SPS-361: Field Training: Writing Accurate Crime Fiction – with Patrick O’Donnell
From Sergeant in one of America’s largest police departments for 25 years to founding the Cops and Writers Community, Patrick O’Donnell shares insights on writing authentic crime fiction and how he got a publishing deal with Michael Anderle.
- Working as a nightshift cop in Milwaukee
- Cops and Writers nonfiction books and podcast
- How Patrick O’Donnell began co-writing with Michael Anderle
- Getting the procedures of crime fiction right
- How Patrick writes his crime fiction
Resources mentioned in this episode:
BLOG: Discover over 6 years of indie publishing insights from the SPF Team.
FACEBOOK GROUP: Join the thriving author community of 25k+ members.
COPS AND WRITERS: a community, podcast, and books to help you write better crime fiction.
PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page
MERCH: Check out our new 2022 hoodies and t-shirts in the SPF Store.
SPS-361: Field Training: Writing Accurate Crime Fiction - with Patrick O’Donnell
Speaker 1: On this edition of The Self Publishing Show.
Patrick O’Donnell: It's a blast interviewing people that know a lot more than you do. It's twofold. One is, it's a lot of fun and you make good friends, for the most part. And secondly, you're learning a lot. It's like teaching.
Speaker 1: Publishing is changing. No more gatekeepers, no more barriers. No one standing between you and your readers. Do you want to make a living from your writing? Join Indie bestseller Mark Dawson and first time author James Blatch as they shine a light on the secrets of self-publishing success. This is The Self Publishing Show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: Hello, and welcome to The Self Publishing Show with me, James Blatch, I'm going solo again this week. You saw last week I was standing next to Mark in the conference hall at 20Books in Las Vegas. He probably already had COVID at that time, because he's come back with the virus, and it hit him quite hard. I think this variant has been hitting people pretty hard and so he's been laid low. We are giving him some time off. That's probably him emailing me though, shouldn't be doing that.
Yeah, so it's just going to be me for today. We've got a couple of things to get through and then a really, really fun interview to come in a few moments time. Let me first of all say a big shout out to Daphne Garrison from Ohio in the United States of America. Daphne is our latest Patreon supporter. You can join the Patreon support team and get all those rewards that go along with that, if you head over to patreon.com/selfpublishingshow.
We also have a blog release today, Friday. If you're listening to this on release day on using competition to drive success. You'll find that, along with our entire archive of episodes going back six and a half years at selfpublishingformula.com on.
Okay, there's not much else to say at the moment. We've just closed our first launch of Launchpad. If you've joined us on Launchpad, I'm excited for you. We're going to be going through that course together over the next few weeks and months. Our next course opening will be in January, that will be ads for authors. But until then we will probably have a couple of live training events. We'll tell you about them when they pop up.
Right, time for our interview. And it is with Patrick O’Donnelll. We've had Patrick on the show once before. Patrick was a cop in Milwaukee for 30 odd years. Retired maybe two or three years ago, I'm going to say, maybe two years ago. I'm sure we get to that in the interview. The real deal, he was on the streets in a tough part of town. He was desk sergeant then. And talking to him, the stories are incredible. The things he saw in everyday working life are beyond some of the things we even read about in books. And that's part of our discussion actually, is to what you include in books and don't include.
And another sort of side note is if you've been watching the series on Netflix on Jeffrey Dahmer, I know it's not everyone's cup of tea, and it is quite a hard watch. It is a hard watch in places, but it's actually, I think a really well done series, particularly towards the end. Well, he was there just after those events and knows all the guys who are involved in that. So we have a little bit of discussion about that as well.
But the big news of Patrick who does a lot of work in non-fiction supporting crime writers, when they want to check facts or they want to be more authentic, you don't have to be a 100% authentic the whole time. We do write novels, we discuss that as well. But he runs a Facebook group called Cops and Writers, which is a really good place to get some knowledge from working policemen from around the world, not just in the US, but here in the UK and elsewhere in Australia. And you'll see, you'll get a pretty good set of answers to your questions. There's a fascinating set of threads in that particular Facebook group.
But Patrick has gone back into fiction writing. He's been lured by Michael Anderle and his publishing company to write some police procedurals very close to his own heart, I think set around Milwaukee area. And so that's been an exciting foray for him. They are, I think, launched at the time I'm recording this now. They weren't at the time that we were doing the interview, so they'll be available now. And you'll get the details from Patrick himself. So let's hear from Patrick, then I'll be back for a quick chat at the end.
Speaker 1: This is The Self-Publishing Show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: Patrick O’Donnelll, Sarge, can I call you Sarge? Welcome back to the show.
Patrick O’Donnell: Of course, you can. And what an honour to be back.
James Blatch: Yeah, it's great to have you on here. And we spoke a while back when you were producing books to help people write police procedural and get that stuff right or some advice on that. And you run a great Facebook group, where you can ask all sorts of questions about what happens if I stick a knife in, and then I say it was my husband to, because he wants to take the fall from me. How would the police know? And stuff like that.
Which does make me worry about who's asking us questions. But it is generally all of this, right?
Patrick O’Donnell: Well, if your wife takes out a really large life insurance policy on you, out of the blue, I would start worrying.
James Blatch: Yeah. To double check that as well. But we should say for people who don't know, you had 30 years, I think in the force.
Patrick O’Donnell: 25 years.
James Blatch: Were they all in Milwaukee?
Patrick O’Donnell: Yeah, it was all in the city of Milwaukee. You start out as a cop and on patrol work. I worked midnight to 8:00 for 13 years, and then I worked 7:00 at night till 3:00 in the morning for four years. So after 17 years in nights, I transitioned over to day shift, which was 8:00 in the morning till 4:00 in the evening. And of course, there was always overtime. If somebody gets shot at 3:30, you don't pack it up and say, "Hey-
James Blatch: I'm off the clock.
Patrick O’Donnell: ... see you." Yeah. Exactly. So those are loose guidelines, that's the way I like to look at it. And if you got home on time, hey, it's a bonus. Life is good.
