeks to learn how to effectively mine your personal experiences to use in fiction and nonfiction. And now, good night, everyone!
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