How I Met the Coroner


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 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



27 replies
  1. Lois Winston
    Lois Winston says:

    Great post, Donnell! Too often, what we think is true from having seen it over and over again on TV and in movies (or in books where the author didn’t do his or her research), is completely wrong–like crime scene investigators who show up in designer suits and shoes! Also, I discovered years ago that the FBI in many major cities actually has resource people that are happy to answer authors’ questions.

  2. Barb Eikmeier
    Barb Eikmeier says:

    Loved your post! I had a conversation with a detective in the county sheriff’s office to confirm a few details and was surprised when he told me I could call the coroner’s office and ask to speak to the forensic anthropologist! First of all I didn’t know my state (KS) had one and secondly that I could just pick up the phone and call. When I thanked him and said I’d credit him in my book he said, “Just don’t use my name.”

  3. Bob Mueller
    Bob Mueller says:

    I emailed a coroner’s office in Central Ohio one time to ask some questions and was told they can’t support any commercial concern, and writers counted as a commercial concern. Because we’re selling books. I nodded and smiled and found another solution. FWIW, that coroner is no longer in office (and it’s been twenty years anyway).

  4. T.K. Thorne
    T.K. Thorne says:

    Aha! You’re secret is out! I was wondering (as I read Black Pearl) how in the world you knew so much about policing and FBI to be comfortable (and competent) in writing from their POV. Now I know. 🙂

    • Donnell Ann Bell
      Donnell Ann Bell says:

      T.K. now that I know your background, I’ll be contacting you. I simply come up with an idea then contact the experts and ask if my thinking is plausible. I had so much fun (and work) writing Black Pearl 😉

  5. George Cramer
    George Cramer says:

    Another great post and piece of advice. My professional was a forensic anthropologist. I reached we entered into a lengthy email conversation about identifying remains. It was great and saved me one more time from embarrassing myself.

    • Donnell Ann Bell
      Donnell Ann Bell says:

      George, you nailed it. How many times have I been researching Google or Wikipedia and found conflicting information. That’s why I try to talk it out with an expert to make sure they have the gist of what I’m trying to do. You can’t have a conversation with Google and/or Wikipedia. Thanks for stopping by.

  6. Kathryn Lane
    Kathryn Lane says:

    Great post! I’ve never had to speak with a coroner, but I have spoken to other experts, including my family doctor for pointers. And I had a doctor be my Beta reader for one of my novels to verify my research.

  7. Saralyn
    Saralyn says:

    With so many questionable resources readily available on the internet these days, it would be easy for an author to acquire misinformation and then pass it along to readers. Your method of going directly to the source–the person in charge of dead bodies–is both admirable and intriguing. I’d trust your coroner with my story, too. And kudos to her for being so forthcoming with information.

  8. Sandy Parks
    Sandy Parks says:

    I’ve become more comfortable branching and reaching out to discover so many people willing to go out of their way to assist me with getting answers to my questions. Braving the “who are you crazy person rejection” has created some fun events. One woman was able to dig into historical collections from 1910 in a closed museum to show me some relevant items. Glad you were willing to be outgoing and now able to share your wonderful resources with us.

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