James Blatch: How does that work for so many years working in the middle of the night through every night? I mean, how do you live? When did you go out? For breakfast?
Patrick O’Donnell: Oh, it's funny you say that, because when I worked midnight to 8:00, I started as a police officer, then after seven years I promoted to sergeant. And as a police officer, a lot of times the coppers, if you had a really rough night, if you had a very tragic incident or something like that, you'd go out for what we'd call a choir practise. And a choir practise is going out for drinks at eight o'clock in the morning.
So when people are going to work, we're done with work, and we're heading out. It's a total flip flop. It's like, "Okay, now my night is day and my day is night." And you had a bunch of cops wearing their blue uniform pants and sticky white t-shirts, because you're wearing the vest all night and it's gross. But we all looked the same, and we all probably smelled the-
James Blatch: And you're drinking at eight o'clock in the morning. So to-
Patrick O’Donnell: Oh, absolutely.
James Blatch: ... a casual observer, it might not look great, but actually that's your eight o'clock in the evening, right?
Patrick O’Donnell: Yeah. And there was taverns that catered to third shift people, and it wasn't just cops. You'd have firefighters, you would have factory workers, you would have all kinds of a mix of people. But it's funny, you could always notice the cops because they're always in the back with their backs to the wall, and they could see everybody coming in. We're very, very guarded. And it's kind of a closed community. So the choir practises would happen. Going out for breakfast was a big thing too.
It's like, "Hey, let's go grab some breakfast before you go to bed." I knew guys that would go to the gym right away when they got off of work. I did that for a while. But you feel hung over no matter how much you sleep or no matter what you do.
James Blatch: Yeah. It's not a natural for the human body is it?
Patrick O’Donnell: No. Your body is saying, "Hey, dummy, you should be awake or you should be in bed." And it's tough on relationships, because, okay, you want to be a good husband or father, that kind of thing. And when is most of the stuff going on? It's during the day? It's not at three o'clock in the morning. "Hey, let's go on a field trip, little Johnny at three o'clock in the morning." But speaking of field trips, I did get the chance to chaperone a lot of my kids' field trips, because I wasn't working. Now, I worked all night and I was dog tired, but at least I got a chance to do things that a lot of the other parents didn't, especially the dads. There weren't many dads like me. So that was fun. I enjoy that.
James Blatch: I'll ask you a couple questions about your career, then we'll get onto talking what we're going to talk about.
Patrick O’Donnell: Sure. Sure.
James Blatch: In your 25 years, is there a case that you still close your eyes and see at night?
Patrick O’Donnell: There's a few, and it's not like a who done it. They're all homicides. And they were just unusually gruesome or horrific, say, a six-month-old baby. I had a couple of those where somebody killed their child. And then I had an older lady, she was probably in her early 70s, and make a long story short, what happened was she was a very nice elderly lady that had a friend of the family they knew for years, and he was down on his luck. He was probably in his mid 30s, late 30s. He was kind of like a handyman, and he wasn't finding work, probably drank a little too much. And he had nowhere to go. So he was staying with her. And finally, after a couple months of that, she's like, "You got to go. Either you find a job or you got to go. You just can't couch surf here forever and drink beer and live off of me."
So they got into a huge fight, and he wound up killing her at eight o'clock in the morning. He hit her over the head with a frying pan a bunch of times, and stabbed her, I don't know how many times, and hid the body in the basement, under a bunch of boxes. And the niece of this woman that just got killed called us at about six o'clock in the evening, seven o'clock in the evening. And said, "Hey, we don't know where," whatever her name was, I don't remember her name. "This is not like her." So it's a missing person.
And the 24 hour thing that you see in movies and TV, that's not real. It's all circumstantial. What's going on? So the cop gets there, he searches the entire house, he searches the garage, he searches the alley, and he doesn't find anything. And he needs a newer cop. And he was a little bit unsure of himself. So he called me, I was the boss. So I respond and I talk to the niece, and I said, "Well, does she have any urgent medical conditions?" "No, she doesn't even take pills. She's very, very healthy." "Does she have friends or relatives in the area?" "Yes, she does. Lots." "Okay, is it unusual?" She said, "No, sometimes she goes out and sees her friends or a relative, and she stays for a while."
"Does she have a phone?" "No, she refuses to get a cell phone." I'm like, "Oh, you're making this tough." So I said, "What about the guy that lives there?" Because I talked to him for a little bit and I'm like, eh, getting a weird vibe but not nothing crazy. And we ran him. He had only been arrested one time, and that's when he was a teenager for shoplifting. So it's not like he was this big bad criminal, up to that point. And he didn't give us any reasons to suspect him, for the most part. And I asked the niece, I said, "Well, we'll go through the house again."
And I went through the house, I went through the basement. She was a very small woman. She was probably about 4'9, maybe a 100 pounds. And she fit under all these boxes. We never saw her. And for whatever reason, the blood wasn't seeping out, we didn't see it. And I told her, I said, "Tell you what, I'm working until three o'clock in the morning, if she doesn't come back or you don't hear anything by say 10 o'clock, call us. I'm going to send a little army of cops over, and we're really going to dig into this and we'll find her. We'll find her."
And I said, "Are you okay with that?" And she said, "Yeah, perfectly reasonable." I'm like, "Okay." Well other family members come to the district. Well, I'm in back typing a report, and I can hear the commotion at the front counter and this is about 9:00, 9:30 in the evening. And the desk officer is taking the information. I go up there, and everything that I just said, I told them. And they said, "We want more cops over there right now." And I'm like, "You know what? Sure, why not? And you know what, I'll finish this paperwork I'm doing, I'll be there in 10, 15 minutes."
So a couple of my coppers responded, and they're like topnotch, really, really good cops. And one of my cops, he calls me before I get there, "Hey, Sarge, did this guy have a gash over his head, like a fresh wound?" I'm like, "No, he didn't have anything like that." He said, "Well, he does now." Then you hear this, literally, this blood curdling scream. It was her kids and her grandchildren were over at the house looking for her.
