03/09/2012 11:57 am ET Updated May 09, 2012

Fact From Fiction: Writing Crime Fiction From Police Documents

This piece also ran on the Mysterious Press blog.

Real life by itself seldom makes a complete novel. The writer of police procedurals -- and realistic television police dramas -- must use imagination to convert factual happenings into a story with structure and purpose. This can occur in any number of ways: inventing fictional characters who perform the factual deeds; discovering motivations that were obscure or absent in the factual events; finding metaphors for other aspects of life in the originally limited facts; structuring the factual events into the shape of a thematically meaningful conclusion.

The principal factual document on which The Alvarez Journal was based is an affidavit filed in Denver district court. Like most legal documents, the affidavit has a fill-in-the-blanks format, in this case one that (1) lists the detective's credentials, (2) establishes probable cause for his investigation, and (3) enumerates the methods by which information was obtained:

1. Information from three (3) previously reliable, confidential informants, hereinafter referred to as informant A, informant B and informant C . . .; 2. Surveillance conducted by the affiant in conjunction with other members of . . . ; 3. Routine investigative procedures such as an exchange of information with . . .

Then follows the conclusion the detective came to:

. . . that ___ and ___ and other persons as yet unknown are committing, have committed, or are about to commit violations of 1963, C.R.S. 48-5-20(1), as amended, to wit: illegal transportation of narcotic drugs, conspiracy to illegally transport narcotic drugs . . . .

This language is copied from the Colorado Revised Statutes in the belief that a defense lawyer will not challenge the established definition of the suspected crimes.

However, while vital in court, it makes pretty boring reading in fiction.

But this is where imagination begins to work full-time, and it starts with questions that generate character and plot. One of the first questions a writer -- or the accused -- would ask is "Who are these informants?" But the writer -- unlike the accused -- also asks other questions:

"What caused Informant A to talk to the police?"
"How did Informant A learn details of the accused's operation?"
"What is the relationship between Informant A and the detective?"

The basic facts are essential and central to the actual court testimony as well as to the action of the novel, but even more important from the novelist's perspective are the imagined scenes in which Informant A gathers and delivers those facts to the detective.

As the affidavit implies, informants are key to the discovery and prosecution of much criminal activity, and -- for the storyteller -- this places them on or near center stage. Here is the fictional representation of Detective Wager's meeting with Informant A of the affidavit:

Wager carried his beer over. "Hello, Leonardo."
"What the hell do you want, Wager?"
"Rafael Alvarez. What do you hear of him?"
Leonard tapped a cigarette on the plank table. "I'm goddamn tired of you leaning on me when you feel like it."
"My friend," said Wager in his gentlest accent, "I own you."

Through this scene Wager puts pressure on the reluctant and resentful Leonard to gather information. The existence of an imagined conflict between them defines the character of both men and establishes their relationship, In addition, the scene ends with implications for the plot:

" . . . Wager, I can't even make contact that soon!"

"You hustle a little my friend. Or you'll have a vacation in colorful Canyon City."
Even in the dimness he saw Leonard's face pale so that the drooping mustache looked black against his lips. "They'd kill me."
"I know. Eleven. Tomorrow night."

None of this, of course, is in the original affidavit; but all of it is derived through the imagination working on the facts enumerated in the legal document.

Informant A became a principal character in the fictional narrative because plot demanded it. About halfway through the novel, Informant A gets Wager the information he seeks. In doing so, Leonard becomes a target for Alvarez, and now he's too terrified to leave his hotel room. But Wager, paying him the snitch fee, forces Leonard onto a bus to New York:

". . . Wager, I don't want to go. I don't even know anybody there. I'm gonna die there, I know it."

"You're dead if you stay here, and I don't want your carcass in my territory."
"Wager, of all the people I know, and I know some bad dudes, you're the worst. You are a real bastard."
"You want a kiss goodbye?"

The last image of Informant A in this fictional representation is of him boarding the bus as Wager turns to walk away.

As author, I may feel sorry for someone whose life is as lost and wasted as Leonard's, but Wager, as fictional cop, does not. His character is shown to be dedicated to a determined and single-minded pursuit of his case, working in a world where life is hard and where trust, affection, and human respect have been replaced by power. None of these thematic elements exist in the original affidavit. But the facts of that affidavit provided the impetus for creating this storyline and its scenes. The imagination has produced a fictional tale by using the techniques of story telling to structure the assorted facts of life.

This piece also ran on the Mysterious Press blog.