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Talking with TC – Tim Cotton discusses 'The Detective in the Dooryard'

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BANGOR – To think that it all started with a Facebook page.

Odds are good that if you live in or around these parts, you’re familiar with the work of Tim Cotton of the Bangor Police Department. You might not necessarily know it, but you are.

Cotton – or TC, as he often identifies himself – is the driving force behind the social media phenomenon that is the Bangor PD Facebook page. Over the course of a few years, Cotton built the page’s following into a genuine grassroots juggernaut, with literally hundreds of thousands of people checking in to see what TC had to say.

The page’s success hinged on TC’s unusual approach to social media. He eschewed every bit of conventional wisdom with regards to building a page’s profile. They say you should always have pictures; TC rarely includes them. They say you should keep posts short and sweet; TC stops when he’s finished and not a word before.

And yet – it works. It probably shouldn’t, but it does.

It works because Cotton brings a consistent collegiality to the proceedings. He has a self-deprecating sense of humor that manages to carry a little bit of snark without ever becoming mean-spirited – no easy feat. He is someone who is passionate about his work and his community – a passion that carries through everything that he writes. There’s nothing disingenuous here; everything comes from a place of honesty.

But now, it seems that he has written something a good deal longer than even his longest Facebook post – a book.

Cotton’s new book is titled “The Detective in the Dooryard,” published by Down East Books. It’s a collection of short pieces that do a wonderful job in encapsulating the TC experience. It is packed with the same genial storytelling that made the Facebook page such a success.

(It’s worth noting that the book is proving wildly popular. Be sure to reach out to your local bookstore to place an order if you haven’t been lucky enough to land your copy already.)

As you might imagine, TC’s a pretty busy guy right now, what with a book hitting shelves added to his duties with the Bangor PD. And yet, despite all of that, he was generous enough to take the time to answer a few questions The Maine Edge sent his way. He discusses how the book came about and what his process is like, as well as the people and ideas that influenced him as a writer. 

(Check out our full review of the book here.)

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What made you decide to write a book? How did the idea come about? 

I never had a plan to write a book. During the time—writing the BPD page—several publishers reached out to me and inquired if I would consider it. Over the course of a couple of years, three different publishing houses reached out, but for a myriad of reasons, we couldn't come to an agreement on the topic. I told them that I wrote short stories--mostly, and I was told that short stories (essays) wouldn't sell in book form. I had no choice but to believe them. Certainly, I don't think I know better. A couple of them were interested more in a longer fiction book, novella, novel, or whatever. I am working on one, and, while I like it, it certainly was not ready for publication. 

One editor from a fairly large New York house really sounded seriously interested in collecting a series (like this one) and was taking the idea to the powers that be. She made her proposal, and then never called me back. It is possible that she was fired when she brought forth the idea of publishing a Maine cop who writes primarily on Facebook. I am still interested in the rest of the story, but she disappeared. I knew this didn't bode well for my writing career. 

Michael Steere from Down East Publishing called me a couple of times, he told me that he liked what I was currently doing and felt that a book of old posts, new stories, some “Got Warrants” and whatever else I could throw into the book would be acceptable. We had coffee at Bagel Central, he was low key, and I knew I could work with him. He's been great, I think he had to sell it to his bosses, too. Somehow, they bought the idea. Here we are.

How long did it take for the book to come together? What was the timeline from conception to publication? And where did the title come from? 

It took me about a year to collect, write new things, and select the best of the Got Warrants series. This is but a small part of what I shared. There is much still on the hard drive. I think we shook hands in June of 2019, I had everything sent to Michael by December of 2019. Melody Blake of the BPD front desk was a proofreader (professionally) in her former life. She helped me tune some of my writing up. She was a big help as I prepared to send it all in for the final drafts. Both Michael and Melody knew I had a penchant for run-on sentences, crazy analogies, and other strange stylistic traits. Both of them left that stuff alone. I have no intention of changing how I write, they both knew that. They were more like damage control specialists; they kept me from getting too sloppy. 

