Willing suspension of disbelief is a term coined in 1817 by the poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that if a writer could infuse a “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgement concerning the implausibility of the narrative.
Every fiction writer must wrestle with this at some time. The worlds we create are products of our imagination with a little fact thrown in.
The main facet of suspension of disbelief: Could this happen, really?
Something that I see in my genre (police procedural/thriller/mystery) so often is multiple officer involved shootings (OIS’s) several times a shift or day or week. Officers never seem to go on Administrative Leave ever. Administrative Leave is a temporary leave from a job or assignment, with pay and benefits intact. Officers are routinely placed on administrative leave after a shooting incident while an investigation is conducted (sometimes by an outside agency for impartiality), without implying fault on the part of the officer.
My husband, the retired firefighter, cries foul when a vehicle is involved in a crash and subsequent explosion (this doesn’t include when the plot specifies an incendiary device was aboard). What typically happens is this: cars don’t explode on impact. If they catch fire, it often due to fuel leaking to an ignition source (such as an overheated catalytic converter).
Cops and fire fighters are readers and know when something just ain’t right. But when you include a feasible ignition source in that Impala that collides with a tree—then you have the “well, it could happen” moment.
Another part of suspension of disbelief involves the premise of my first novel. By Force or Fear’s protagonist is a female detective being stalked by a cunning judge. Her superiors don’t believe her when she reports him. In this day of #MeToo, I seriously doubt any responsible administrator would discount the report. But it could happen, right? That’s suspension of disbelief.
The key to making the preposterous believable is to sow seeds of reasonability into the story (foreshadowing) ahead of time or during the event. For instance, an observer of the car crash might see the fallen tiki torch next to the tree or the officer may be the last officer (think a department-wide epidemic with no mutual aid officers available within the day—hey, it’s a stretch but it could happen, right?). Sometimes a scientific explanation after the event can work but that can be dicey. Balance this with authenticity.
The trick to all of this is to make your devices (and plot twists) believable. Do your research, online and on the ground. Talk to police officers, fire fighters, professors, whoever you need to get the scoop. After talking to these folks, you may find that the truth is less believable than fiction!
October 12th will feature D.R. Ransdell’s take on this topic. On October 19th, an interview with Rita Lakin who dishes on the hard-to-believe-it-but-they’re-true stories with her Getting Older is Murder series. Niles Reddick winds up the month on October 26th with writing about differences.
You’ll be glad you checked them all out! Don’t forget to read Hal Collier (Ramblings), Ed Meckle (The Call Box), Mikey (Roll Call) and others on Just the Facts, Ma’am to find out how much stranger truth can be than fiction!
The following stories are true and can be verified by more than a dozen people who have no ambitions to run for political office. You know, politicians can’t be trusted to tell the truth. As usual, I’ll only use first names and all incidents are true to the best of my fading memory.
My last Ramblings dealt with the first day of the L.A. Riots. The L.A.P.D. was mobilized, which means all days off are cancelled and everyone works 12 hour shifts. That’s 12 hours on the clock, it doesn’t count travel time to and from work, putting on your uniform. I worked 13 straight 12 hour days. I was one of the lucky ones. I had a wife who cooked, did the shopping, banking, took my uniforms to the cleaners and acted as an alarm clock when I wanted to hit the snooze button. After about the fifth day your body gets into a rhythm. After the 13th day they gave me one day off. It screwed up my rhythm and I couldn’t do anything but sleep.
Ok, back to the riots. The first day, I was relieved at 7 P.M. and told to go home. I had to be back at 6 A.M. I wasn’t working at night but the following was told to me by officers who worked nights. The Department set up a huge command post in south central L.A. 52nd and Arlington, if memory serves me correctly. They sent a large number of officers from the night shift of each patrol division to report to the command post. RTD (Rapid Transit District) bussed them to the command post. Hollywood officers then spent the whole night sitting at the command post. Nothing irritates a cop more than sitting, when there’s crime happening.
They were being held in reserve, for what, only the department command staff knew. At the end of their shift they were bussed back to Hollywood. These cops were angry, they weren’t hired to sit while the city burned. The RTD bus was N/B on Vine Street at Lexington. Amatron, a large electronics store was being looted. A supervisor halted the bus and said, “Let’s go.” Can you imagine the surprise of the looters, when 60 cops get off a RTD bus and with blood in their eyes and charged into them?
