Cassy's Corner- An Interview with the Great Lee Lofland
As a nationally acclaimed expert on police procedure and crime-scene investigation, Lee has appeared on CNN, the BBC (How To Commit The Perfect Murder), and on NPR’s Talk of the Nation along with FBI criminal profiler Clint Van Zandt, the agent who successfully profiled The Unabomber and The Oklahoma City Courthouse bomber. Lee is also a popular conference, workshop, and motivational speaker. In addition, he's the host of the Writers' Police Academy, an event designed to provide writers with actual hands-on police training.
Lee writes freelance articles for publications, such as The Writer magazine, and for newspapers and newsletters across the country. He has worked with many bestselling authors, film writers, television shows including Spike TV's MURDER, marketing for network television, and he has consulted for online magazines such as Slate Magazine. Lee writes and edits the wildly popular, The Graveyard Shift, a blog that's visited each day by thousands of readers in over 130 countries.
The Graveyard Shift
Besides the planning for The Writers' Police Academy, Lee's current works-in-progress are a thriller and a nonfiction book about law enforcement.
Lee and his wife, Dr. Denene Lofland, live in North Carolina and Georgia. He's a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, and the National Sheriff's Association. He has also served as a board member for the Northeast chapter of Mystery Writers of America and for the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, NCADD in the Silicon Valley. Lee currently serves on the advisory board for ECPI's criminal justice program, Greensboro, N.C. campus.
Cassy: Welcome, Lee. This is truly a pleasure to have you join us today. On M & M we love to hear about both the craft of writing and the research it takes to pull it off. You certainly qualify in both areas. Let's start with your background. My short introduction doesn't begin to speak to your vast career- that's not an age comment
Lee: Thanks so much for having me. Actually, I've been a lurker here for a little while. I met Kari Lee Townsend (online) quite a while ago and I've tried to keep up with her writing career. Somehow I knew she was going to do well, and I was right. Plus, I'm a big fan of literary agent extraordinaire, Christine Witthohn. You guys are lucky to have her in your corner.
Cassy: What took you from the direct investigative work you did for so long to writing and working with writers who want to get the details right?
Lee: Actually, the transition was easier than you'd think. I've always been a reader. When other kids were outside playing ball I was usually somewhere curled up with a Hardy Boys mystery, or a reading one of Poe's fabulous works. Did you know that one of my relatives, Dr. John Lofland, was a good friend of Poe? In fact, John Lofland was Delaware's first great poet.
Anyway, I'd always wanted to write. And after I left the business of cops and robbers we moved to California (for my wife's work—more on that later) where I saw an ad in a local paper advertising a creative writing class. I signed up, much to the surprise of my wife who had no idea of my desire to write, and joined a group of other fledgling, wannabe writers. Our teacher was Becky Levine (The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide: How to Make Revisions, Self-Edit, and Give and Receive Feedback) and she was absolutely wonderful. Becky has an uncanny gift of being able to bring out a person's creative abilities, abilities you never knew you had.
One of my favorite exercises in the class was writing flash fiction with twisted endings, and I seemed to do well. So, long story short...Becky encouraged me to continue writing. And, she invited me to speak about police procedure to her critique group. One of the members of that group just happened to be a conference director for a very well-known California writers conference. And, as I'm sure you've guessed, one thing led to another and I haven't stopped since.
Cassy: You are represented by a top-notch literary agency and your name is out there everywhere. Not to mention that the blurbs you have supporting your work come from the TOP NYT bestselling mystery and suspense writers. Tell us about your books.
Lee: This one's easy. I have the book about police procedure that seems to turn up everywhere. It's even used as a text book in some schools around the country. I'm quite pleased with how well that particular book has sold. I'm also very appreciative, and humbled, by the endorsements from many of the superstars in the mystery writing world. To have names like Jeffery Deaver, J.A. Jance, Tess Gerritsen, Jan Burke, Hallie Ephron, Rhys Bowen, S.J. Rozan and Lee Goldberg attached to your work is quite overwhelming. And to top it off Stuart Kaminsky, a former Grandmaster of the Mystery Writers of America, wrote the wonderful foreword for the book. When Stuart passed away a short while ago I was contacted by one of his immediate family members. He'd read Stuart's words about my writing and said that Stuart must have really liked and believed in my work to have written the foreword. His comment really took my breath away. So, I'm forever grateful to those kind folks.
Becky Levine (yep, my very first writing teacher) and I co-wrote a kid's book about police officers. The book sold quickly, but hasn't been released and I have no idea when it will. Currently, I'm finishing up the re-writes on a thriller. Everyone seems to be pretty excited about it, so we'll see how it goes. I should have it in my agent's hands in a few days.
I've also written for several newspapers around the country, The Writer magazine, and for various newsletters and online magazines.
