Guest Blog — Lori Armstrong

A Ginsu Knife To The Temple or Why I Prefer The Hands-on Approach

I hate research.

There. I said it.

If you mention that factoid (or something like you also hate Springsteen) within earshot of other authors, they will argue with you. “But honestly, don’t you just love?…” NO. “Wouldn’t you rather?…” NO. I like making things up.

But sometimes you do have to see things with your own eyes. I like the hands on portion of research, mostly because it doesn’t seem like research.

A few years back before my first mystery novel was published, I had the opportunity to take a 10-week course through the Rapid City Police Department. The course, entitled, yes—you guessed it—Citizen’s Police Academy, delved into the aspects of the inner workings of the local police department. I don’t know what the intention was for the class, but it affected me profoundly as a citizen and as a writer.

Quite a bit of the course was classroom time. Learning the differences between the city/county/state/federal/tribal jurisdictional breakdowns. Officer’s education and extra training. We took a field trip to the detox center. Another field trip to the juvenile detention facility. Visited the booking and cells of the county jail. One on one instruction with the range-master at the indoor gun range in the basement of the police department. An afternoon at the state-of-the-art crime lab. All important things for me to see firsthand, especially since I’d chosen to write about this area, western South Dakota.

Then came the opportunity to sign up for ride-alongs. The Saturday night slots filled up fast, so I ended up with the 10-6 am shift on a Friday night. My instructions were to report to the department. So we headed downstairs for the shift briefing (nothing like roll call on the cop show Hill Street Blues, which up until that point was my only reference point) and I was assigned an officer, I’ll call him C. The shift supervisor told C he’d be checking AOBs (Adult Oriented Businesses) which I thought was totally cool, because it was out of the realm of my real life as a housewife/mom, and hey, I do also write erotica.

So we’re walking out to the street where Officer C shows me how they check the cop car before taking it out, removing the seat so if someone is stupid enough to shove a baggie of dope in the seat crack, it was verified and documented it wasn’t there at the start of shift change. I also saw the bag of riot gear in the trunk, and he let me sit in the backseat and rattle the cage (because really, I’ve never been arrested) and showed me how to work the radar device. We talked about guns—with my husband and his brother owning a firearms business, I get that “how cool” thing a lot.

I had no idea these officers have a laptop, and a cell phone or two in addition to the radio and paraphernalia in the front seat of their cars. C is guzzling Mountain Dew, apologizing as we’re driving around, saying it’ll probably be a quiet night, when he gets “the call” – a stabbing at a local bar. In his jurisdiction.

This was ten minutes into the shift.

He hits the lights and we haul ass to the scene. We pull up in front, he’s first on scene, which means he’s primary, so the other officers pull up in the alley. C says to sit tight…and he jumps out, gun in hand, and locks me in the car. Media vans show up. I’m like, “shit” trying to keep my face out of the camera shot because HELLO – I’m in front of a crime scene… in a cop car.

Twenty minutes later C returns to the car and we drive around to the alley behind the bar, to the apartment where the incident took place. “Your lucky night,” he said. “They just took the victim to the hospital and they’re cataloguing the crime scene. You get to be in on this from start to finish. Ah. You don’t have a weak stomach do you?”

I’m thinking, “Yes,” but I said, “No.”

“Good, because this guy was stabbed in the temple with a steak knife.”

I said, “A steak knife?”

“Yeah, a Ginsu, and there’s lots of…well, you’ll see.”

I didn’t have to put on booties or latex gloves. I was warned not to touch anything, not to talk to anyone, to be as unobtrusive as possible when we entered the apartment. There were cops all over, but the first thing I noticed was all the blood.

Blood was splattered all over the table, the floor, a thick trail led to the bathroom, it dripped off an old fashioned leather suitcase, it was smeared on the shower curtain, chunks congealed on the tub, splotches were on the toilet and an actual pool of blackish goo had puddled on the dirty white floor. My first thought, beside – Eww – was, no way would this guy survive. By the time I’d arrived, the victim was gone; the two witnesses had been separated and taken to the station for questioning, along with the alleged perpetrator. Then C started the actual police work.

The photographer snapped a billion pictures, and chatted with me about what he was looking for. I tagged along with C and listened in while he questioned witnesses inside the bar – mostly the bartender who’d made the decision to stop serving alcohol to the inebriated couples, hence the reason they’d left to drink elsewhere.

