Good writing not a mystery in novel class Fiction: Aspiring authors of suspense stories study a 'slaying' at a college workshop, where legal experts share their knowledge.

October 05, 1997|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

The scene was gruesome. Blood covered the kitchen floor and walls and a trail of red marked the direction in which the victim was dragged.

And swarming around the room was a homicide detective's worst nightmare: more than two dozen aspiring writers and potential sleuths taking notes for a novel.

The blood was fake, there was no victim and the room was PTC re-creation of a domestic stabbing-strangling that took place some time ago.

Friday's murder scene was the brainchild of instructors at Anne Arundel Community College's Writers' Workshop, a 5-year-old continuing-education program that works with aspiring and advanced novelists.

In the all-day Crime and Punishment workshop at the Arnold campus, writers paid $80 each to learn from local police detectives, forensics experts and a former circuit judge the secrets of investigating crimes and prosecuting criminals. It was all for the sake of accuracy, said Mary Bargteil, an author and lead instructor of the workshop.

"We've gotten a lot of interest in this class," Bargteil said. "This field of writing has grown tremendously in the market. Everyone's writing a script or a book. These days, though, the public has become very savvy from watching television shows like 'NYPD Blue.'

"The minute you make a mistake, they pick it up and you lose your credibility with the reader," Bargteil said.

She added that the simulated crime scene helps writers understand what happens behind the scenes.

Participants walked through the scene, taking notes with a forensic specialist, then saw slides of the murder on which the simulated crime was based, Bargteil said.

As if it were an actual case, participants ran into incorrect information, dead ends and reluctant witnesses.

Unlike in a real case, undercover detectives and specialists stood by to help writers uncover clues, collect evidence and interview witnesses.

How does a criminal think? What's the motive? Where are the witnesses? What's legal? What's not?

In the second part of the day, writers tackled those questions with the help of Lt. Chuck Mounts, a 17-year member of the county police force who is an author, and Warren B. Duckett Jr., a former county circuit judge.

Duckett, also a former Anne Arundel County state's attorney, spoke about the use of confessions in a 1975 case he prosecuted involving a robbery and shooting at an Annapolis dry-cleaning store. The case, in which a teen-age clerk was shot in the neck by a robber, took several years and three trials before a conviction was obtained, Duckett recalled.

"It would make a great book," Duckett said of the 1975 case. "I wouldn't mind writing it myself."

Duckett, a mystery fan who is reading James Patterson's "Kiss the Girls," plans to stick around for the second part of the workshop, during which two authors will offer tips.

Stephen Hunter, a fiction writer and former Sun movie critic, and Kelsey Roberts, a romantic intrigue author, will be the workshop's next guests, in February.

Information: 410-541-2325.

Pub Date: 10/05/97

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