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Writer on Patrol

Get A Clue Mystery Club

Schuler’s Books

Okemos, Michigan

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A couple of months back Bill Castanier asked me a question that brought me up short. He wanted to know the scariest or most extreme situation I had encountered when out with the DNR.

My kin in Mississippi would have asked if there’d been a time when a situation got me shakin’ like a cat tryin’ to shit a peach seed. Bill is too ed-a-cated for down-south tawk.

The truth is that tight situations develop so quickly that they rarely create a fear or fright reaction while you’re in them. The shakes usually come a lot later – after you have had some time to think about ways it could have veered south and led to nasty results.

This is my ninth year of having the distinct privilege of riding along with COs on patrols and over this time I’ve put in between 250 and 300 days, which is a lot. Most patrols last 8-10 hours, a few up to 18 hours, and some half-days – 4-5 hours.  These usually happen when I arrive somewhere early and am not scheduled, but I call my partner and he or she asks, “Hey wanna go now?”

Tomorrow, for example, I’m going out with one of our local COs to show him some items in an arboretum that may or may not be illegal stuff. I just don’t know, but it looked suspicious and I didn’t bother to open anything. Just took pictures and moved on.

Last November I worked 18 days with 14 different officers above and below the bridge. Over the years I’ve patrolled in all 15 UP counties and 24 counties in the Lower Peninsula, most of these around my home area, here, and the northeast state between Tawas and Oscoda.

I’ve ridden solo with 28 different officers, their service varying from a week, to 25 years.  One year I had a lieutenant ask me to show his new officer “around” because, “You know the country pretty well.” So I did, and I think my partner wrote six tickets, his very first day of his very first deer season. That’s a good memory.

I’ve also done group patrols with another 27 officers and had information contacts with 91 other DNR personnel, from retired chiefs to on-duty biologists. That adds up to 146 people over nine years, which is a pretty fair sampling of the department over time.

Some officers and their families have become good friends.

When I do patrols in my home area, I come home at night. Anywhere else in the state I stay in hotels for 3 to 14 days, depending on my schedule.

Sometimes I operate out of the hotels, but I also have stayed with officers and their families in their homes. This sort of exposure gives me a great feel for the dynamic between officers, spouses and kids. And friends form as a result. One time I was sitting at breakfast with an officer’s wife and their two kids, 7 and 9 and the youngest, a girl named Anna, looked at her mother and said, “Can we keep him?”

It was a very high compliment.

Not all of the officers I have ridden with have read my books, but most of them generally seem to be aware of who I am and what I do. I think most of them are pretty positive about the Woods Cop mysteries.

With the privilege of doing this, comes serious responsibilities as well.

From past meetings I think you know I do not like reading my books out loud and I’m not much for pounding my own literary drum, so tonight I’d like to talk briefly about some of what this writer does when he’s on patrol with conservation officers, and how. Later I’ll answer questions.

First of all, a lot of the skills I now use were established in journalism school at MSU: These include: building networks of sources and trust with individuals, both things fiction writers must learn to do as effectively and surely as journalists.

I’m pretty good at digging around to find out who does what, and how they do it.

I also know how to prepare myself for interviews and once I go face-to-face, I ask pretty good questions. I also know how to “read” sources and whether I can record them or make notes, of it would be better to just keep things in my head.

When I’m out on patrol, I take no detailed notes. I may, after a contact or event, scribble a few words in a small notebook simply to aid my memory. But that’s it. When I get back to my room at night, I pull up the memories and write down as much as possible to help me remember later.

I use my camera, but never take facial photos of suspects or the guilty. I only take photos of officers if they agree to it. Mostly I use the photos to assist my memory. And I use them as a basis for some of my paintings.

When I get into a truck for the first time with an officer, I have a little speech that I give, and it goes like this: “Thanks for letting me ride along. I’m nonessential cargo and I’m here strictly to observe.  I do not want to limit what you do in any way. Just do your job the way you usually do it.  Don’t do anything special because I’m here. If we have a day with no contacts at all, I will still learn all sorts of useful things from you, so just go about your job the way you always do. If you feel like you need to dump me out before going into a situation, do it. If you want me to do something for you, tell me and I’ll do it. If you don’t mind, I will ask you at various times what is running through your mind because I want my character to apply the same sort of evaluative and decision-making processes you and your colleagues use.”

So far, I haven’t been dumped out. Often I’ve asked myself, “What the hell am I doing here?’

And, my partners have always answered my questions candidly and without much hesitation.

This said, I don’t fool myself into thinking I am creating a big-eye view of DNR law enforcement. What I show is woods-copping through a soda straw, the same thing my main character sees and experiences, day in and day out. My books are about officers’ lives and the grander issues only as they affect the officers. You will get no macro-vision in the mysteries. They are all about the small things that comprise their professional and personal lives.

I knew going into this that trust would be critical. Officers needed to know I would not start shaking like that cat referred to earlier, that I would do as asked, and that I could keep up physically and keep my mouth shut. And when it came to writing, that I would deal with facts and not reveal any organizational or trade secrets. I talk about some professional techniques and procedures to give the books a feel of authenticity, but there are many things I do not talk about or ever refer to.