What happened was, after we left looked for this poor old lady, this guy dragged her up the stairs and rolled her in a piece of carpeting, and pushed her under the back, there was a little deck off the back, and he stuck her in there as he was pushing her under the deck, he hit his head on the deck. So that's where he had this fresh wound over on his forehead. And to this day, I will never forget the expression on that poor lady's face. That will never leave me.
James Blatch: God, you saw a side of the world that I know some people listening to this right about, but few of us... I mean. I was a reporter on the beat, but we never properly went into crime scenes. We stood on the outside, the other side of the tape. I saw road accidents, they'll stay with me. But-
Patrick O’Donnell: You tried to get in.
James Blatch: I tried to get in. Yeah, of course. I honestly, felt I probably should do at some point. I almost spoke to the local forensic pathologist and said, "Could I go in one day under supervision?" But just because I think it was sanitised for us a bit. But the reality is, and I wanted... But anyway, I never had that conversation and didn't do it. But I know it affects you. I mean, I saw road accidents. I saw bodies pulled out of cars, and that stays with you for a long time.
But to bring it back to writing, I don't know where we go with this really, because the first thing you said to us was the really distressing, quite dark things, children and babies. And that's not really the stuff of most police procedurals.
You're going to steer clear of that, aren't you?
Patrick O’Donnell: Yeah, I think there's certain things that you are going to steer clear of or kind of tiptoe around, like the death of a child, any type of sexual assault, anything of that nature, you might somehow bring it up, but not graphically, you don't want to do that. And especially in this world of triggers and all that, that's a very, very real, horrific thing that it could totally send somebody over the edge. If you've ever been the victim of one of those crimes, say, a sexual assault or-
James Blatch: I mean, it's not to say you shouldn't-
Patrick O’Donnell: ... you had a child killed-
James Blatch: ... cover these issues, but you're right, it's about part of the visceral detail. That would be something that happened rather than central plank of the story, you're describing the scene. That would be probably unpalatable to most readers, and a bit of a shock.
Patrick O’Donnell: Right. And, again, maybe you should get to know your readers. When you're writing anything, one of the commandments, I would think, is know your readers. Know who you're trying to target. Obviously, this isn't a fairytale audience or a sweet romance or even a cosy mystery, that kind of thing. It's not going to be in there. Or you can put it in there, but that'll probably be the last cosy mystery anybody's going to buy from you.
James Blatch: I mean, dark horror, I guess, would potentially have that in. So you've got to know exactly who your audience are, which is a key thing with every genre. And the other thing is don't kill dogs. Although I did notice that a fairly high profile Netflix series, which you just watched, and I won't give it away, it'll stop people watching it, kills a dog in there. And I'm thinking, "No, don't-
Patrick O’Donnell: No.
James Blatch: ... kill dogs." Just because-
Patrick O’Donnell: No.
James Blatch: ... I mean, it's the only thing people really care about. They don't care about the people in these programmes.
Patrick O’Donnell: Oh, yeah. People who get die left and right in the story. But you could hurt a dog and then nurse it back to health-
James Blatch: Yes.
Patrick O’Donnell: ... and then-
James Blatch: That's fine,
Patrick O’Donnell: ... they're totally fine. But-
James Blatch: You got to be careful, even if a dog dies from natural causes, how you handle that. And that's true.
Patrick O’Donnell: Yes. People are very connected to their pets. There's no doubt about that.
James Blatch: Well, it's fascinating. We're not specifically going to talk about that. We have an interview in the can with you if people want to go back and listen to that, which is all about police procedurals, about the balance of authenticity and so on. Oh, there's a loud helicopter going over.
But we are actually going to talk about a bit of a right angle career move, well, not right angle, but a slight branch from where you thought you were going, that's happened to you. So why don't you just explain what's happened?
Patrick O’Donnell: Well, it's funny, because I started out, I've published five books, and four out of the five are nonfiction. I'm trying to solve somebody's problem, and entertain a little bit too. I mean, I tried not to make it so they're super dry or anything. You'd inject some humour just so people aren't falling asleep while they're reading your nonfiction book. You try to keep it interesting and entertaining. But the main purpose is to solve somebody's problem.
It's kind of like podcasts. You're either going to entertain or you're going to solve a problem or you're going to do both, which is what you guys do, I think.
James Blatch: Thank you.
Patrick O’Donnell: Listen to a guest and you learn something. But you also have the banter between you and Mark. And it's funny. And it's fun to listen to. It's almost like two friends that are having a drink together, and you're just like, "Oh, this is cool." It's just a little slice on your commute to work or whatever. It's great. So the last two books that I wrote were the police procedurals, the Cops and Writers Stuff. And I was still on the job, and I saw a need, because I started getting immersed in the indie author community, and I was going to conferences and people would just come up to me, "Well, you're the police guy, right?" "You're the police guy." And I'm like, "I guess so. Sure."
And it was all very good natured. They just had a question about X, Y, or Z. And it was fun. I enjoyed it. And I'm like, "Okay." And there just seemed to be a need. So the last two books that I wrote were the Cops and Writers books, and those were police procedurals for writers, getting your facts straight, et cetera, et cetera. And I was well received. And like you mentioned earlier, I had the Cops and Writers Facebook group, where I have just a myriad of experts that can answer a lot of these questions for writers. Or if you're just curious, you don't have to be a writer.
And I started the podcast, the Cops and Writers Podcast, because I enjoy podcasts. I love listening to podcasts. And I was in the writer community and I thought, "Well, I can help out more writers this way and have some fun." It's a blast interviewing people that know a lot more than you do. It's twofold. One is, it's a lot of fun and you make good friends, for the most part. And secondly, you're learning a lot. It's like teaching. When you're a teacher, that's when you really start learning. It works out great. So I'm-
James Blatch: If you want to let something teach you.
Patrick O’Donnell: Absolutely. So I am interviewing Craig Martelle and Michael Anderle. Now, Craig I've known through the years. He's a good friend, great guy. He runs the 20Booksto50K Facebook group, and the 20Booksto50K Conferences. So I wanted to bring him and Michael on. I met Michael one time in an elevator at Sam's Town. Him and his wife were in there. I introduced myself. And he doesn't remember, he doesn't like the social stuff like Craig does. Craig is kind of the face of the group. He runs the whole shooting match and he's got the headache of doing that too. That's no easy undertaking by any stretch of the imagination.