Then we moved to phase 2, which was a trip to the hospital to see if the victim was coherent. Nope – we didn’t expect otherwise, but C cautioned me stranger things had happened. The emergency room doctor was waiting on blood test results before he started the surgery to remove the remaining piece of the knife, so he showed us the X-rays of the knife lodged in the guy’s sinus cavity. We found out during the altercation, the handle had snapped off. Yes. The guy had been stabbed with such ferocity, the stabber had snapped off the black plastic handle.

Not a good testimonial for the Ginsu knife company.

After the hospital visit, C and I returned to the station. I expected he’d conduct the interviews. Wrong. Here in Rapid City, my understanding was, all cops rotate into the detective positions, so the cop on call had to come in at 1:00 in the morning to conduct interviews. I got to sit in, and listen to what went down from the point of view of the perpetrator. Most of it was drunken gibberish, which was just plain sad. Not only didn’t the guy remember stabbing the victim, he didn’t even know who the hell the victim was. They’d just met that night. The detective made the decision to arrest, and C and I took the male down to booking.
It was around 4:00 am by the time this all was finished. I had to be back at the station the next morning at 8:00 am for the defensive driving skills seminar (another time perhaps, I’ll talk about the joys of being in the driver’s seat of a cop car, next to a cop, with said cop telling me to “punch it and see how fast this mofo will go”) so C suggested I go home. As he walked me out to my car, I asked if he thought the stabbing victim would die. He didn’t know.

Surprisingly enough, the guy survived. Oddly enough, that same night, another guy fell off a curb at a downtown bar, whacked his head…and died.

Because my ride along experience was out of the norm, the instructors allowed me do another one, a different shift, with a different cop. No head stabbings, but I did get to see firsthand how an I-bar works on a belligerent shoplifter, take a guy to detox with a blood level alcohol limit near the fatal range, pull over a couple of people for suspicion of DUI, take an escaped runaway back to juvenile. Invaluable hands-on research for me, but all in a day’s work for the police in this town.

Any interesting research stories you wanna share?

Bio –
Lori G. Armstrong left the firearms industry in 2000 to write crime fiction. Her first mystery novel, Blood Ties, published in 2005, was nominated in 2006 for a Shamus Award for Best First Novel by the Private Eye Writers of America. The second book in the Julie Collins mystery series, Hallowed Ground, was released in November 2006 and was nominated for a 2007 Daphne du Maurier Award for Best Mystery, a Shamus Award for Best Paperback Original of 2007 by the Private Eye Writers of America, and was recently named the winner of the 2007 Willa Cather Literary Award for Best Original Softcover Fiction, by Women Writing the West. The next book in the series, Shallow Grave, was released in November 2007. Armstrong lives in Rapid City, South Dakota, with her family.

Recent News:

“Former firearms industry professional Lori Armstrong’s RITUAL SACRIFICES, the first in a new mystery series featuring an Army sniper who has returned home to run her family’s South Dakota ranch, to Trish Lande Grader at Touchstone Fireside, in a good deal, in a two-book hardcover deal, by Scott Miller at Trident Media Group (NA).”

13 thoughts on “Guest Blog — Lori Armstrong

  1. J.D. Rhoades

    Lori! Great to see you here. I did a ride along with the local sheriff’s deputy a while back. It taught me that police work can best be described as “long hours of boredom interspersed with moments of sheer adrenaline.”

    And congrats again on the new deal…

  2. Karen Olson

    I was watching that emergency room show on The Learning Channel one night, and they were filming at Yale New Haven Hospital and showing a woman with a kitchen knife sticking out of her head. She was alert and coherent, considering. And after a second, I realized that I’d been working the night that happened and edited the story.

    That’s my story about knives and just how close I’ve gotten to real crime scenes. A phone call to the newsroom. Close enough for me.

  3. Lori G. Armstrong

    Good to be here Dusty – I know my experience wasn’t the norm, and in fact, I was the subject of much jealousy among the other people in my class. Plus, the other cops said to me, “oh, you’re the one who got to see it all.” I’ve always had the utmost respect for cops and it multiplied tenfold after that experience.

    Thanks, I’m still processing the reality of the new deal.