Cassy: I know you were a police academy instructor, so teaching comes naturally to you. I suspect that's part of why you are so good at sharing information with writers. Comments on that?
Lee: I enjoy teaching classes and workshops that are helpful to others, and I can't think of anything more meaningful than helping writers hone their work. Several writers stepped forward to help me get started, so it's my turn to do the same. But I could never do enough to repay the kindness that's been shown to me.
Oh, here's a little-known fact for you: I once taught business math and drafting at a small high school in Virginia. I have to admit, I'd rather face two dozen armed bad guys than a class full of high school students. My hat's off to today's educators. They're a brave bunch of people!
Cassy: Can you tell us a story? What would you say was the most unusual encounter you had as a member of our law enforcement network? I say it that way because you have done so many things I don't want to pick just one title for your position.
Lee: There are so many stories to tell, and so little space to write them. But there are a few events that stand out, like my story of Takin' Bacon, which is very popular. Then there's the one about the car I stopped on an interstate highway late one summer night. Since I've written the Bacon story for another blog I'll go with the latter. Let's call it Locked in Love.
This event unfolded on a boring graveyard shift. I'd already answered the usual he-said she-said calls, locked up the usual drunks, and broken up the usual Friday night fights. It was time for a break, so I was on my way to an all-night restaurant to rendezvous with the other sleepy officers who were stuck with working midnights.
I pulled out onto an interstate highway and immediately got behind a beat up old jalopy. Soon, the bucket of bolts began to weave from lane-to-lane. Then the driver slowed to a near crawl. Then he sped up. Faster and faster. Brake lights. And back to the snail's pace. Yep, a classic drunk driver and I had to get him off the road before he killed someone. So I called dispatch to let them know my location and that I was stopping a car. Then I gave them the plate numbers and reached for the switches to activate my lights and siren. There would be no breakfast for me. Processing a drunk driver could take two or three hours, if you hurry.
Well, things immediately went downhill.
When I first got behind the car I saw one head, the driver's. When I turned on the blue lights a second head suddenly popped up, from left to right—a passenger who'd been leaning over with their head in the driver's lap. Needless to say, I didn't need to consult the detective's handbook to figure out this little puzzle.
And as soon as I flipped the light switch the driver immediately braked, turned on his right turn signal, and pulled to the shoulder. Quickly, snappy, and abrupt. Definitely not a drunk.
I pulled over behind the car, angling mine in the classic felony-stop position. You never know what to expect during the weirdo hours of 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. That's the time when the "crazies" come out to play.
The car sat idling in front of mine, like a tired old beast with little puffs of steam spouting from dual exhaust pipes. I was pretty sure I knew what had been distracting the driver, therefore my assessment of the offense had changed from drunk driver to hanky-panky.
Still, for my safety, I decided to approach the car from the passenger side, so I turned on my takedown lights (I was still in uniform working patrol at the time) and aimed the spotlight at their rear view mirror so they couldn't see me as I walked up.
I got out of my car, dreading and embarrassed about what I knew I would find when I looked inside the car.
No moon. No stars. High, thick humidity. Crickets chirping and frogs burping in the area just behind where the brightness of my lights turned to black on the shoulder of the road. The music in the old Ford was pumping steady and hard enough to rattle the car's cheap hubcaps. No other vehicles on the road. Darkness as far as the eye could see behind me. In front of me, the jalopy's round headlamps cut through the night with two pale yellow beams. A Stephen King setting if there ever was one. I reminded myself to never again read Christine before going to work at night.
I walked up to the passenger's window and couldn't believe my eyes. I was speechless, which is not something that usually happens to me.
The driver, a rail-thin book-wormish sort of guy, was wearing a Department of Corrections uniform (he was a prison guard) and the passenger, a very chubby man with more than his share of man boobs and body hair, was wearing only his birthday suit. Yep, he was completely nude. And his right wrist was securely handcuffed to the door. Both men sat staring at the driver's window, waiting for me appear. A tent-size copy of the driver's prison guard uniform lay crumpled on the back seat.
I used my flashlight to tap on the passenger's window. Startled, both men jumped and turned to face me. The naked guy used his free hand to roll down the glass. The driver leaned forward so he could see around the mountain of bare flesh seated between us.
"Is there a problem officer?" said the driver, with a perfectly straight and somber face.
I was absolutely stunned. "You're asking me if there's a problem?" I asked. "Let's see, for starters..."
Anyway, I'll spare you the details of the conversation, but I will say that their explanation was centered around love and the only way they could spend any quality time together was after work, in a car. I guess their wives probably wouldn't let them play with handcuffs at home. Yep, they were each married, and to a woman who was at home waiting for her darling husband to come home after a hard day at work.