So I started interviewing these guys, and it was one of my most popular, probably, one of my best, I thought, podcast interviews. And Craig had to go and take care of Stanley, the Arctic dog. And I just started talking to Michael about publishing and books and all that kind of happy stuff. And he said, "I really want to get into the crime genre, because that's like red hot right now. Romance will probably be number one forever. It just seems that way. But the crime genre is really coming up with thrillers, mysteries, all that kind of fun stuff." And we just started talking and before we know it's like, "Yeah, let's collaborate." And then, boom, we're writing books together.
James Blatch: Wow. The elevator pitch.
Patrick O’Donnell: Yeah, I mean. It was-
James Blatch: The reverse elevator pitch. He was pitching to you.
Patrick O’Donnell: And when I started that interview, that was the very last thing on my mind, is like, "Hey, I'm going to write books with Michael Anderle." It was like, "No, this is going to be a cool interview and I'm going to have some fun." And it is just putting yourself out there and you never know who you're going to talk to, and you never know what's going to come up.
James Blatch: Yeah, I mean it's one of the adverts for the conferences. Go to the conference, because even if you think you are insular and shy, you will still talk to people and meet people. And some of those people could become friends for the rest of your life or lead onto a change in your career, like this. So that's definitely one of the things that we... And we're recording this on the 8th of November, two days I'm flying out, and you're going to be flying, I think down to Vegas as well.
Patrick O’Donnell: Oh yeah. I'll be there Monday through Friday.
James Blatch: So tell us about the books.
Patrick O’Donnell: So we started talking, and we talked about the genre, we talked about the tropes, what people want and are looking for in their crime books. There's what? There's mysteries, the who done it, and then the thriller of, well, you k now who done it, but it's the excitement of the climactic, the end. And there's something that's kind of missing that used to be popular and I think it's gaining some traction again. And that's kind of like a cop opera, if you remember Hill Street Blues?
James Blatch: Yes. Loved Hill Street Blues.
Patrick O’Donnell: Where it was Captain Furillo, and he's running this troubled police district and all the characters that he has under his command. You've got Belker that's always chomping on a cigar. He's the plain clothes guy that growls at people and bites them. But he calls his mom every day. He's totally a mama's boy.
James Blatch: Eccentric type, yeah.
Patrick O’Donnell: Yeah. And all the little mini soap operas between partners and all that. And also, we talked about Southland. I don't know if you've ever seen that.
James Blatch: No, I haven't. I have heard of it. Yeah.
Patrick O’Donnell: Oh, it's great. It's LAPD, and it's through the eyes of a rookie that's just starting his field training. And we talked and it's like, "Well, if we could meld all that together, that would be really cool." So that's what we did. The first three books, it's called Brew City Blues, that's the series, and it's loosely based on what I've done. Most of the stories and all that has been stuff that has happened to me directly or good friends.
And what we're doing is, obviously, changing the names, places, all that kind of stuff to protect the innocent. And so it's starting out with, the first book is called Field Training. And as a new cop, that's how you start out is with field training. And all the experiences and stubbing his toe and kind of fumbling through some things and some like life and death stuff right away that he was thrown into.
And this recruit is a little bit different. He's a little bit older, he's 30 years old. He was in the Army beforehand. He had some personal tragedy occur, and he's just starting over new. He was down in Louisiana. He was in the Army. He's starting new in Milwaukee, Wisconsin as a police officer. So you're looking through his lens, and it's not just him, you have homicide detectives, you have other cops on the shift that don't like him, and sometimes he has no idea why they don't like him, that type of thing. And the policey stuff, car chases, chasing guys wanted for homicide.
Real quick story, and I'll just give you a flavour of it. My first week on the job, we get sent to a stabbing at seven o'clock in the morning, and my FTO looks at me and says, "Who is stabbing people at 7:00 in the morning? This is crazy." So they give a description of the person who was the stabber, and we're about a block away and we're starting to slow down. We're in a patrol waggon, and sure enough, here's a guy running towards us with a white t-shirt covered in blood, butcher knife in his hand.
James Blatch: Oh, he had the weapons still, so that was useful for you.
Patrick O’Donnell: Oh, yeah. And we're like, without thinking, I jump out of the car, I draw down on them, and yell, "Stop police!" And we just locked eyes. And one thing to look for, and writers should be aware of this too, whenever you're handling a weapon, if it's a rifle, if it's a pistol, anything like that, your finger does not go on that trigger until it's time to make it go boom. It's always off and outside the trigger. That's one thing that just drives me crazy when I'm watching TV or a movie, and I'm like, "Oh, this is terrible. Get your finger off that trigger." That's how accidents happen. There's no such thing as an accident.
So there was that split second, and I transitioned over to the trigger and I'm thinking to myself, "Well, this is going to be a quick career. This lasted a week. And I'm going to have to kill somebody." And the guy, I think, he saw the fear in my eyes, and we just locked, and he just dropped the knife and went face down on the ground.
James Blatch: Wow.
Patrick O’Donnell: And that's in the book. And my FTO, after he is handcuffed, he looks at me, he's like, "This usually does not happen. Usually, they're running the other way. They're not running toward..." To this guy was just like in shock.
James Blatch: With the knife, just covered in blood.
Patrick O’Donnell: Yeah, exactly.
James Blatch: At least there was no ambiguity about who'd done it.
Patrick O’Donnell: Yeah. That's almost every homicide I've been to. Where I worked-
James Blatch: Yeah, in reality.
Patrick O’Donnell: ... you didn't need Columbo or Sherlock Holmes to figure these things out. It's just-
James Blatch: It wouldn't be so readable, though. Funny enough, when we were in, we had a summer holiday with the family in California and Arizona, New Mexico, actually, in the summer, and one of the things I wanted to do, I've shot guns a little bit in the UK, when I did some REF training and shot the Browning pistols and a bit on automatic rifle, but a long time ago. And I don't really know the procedure, and I just thought, ask the kids if they want to do it. They're both teenagers. They both said, "Yes." I thought it'd be a good thing for me to learn a bit about weapons handling today, because you end up writing about this stuff.
