When it comes to writers’ conferences, it can be difficult at times to decide which one is best suited for your needs. Considerations regarding schedules, genre, speakers and panels will all come into play. There is one event, however, that stands apart from the rest because it is, by nature, completely different from the traditional writers’ conference experience.
It stands alone because it’s not a writers’ conference at all. I’ve heard it called “Disneyland for crime writers,” and after attending this year, I agree completely.
The Writers’ Police Academy offers extensive hands-on training and education for writers who wish to learn more about all aspects related to forensics and law enforcement. Want to learn how to photograph a crime scene? Learn arson investigation techniques? Chase bad guys? Learn what it’s like to go undercover in New York City? If so, there is no better place for hands-on learning than WPA.
When I arrived in Appleton, Wisconsin on the day of registration, I was greeted by sixty-five degree temperatures (thank you, thank you thank you,) and a lobby filled with other curious crime writers waiting to receive their welcome packets. The event is only one weekend but easily packs an entire week’s worth of events and education. The first evening, after registration, we were treated to Dr. Joe LeFevre’s program on 3D Crime Scene Mapping. As someone who has spent her career in the digital photography field, I was thrilled to learn one of my favorite camera manufacturers, Leica, is also a leader in providing this 3D laser technology. Joe’s program was packed with information and went until after 10pm. I was full of information and exhausted.
The next morning we traveled by bus to the Fox Valley facility. The Fox Valley Technical College Public Safety Training Center hosted this year’s WPA courses, and it truly is a fun park for crime writers. The 75- acre campus houses state of the art simulation technology, laboratories and areas designed for tactical training in all aspects of law enforcement. As I walked through the main building and out the back door, I stepped into a town. Okay, it was a fake town, but it was an impressive fake town. The campus includes a hotel, a couple of houses, a convenience store, a jet (yes, you read that right) and other buildings designed for various training exercises. At one point, a training team of officers enacted a high-speed chase with a suspect and two police cars speeding down the streets behind the buildings so we could witness different methods of police pursuit. We then had the opportunity to ask questions related to their decision-making, tactics and strategies. What an exhilarating way to start the morning!
One of the wonderful but challenging things about attending WPA is that there are several programs available in each session–and all are excellent. This is a problem in that you have some tough choices to make. We were told to pick our top three programs in each time slot because the events fill up quickly. Some programs required an early sign up and an additional (modest) fee, so if you want to try a building breach, a shoot/don’t shoot scenario, called Milo, or the firing range, you had to sign up in advance due to limited spots being available. I was fortunate in that I was able to attend most of my first picks.
John Gilstrap, bestselling author of the Jonathan Grave series, conducted a program on explosives, Bangs and Booms 101, that was equal parts informative and hilarious. Gilstrap’s sense of humor, coupled with his extensive knowledge, made his session one of my WPA favorites. Amanda Thoma, coroner for Green Lake County Coroner’s office, was another top pick with her program From Crime Scene to Autopsy. In addition to her extensive credentials, her approach to her chosen profession was one that demonstrated her enormous enthusiasm, curiosity and respect for her profession. She had the room’s rapt attention from the time she started her session until she ended, and even with several pages of notes, I know we merely scratched the surface.
Nothing takes the place of hands-on experience and nowhere is this more evident than in the field of firearms training. I was fortunate to draw a slot for the pistol shooting range, and going through the firearms training was exhilarating and intimidating. And it turns out that I’m not such a bad shot, either.
Dan Feucht’s program on Bloodstain Pattern Investigation and Techniques was one that allowed attendees the benefit of hands on experience. It was a packed class, but Dan managed the group well, allowing each of us to conduct a couple of lab tests and also taking us through how to determine trajectory based upon various bloodstain patterns. Dr. Katherine Ramsland’s program on Forensic Psychology reminded me that truth is often stranger than fiction, and understanding a person’s motives and “why people do what they do” remains a complicated and fascinating puzzle.
The Crime Scene Photography course, conducted by Dr. Joe LeFevre, provided insight into how this critical role in law enforcement can assist in understanding a crime scene as well as provide valuable tools in understanding the relationship between objects at a scene and how they fit into the larger scenario. Joe took the class through his process of photographing a scene and discussed the techniques currently employed to protect photographic data from being altered or edited in any way. Protecting the chain of custody is paramount in order for the images to be beneficial in a prosecutorial capacity. Joe, a stickler for details and process, patiently answered our litany of questions and took us through an example of how we could photograph a crime scene. Depending upon the particular case, photographing a crime scene can easily take several hours, even going through ten to twelve hours if a death is involved. It is a specialty that requires patience, a disciplined methodology and a dedication to thorough detailed examination.
New York Times bestselling author Allison Brennan had us in stitches sharing her advice on how to get research right in fiction. Her willingness to share how she gleans the key details necessary for her novels was refreshing, and it’s clear that Allison is willing to go down a rabbit hole of research to garner one or two key details for a particular story. One excellent piece of advice she offered related to how to handle an interview with an expert, such as an FBI agent. “Ask smart questions,” she says. “Don’t waste time asking questions whose answers can be found online.” She added that the FBI website, for example, provided a number of excellent resources, so do your homework first before picking up the phone or sending an email.
Karin Slaughter, the #1 internationally best-selling author of the Will Trent series, served as the keynote speaker for the WPA banquet, and she delivered a speech that, were I to try and explain it here, simply wouldn’t do it justice. Her wit is clever and fierce, and her delivery is deadpan and on target. Her speech demonstrated her prowess as a master of the spoken word as well as the written one. And yes, her next book, Pretty Girls, is on my reading list the moment it hits the stands (September 29).
Several authors I met have attended the Writers’ Police Academy more than once, and now that I have had my turn, I understand why. I hope to one day be able to attend WPA again because the hands-on aspect of this program is extremely valuable to those writing mysteries and crime fiction. Truly, there is nothing else like it, which makes it a gem in the field of writers’ conferences.