Author and police psychologist Ellen Kirschman, Ph.D., weighs the pitfalls and pleasures of shifting from non-fiction to fiction and back again as a writer.
I’m a police psychologist. I have often felt that novelists come closer to the truth of human experience than do books on psychology. After my third non-fiction book, I was beginning to think it would be easier to make stuff up. It isn’t. In fact, it’s much harder.
The challenge of writing non-fiction is to get the facts right and present them in an understandable, readable package that anyone can pick up and put down at will. Fiction, on the other hand, requires the writer to get the reader to care so much about the story and the characters that she’ll bare her teeth at anyone or anything that interrupts her before she finishes the book.
When writing mysteries, I start from the premise that readers like to learn something new in every book. For example, most people don’t know that cops are two to three times as likely to kill themselves as they are to be killed in the line of duty (Burying Ben). In The Right Wrong Thing, I wanted the reader to learn about post-traumatic stress disorder and how a cop feels after killing an unarmed teenager. In the forthcoming (July 2017) The Fifth Reflection I build my story around a troubled investigator of internet crimes against children, one of the most difficult job assignments in law enforcement.
Contrary to what you might see on TV, police work and psychotherapy can be tedious. My mystery series is inspired by real people and real events. Sometimes I struggle when writing a scene because I know it wouldn’t happen this way in real life. Problem is, the way it would happen will put the reader to sleep. So I leave out all the stuff that has no dramatic effect, doesn’t drive the story forward, is an info dump or functions only to show my reader how much my protagonist, Dr. Dot Meyerhoff, knows and how smart she is. Dot and I both want the reader to learn about psychotherapists, how we feel, why we do what we do, and how deeply our clients’ troubles affect us. The best way to do this is through action and dialogue, not lecture.
The pleasures of writing fiction are many. Taking off my psychologist hat allows me to play with language in a way the restrictive rules of academic writing do not. As a woman in law enforcement I haven’t always been received with open arms. Fiction is an opportunity for payback. I get to take potshots at cops, my fellow psychologists, and a few ex-husbands. Following the story—I’m a pantser, not an outliner—gives me the freedom to explore my fears without having to live them. Like what would happen if, as in Burying Ben, a client killed himself and left a note blaming me?
These are troubled times for police officers and their families so I’m back to writing a second edition of my first non-fiction book, I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know. Writing a second edition, rather than starting from scratch, is a little like the difference between building a new house and remodeling an old one. There are many unfortunate surprises and a lot to repair. I’m actually starting to think it is easier to make things up.
Ellen Kirschman, PhD. is the author of I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know, I Love a Firefighter: What the Family Needs to Know and lead author of Counseling Cops: What Clinicians Need to Know. In 2010, she received an award for Outstanding Contribution to Police and Public Safety from the American Psychological Association and in 2013 she received an award for Outstanding Contribution to Psychology from the California Psychological Association. Her mysteries are Burying Ben, The Right Wrong Thing (now available in paperback) and the forthcoming The Fifth Reflection (pub date July 2017) . You can contact her at her website www.ellenkirschman.com.
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