September 19, 2014

Michigan author speaks at NEMAC

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STANDISH — Catching people illegally spearing fish in the middle of the night, chasing down a drug dealer and being spit out of a culvert on a cold, rainy night —Michigan author Joseph Heywood has spent the last 10 years joining DNR officers on patrols, which fueled a series of "woods cop" mysteries based on some of his experiences.

Heywood shared stories of memorable patrols and discussed part of his writing process to an audience at the Northeast Michigan Arts Council on May 1.

“There is no one formula,” he said about the writing process.

He began with a story that prompted the title for his novel “Running Dark,” in which he was running in the rain after the DNR officer he was shadowing and fell into a culvert.

Heywood said he remembered being spit out of the culvert and into the creek, where he momentarily had a bright light shine into his face as he struggled to keep himself above water.

After men were arrested for spearing fish in the middle of the night, one of the men looked at the conservation officer and asked, “Was your guy hiding in the culvert?”

Heywood said both writers and conservation officers have to move beyond a fear in order to do their job.

“You have to go past that fear,” he said about writers having to move past the fear of wondering what people will think of their writing.

He also addressed how he got permission to shadow conservation officers over the past 10 years.

“The privileges they’ve given me… it also comes with a lot of responsibility,” Heywood said.

Heywood received a degree in journalism from Michigan State University and uses that training in his process when on patrol with conservation officers.

He said that shadowing officers involves a lot of trust, and he follows what he calls a “baker’s dozen of rules” to go by when on patrol, including points such as his first one, whish is “Do nothing to mess up the mission.”

Heywood also pointed out that his novels are only show a little bit of the real life of a conservation officer.

“You’re seeing a small slice of what’s going on,” he said, explaining that his novels are not a “big-eyed view” of the DNR.

Heywood also explained why his novels have a tendency to jump around, which he added often annoys critics.

“I want them to get the sense of frustration,” he said about the storyline.

He said the life of a conservation officer jumps around just like the novel, and he shared a story to prove the unpredictability of going on patrols.

Heywood said he was riding along with a conservation officer when the officer pulled over to tell a man to turn his coat around so the orange was showing instead of the camouflage.

The simple act of pulling over the truck to talk to the man resulted in a day-long chase through the woods, which eventually led to the man’s arrest because he had drugs in his coat.

“All she wanted to do was tell him to turn his coat around,” Heywood said.

Heywood also made a case for the importance of recognizing what conservation officers do and how crimes need to be treated differently than how they are at the present moment.

“Prosecutors put no priority or little priority for DNR cases,” he said, mentioning cases where offenders got off easy from charges.

Heywood finished his presentation at the NEMAC with a question and answer session with the audience, where people got an even more in-depth look of how Heywood write and what he has experienced on patrols.

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