The next night as the bus was being loaded, our Captain, an old timer, saw the flames of burning buildings on Hollywood Boulevard, ordered the officers off the bus and told the officers, “Well, save Hollywood first.” That’s leadership.
After a few days, the National Guard was called in and some order was restored. One citizen tried to run a National Guard roadblock, he was shot in the ass. I guess the National Guard doesn’t care about the L.A. Times opinion.
The Calif. Highway Patrol (CHP) had been doing escort duty for the fire department. Yea, even the firemen, the good guys, were targets. After the third day, the CHP left and I was assigned to escort the fire department. Two police cars were assigned to a fire station for the whole shift. Whenever the paramedics left the station, one of the police cars went with them, even if it was for lunch. I followed a paramedic truck to Pink’s for lunch, then spent an hour as they cruised Melrose looking at girls. It beat being shoed. The other police car went with the engine truck. I discovered that when following a fire truck code 3, lights and siren, the cars that do pull over, pull right back out when the truck passes. I almost got hit four times in three days.
Most cops know that the firemen have nice break rooms with aircraft seats, not the small ones found in coach, but the big oversized recliners. They have a large screen TV with surround sound. They also have a fully equipped workout room. These are all paid for by the firemen through their own station fund. Although this was easy duty, it was boring as hell. I took a book the second day. I was assigned to fire station #27. It was an old building, built in the 20’s. It had fire poles where you could go from the second floor to the first in seconds. Yea, I tried it once. If you land too hard you get your knees shoved up into your neck. Fire Station #27 is a Battalion Station. A battalion is 2 Engine trucks, a Hook and Ladder, 2 Paramedic trucks, a Hazmat truck and a Battalion Chief. That’s as big as it gets.
If you know firemen, you knoq they don’t just sit around waiting for a fire or medical emergency. They take a perfectly good wood ladder, strip it down, sand it, then re-varnish it. They wash the underside of their fire trucks and wax everything that doesn’t move. Ok, I’m sitting around the break room, killing time. The firemen are always pulling the trucks in and out the doors for washing. About mid-day Keith, calls out to me on the radio.
“Hey Hal, they’re all gone”.
I ask, “Who?”
Keith says, “The whole battalion, they’re gone.”
I ran downstairs and sure enough, we’ve lost a whole fire battalion. How am I going to explain losing seven fire trucks including a hook and ladder truck? This won’t go well when I take a promotional oral. I know they didn’t get called out, because I’ve learned the bell and buzz sounds signaling a call for Station #27. Remember the TV show Emergency? After a few frantic moments, I found out they went to another fire station for lunch.
The following story is true. I didn’t change the names because I never knew their names. If you remember, I spent most of my career at Hollywood Division.
Right behind Hollywood Police Station was Los Angeles Fire Station # 27. Fire station #27 is a battalion station, which means it has 2 engine trucks, a hook and ladder truck, 2 paramedic trucks, a haz-mat truck and a battalion chief. That’s as big as it gets in the inner city. I once heard that #27 was the busiest fire station in the world.
Remember Hollywood never sleeps. I use the term firemen because I’m not sure what’s the politically correct name for firepersons. No offense intended, I’m just a dinosaur.
Police officers and firemen are brothers in arms. When a policeman gets shot or hurt, it’s a fireman who saves his life. Our pay, benefit and contracts with the city, are usually fought together. Our pensions are similar but most important we have the same views of dirt bags and celebrities.
Firemen have taught me valuable lessons in life. If you’re at a fire, conducting crowd or traffic control and a fireman drops his fire hose and runs, try to keep up with him. If it’s a big fire and their cantina lunch truck shows up, it’s your lucky day. Firemen eat good.
Recently, there was big news about an L.A City fireman who sued his department because he said he was discriminated against, because he was black. He was fed dog food as a practical joke, because he claimed he was the “Big Dog”. After a civil trial he was awarded 1.5 million. During the trial he admitted he participated in practical jokes against other firemen. Firemen and police officers have been playing practical jokes since the earth cooled. I have some first-hand knowledge with firemen and their practical jokes.