    See, Karen, and I could go on a diatribe about why people have to register guns…but not knives, which are just as deadly…but I won’t 🙂

  4. toni mcgee causey

    Great blog, Lori! Thanks for being a guest today.

    I get very intense interest when I go into a PD to ask research questions, like how do they respond when someone blows up an oil rig in their area. Even though they know me now, know there’s a book out, the LT in the liaison office always pauses just a little too long when I ask some of the questions. They have my prints, and I’m pretty sure they run me through the system every time I call, just to be sure I’m not discussing an open case.

  5. Louise Ure

    Lori, I’m with you. Research for research sake is a bore. But you do meet the most interesting people along the way. Like your Officer C. Or the jury consultants and fingerprint analysts I my own work. They have fascinating jobs, but I’d rather write about them than do them.

  6. pari

    Lori,Great to see you here on Murderati! Thank you so much for the guest blog.

    I’m afraid my research is a little on the boring side. I’d love to do a ride-along someday.

    Probably the funniest, and saddest, research story I have was the FBI agent I interviewed when I first started writing fiction. I was trying to get a handle on how money laundering works.

    After answering several of my specific questions evasively, he said, “Wait a minute. You’re writing fiction, aren’t you?”

    I nodded.

    “Well, why don’t you just make it up?”

    He was the inspiration for the pompous FBI agent in my first book.

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Lori, so lovely to see you here and what a great research story!

    I don’t have a particular research story in mind, but what I love about research is that when you commit to a story, everything you need to know just presents itself to you, when you need it.

    When I was doing research for THE PRICE I discovered that both a relative and a good friend from high school were doing surgical residencies at the hospital I was using for the story. Instant access to everything I needed, and all the behind-the-scenes stories I could want.

    It is truly amazing how often that happens.

  8. Tammy Cravit

    I think ride-alongs are a “must-do” item for anyone aspiring to write crime fiction.

    What struck me most from the two I’ve done so far is this: Yes, it’s true that most calls are routine and boring. But under that is the ever-present awareness that you don’t know in advance which calls won’t be that, so you have to assume *every* call is going to be the “fight for your life” kind. If you don’t assume that, if you let your guard down just one time, that might be all it takes to get yourself killed.

    Definitely an eye-opening experience.

    As far as amazing research stories, I think the Jane Doe article I wrote (see the comment’s to JT’s most recent post) would take the cake. Since Sue Grafton had based her book, “Q is for Quarry” on the cold case I was writing about, and since she’s a “local celebrity”, I wanted to talk to her about it. Phone number? Unlisted. So I sent a letter to her PO Box asking if she’d speak with me.

    Three days or so later, I got a call from Sue herself. “I’m leaving on Thursday for three months in Kentucky,” she told me, “but I wanted to make time to talk with you before I left.” I got some very valuable information and connections from her, and wrote what I feel was one of my best articles.

    About two months later, I had the chance to meet and chat with her at the Santa Barbara Book Festival. “How do you find people to talk to for research?” I asked her. “I mean, I know you can just use the yellow pages and call people up, but on the other hand, I imagine that being famous opens a lot of doors for you. After all, you’re Sue Grafton, and people know who you are.”

    She gave me a mischievous grin and replied, “Well, that’s true. But on the other hand, you found me…”

    To say that I was rendered momentarily speechless would be a grave understatement.

  9. AlisonGaylin

    Great blog, Lori! The most exciting night of research I ever spent was going on a drive-along with two cops from New York’s 5th precinct and winding up in a high-speed car chase through Chinatown. They eventually transferred me to another squad car, but not before Id seen my life flash in front of my eyes.

  10. Allison Brennan

    Hey Lori! Fancy meeting you here, ha ha. I love your story. I haven’t done a ride along yet 🙁 but I’m hoping to next year. I am doing a citizens academy though and totally looking forward to it!

    Yep, you’re weird, I love research. I waste a lot of time researching. I read homicide textbooks for fun. I’ve read all of John Douglas’s FBI and profiling books, I have the DSM-IV Made Easy within easy reach, and of course Dr. Lyle’s books. Fabulous stuff. But the best resource for me is other writers. They are generous with their time and knowledge and contacts, and I am forever grateful.

    So, don’t be surprised if you get an email from me about guns . . . 🙂


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