Patrick O’Donnell: Absolutely.
James Blatch: I phoned a range up in Arizona and I said, "Look, we're a British family." And of course, they were as welcoming as you'd imagine they were. They said, "Yeah, come on, we'll give you a 20 minute session in the range, talking you through everything, a 100 rounds each, choose your weapons."
And so we did all of that, and you're right, because the guy said to me, because, of course, my finger goes immediately on the trigger, he showed me where to rest my finger along the side barrel. But it's not intuitive at all. And your finger keeps wanting to go back to the trigger, because every toy gun-
Patrick O’Donnell: Yes, it does.
James Blatch: ... you've played with as a kid, you go straight to the trigger. But that's a small detail that is important. I mean we can argue about how much authenticity needs to be in these stories for them still to be readable and entertaining. But it takes some people out the story, if they notice those details are wrong.
Patrick O’Donnell: It'll take them out immediately. One of my friends, Jerri Williams, she's a retired FBI agent, and she's got a great podcast. It's FBI Retired-
James Blatch: I've spoken to Jerri, she's brilliant.
Patrick O’Donnell: ... Case Files. Oh, she is. She is.
James Blatch: We have an interview with her in the archive as well, which is really worth listening to.
Patrick O’Donnell: Yes. Yeah, she's fabulous. I absolutely love her. And one thing she does is rate FBI, like, TV shows and movies and all that. And there's the latest one is Rookie FBI Agent or something like that. It's kind of loosely based after The Rookie that's on TV now. He's an older guy on LAPD and now they have the federal version, the FBI version. She said, "After five minutes I couldn't watch it anymore, because this lady's in her 40s." The cutoff to get into the FBI is like 31. And she said, "Right away they didn't do their homework and this is ridiculous." So they lost somebody watching. I mean who knows if it'll last or not or how many people they lose. But you don't want to lose anybody.
James Blatch: And I do think, my takeaway with Jerri's chat is, unless you really really have to for the story, don't fall into the cliche of having FBI versus local law enforcement. Because she said-
Patrick O’Donnell: Yes.
James Blatch: ... "99 times out of a 100 the local law enforcement are pleased to see the FBI turn up, because these are complex cases, they don't have the resources, and this is what these guys train to do. They also quite enjoy working alongside them." But 99 times out of a 100 on TV, when the FBI turn up, local law enforcement are all up in arms about it, and don't cooperate and hate the fact that these feds have turned up. And-
Patrick O’Donnell: I get a kick out of that, because if the feds showed up to any of my scenes and wanted to take over, and I'm like, "Bye. See you guys. You want this? It's all yours baby."
James Blatch: "Where did Sarge go?"
Patrick O’Donnell: Yeah.
James Blatch: He's having his choir drinks.
Patrick O’Donnell: Nobody plays hot potato with a crime. It's, "Okay. Is this under the jurisdiction of a federal crime?" Say, like bank robberies or kidnappings. Like a bank robbery in the United States, the money is insured by the federal government. So it's technically a federal crime, when you rob a bank. Does that mean an FBI agent or a team of them is going to respond to your location? No, not at all, especially in a big city. Now in smaller cities where they don't have the training or expertise, they may not, but in most large cities, their robbery guys or gals have the reps and they know what they're doing.
Now, could there be an FBI agent that responds a little bit after, especially if you're crossing state lines, if this is a trend, this is like a crew that's hitting all these banks. Or God forbid, they start hurting people, they start shooting people. Because most bank robberies are "peaceful," it's a demand note, or they'll just say, "Give me the money." Because they know the tellers are trained to just comply with whatever they want, it's not worth their lives, and it's insured. It's not worth eating a bullet. And the bad guys know that. Most bank robberies are pretty anti-climactic to say the least. A guy comes in with a note, and hopefully, he leaves it there, which is really funny, because now I've got DNA-
Patrick O’Donnell: ... and fingerprints on there. They just leave it and it's like, "Okay, we've had guys leave their bags that they were going to take the money. They were so nervous." Or my favourite is they're walking down the sidewalk and the dye pack goes off, and they're like orange or green. They're covered in this stuff.
James Blatch: Hey, come here.
Patrick O’Donnell: I stopped one guy who just robbed a bank and he says, "What?" And I'm like, "Dude, really? Come on. Stop it." And you see on TV, and it's like this small army of FBI agents. No, you're lucky to get one or two. It doesn't work like that.
James Blatch: Those authenticity things. Now tell me about the writing, Patrick. So it's been a while since you've written fiction and you're more experienced writing nonfiction. How did you approach it? Did you plot and plan? How much say did Michael have over this?
Patrick O’Donnell: One of the great things about working with Michael was writing is kind of a solitude thing. And you're going along with a story, and you're like, "I wonder if this is going the right direction." The doubt monsters kind of creep into your head and it's like, "Oh, is this any good?" It's like, "Oh, am I going the right direction? Should I add a little more of this?" Well, I got a partner now, and it's amazing that I can just phone him up or do a Zoom call and we talk about it. It's like, "Well, I think the character should be doing this now. How about let's try that?" And it's like, "Wow, that's really cool." I use Plottr. I like Plottr, and I guess I'm a pantser/ as Joanna Penn would say, "discovery writer."
James Blatch: Yes. I do prefer that expression, I have to say.
Patrick O’Donnell: Yeah. Well, I guess what in England pantser is something to do with underwear.
James Blatch: Yes, we wear pants underneath our trousers, but I do appreciate it doesn't mean that in America. But, yeah, so let's go with discovery writer.
Patrick O’Donnell: Yes. So I'm a bit of a combination. I'm really rolling along. The first book got written probably in about a month and a half, second book about-
James Blatch: Wow.
