Research your setting, even if you think you know it. That’s a big lesson I just learned.
I wrote a scene in a cop car and I wrote it all wrong. I can’t remember the last time I saw the back of a police car. I’ve never actually ridden in a police car in my entire life, but I definitely had a picture in my head of what the back of a police car looks like. Maybe it was just from movies. So, when I was writing the scene in my current book, I used that “memory” to write a scene in which my character is in the back of a police car. But it wasn’t all that detailed and it wasn’t unique, so I knew it had to be flawed or off in some way. Real life is unique. It’s rarely what you expect or what you see in the movies. So, today I went up to a cop and asked if I could take a look in the back of his police car.
For many people, this probably wouldn’t be a big deal, but I have a fair amount of fear about cops. Two events in the last year have decreased this fear. The first event happened when we were broken into in the middle of the night while we were sleeping in Park Slope, and the Brooklyn cops came and they were so kind and gentle and compassionate, exactly what was needed in the situation. The other “event” isn’t really an event, but more of a situation. Until we moved to this small town north of NYC, I wouldn’t have gone up to a random cop on the street, but there’s a cop dad whose kid is in my daughter’s preschool class. He seems pretty cool, just a regular guy really, and seeing him every day has removed a bit of the fear I had about cops. I won’t go into this cop fear of mine, except to say it has something to do with growing up in a small town with too many eager cops with not enough to do.
So, today, after I asked this random cop on the street, I really worried he’d say he couldn’t do it and stare at me with his cold cop stare. But he got out of the car, all friendly and smiling, and said sure, go ahead. I looked and I got another lesson as a writer. It was totally different from what I imagined. Unlike what you see in movies, the back seats aren’t cushioned anymore. They’re plastic seats with a drain so that if someone pukes or bleeds, they can wash it out. This really affected how I wrote the scene because the girl sat differently and couldn’t lean her head back against the soft headrest. Also, there’s no cage between the back and the front. It’s a bullet-proof glass window, which they can open or shut. The cop told me they usually open it to talk to the person in the back, unless the person seems dangerous and might have a gun. He told me people used to spit at the cops through the cages so they put in the glass. Can you imagine? It gave me a lot more sympathy for what cops go through. There were two lemon air fresheners in the back, one still covered with plastic, probably to cover up the puke smell. On the ground, I saw an empty plastic cup and a reflective vest.
Now I couldn’t make up these details. I needed them. All of them. This is why you’ve got to research the location of every scene, even if you think you know.