The title was a collaboration with Michael Steere. I would say that was our most contentious issue. He had his ideas, I had mine. I had a really cool title all picked out, he told me to try that one with my next book. He was firm, but fair. After that, I held firm with placing the word “dooryard” in the title. He didn't like it; he felt it would be difficult for people outside of New England to understand. I felt is was a good time to make sure people did understand the word. We finally agreed on the Detective in the Dooryard-Reflections of a Maine Cop. I didn't want the last part, but he did. The title was born.

I was still in detectives at the time of the book contract, but I have moved out of that role and transferred to the BPD Services Division. It was time to give up the on-call and move to a role where I would have more time to go to camp, spend time with my granddaughter, and write more when I can. 

In what ways did the work on the Bangor PD Facebook page help you develop as a writer?

I have written that page for six years, every single day. I write from home, before work. Usually between 0400 to 0530. When you write every single day of the week you definitely put some words through the machine. People came to expect something, and I put a lot of pressure on myself to provide some information, entertainment, and share the stories from a police perspective. We have had some really great success. Chief Hathaway has been supportive, and he sees the benefit of an outreach through the Facebook machine.

Do you ever struggle to find the proper balance with regards to tone (i.e. keeping things light versus taking things seriously)?

No, I don't struggle with it. People that follow our page are very loyal and have spent enough time with us that they know when I use a little sarcasm, and much hyperbole. I also don't make fun of suspects, I don't even run photos of suspects. I use words to convey our message, and it works. It's a lot of work, but it does work. People don't come to the PD page for videos, memes, and lip-sync contests. We don't do them. It's a writing-centric page and will stay that way until the next administrator comes along; they can do whatever they want at that time. 

The importance of listening is a recurring theme for you. How have your listening skills impacted your written work?

To be a good investigator, you need to learn to listen intently to the delivery of information. Sometimes people are lying. I know – it's a shocker. But how someone speaks to you (mannerisms, body language, etc.) is at least as important as the words that come out of their mouth. You cannot ask good follow-up questions if you are too busy thinking of what you are going to say next. People do not feel valued if you don't take some time to hear their side of a story. I like the stories people tell me. 

What sorts of skills from your previous career in radio have translated to your writing?

When you are tasked with filling four hours of a radio show with witticisms, analogies, stories, and the weather, you had better be reading, and I mean reading everything you can get your hands on. Reading makes a better writer, there is no question about that. When I teach officers how to interview a witness, suspect, or a victim I always tell them to try to be well-read, even reading things that they have no interest in. You never know when a connection can be made with someone, and it might be something that you picked up from looking through Vogue in the waiting room at the physician's office. Some men might feel silly perusing a women's magazine in public, but I don't.

You have to find commonalities with other people, one way you can do that is read things that allow you to hold a reasonable conversation with someone who is not like you in any way. I cannot tell you how many times I have been able to go back in my mind and retrieve a tidbit that actually made a difference in building rapport with a suspect. Radio also gave me the ability to talk, for hours, about nothing in particular. It was the best training I ever had to be a better conversationalist, and in turn, that makes you a better cop. Probably a better writer, too. 

You mention a few of your influences in the book. Could you share some thoughts on those influences (and any others) and how they have impacted you?

My grandmother (mentioned in the book) cut out all Erma Bombeck's columns from the Lewiston Sun Journal back in the early ‘70s. She would send them to me. She knew I liked humor, and humorous writing. She gave me a subscription to Reader's Digest around the same time. I used to go to the Mr. Paperback store in the old Sunbury Mall in downtown Bangor. I would read humor books for hours. Art Buchwald, PJ O'Rourke, Patrick McManus, Erma Bombeck, and all the joke books. The clerks never kicked me out, I was always amazed. I had no money for humor books at 11 and 12 years of age. I loved reading Mad Magazine, and Life, Time, Newsweek, even as a kid.  Not a very exciting story, but I am not a very exciting guy.  

