Police Work and Writing

For the past twenty years, I’ve worked as a 911 dispatcher. In the beginning of my career, I worked the graveyard shift at a busy California Bay Area police department. I cut my teeth on everything from stabbings to suicidal callers. My husband and I first met over a homicide. I dispatched him to the call; a drug deal gone bad. I know, not your average boy meets girl story.

Over my career, I’ve taken thousands of emergency calls and each one has molded and shaped my dark sense of humor and often cynical-quick-to-judge personality. After all, I get paid to judge in a matter of seconds, type-coding a call that will determine the response of police/fire/ambulance.

As an author, the road to publication twisted and shaped the writer I am as well. I can’t help but see clear parallels between a writer and police work.

It’s not always what it seems. A detective is trained to look for what the untrained eye doesn’t see—things like blood patterns, fingerprints, and previous cell phone activity. A writer’s path isn’t always an obvious three-step plan either. The craft must be studied, worked on, and almost never is how we dreamed it would turn out, with twists and turns taking you places you never thought you’d be. My two-page personal essay became a nonfiction book for moms—who knew?

Friends matter. Whether you’re the suspect or the victim of a crime, who you’ve associated with always comes into play. As a writer, who do you hang out with? Do you network with other writers/authors? Or, do you think your work is so good you’ll be miraculously discovered? If you truly believe this way, you couldn’t be more wrong. Trust me when I say: it’s only a matter of time before you’re a victim of un-success. Writing can be very solitary. Having someone come alongside who understands the ups and downs can make all the difference.

Word of mouth. Home invasions are almost always drug-related, a targeted place where the suspect has planned to regain their lost monies or steal drugs from someone they know. Occasionally, it’s a friend of a friend who bragged to the wrong person about their parents jewelry and non-belief in banks. As a writer, your reputation begins as soon as you share, “I’m a writer.” Once your words are published via blog, articles, or any other venue, your branding begins. Conferences, retreats, writer’s groups, and online relations are where your reputation is formed. Use every connection as an opportunity for helping other writers as well. I like to remind myself, no matter how well I write, I will never rise above the reputation my family, colleagues, and readers have of me.

Are you a victim?  I hate to break it to you…there aren’t as many victims as you think. Tough to hear? It’s true. The media loves to play on viewers emotions. As a writer, are you a victim? Do you suffer from itshouldbeme-syndrome? Do you believe every agent/publisher/editor just doesn’t understand your talent? Are you giving up the writer-ghost while complaining to everyone who will listen? Writer-victims aren’t as common as you’d like to think either. If your work is really that good and you are actively putting it in front of the right people, it will eventually be recognized. So, hang in there!

Writing and police work have a lot in common. After twenty years, my heart still races when I handle a hot call. There’s nothing like calming a woman who’s hiding from an intruder downstairs, encouraging someone to live another day, soothing a child who’s called an ambulance for their sick grandma, or the sound of a baby being born. The same can be said about writing. My heart still races when I submit an article, or speak before a crowd. There have been sleepless nights, anxious calls to writer-friends, and though my first published book is far from the New York Times best seller list—it’s been the ride of my life.

What about YOU? Does your writing journey have anything in common with your paying job?

38 Replies to “Police Work and Writing”

  1. Great post, girl! Loved your links too. That last one cracked me up. Now when someone can’t spell a word, I’m going to say, “Drag it to Oak Street.” LOL! Hugs!

    1. I wondered if anyone would click on that “hot call” link. One of my favorites!

      (You and I MUST put a date on our calendar for Apple Hill. Lets chat next week, okay?)

  2. I appreciated your contrasts between your real life and the writing life… speaking as an ER nurse.
    Particularly the one about playing the victim role… so true.

  3. As the daughter of a police officer (25 years on the DC police force) I had a great time reading your post!
    I’d never thought of drawing analogies between our “real” job and our writing life. Hhmmm. Lots to think about there. And, yes, my writing journey does have a lot in common with my paying job. I’m an editor. 😉

  4. In my day job I receive a lot of magazine articles and press releases, so I see all the wrong ways to submit content. I experience writers who are unreasonable, demanding, arrogant, and downright clueless. (One author wanted his article in a specific issue. I explained that not only did he miss the deadline, but the issue had already been printed. He response was, “But can’t you still fit it in?”)

    What I learn from all these writers is “don’t be that guy.”

    Of course, there are a few who are a joy to work with. They submit their writing ahead of schedule, it is quality work, and they are patient waiting for it to be published.

    Those are the examples I want to follow as a writer.

  5. Hi Friend– LOVE the post. And, you’re spot-on when it comes to the writing journey. Of course, my writing journey and my paying job are similar because I am a writer for my job… if only my writing gig paid consistently. 🙂

  6. Love, love, LOVE this post. You have such a delightful way with workds, Joanne. I can only imagine how many people’s lives you’ve saved, and it makes me grateful someone with such a generous, positive spirit is the one answering those calls. Now, as a way too busy mom, I’m going to order your book right now!! It’s been on my list for a while, but after reading this post, I want to hear more of what you have to say.