This was probably not the weirdest situation I've ever seen. But it was definitely one that'll never leave the place in my mind where gross images are stored.
Cassy: I’m sitting here laughing. It makes asking the next question a challenge. Tell us about the Writer's Police Academy. What happens there? How many days is it? I know this year's academy is coming up. How many people come? Are they all writers? How do you put together the lessons and how to teach them. Who joins you as additional instructors? Any spaces left? Sorry, guess this wasn't just one question.
Lee: The Academy is a hands-on event designed especially for writers, where they'll have the opportunity to train much like actual police recruits. They'll learn about police procedure, police equipment, firearms, defensive tactics, accident and crime scene reconstruction, search warrant service, autopsy, death investigation, and much, much more. We're even offering FATS training (firearms training simulator), where attendees will be placed in life-like, life-size virtual shoot/don't shoot scenarios. FATS training incorporates real Sig Sauers and Glocks, flashlights (for night situations), pepperspray, and Tasers. And the bad guys shoot back! We'll also featuring fire and EMS training. Since this event takes place on the grounds of a working police and fire academy we have access to all their equipment and facilities, including a working fire station, burn building, trucks and ambulances, and other emergency care equipment. As a result, we've added workshops on arson, firefighting and crime scene response by EMS workers.
The event is open to anyone who has an interest in this sort of thing, but we have aimed all workshops toward writers. Still, anyone with an interest in action and fun would have a great time. This is truly a Disneyland for writers, and we're starting it off with a bang!
Writers from nearly all genres have signed up—mystery, romance, suspense, romantic suspense, thriller, YA, erotica, and even poetry.
Generally, the workshop topics are based on questions I've seen arise on various online writer groups, from my blog, and from emails I've received from writers. But, we've added some topics that are just plain interesting and fun.
Yes, we do have space available. However, the FATS training workshop is at capacity. But there's just so much going on you'd never miss it.
Jeffery Deaver is our keynote speaker. And we're featuring New York City medical examiner Jonathan Hayes. Jonathan is also a food writer for Martha Stewart Living magazine, and he's a fantastic medical thriller writer. ATF Special Agent/firearms instructor Rick McMahan will be on hand to teach firearms and other workshops. Literary agent Verna Dreisbach, also a former police officer, is presenting a couple of sessions, and I'll be doing the same. We'll be joined by the staff of a real police academy whose instructors are teaching classes just like they'd teach their academy students—fingerprinting, crime lab, jail and cell searches, arrest techniques, etc.
Cassy: You have a fantastically successful blog- The Graveyard Shift. What are the topics you cover? (Folks, this is a set up question. I visit this blog all the time for there is SO much there to learn. Lee doesn't hold back when he can teach). So, back to the question, The Graveyard Shift and topics you cover.
Lee: Another easy answer. I cover everything and anything related to police, forensics, and CSI. I also feature guest experts from all areas of law enforcement and beyond, including TV and film actors, screenwriters, producers, literary agents, judges, artists, photographers, attorneys, authors, and even a preacher. My only stipulation is that each article must relate in some way to the business of cops and robbers. But I have, on special occasions, waived that rule (relatives who might cut me out of their will if I don't).
Cassy: As a writer, I'm always amazed by the incredible network of professionals who willingly support us. You are constantly offering advice on many loops. It's fantastic. Thank you. What is the nuttiest question from a writer you've been spurred on to answer? This the quirky side of me coming out.
Lee: I'll never forget it—Do cops taste blood at crime scenes to see if it's real?
Cassy: Lee, I’m starting to snort I’m laughing so hard. You’re making this tough on me! Your wife, Denene Lofland, Ph.D is a specialist in clinical laboratory sciences. Do you collaborate with her in your work?
Lee: Denene has worked and taught in that field, but she's more well-known for her work as a microbiologist in new drug discovery. Her PhD is in pathology and she's worked in biotech for many years. She's worked on the discovery and development of drugs that were approved by the FDA (anti-infectives) and are now on the market. Another is nearing the FDA-approval stage. In Boston, she worked as the director of microbiology for a pharmaceutical company. Most recently she was the manager of a company that did top secret things for the government. I can't reveal the company name or what they did, but I can say that I can't say. But, and I'm very happy about it, Denene has decided to get out of the fast-paced world of biotech (no more overseas travel and top-secret missions) and return to teaching at a university. So, I'm making the announcement here that we're officially relocating to Savannah, Ga. in a couple of weeks. Maybe I'll hear Paula Deen say, "Hey, Y'all," in person.
Cassy: Lee, we can't thank you enough for joining us today. I look forward to reading the comments and questions that fly in.
Lee: Again, thank you for having me. And, good luck to all of you. Oh, and please do join us at the Writers' Police Academy. I really meant it about the bang. We're kicking off the Saturday portion of the program with a really big bang!