Humor is obviously a big deal to you. Who makes you laugh?

Oh my, Jerry Seinfeld; I love his series on Netflix “Comedians in Cars getting Coffee.” To me, Jerry Seinfeld is a genius in the broad use of sarcastic humor, and he is one heck of an interviewer of other comedians. I like Jim Gaffigan, I loved George Carlin, Cheech and Chong, and I think Brian Regan is probably the finest example of the kind of humor that I enjoy. I went to see Tim Allen in Vegas a couple of years ago - that man can tell a story; he's just fantastic. 

What is your writing process like? Do you keep a strict schedule or have a dedicated space?

I come up with ideas while I am driving. I make notes to myself, think of songs that can be incorporated into the writing, nothing amazing. My best stuff comes to me when I just start typing a story. Usually I begin on one theme and find that the piece has taken a drastic turn from the original idea. Most of what I consider my best stuff comes that way. I tend to delete the first three paragraphs of everything. But I save them in a note program because there is always something that can be used later. 

What does it mean to you to be able to share these stories? Do you ever cross paths with people after you’ve shared their stories? How do they generally react?

I focus on making any story have a more positive twist at the end. I do run into people who I have shared on the page, and I don't think I have ever had one of them become upset. I hold back a lot of information that could potentially bring embarrassment to someone. I don't want to hurt people, and that's one reason why I don't run photos of suspects on our page. I would only do it in a case where the outcome could be dire if I did not share it. I do that because there are people on Facebook who make horrific comments about the appearance of other people. I am sensitive to that, for a lot of reasons. Hatefulness is very rampant on Facebook, and I don't want to be involved. Things can go south in social media. I think it is far more of a curse, than it is a blessing. 

How do you think a book like this potentially impacts the way you and your fellow law enforcement officers are viewed by the general public?

I hope that it sheds a little light on what we are doing. I don't say “It humanizes officers” because we were human before, during, and after our careers as cops. It's a silly thing to say. Of course we are human. I am constantly messaged about how people feel that we have created a positive image for law enforcement. I am proud that I could be part of it. It wouldn't have been possible without the officers being willing participants in the humorous stories we have shared. Most of them don't mind, some do, and I don't ever mention them if I know that it isn't something they want to be part of. 

What recommendations would you make to people hoping to become writers?

Read, read, read. Vogue, Chaucer, Popular Mechanics, Erma Bombeck, anything; just read. And, secondly, write. Write stories, run-on sentences, short fiction, essays, position papers, book reports, and then read some more. Stay away from angry grammarians. Happy and helpful grammarians are a gift, and there are many out there. I have received some of my best feedback from teachers. Real teachers want to help, and there are so many that have been both critical, and complimentary of my style, sometimes in the same sentence. All of them have remarked that “voice” is the hardest thing to teach (or learn). I have never had trouble with “voice” because I am pretty comfortable writing to find the pleasure in it. I do it for me, and I think we need to write for ourselves, first. If what you write makes you happy, why would you let someone else determine that it's not acceptable? Sure, you might never be published; do it because it makes you happy. Trust me, none of my teachers ever thought for a moment that I would have published a book, or become a cop. That's what I call a twofer. 

What’s the one thing you most want readers to take away from this book?

Slow down, pay attention, listen, appreciate, smell the pine pitch, go swimming, enjoy your friends, be kind, stop talking about politics ALL THE TIME. Skip shaving on the weekends, buy some comfortable boots, dress up if you want, wear shorts to church. We worry too much about what people think of us. Give them a reason to question your sanity. Be really nice to people who are really mad at you; it's magic. Apologize when you need to, and forgive people because life is short. Oh, and buy the book, even if it's just to annoy an angry grammarian.

Last modified on Wednesday, 15 July 2020 11:06

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