I’ve been a little bit afraid of the police for as long as I can remember.
Maybe it’s because I was a child of the movies, where being a police officer is never just someone’s job; it’s a larger-than-life identity. Onscreen, a person and a badge are much bigger than just the sum of those two parts. Movie and TV cops are usually a representation of authority itself, charged with the power to do anything from ruin your day to kill you and make it look like an accident, Dirty Harry-style.
Or maybe I’m just afraid of cops because an encounter with the police represents getting in trouble, and I was never one for trouble. I never even had a detention; the idea of getting arrested in terrifying to me. I prefer my conflict on literary terms only, thank you very much.
At any rate, after a long path that wound from Wisconsin to Los Angeles and back, I ended up becoming a fiction writer. And despite my fear, I eventually found myself writing about a couple of very large, very famous police departments: first the LAPD (In Dead Spots and its sequels) and then later, the Chicago Police Department (in The Big Keep). While I was writing these books I decided to adopt a “forewarned is forearmed” attitude with some serious research, but that wasn’t always reassuring – for example, the CPD Wikipedia page alone has a long list of scandals and coverups for your perusal. It’s a skewed sample of what these departments actually do, of course, but it’s still intimidating as hell.
Before long I began checking over my shoulder as I wrote, half-convinced that at any moment the cops would knock on my door, angry that I was making them too cartoonish or too intense. I’m not much of a speeder to begin with, but by the time The Big Keep was in edits I was keeping a careful eye on the rearview mirror, especially whenever I found myself in Chicago. It’s only paranoia until you’re pulled over for a brake light that isn’t broken.
All right, I may be exaggerating the danger just a touch. Eventually, I got past these early anxieties and realized that the only way to write cops is to write people who work as cops. Although some television shows (not written by Lee Goldberg, of course) may depict all police in black hats or white hats, the truth is that real police officers come in as many shades of gray as any other group of people. In The Big Keep, there are kind, thoughtful cops, like the protagonist’s friend Sarabeth Warrens, and there are vulgar asshole cops, too, like her partner Flanagan and his cronies. But all of them have their own histories and motivations, because they’re still characters, modeled on people, and brought to life as part of a larger story. I made myself remember that having a badge may give you authority, but it doesn’t make you one-dimensional. And hopefully that comes through in my novel.
I might stay out of Chicago for awhile, though. Just in case.
Melissa Olson was born and raised in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, and studied film and literature at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. After graduation, and a brief stint bouncing around the Hollywood studio system, Melissa landed in Madison, WI, where she eventually acquired a master’s degree from UW-Milwaukee, a husband, a mortgage, a teaching gig, two kids, and two comically oversized dogs, not at all in that order. She loves Madison, but still dreams of the food in LA. Literally. There are dreams. Learn more about Melissa, her work, and her dog at www.MelissaFOlson.com.