And, while I don’t know how valid it is in this case, if at all, I am aware that Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is sometimes applied to various situations by social scientists. That is, does the mere act of observing inherently alter the phenomenon? I don’t know the answer, but I am aware that my being there could alter things and this is the reason I make my little spiel as soon as I get settled in the truck. I want things to be and proceed as normally as possible – assuming normal is definable.

While I think of myself as a novelist after I’m on patrol, in the truck  I think more like a reporter on a beat assignment. In fact I have built my contacts over the years in the same way a reporter creates and services a beat, one step at a time, networking continuously.

After the first Woods Cop book was published, the door began to open wider.

I have worked most of the seasons and tasks that interest me. No snowmobiles, no ATVs.

I’ve done only a few Great Lake marine patrols, and have numerous standing invites for all the Great Lakes and Isle Royale patrols, which I politely decline. My CO pals LOVE Isle Royale. I’ve done lots of inland lake marine patrols. Reality is, I just don’t care for boats, or big lakes, unless I’m rock-hounding the beaches. I joined the Air Force, not the damn Navy.

My partner always gives me an extra truck key in case we get separated, which sometimes happens, and we go through emergency procedures: where weapons are, what’s in them, how to get at them, how to use the panic button on the Automatic Vehicle Locator, how to work all the radios, and sirens and emergency flashers, etc. I go through this stuff every time. A checklist is a checklist. Sometimes I drop the officer at a certain spot and arrange to pick him up at another spot. I then drive the patrol truck to that spot and wait for him to show. Sometimes he doesn’t and he calls on the radio and vectors me in to find him, usually with all sorts of perps and suspects being detained.

While patrols usually turn out to be uneventful, a patrol is always a high-focus, high concentration, lingering stress activity that can blow up at any moment. I never forget this basic reality.

From various phases of my writing life, I have developed a baker’s dozen of informal rules of engagement for myself, which I haven’t altered in going on a decade. Here they are:

One: Do nothing to mess up the mission. Put another way: Don’t get in the way.

Two: Always stay calm. Don’t do anything stupid and never show fear.

Three: If I don’t understand something, ask questions before we get into the real thing.

Four: In a contact, take my lead in tone and attitude from my partner.

Five: Do what I’m told, when I’m told.

Six: Report to my partner what I am seeing or feeling. Pull him or her aside before I tell him anything. Always use a whisper or soft voice when relating information.

Seven: Watch my partner’s blind sides at all times. If we contact two groups at the same time, or if my partner needs privacy to interview a subject, it’s my job to keep the groups and individuals apart physically. I do this a politely or assertively as the situation demands.

Eight: In a developing confrontation, look for the edges of potential lines of fire and position myself to slide into one of them.

Nine: Always have a course of action beyond what is going on, even if it’s just the nearest escape route. As I do when I drive, I think defensively as a passenger. If X happens what do I do?

Ten:  I often look like a CO, but I have no authority and I never represent myself otherwise.

Eleven: I seek lessons-learned after every event or contact. Did I do what my partner wanted? Does he or she want me to do it differently?

Twelve: What goes on during patrol stays on patrol.

Thirteen: If I’m told something in confidence, I keep it that way. Forever.

The emotions experienced during patrols are varied, from bewilderment over human misbehavior to incredible humor, to plastic-wrap-like irony.

I can say I have never been really scared except in the moments before a head-on stop at night while running dark, or as we are running dark at high speed down a two-track and I am wondering if we are going to whack a deer, elk, bear, moose, or violator’s vehicle in the darkness.

Okay, the first time I ran dark at full speed it scared hell out of me.

There is tension all the time, not from any immediate and obvious danger, but primarily from being totally focused on everything outside the truck and watching what is or could be going on around us. The job is outside the truck, not inside.  It’s tiring to concentrate for a full tour, and lots of officers graze from snacks and do not stop to eat. You have to stay on top of everything. It’s not unusual to drive a couple hundred miles and walk four or five during a typical patrol. The walking is not slow. I have to work to keep up.

In any kind of stop, I serve as and extra body and eyes and watch all subjects, what they do, listen to what they say, and how they say it.

In all these patrols and thousands of miles and hundreds of hours in trucks I have never once felt or gotten sleepy. Not once. Usually if I’m a passenger in any other vehicle in any other context, I’m asleep and snoring in moments.

You don’t feel continuous danger lurking, but you are always aware that shit can happen at any moment, and you’ll have to react quickly and appropriately. We constantly play what-if and talk through potential scenarios and developments.

Over my life I’ve learned that my adrenaline tends to surge when it needs to surge.  When going into an anticipated tight situation, I do not get up tight and I do not let my imagination boil. I stick with my rules of engagement. Like a good wingman, I never leave my lead (partner) unsupported.

Patrols give me a lot of very rich and unique experience, which helps me to make Grady Service’s time in his truck as real as I can make it, procedurally, emotionally, and intellectually.

