Please enjoy this guest post from a fellow writer and Sisters in Crime member:
Guest Post by Donnell Ann Bell
You’ve heard of How I Met Your Mother? Well, today I’d like to talk about How I Met the Coroner. If you’re a mystery writer, chances are you need knowledge of bodies now and then, and perhaps you need to know how to bump somebody off. When I began my fiction career in 2001, I wasn’t particularly versed in either. I thought experts such as coroners, police lieutenants and FBI profilers were akin to God.
What I learned later is that they’re just people and some actually like to talk to writers. But stuck in that I-could-never-contact-an-expert mentality, I started off by annoying my pharmacist–actually he was quite nice. It’s the customers around us who were rather shocked. They seemed to take exception to my questions like how do I get my hands on a controlled substance? or I need something that would trigger a heart attack but don’t want it to show up in an autopsy.
I wasn’t having any luck. One day I picked up the phone and dialed the El Paso County (Colorado) Coroner’s office, and a booming–and I mean booming, female voice answered. I, on the other hand, did a fine imitation of a mouse. “I’m a writer,” I squeaked. “I wonder if you could answer a few questions.”
I’ll never forget her response. “You’re who? You want to do what?” But when she finally answered my question, I thought, oh, my gosh, this woman knows EVERYTHING. Still, she had a job to do and I didn’t want to make a pest of myself. I went back to writing, and because the pharmacist now had a restraining order against me, I decided to not overdo it with my new contact. I would only ask questions that I absolutely couldn’t find out on my own.
Every once in a while, though, I was stuck and I called her. After all, I was completely anonymous, and once you realize that these coroners (and experts) possess the knowledge of the world, you can’t go back. You realize things on CSI or Criminal Minds aren’t accurate. You take on a zombie-like persona with arms outstretched, mumbling…must get it right.
|Tom Adair, Kris Herndon, and her husband Karl|
The addiction wasn’t going away. In fact it became stronger. So, I enrolled in my first Citizens Academy. (I’ve completed three, including The Writers Police Academy.) But I loved my first two so much, and appreciated what these people do for a living, that I volunteered.Then one day, our coordinator announced, “Today, our speaker is Chris Herndon, Deputy Coroner for the El Paso County Coroner’s Office.”
I slumped in my chair. This was the woman. It was fine as long as she didn’t know who I was. But what if she recognized me? What if she put two and two together that I was that crazy writer?
My curious nature isn’t always my friend, and as she talked, I naturally had questions. The moment I asked, however, she zeroed in on me like a torpedo from a destroyer. Her eyes narrowed and she knew. And later when she asked, “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” I had to tell the truth.
Turns out, she didn’t think I was that strange. In fact, we’ve become good friends. But I couldn’t keep a goldmine like Chris to myself. Soon, I invited her to talk to my writers’ groups. She and I wrote a mock coroner’s inquest, presented by my local Sisters in Crime.
Recently, Chris and her husband Karl (a former depuy sheriff), and CSI expert Tom Adair presented a workshop for Pikes Peak Writers Conference on how to process a crime scene.
If you’re looking for accurate research, don’t be afraid to contact a professional. What’s the worst that can happen? They’re too busy? They’ll hang up? Since 2001 very few people have hung up on me. Most enjoy helping writers. As for me, I’m still hooked on getting it right. That’s why I co-own Crimescenewriters with Veteran police officer Wally Lind (retired), a Yahoo group dedicated to writers who love to ask as many questions as I do.
Have questions for an expert? Pick up the phone, volunteer, and get involved. When it comes to getting it right, you’ll never go wrong by going to the source or better yet getting hands-on training.
Donnell Ann Bell is the author of three best-selling novels brought to you from Bell Bridge Books. THE PAST CAME HUNTING, DEADLY RECALL and BETRAYED. Her next book will be released September 2014. Check out her website on www.donnellannbell.com or follow her on TWITTER @donnellannbell or find her on Facebook.
Susan, thank you for the opportunity to connect writers with experts and avenues of research. I love that. We can only do so much Google, ya know?
You’re so welcome, Donnell. Hope your book signings and sales of your upcoming book go well.
Thank you, Susan! Back at you! Lovely Blog you have here!
I enjoyed your story about bugging the pharmacist so much. Like you, I had to get over that initial inertia about contacting subject experts. I think a phone call is best for instant info, but I must admit I’m a sucker for email queries. A nonanswer by email has less potential for personal conflict than a call or an in-person visit.
Another way I’ve found to seek help is what I call the “back door method.” You wouldn’t believe how many retired or near-retirement cops, lawyers, judges, etc play golf. Luckily, I’ve got an in with that crowd, and oftentimes I’m able to get the information I need while everyone is relaxing after a round of golf.
Whatever works, right? I enjoyed your post very much.
Maggie, great job! Crimescenewriters is full of active and retired experts in their requisite fields! Thank you!
I loved the post and as a participant at PPWC, laughed when Chris picked on Donnell. I’d love more information on crimescenewriters…is that a blog? Thanks. Rachael
Rachael! You were the best corpse ever! Really stiff and true to life 😉 So you noticed it too. Chris does pick on me, doesn’t she? It’s NOT my imagination. But I do ask a lot of questions, right? Thanks for stopping by!