Patrick O’Donnell: ... the same. And we're chugging along. And I-
James Blatch: So you're turning out the words Patrick. How many hours-
Patrick O’Donnell: Not all of them, but a good chunk of them. Yes. Good chunk of them. My average writing day is about one to 2000 words a day. And if you do it every day... I was just in Boston babysitting, well, dog sitting for my daughter. She went off to a bachelorette party in Disneyland. And she said, "Could you watch my dog?" And I'm like, "Yeah, sure. What the hell? I'll hang around Boston." And of course, I brought my computer, I was writing on the plane going there. I was writing last night on the flight back. Every day I would try to have some time for writing.
As long as you can squeeze that in every day, boy, the results are great. You don't need a NaNoWriMo or anything. I mean, I understand NaNoWriMo and some people kind of need that kick in the trousers, as you would say.
James Blatch: Yes.
Patrick O’Donnell: But-
James Blatch: The arse.
Patrick O’Donnell: In the arse. Yes.
James Blatch: In the arse. But I think, I mean, I'm doing NaNo at the moment, and it's come a point for me where I have been trying to develop a writing procedure or process that's going to work for me. Because I am slow and I will go through weeks or days with not writing, it's easy for me, because I'm clouded with stuff every day. Long list at any one time I'm working through.
Patrick O’Donnell: Oh sure.
James Blatch: So it's easy for me to prevaricate and put it off. But I've also read this book Atomic Habits, which Lucy Score recommended to me. And-
Patrick O’Donnell: It's a great book.
James Blatch: ... NaNoWriMo's come along and I'm now day eight into it. And every single day, I've got up in the morning before I've opened my email, I've done a writing sprint of 25 minutes, which gets me 750, 800 words done.
Patrick O’Donnell: That's perfect.
James Blatch: Then at two o'clock every day, I do a writing sprint. Either we're doing them in our group for this month or with my friends on WhatsApp. That means I'm 1500 words in out of habit.
Patrick O’Donnell: That's awesome.
James Blatch: Out of just habits now-
Patrick O’Donnell: Yes.
James Blatch: ... which feels to me very sustainable, long beyond NaNoWriMo. I'm doing a little bit more in the afternoon to make sure I do definitely get up to sort of 17, 1800 words. But that will be transformative for me, if I can keep doing that for my writing.
Patrick O’Donnell: I do the discovery thing until I get stuck, and then I start Plotting. I kind of go back and forth. And the more I'm doing this, the less I need to Plot. And the more it's just coming to me. The first book, I think I Plotted the entire thing, first. And then the second book loosely, and the third book, I'm just cruising a lot.
James Blatch: This thing, crime writers ask themselves about how slavishly show you should follow real life. I mean, your cases would've taken weeks, months, years, the big ones that are going to make a book, to actually happen. And in reality, TV shows and books compress this period down, and they play a bit with who's rolled it.
So you have your main character doing lots of things that perhaps in real life would be another expert's job. How much of that are you finding easy to compromise with, because you are so immersed in the reality of it?
Patrick O’Donnell: The way I'm doing it is the character is a street cop in a very busy district, in probably the most dangerous part of town, working at night. So there's always a new thing every night. And that's the way I'm writing it, because the way it works is you have detectives for homicides, like the guy running at me with a knife, blah, blah, blah. Homicide detectives showed up to that. They have to take care of, they'll go to the autopsy the next day, they have to do the next of kin notification, all the follow-up.
And then the guy who actually did the stabbing, they have to do the interview or some people call it interrogation. Even though, we had witnesses, "Yeah, he just stabbed his friend over," I think it was the last beer, or he was cheating at cards or something incredibly stupid. And he stabbed him in the armpit, and cancel Christmas, that will kill you. And you do that, and then the next day, onto the next thing. As a cop on the street, you don't have that luxury of, "Okay, well now we're going to investigate this for a week." It doesn't happen. Even-
James Blatch: That's not going to work in a book, unless it's like a diary.
Patrick O’Donnell: Right, exactly. So the way I'm doing it is, okay, this officer encounters this. This is what's going on, et cetera, et cetera. And like I said, it's kind of like a cop opera where, how does he feel about this? How is it affecting him? He's brand new. Wow, this is crazy. He never expected this, and all that good stuff. And then the next day it's something totally different. Every day, every night, usually you had something a little bit different, after a while things started kind of clumping together, and it's like, "Okay, yeah, been there, done that," that kind of thing. But in order to keep the readers going, it's like, okay, you have a homicide, I'll switch it over to my detective.
It's like, okay, the detective is doing X, Y, and Z, and there'll be some chapters on what the detective is doing. And he's going home after sleeping for two hours. I mean, he goes home, sleeps two hours and goes back to work. Because that's what homicide detectives were, I don't want to say required, but if you say, "You know what? I'm really tired." Union contract would say you have to have eight hours between shifts. You could take off. But if you're a homicide detective that happens quite a bit, then you're not going to be any good to your unit, your teammates, if you're constantly taking off, because you don't have eight hours between shifts. Well, then you're going to be doing property crimes.
It's not a demotion, per se, you get paid the same amount of money, you're a detective, but it's almost... It's not required, but if you want to be on this elite unit, if you want to be doing this, then there's peer pressure. And then same thing with the cops. I've worked 20 hour days. I've worked more than 20 hour days. And then I had maybe an hour between... I started work at midnight, and I got done at 11 o'clock the next night.
James Blatch: Wow.
Patrick O’Donnell: And I worked straight through. And I slept in my car or I tried to take a nap in the locker room. And I went back to work and worked another eight to 10 hours.
James Blatch: Wow.
Patrick O’Donnell: But if you keep taking off after something like that, then people, A, they're going to think you're a little bit weak, and B, they're going to be like, "Well, now we're shorthanded." That's dangerous. You don't want to be shorthanded. And say somebody's working your car and they get hurt or God forbid something worse, how are you going to feel?
James Blatch: Yeah.
Patrick O’Donnell: So-
James Blatch: So you've had to balance this?
Patrick O’Donnell: Yes.
James Blatch: Which is the job of every police procedural writer.
Patrick O’Donnell: Right. I hope it works. We'll see, the ultimate judge is the buyers.
