John Desjarlais spends a part of his time in the classroom at Kishwaukee College where he is an Assistant Professor of English, teaching literature and writing classes. But when he is not in the classroom, he is at a computer working on his next novel. This summer, he fine-tuned his crime-writing skills at a unique workshop for writers: The 9th Annual Writers’ Police Academy.
The WPA, as it is known, offers writers of police procedurals and other crime-solving genres an opportunity to get the kind of insider knowledge that lends their prose authenticity in its descriptions of police and detective work. Held August 10 – 13 in Green Bay, Wisconsin, the WPA this year included nearly 50 sessions on everything from antique firearms to bloodstain patterns/spatter to constitutional law.
Desjarlais’ early novels were historical fiction. Then he wrote Bleeder, a murder mystery set in northern Illinois with Professor Reed Stubblefield. He followed it up with two sequels – Viper and Specter – featuring Stubblefield’s DEA Special Agent colleague, Selena De La Cruz. With three solid mysteries to his credit, honing his crime-writing skills at a police procedure workshop seemed a natural thing to do over the summer. The WPA did not disappoint.
Desjarlais explained, “Writers of crime fiction who have no background in law enforcement cannot depend on television news or entertainment programming in order to understand the officers’ perspective on such events. But at the WPA, ordinary women and men enter a cop’s world and experience the discipline and dread involved in split-second decisions.”
He noted that he, like most crime fiction writers, attend these workshops to get the details correct so the police and events in a novel are credible. Sometimes it’s little details, for example, there should be no smell of cordite after modern gunfire in a novel because cordite stopped being used in making bullets after World War II.
So, Desjarlais and his fellow crime fiction writers willingly stepped into the real world of law enforcement. They wore Kevlar vests and duty belts (Desjarlais noted, “The duty belt is about 10 pounds and those tactical vests are heavy and hot!”). They participated in controlled high-speed car chases, mock traffic stops, live fire gun ranges, shoot-don’t-shoot simulations, and blood spatter analysis. Desjarlais stated, “I have done research on crime scene processing, evidence handling and other procedural things, but I needed to know – I needed to feel – what’s it like to BE a cop? To THINK like one? To leave the driveway every day and be ‘on the air’ for a 12-hour shift not truly knowing if I’ll come home that night?”
The one detail that struck nearly all of the writers? The law enforcement personnel themselves. “Nearly every writer I spoke with said their deepest impression was the humanity of the officers,” he said. “Sure, it was important to know how a Taser works, and how a cop stands and talks to an EDP (Emotionally Disturbed Person) who is wielding a knife in a public space. But more important was to listen to these men and women talk warmly about their families, hopefully about their communities, and frankly about their anxieties.”
Desjarlais is currently working on a new novel, featuring Detective Francis Gordon, a small-town cop who has been in the background of his previous three crime novels. He said, “My goal is to make Detective Gordon fully human because that is what every cop is.”
John Desjarlais is teaching Composition I and Creative Writing: Fiction this fall at Kishwaukee College. For more information on Kishwaukee College, visit www.kish.edu. To learn more about John Desjarlais’ novels and short stories, visit www.johndesjarlais.com.