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, or perhaps you need to know how to bump somebody off. When I began my fiction career, 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 had not put out a restraining order on 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.
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 her 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.
A few years ago, Chris and her husband Karl (a former deputy 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 I began my fiction career, 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 Groups.io forum 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.
About the Author: Donnell Ann Bell is a muti-published author of four bestselling romantic suspense novels and two books in a cold case suspense series, Black Pearl, and her latest release Until Dead. to learn more about her visit www.donnellannbell.com