James Blatch: Yeah, exactly. Tell us what the books are called, and when are they out? I know we're going to try and release the interview to coincide with that.
Patrick O’Donnell: Yeah. Brew City Blues is the series and the first book is Field Training. Now, one of the things in this book that readers are going to see that's a little bit different than other police procedurals is, I get technical. The reason why this officer did this is because of X, Y, or Z. The reason why the detective can't interview this drunk guy is because he's drunk, he's intoxicated. It'll never hold up in court. That's another thing you see on TV. And it's like, "No, if this guy just got done boozing it up, he is on a 24 hour bender and he's so drunk, he could barely stand, off to your little cell you go, and you're going to sober up before I'm going to talk to you."
Because that will never fly in court. Yeah, you spoke with my defendant, he didn't even know what day it was, he was so drunk. That kind of thing. So I'm kind of putting the reader through a little mini field training of their own through all these stories. And of course,, there is a story, you have a main character, and one of the things with thrillers and all that, they kind of have this past that haunts them, that kind of thing. And that's going on as well. And his personal life, he's divorced and he is kind of getting back into the dating pool.
The second book is Probation. When you pass field training, that's 12 weeks. You're six weeks with one field training officer on a shift. I did my first six weeks on late shift, then I did my second six weeks with a different officer on early power, which was 11:00 in the morning until 7:00 PM. So same district, but different people, different hours, different shift. They want to mix it up for a new guy. And then after that you're on probation.
And the thing about probation is you're kind of walking around on eggshells, because it's really easy to fire you. You have a lot of protection or recourse while you're on probation. So the big thing was like, you're on probation. You got to make sure you're squared away, because if you do something even kind of bad or you make a huge mistake, it may not work out so great for you.
James Blatch: It's a low threshold.
Patrick O’Donnell: Yes, yes. It's a lot tougher to get rid of somebody that is off probation. Then there's certain protections that are in place. So the second book is Probation, and that's not as technical. My goal was is to also educate the reader. As we go along, and you're having fun reading this story, you're subliminally learning the jargon, you're learning the why's and how's and all that good stuff. And then, yeah, the first book is Field Training, second book is Probation, and the third book is Choir Practise.
James Blatch: Excellent.
Patrick O’Donnell: So the third book is going to get a little more into his personal life. Every book is going to have police stuff, there's going to be chases, there's going to foot chases, car chases, all kinds of good stuff, where I'm trying to be as realistic as possible and putting the reader behind the wheel of the squad car. And it's like, "Okay, this is how it feels." I'm trying to do my best with that.
And then just, "Okay, now you have a partner. What's the relationship with your partner?" In bigger cities, they still have, we call them two man cars or two person cars, where it's two police officers in a squad car. And that's usually in the roughest part of town, at night. And I had a partner, but that didn't mean you're always going to work with your partner. People are on vacation, people have babies, there's all kinds of stuff where life gets in the way, or you're going to be by yourself then, but you still have a partner.
So I kind of go over the evolution of the partner stuff and the choir practise stuff. I even throw a little bit of internet dating, some of the hiccups he's had along the way. Trying to have a little bit of a love life. And that part is funny.
James Blatch: Yes.
Patrick O’Donnell: I laughed out loud when I was-
James Blatch: Sounds good.
Patrick O’Donnell: ... writing that.
James Blatch: What is the release schedule?
Patrick O’Donnell: First book, Field Training, is November 18th, second book, Probation, is going to be released December 30th, and Choir Practise is going to be released, I think, mid-February.
James Blatch: Okay. How exciting for you?
Patrick O’Donnell: I can't thank Michael enough. This has been so much fun, and it's a huge opportunity to work with him and his team. It's like, "Okay, we need a book cover." "Yeah, we'll talk to the book cover designers."
James Blatch: Basically, they're big publishing empire, aren't they? In fact, I'm having dinner with him on Monday night. I mean, they're-
Patrick O’Donnell: Oh, are you?
James Blatch: Yep. They're a publishing company that invites people to have dinner with them. That's what sort of publishing company they are. So they have all that stuff, all the editors. You are the writer.
Patrick O’Donnell: Oh, yeah.
James Blatch: You're the writer, what a luxury.
Patrick O’Donnell: Yeah, it's amazing to me, because... But you're trying to navigate around, it's like, "who should I talk to about what?" And he does it well. And his staff, by far, is some of the nicest people I've ever dealt with. They're like, "Are you okay with that?" It's like, "We want to make you happy." And I'm just like, "Really?" And I'm not going to discuss terms or anything like that. But he was more than fair, and it's just been a real... Yeah, it's been awesome. I can't say-
James Blatch: Brilliant.
Patrick O’Donnell: ... enough things about it.
James Blatch: Well, I can't wait to see the books and wish you all the success with that. Now before we go, I do want to ask you a little bit about Jeffrey Dahmer, because we're all talking about him again. I was going to say he's raised his head, but that's not the worst thing to say about him, because of this series, this miniseries on TV. And you were a Milwaukee cop during that entire period, during this sort three or four years that he became active.
Patrick O’Donnell: Nope.
James Blatch: Oh, you weren't?
Patrick O’Donnell: I missed it.
James Blatch: Oh, you did.
Patrick O’Donnell: It missed it by-
James Blatch: Oh, I thought you were there.
Patrick O’Donnell: 1995 was when I started, and I think Dahmer was '92 or '93.
James Blatch: Oh, okay. But you knew the guys, right? So you were there, and the team.
Patrick O’Donnell: Oh, yeah, I knew the officer that found the head in the refrigerator. That's something you don't forget.
James Blatch: No. Next to the salad.
Patrick O’Donnell: Yeah. And what I find interesting about this Netflix series is, A, it's not a 100% factual. Some of it's not even close, but that's Hollywood. Don't watch that and think, oh, that's exactly how everything happened. No, it's not. But what I find interesting though is younger people are interested in this. One of my son's best friend's sister that goes to college by us, my wife and I took her out to eat a couple of weeks ago. She's a freshman, she doesn't know a lot of people. It's like, "Ah, let's take her out to eat."
