Scarier than Fiction

…wherein what’s happening in real life is worse than anything I have been writing.

It’s been a scary summer in my town–my IRL town—because someone chose to spend the opening week of the warm months abducting and raping women.

In early June, a man with a gun approached a young woman, in broad daylight, in a busy parking lot. Twice. The two incidents were essentially similar: He got into the victim’s car, drove her to secondary location/s,  assaulted her, forced her to remove money from an ATM, and then released her with this warning: I’ve got your driver’s license, I know where you live, if you go to the police, I’ll kill your family.

Let me reiterate. This is not fiction. The first incident occurred on June 2, the second on June 5, near where I live. I have parked in the parking lots, probably been to the secondary locations, and perhaps used the ATMs in question. To say this is close to home is frighteningly accurate.

The first assault happened on a Wednesday and, despite the threat, the victim did go to the police. Who, for reasons that have caused  the Delaware State Police a whole lotta grief ever since, did not alert the public.

A second abduction and assault occurred four days later, on Saturday. Same MO. Same perp*. The second victim also went to the police. This time, the DSP put out an alert to the public.

Then, as they say, all hell broke loose. That part is not fiction, either.

Since the story broke, the DSP have been handing out composite sketches, posting a safety tip slideshow, offering a safety seminar, and handling many (hopefully useful) tips while working the case.

The DSP have also been busy defending the decision not to immediately alert the public after June 2. The agency head explained in the newspaper that detectives were working the first incident, hoping for a quick resolution, when the second occurred. He pointed out that the release of too much information can hamper an investigation and that detectives were “balancing the responsibility to the public with justice for the victim while maintaining the integrity of the investigation.”

I am pointing out this rationale because, as a writer/editor working in the crime genre, this is where—for me–reality collides with fiction.

A couple of weeks ago, I taught a workshop at the Pennwriters Conference on the Basics of Mystery Writing. My subtitle was Decisions, Decisions. My premise for that workshop is that a crime novel is, basically, a series of bad decisions.

First there is the bad decision by the Bad Guy to commit the crime. It may be a quick, impulsive act; it may be a carefully planned operation; it may be a crime of opportunity. However, or why-ever, the Bad Guy makes the decision to rob/rape/murder/maim, the result is bad for someone. Often several someones. Usually, we hope, by the end of the story, bad for him/her, too.

The second bad decision is made by the Victim. Sometimes it is clearly a mistake: taking back an abusive partner, participating in the crime, foolishly going to a dangerous place. Often, instead of a bad decision, there is simple bad luck: being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes the only thing a victim does “wrong” is to get out of bed that day.

Third, there are bad decisions by Protagonists. In a cozy mystery, an amateur gets wrapped up in a police investigation for reasons that seem good but of course, aren’t really. After all, what sane layperson investigates a murder or crime? Mayhem is inevitable. A smart amateur sleuth should leave it to the pros, but if that happened—no book.

In a police procedural, the Protagonist cop must do his job. For story purposes, s/he can’t always do it very well. There must be mistakes because even a fictional cop can’t be perfect, because perfect is boring to read. Also, because if our cop hero did the job perfectly, the crime would be solved in chapter 2 and, again, no book.

And then there are the bad decisions made by police in the story, or by the investigating agencies, who seem to work against the Protagonist. At Pennwriters, while illustrating plot points in the classic three act structure, I discussed how, where and why questionable police decisions are used to drive a plot forward.

In short, in order to make a story compelling and exciting, cops have to screw up a little.

What’s important is that bad decisions are made for good and valid reasons. Sure, there are cops in fiction, and IRL, who are lazy, incompetent, stubborn or just plain stupid. But in writing, that’s a cop out. (Sorry. Had to do it.)

What’s more engaging to the reader is to portray something similar to what’s happened in my town this month. State troopers  made what had to seem like a solid decision—to withhold information about an ongoing investigation with the belief that the case will be resolved quickly.

In real life, a quick resolution sometimes happens. In fiction, it has to be a bad decision. It has to backfire, because there is, always and inevitably, a second crime that could have been prevented–and is, as such, more interesting to read.

After the bad decision, both in real life and in fiction, the stakes are higher. The perp is alerted that he’s being sought. The public is  angry. The victims are frightened anew. The police are under pressure. The clock is ticking.

In fiction, this is all good. These bad decisions by police are a must. Here are a few standards:

– Focusing the investigation on the wrong person.

– Disbelieving or dismissing the word of a witness.

– Missing, or misplacing, evidence.

– Allowing no-no type relationship to disrupt the case.

– Being hampered by politicians’ self-serving interests.

– Distractions and personal problems, such as divorce, debt, disease or drinking.

– Falling wildly and foolishly in love with the primary suspect, or the primary suspect’s girl/boyfriend

– Ignoring the obvious clue that the reader notices 120 pages earlier.

– Missing a personal connection to the crime or criminal

Did I miss any?

In fiction, characters need to make mistakes. Police need to be fallible. It would be nice it this did not apply to real life, but sometimes it does.

Both as a woman and a writer, I have been monitoring the news—and my personal safety—carefully. This week, I tried to enroll in the DSP’s safety seminar. I write “tried to” because I waited overnight to ask a friend to attend with me. The next morning, a press release was posted: the seminar was filled. 300 spots snapped up in less than a day. That should testify to the fear in my city this summer.

So I emailed the PIO contact, asking to be notified if a second seminar will be presented. He responded that I would “absolutely” be alerted. If anyone reading is from the New Castle County area and would like that contact info, email me and I will gladly share.

Stay safe, ladies.


*P.S. I know, I know, real police don’t say perps, they say actors, or suspects, or persons of interest. It’s my understanding that, out of public earshot, the preferred term is azzhat. Only, not really azzhat, but this is a family blog, so I’m stuck with the euphemism.

UPDATE: On Monday, June 21, an arrest!

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