Crime writing: How to write a police procedural – when you've never been a cop


31 May 2024
Details matter says Louisa Scarr, author of the PC Ruth Halliday series. So do your research – and talk to people

I have to admit: it’s tricky. When I started out I didn’t realise I was writing what is known in publishing as a police procedural. I had a detective in my story, yes, and a crime scene, but what was this genre I had unwittingly fallen into? And how on earth do you write this, when you’ve never been a cop?

Before this point, my sole knowledge of policing came from Broadchurch and The Bill, and that wouldn’t cut it against authors such as Mari Hannah, Clare Mackintosh and Graham Bartlett – all brilliant writers with a background in policing.

I didn’t want to wing it, possibly alienating eagle-eyed readers that know their MG11s from their mens rea. Authenticity has always been important to me – I wanted to be accurate, but most of all, I was fascinated by this stuff. Still am – I want to know it all. But where should I start? 

I got lucky: on the school run, of all places. My son’s first day of reception year, nerves abound. I assumed it would be my son making a friend that day: I was wrong. On the walk in I started chatting to a neighbour with his daughter. ‘What do you do?’ I asked. ‘I’m a police officer,’ he replied. And so began six years of the worst conversations you can possibly have when surrounded by small children in a playground.

‘What does a body look like in water?’ I asked. ‘What does the mortuary smell like? Do you handcuff someone at the front or the back?’ Tales were told about his day at work, people he’d arrested, bodies he’d found. Other parents started surreptitiously moving away from us but I was enthralled. He told me about investigating mispers, working undercover, the basics of investigating a murder. And that first-hand knowledge was invaluable. The terminology, the uniform, when to call someone ‘guv’ or ‘boss’ or ‘sir’. The law and the procedure you can get from a textbook, it’s the little things I find tricky.

Other experts soon followed. My step brother-in-law is a consultant anaesthetist and before we’d even met I was asking him, ‘What drug do you need if you want to knock someone out cold?’ and ‘What’s the best way to get shot and survive?’ (Low down, side-flank, in case you’re wondering.) Now he kindly red-pens every one of my books, and doesn’t hesitate to tell me a stern ‘no’ if I try something I’ve seen on Grey’s Anatomy ‘…so it must be true’.

My sister-in-law is a pharmacist, another a paramedic. A friend said, ‘I know a blood spatter expert, would you like to be introduced?’ Er, yes! I’ve spoken to meteorologists, software engineers, fire investigators and clinical psychologists. And, for my most recent book, Gallows Wood, a police dog trainer. After eight years and twelve books, watching these dogs take down a suspect has to be the thrill of my career.

I have found the majority of my experts by asking. Friends always know someone. And although it sometimes feels awkward, people can always say no.

But in my experience, the majority don’t. Most love to talk about their jobs, and as long as you’re polite and ask permission for what you can put in a book and what you can’t, I find we can talk for hours.

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A few practical pieces of advice. The Blackstone’s Police Manuals are brilliant, and you can pick up an out-of-date set for twenty quid on eBay. I live by my Simpson’s book of Forensic Medicine but the photos are not for the squeamish, so you may want to skip that one. Google is your friend, as is Google Scholar for free scientific papers. Want to know what a dead body looks like after six months in the ground? That’s where you go. I was surprised at the number of police processes that are online and available to everyone. It was a good day when I discovered Hampshire Constabulary’s full procedure for investigating sudden deaths just hanging out online.

But why bother? At the end of the day, story is king. A book about a detective without a gripping plot is just plain dull. Nobody wants to hear about the bureaucracy of policing or wait six months for the DNA results; a certain amount of artistic licence is required. Research takes time, and it is possible to waste hours looking for the tiny morsel you need to make your scene.

But that brilliant story – it needs to be believable. Your reader needs to smell the testosterone in the briefing room of armed officers. Hear the cadence and the rhythm of how coppers talk. Imagine the maggots churning a dead body and the blood spatter up the wall.

Because then they’re there, in the story with you. And that’s what I love the most.
Oh, and the mistake that I hate above all other? Caution your suspects. That one drives me nuts.

Gallows Wood by Louisa Scarr is published by Canelo (£9.99)


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