The first incident I was not involved in but learned from other officers. There’s a fire station on Mulholland Drive near Laurel Canyon. It’s a small station and not that busy. A Hollywood Senior Lead Officer was known to frequent the station house and play ping pong with the firemen. He was usually accompanied by a rookie officer and showed up around lunch. The firemen would welcome the rookie into the fire station and usher the rookie into a seat at a table. The seat was rigged with a small waterline that would squirt water onto the crotch of whoever was sitting at the table. Your tax dollars at work!
The next incident involved a homeless man living in the hills in the Cahuenga Pass. He was preparing his dinner, BBQ pigeon over an open fire. A resident called the fire department, concerned about a brush fire. Fireman are fun loving people until you mess with them about fire. The homeless man was quite a ways up the hill and it was a hot day. The fire department has those water dropping helicopters and one just happened to be in the area. The helicopter told the homeless man over his loud speaker to put out the fire. Homeless are not your touchy-feely sort of people and generally men of few words. The homeless man gave the helicopter the one finger wave.
The helicopter again warned the man to put out his fire. The homeless man gave a two finger wave this time, one finger on each hand. The helicopter dropped thousands of gallons of water on the man and his camp. Fire out, campground closed due to flooding.
Have you ever noticed that all fire trucks have big numbers on them? Those numbers indicate which station the fire truck comes from. #27 comes from fire station 27, etc. Now, I spent a lot of time conducting traffic control at fires. See, firemen park anywhere they need to fight the fire. I understood that, but what bothered me was that it took them longer to pick up their hoses and clear the streets than to fight the fire. Sometimes they would stand around and BS with a friend from another station. I couldn’t leave until they did. Back to those numbers, they are metallic. You can change 27 to read 72 or put them upside down or sideways if you wish. Just don’t get caught. Firemen are obsessive about of their equipment.
I was walking past the rear gate to FD #27 one day and saw a firemen lying on his back. He was washing the underside of the fire truck. I guessed that only an unfortunate pedestrian would notice and remark, “Wow, the underside of that fire truck is clean.” I envy firemen’s equipment. I had to bribe our garage attendants to wash my police car once a month.
If the above seemed juvenile, let me tell you about the fishing pole. The new #27 fire station was a two story beauty right behind the back door to the police station. On warm summer evenings the firemen would sit up on the roof, smoking expensive cigars and watching the coming and goings of police officers. They especially liked nights when we ran prostitution task forces. They would sit up there with binoculars watching the girls as they were marched through the back door in their skimpy outfits.
OK, back to the fishing pole. There was a 10 foot wall that separated the police station from the fire station. On the police side, we had a carport and a narrow driveway. The firemen would tie a 3 inch rat-looking piece of material to the end of the line. They would then cast it over the wall between parked police cars and wait. When an unsuspecting officer walked toward the back door they would reel in the line until the rat ran across the officer’s feet. As the officer jumped around and sometimes screaming the firemen would burst out in laughter. They particularly liked female officers. They screamed the loudest and had the best moves.
Another variation was tying a $5 bill to the fishing line and when an officer attempted to pick up the bill they would reel it away. I once watched a young officer chase that $5 bill for 30 feet, 1 foot at a time. I made it a practice to check the roof top of the fire station when entering the police station parking lot.
And you thought I was slow. Again, your tax dollars at work.
As you saw at the beginning of this story, not all practical jokes turn out good. One night Fire Station #27 was assigned two female paramedics. They were classmates and it was their first shift together. It was during the midnight to dawn shift that they got bored. They were driving around Hollywood and spotted two Hollywood officers parked. They thought it would be fun to throw water balloons at the officers. Instead of balloons they threw saline IV bags. Everyone laughed and drove off in different directions. Only, the officers wanted revenge.
The officers contacted their Sergeant. A dozen eggs were bought and a deserted parking lot was found. A request for an ambulance was made and the two female paramedics arrived. Ok. Eggs were thrown and everyone agreed that payback was a bitch. At 3 A.M., the paramedics drove back to the station and began washing the ambulance. Unfortunately, the Battalion Chief woke up and wanted an investigation. The female paramedics admitted their guilt and were punished. The involved officers were never identified. Before any of my former partners check the statute of limitations, I was working that night but wasn’t there.
I love firemen, just like my fellow officers. Were different but very much the same. Police officers will run to gunfire but won’t go near a burning building.
In future stories, I will discuss the 3 days I spent with firemen during the riots. Yea, I said riots, I was there and trust me it wasn’t civil unrest!