Over time, repeat rides, and different experiences with individual officers I can sense increasing comfort with my presence. I have had COs listen to me talk to witnesses and suspects and tell me I am a good interviewer, that I do it a lot like they do. They have also used me for under-cover purposes. Nothing dramatic, but under-cover nevertheless.

I’ve helped in searches and numerous investigations and I’ve helped track lost and missing hunters.

But stories also grow out of sources and working with a source on something that has happened in the past is a different thing — not a lot unlike courting a woman. It takes time and patience and sensitivity to the other person’s feelings. If the source doesn’t have confidence in you, you are unlikely to learn anything.

If I promise to do something for the source, I do it. Always, no exceptions.

With reluctant sources I always start with this: “I’ve heard about this experience you had and if you’re willing, I’d love to hear all the details, but if you’re not comfortable with talking, that’s fine too. If you do tell me and don’t want me to write about it, I won’t. If you start talking and change your mind, that’s all right too.”

We did not exactly learn this in journalism school, but we all learned it. I’m not sure how. Courtesy and common sense are partners.

Some sources I’ve worked with for a full year or more before they would open up. Like I said earlier, J-School is a great prep for this, though most journalism professors probably don’t think in terms of fiction when we were learning from them.

When I write a story based on real events, I obviously change all of the salient facts substantially. And the time lines, names etc.. Someone with intimate knowledge might be able to guess, but I make the people and events as separate as is possible to avoid any sort of cross-association. I write fiction based on reality, not non-fiction. Still I want to give the reader as authentic an experience as possible, a lot of which comes from concise descriptive writing.

Most investigations do not proceed neatly like cop shows on TV. Real investigations often produce blind alleys and incomplete results, which are less than satisfactory from the investigator’s perspective.

I try to write my stories true to this reality. Everything does not always get neatly wrapped and ribboned in every book and case. Critics don’t like this. I say to hell with them. I want to give my readers reality: failure and incomplete results are reality.

The other thing I try to do is demonstrate first-hand the peripatetic nature and chaos inherent in a conservation officer’s job. Even a DNR detective rarely gets to stay focused exclusively on one case for an extended period. There just aren’t enough people and thus, all officers are jumping continuously from A to Z and back to L, then on to R, and so forth. Nothing is linear and it requires them to have facile minds and to be able to work alone without much supervision and to constantly readjust themselves emotionally.

After nearly a decade of doing this, I still get excited getting my gear ready for a patrol.

The rides are always interesting, teach me heaps, and they are also great fun in a peculiar way. Most days nothing of importance happens. Other days the events are non-stop. You just can’t predict.

I hope it comes through that what I do through these stories is great fun for me. I also hope it helps readers better understand the lives and functions of COs, and law enforcement in general.

Let me conclude by saying that no officer character in my books is a one-to-one copy of a real-life officer. There is no Grady Service. Almost all of my characters are amalgams, created from many parts and individuals, and frankly there is some of the author in every character. That’s unavoidable.

Actually it’s more fun to write the bad guys and assholes than the good guys. That’s probably a flaw in my character. So be it. Good two-shoes, I ain’t.

I definitely am not Grady Service. And though I have actually had several retired COs ask me if I’m a retired CO, I know I could never do the jobs they do. I take their questions as a compliment.

So, has something that made me shake like a cat trying to shit a peach seed?

How about standing up here talking to you about my books? I’d rather look down a gun-barrel than do this, not because I don’t like people. Obviously I do. But to me a book is supposed to happen in silence between author and reader, one-on-one, not standing at a podium spouting. Who the author is should have nothing to do with your reaction to his or her story. And thus, a read should be an intimate moment, rather than a group moment. It’s nice if you like an author, but it’s not essential to enjoying what the author creates.

Death Roe was the sixth Woods Cop Mystery. Number Seven is called Shadow of the Wolf Tree and will be out next fall. I am working on Number eight and nine with working titles of Force of Blood and Breaking The Rake and this no doubt raises the question of how many more.

I will turn 66 this coming fall, and though I’m in fair shape, I know I can’t keep going out with officers indefinitely. At some point I will have to pack my boots and vest and ruck away, and when that happens, Grady Service will also hang up his gear. How many more?  I don’t know. I’m dieting right now, trying to shed another twenty pounds plus the twenty already lost. They work hard at conditioning. I need to do my part too.

The answer is that I honestly don’t know how many there will be. I originally started this series telling my agent I had a dozen plots in mind. About two thirds of those I haven’t done yet, so if the publishers stay with me I’m thinking dozen.

While I can’t tell you how many books will be in the series, what I can tell you with absolute certainty is the last line of the last Grady Service story. It will go like this:

“Station Twenty, Twenty Five Fourteen.”

“Station Twenty.”

“Twenty Five Fourteen is out of service”

These are the exact words spoken every time an officer finishes a day of duty, and by tradition these are the last words spoken by an officer when he or she leaves their last patrol to retire.

Out of Service. The mere thought of this line chokes me up because it will be a goodbye to a lot of characters who are real to me.



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