Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Wordcraft -- On the president's Secret Service

It’s the second week of November and every writer knows what that means – we’re a quarter of the way through NaNoWriMo! That’s National (although now international) Novel Writing Month.

Oh, you thought I meant the election. . . Well, there’s nothing more we can do for that except stand in the rain waiting to vote if we were as foolish as I am and waited until the last day. No, today I want to write about something we can do something about – writing. And while we’ve got presidents on our mind how about the men and women who protect presidents (and presidential candidates) – the U.S. Secret Service? How about someone like ex-Secret Service agent turned Texas writer, Larry Enmon?

Larry Enmon at Mystery Writers
Enmon’s career in law enforcement has ranged from work as a patrol officer with the Houston, Texas, police department, to special agent with the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigation, to the U.S. Secret Service, where he also worked as liaison agent to the FBI and on counterterrorism investigations. Now also a member of the DFW Writers Workshop, he boiled down his five favorite tips for writing crime stories like an insider for the recent meeting of the Dallas chapter of Mystery Writers of America

It was a dark night in a still-untenanted Houston development. The call: body in the street. Confessing that he may have driving a tad fast on the unlit streets, Enmon suddenly saw the body in headlights, too late to stop. And ran over it. Already horrified, he glanced in his side mirror. The victim’s head was now severed from the body! Gamely, perhaps shakily, he stepped out of the cruiser to examine the body with his flashlight and found it was – a mannequin – illustrating his first point for authentic crime stories:

1.      The “oh-sh*t” moment.

“Things don’t always go as expected,” he said. “As writers, if you don’t have one of those moments, you’re not doing it right. It’s not a plot twist – it just happens and it takes everybody by complete surprise.”

Of course, every insider has some bone to pick with the way their profession is portrayed in books, movies, television. Enmon’s isn’t just the wildly improbable, it’s also the portrayal of members of his profession as dour.

“Police are a lot more humorous and funny than people give them credit for. And it’s all emergency responders, including medical personnel. They got to have a sense of humor to survive. And yeah, sometimes it’s dark humor. They just can’t show it to the public. Leading to his second point:

2.      Give them a sense of humor. Or at least some quirkiness.

Another of Enmon’s stories: during one of President Ronald Reagan’s motorcades, startled officers in the hovering “huntsman” – code name for the motorcade’s accompanying helicopter – reported that “Rawhide” – the code name for Reagan – was out on the street. Furthermore, the two motorcycle officers leading the motorcade had suddenly fallen from their motorcycles and were lying stunned, possibly dead or wounded, in the street. As horrifying possibilities flashed through the minds of all onlookers, Reagan approached the fallen cops and asked whether they were OK. And they admitted sheepishly that they had misjudged the distance between their cycles and crashed into each other. 

Not that there isn’t plenty of darkness in the lives of people who routinely have to worry about being killed. Or of killing someone else. And taking it home with them. “There’s a lot of alcoholism, a lot of depression, a lot of suicides among cops,” Enmon noted. “And the tension is felt by the family too.” His third point:

3.      Everybody has an outside life beyond the job. And sometimes it’s not a happy one.

Leading immediately to point number four:

4.      Police have emotions like everyone else. They just can’t show them.

“It’s like being in combat too long,” Enmon said. “Sometimes you talk it out with each other.”

Or perhaps you can get them to buy you a drink. Flying to Paris on an assignment, Enmon and his partner only learned as they boarded their plane that they would need visas for the trip. They called the Secret Service’s headquarters. No problem, HQ said. Our man in Paris (yes, there are liaisons for most U.S. law enforcement agencies at embassies) will have them waiting for you. Except that he didn’t. And French immigrations officials were not amused, locking up the Americans until the courier showed up with the missing visas. His penalty – buying the drinks that night on the Champs-Élysées. Which leads to Enmon’s final point:

5.      Don’t make things too easy.

An apt reminder for writers in any genre.

For more about Enmon, his career and his work and whether he’s willing to tell you that your crime story scene (no manuscripts, please) is totally off the rails, see his site or contact him at larry@larry-enmon.com

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