So the first thing she asked me, she said, "Well, you were a Milwaukee cop, right?" And I'm like, "Yeah." "Did you know the Dahmer stuff?" And I'm like, "How do you know about Jeffrey Dahmer? You're like 19 years old." And she's like, "Oh, we're all watching it on Netflix. It's so cool." And one of her roommates was with her, he was like, "I can't believe this stuff." And I'm like, "You guys are interested in this?" Young people are. That I was surprised by.
James Blatch: Well, I think the series is well done. I take your point, of course, but always the case, where they'll deliberately get some stuff wrong, maybe accidentally as well. I thought the series, it started off where it was a little bit saggy in the middle, maybe like an Netflix series, but I thought the last four episodes or so were superb of that. And I thought they were pretty hard on the police. It was a bit black and white in terms of the way they portrayed that. And I wondered if you would react a little bit to that maybe, but...
Patrick O’Donnell: Well what's interesting about that is I know two out of the three officers that were fired initially, and I talked to them about the story, about what happened. So I'm getting it from the horse's mouth. The other officer that was fired went to a smaller town. They picked him up right away, and he stayed there and he retired out of there.
And the other two, what happened was the chief fired them without any kind of due process. You just can't fire cops, because we're in a position where you have to make decisions in a split second that will impact you and other people the rest of your life or the rest of their life. So there is some wiggle room that way, but they got caught up in the politics. And you got to be careful with that, because you should just be fair and do it the right way. I mean that's something I guess for life.
James Blatch: But it cost the chief's job, didn't it in the end?
Patrick O’Donnell: Not really.
James Blatch: No.
Patrick O’Donnell: The chief left towards the end and he was kind of a joke. He wasn't a very good chief, and he was more or less the mayor's puppet. Because a sheriff is an elected official, in the United States, a sheriff, there's an election and the people elect the sheriff. Now a police chief, especially in a big city, they're appointed by a fire and police commission or some entity like that. And the fire and police commission are more or less handpicked by the mayor. And if these people want to stay in the fire and the police commission-
James Blatch: They keep the mayor happy.
Patrick O’Donnell: ... they're going to do whatever the mayor tells them to do. So it's the dirty world of politics, that's for sure. And the mayor was outraged, because his constituents were outraged. So let's get rid of these guys. Long story short, they didn't do it the right way. The cops sued, they won. They got their jobs back with back pay and a huge settlement, cost the city a lot of money. And the mayor was run out on a rail more or less.
James Blatch: Yeah. Well, I knew you'd have something to say, because you were with those people. I just wanted to ask you about that. And by the way, I think you should go for sheriff, I can see you as a sheriff. When you said you think about moving south, you go to a southern town and Nevada or California, you could be a western town sheriff.
Patrick O’Donnell: Well, I've ridden horses before, and I was thrown from one once. So-
James Blatch: You're not doing that again. Well, when you're sheriff-
Patrick O’Donnell: No, I like horses, but-
James Blatch: When you're sheriff, you can ask a sergeant to ride the horses for you.
Patrick O’Donnell: Yeah, or I'll just stay in the squad car. That's fine.
James Blatch: I can see you with that silver badge. Look, Patrick, we've run out time. It's been brilliant talking to you. Thank you so much, indeed, for coming on. Really, fingers crossed for the release. I so look-
Patrick O’Donnell: Thank you.
James Blatch: ... forward to see them out in the world. And I'm so happy for this, being you're somebody who contributes a lot I think to the indie community, and to suddenly see you as a writer in the stable of LMBPN, I can remember the name of Michael's company, is amazing, actually. Quite surprised, so I'm excited for you.
Patrick O’Donnell: Yeah, we'll see what happens. I hope they sell well. It's like that's a little extra pressure, because you want to do well for somebody-
James Blatch: Yes.
Patrick O’Donnell: ... that's giving-
James Blatch: Different from-
Patrick O’Donnell: ... you a chance. It's like-
James Blatch: Hard on yourself. Yeah.
Patrick O’Donnell: Exactly. Exactly. I just want-
James Blatch: You're really fun.
Patrick O’Donnell: ... to say thank you for having me on the show. It's always so much fun talking to you, James.
James Blatch: Hey, and we'll have a beer next week. You can tell me-
Patrick O’Donnell: Yes, we well.
James Blatch: ... all secrets and the stuff next week.
Patrick O’Donnell: Yes, I will.
James Blatch: All right, thanks, Patrick.
Patrick O’Donnell: All right, thank you so much.
Speaker 1: This is The Self Publishing Show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: There we go, there is Patrick O’Donnelll, my friend for Milwaukee. And we caught up with Patrick, funny enough, we recorded an interview with John Logsdon and then we recorded the wrap in Vegas. But we'll just record the top and tail in Vegas, which you saw last week. And after we finished it, John Logsdon walked up to us. Well, Patrick O’Donnelll was also there at 20Books in Vegas. So it was nice to catch up with Patrick. I didn't see enough of him actually. We had a tremendously busy week. But nonetheless, he's a great person to have in our community.
I think somebody the real deal, you can tell from just the stories you hear from Patrick about what he's done. You get some very authentic sense of what it was like to be a policeman on the beat, which might be important for your writing even if you don't write piece procedurals. We have a bit of cops in most of our stories, don't we? One way and another, even if they're space cops.
Well, very good luck to Patrick and his books with Michael Anderle's Publishing Empire. It was good to catch up with Michael and Judith, of course, in 20Books as well. That's it for this week for just me. Hope it was all right. Mark, I'm sure will be fully fit and back and fighting at fighting weight for next week's podcast. But until then, all that remains me to say is goodbye from me. And that's it.
Speaker 1: Get show notes, the podcast archive, and free resources to boost your writing career at selfpublishingshow.com. Join our thriving Facebook group at selfpublishingshow.com/facebook. Support the show at patreon.com/selfpublishingshow. And join us next week for more help and inspiration so that you can make your mark as a successful indie author. Publishing is changing, so get your words into the world and join the revolution with The Self Publishing Show.
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