HOW A CAREER CAN PREPARE AN AUTHOR FOR THE FUTURE
Novelists come from all walks of life. A few manage to hit the scene right out of school and are creative enough, and research well enough, that they don’t have to rely on life experiences to build a great story. However, most of us are – or have been – computer programmers, journalists, teachers, scientists, financial analysts, or pretty much anything else you can imagine. In my case, I spent nearly a decade in local and federal law enforcement and I certainly incorporated my training and experience into my writing.
My first novel, RESOLVE, is the story of Dr. Cyprus Keller a former Baltimore police officer who is now a professor at a small university in Pittsburgh. All is good for Keller until one of his students is murdered and then his graduate assistant inexplicably attempts to kill him. Without warning, Keller suddenly finds himself swinging back and forth between being a suspect and a victim. The story is told through a series of flashbacks as Keller runs the Pittsburgh Marathon and the novel is divided into 26.2 “miles” or chapters. Keller recounts how events have led him to the point where is his literally pursuing his nemeses throughout the race.
Oh, and if you are worried the story could be predictable, have no fear. Just read the prologue and you will understand.
Since RESOLVE is a piece of crime fiction, I obviously used what I know to write the book. But, rather than drone on about how I drew upon my knowledge of forensics, ballistics, and police procedure to create the story, I thought I would explain out my former career prepared me the writing and publication process. There are some real parallels between writing a book and working in law enforcement. Here are a few:
At first, you have no idea what you are doing
I wasn’t exactly young when I decided to write a novel. I was in my mid-thirties, had accumulated a good deal of experience in the field of criminal justice, and had read hundreds of mysteries and thrillers. You would think I would be able to confidently sit down at the computer and start writing something coherent. Well, it wasn’t like that at all. In fact, I spent months mentally writing the book while running or cutting the grass before I ever typed a word. I think I needed that time to develop the plot and characters and convince myself that I wouldn’t write something worse than your average elementary school student. In fact, I don’t think I had any confidence in my writing until my wife read the first draft and chose not to set it on fire.
When you are a police officer right out of training, you can have the same feeling. I remember spending six months in a police academy and another eight weeks in field training before I ever got the chance to execute a traffic stop on my own. I still remember that first stop. I did everything I was trained to do. I called in my location, turned on the lights, angled my car correctly, and prepared to calmly walk up to the other car and ask for a license and registration. But, when the driver jumped out of the car with his hands up, told me he was armed, ended up being wanted, and had drugs in the car, I quickly realized I was going to feel like a rookie for quite a while.
There are moments of excitement
We can all relate to that rush you get when something exciting or unexpected is going on. For a writer, it can be the call that a publisher wants to buy your book, viewing the cover art for the first time, or hearing about an award nomination. These are moments you have to savor, because they may never be repeated.
Similar moments occur in law enforcement. I still remember being a young Secret Service agent and driving in the President’s motorcade for the first time. I also remember chasing a suspect down Embassy Row in Washington, D.C. until he bounced off a moving car (not my fault… seriously). Moments like those stick in your mind and prepare your for any situation in life.
With all due respect to Tom Petty… the waiting is the hardest part
I wrote RESOLVE in early 2010. Then, I had to get an agent. Then, a publisher. Then, there was the editing, cover art, more editing, etc. RESOLVE didn’t hit the shelves until March of 2013. That was three years of anticipation and very few moments of excitement. It can be a mentally and emotionally exhausting process and the release date for your book cannot come fast enough.
Remember the cool things I mentioned like chasing suspects and protecting Presidents? Yeah, I left out the parts about sitting in a surveillance van for the better part of three days, or standing post in a dimly lit hotel basement for eight hours, or sitting in court waiting to testify all day – just to find out the case is going to be continued. I’d love to say that carrying the badge teaches one how to be patient. I’d love to be able to say that.
You don’t know what is coming next
After I finished writing RESOLVE, I wrote two other manuscripts. My agent shopped them around for the better part of a year and do you know what happened? Nothing. Well, that’s not entirely true. I got a nice new collection of rejection letters to go with the initial ones I received when RESOLVE was first shopped around. That was followed up by the news that my literary agent had decided to close down and take on a new career. I had no contract, no agent (I still don’t), and I was starting to think I’d never get published again. Then in a matter of weeks, both manuscripts were picked up by a publisher and then I found out that the International Thriller Writers organization had named RESOLVE as a finalist for Best First Novel. Needless to say, I rushed down the street to buy a lottery ticket. I didn’t win.
Law enforcement is even more unpredictable. It always seemed like when I rolled up on a call and expected trouble, nothing happened. But, if I allowed myself to think of something as “routine”, all hell would break loose. That cycle inspired the following lines that I used in RESOLVE:
Moving the pillow and carefully holding the murder weapon, he asked, “Expecting trouble?”
“If you expect it, it never comes.”
Amen to that.
I’m sure you can find parallels between many other careers and the writing and publication process. Nearly all of us deal with moments of boredom, have flashes of exhilaration, and experience drama in many forms (if you have a young child, you get hit with all of these in a five-minute span). Not only do we bring our experiences into what we write, but into what we read. How I interpret one book may be totally different than how you take it, simply because we are reading from different perspectives. That is the beauty of the novel. The meaning of story is not simply in the eye of the beholder, but intertwined with the heartfelt experiences of the reader.
About this author
J.J. HENSLEY is a former police officer and Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service who has drawn upon his experiences in law enforcement to write stories full of suspense and insight. Hensley graduated from Penn State University with a B.S. in Administration of Justice and has a M.S. degree in Criminal Justice Administration from Columbia Southern University. The author is currently a training supervisor with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and lives with his beautiful wife, daughter, and two dogs near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Mr. Hensley’s novel RESOLVE was named one of the BEST BOOKS OF 2013 by Suspense Magazine and was named a finalist for Best First Novel by the International Thriller Writers organization.
Find him on:
Author Site – Facebook – Twitter – Goodreads