  7. Love this, Joanne! I’m a full time counselor for nursing students. My hubby and I have been social workers for 31 years. We’ve worked in adult and adolescent psych units, out-patient mental health centers, residential treatment programs, hospital dialysis units, cancer care, and on and on. I so “get” what you’re saying. On really bad writing days, I’ll compare a scene or total word count for the day with the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders). Yep, definetly suffering from dissociative disorder today. 🙂

    1. Jillian, thanks for the comment. I can only imagine the things you’ve seen and heard. On a lighter note, my husband and I talk in police phonetics and penal codes when we don’t want our children to know what we’re talking about. It drives them nuts!

  8. I worked in theatre for 25 years. It hasn’t happened yet but I do have a story to write about it.

  9. I enjoyed your post, Joanne. As I read, I couldn’t help thinking how many ideas you would have if you were a romantic suspense or mystery writer. You must have heard it all in your twenty years on the job. Of course, if you have stories like that “hot call” you shared, you’d have fodder for a comedy. LOL

    My last job outside the home was copyeditor, so it definitely relates to my new career as a writer.

    1. Keli,

      The humor in a police department is off the charts. I laugh much more than I cry, thankfully.

      Me, a romance writer? Never. Fiction is way too hard for me. I’d rather write nonfiction and tell my readers what to do.

  10. Hi Joanne, I have to begin with that 9-1-1 call–it had me laughing out loud. 😉 I enjoyed reading the similarities you’ve seen between your job and your writing life. I am a new writer. I am a mom who gets to stay home with her kids. In those “jobs”, one of the big similarities I see is that there is always more to do around the house and there is always more I could do on my wip (editing, revising). Since I’m still on my first draft, I’m learning to let my scenes go once I’ve made them the best I can right now, and move on with getting my story on paper. Hope that makes sense. 🙂

    1. Jeannemt, I was hoping a few readers would click on that “hot call” button. How wonderful you’re home with your kids. What a blessing. I am “on call” now, so that means I only work when I want to. Another reason I LOVE my job.

      I find it hard to write while at home (I’m typing this from our local coffee shop.) too. I can be distracted by my “to-do” list around the house. Hang in there. As a new writer, you’re just beginning to take your writer-work seriously. As the kids grow, so will your time to write!

  11. Joanne, this is an AWESOME post! What an amazing life you lead in your dispatcher position. Talk about a never-ending classroom of life! Thanks for sharing your wisdom, experience and honest words. What a blessing!

    1. Your welcome, Donna! Thanks for the kind comment. If you’re ever in my neck of the woods we could set up a sit-along. I could show you the job up close and personal!

  12. Thank you so much for your post. As a newbie to the publishing world it helps me so to read the encouraging words of someone who has been there and are willing to help the rest of us struggling. There are times when it feels like no one is willing to be there for us. Thank you again.
    Glenda Parker

  13. If I ever have to call 911, I can’t think of better person on the other end to receive my cry for help. You are an encourager, extraordinaire, my friend. I’m so glad you wrote your book, and I look forward to the next one. The shaping that’s taken place in your heart because of your day job has proffered rich wisdom to foster your dream job. You’re one of my favorite all time people in this world. You life me up and push me forward.

    Thanks for taking the time to be my friend. Love you dearly.


  14. Enjoyed your post. I write romantic suspense with medical and police procedural elements. My protagonists are a doctor and Detective (Commander of a Homicide Division). They compliment one another as physicians and police share similar lifestyles such as stress, erratic work hours, chain of command, increase in divorce, etc. I’m a physician and have police friends. My background has helped my writing and characters to be realistic. And as medicine and police work require time and patience and persistence, so does writing.

  15. Enjoyed your post, Joanne. (found it via Twitter) We could be work-twins. I spent 20+ years doing what you’re doing in a southern California beach town. But I’ve been a writer since I could hold a crayon. Wanted to sell my first book by 30, didn’t quite make it, but close enough. And yeah, I’m that one somebody said you should be, it was romantic suspense! For six years I did both jobs (what I didn’t do was sleep much; thank goodness for graveyard shift) until I finally took the badge off. And there are times when I still miss it; it was many things, frustrating, adrenaline-producing, grim….and hysterically funny. What it never, ever was, was boring! But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I often say that I’m so lucky because I’ve had two jobs I loved, when many people never even get one. Continuing good luck to you in both endeavors!

  16. When my husband became principal of our local high school, I was launched into a new venture, not only as a principal’s wife, but as a substitute teacher. You don’t hire your wife to be a regular substitute teacher, but I can read a conductor’s score, so when the band teacher was sick or had a conference, I found myself “teaching” band. Actually, I loved it, and when the fifth grade band students began to ask if I was going to write a book about them, it just seemed a natural thing to do.

    A musical prodigy, a kidnapping, hmmm.

    I’ve just finished the second draft. Who knew that when my husband said to me, “Babe, would you consider subbing at the school…” that it would turn into a book?

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