Stacy Green is the author of KILLING JANE (Vesuvian Books, 2017), Book 1 in the Erin Prince Series, which has been recently optioned for television, as well as the bestselling Lucy Kendall thriller series and the Delta Crossroads mystery trilogy. ALL GOOD DEEDS (Lucy Kendall #1) won a bronze medal for mystery and thriller at the 2015 IPPY Awards. TIN GOD (Delta Crossroads #1) was runner-up for best mystery/thriller at the 2013 Kindle Book Awards. Stacy has a love of thrillers and crime fiction, and she is always looking for the next dark and twisted novel to enjoy. She started her career in journalism before becoming a stay at home mother and rediscovering her love of writing. She lives in Iowa with her husband and daughter and their three spoiled fur babies.
Research Junkie: The Morgue
I’m a research junkie. Fortunately, research is a necessity in crime fiction. Any bit of time a writer can snag with a cop, doctor, or any expert in the field of death investigation is vital to creating believable stories. The Internet makes research relatively easy (and a rabbit hole of distraction), but I love to see, touch, and smell and experience.
During a recent visit to Minneapolis, the Hennepin County Chief Medical Examiner graciously gave me a tour of their facilities. I wasn’t sure what to expect—he’d only promised me fifteen minutes. At least I’d be able to create an authentic version of the working environment, especially the odd location. HCME’s office is right across the street from the new Vikings Stadium in downtown Minneapolis, and traffic is hell on normal day. Game days are Satan’s torture chamber.
I watched traffic clogging up during early-morning rush hour, observed the joggers and bikers meandering by for their morning exercise. Hennepin County Medical Examiner was clearly spelled out near the front walk, but very few people looked. Some wore such rigid, determined faces as they stared straight ahead I suspected they chose not to look but knew exactly what lie in the basement.
No one wants to be reminded her time will eventually be up.
After passing through security and signing in, I took a seat in the lobby. Dr. Baker soon greeted me, and he looked nothing like the pasty-faced dude I’d conjured up in my imagination. Middle-aged, thick hair, a kind smile and a warm handshake—a normal, well-adjusted person who deals with bodies all day, every day.
Dr. Baker is a University of Iowa grad, so I talked up the medical school and hospital, explaining how the doctors had recently taken great care of my mother. My fifteen-minute tour lasted an hour.
I saw the offices, the death investigator’s vehicles and equipment, as well as the records section, including original red leather-bound volumes from the early 1900s.
But first came the autopsy suite. The only bodies inside the glaringly white room were the live ones—technicians and medical examiners prepping their stations. Dr. Baker explained the autopsy stations in detail to me, going over various instruments and the basics of the process. Important information, but I focused on Dr. Baker and the other M.E.’s. And occasionally the mini silver disco ball hanging from the ceiling.
I’m a detail person, almost to a fault. I have a need to know why people act a certain way or why something succeeded or failed. It drives the people in my life crazy, but I think it benefits my writing. Beyond observing Dr. Baker’s mannerisms and the overall way his colleagues conducted themselves, I asked numerous questions about the mental aspects of his job. Why did he choose to be an M.E.? How does he deal with what he sees? What about working on kids? I could have asked those questions over the phone, but there’s something magical about looking someone in the eyes and observing body language.
After we finished, Dr. Baker took me into the hallway to continue the tour. His people needed to get going—it was a Monday, and they had 20 bodies waiting.
I tried to focus on Dr. Baker, but the autopsy suite’s doors had windows, and the body demanded my attention. An older man had been brought in to the station nearest the door—the same one I’d just vacated—already nude, his fingertips resting on the edge of the steel table, his belly large and distended. My stomach didn’t turn, and I didn’t gag. But unexpected guilt washed over me. The dead deserve dignity. I put my back to the door and focused on Dr. Baker.
As we spoke, a smell wound around me. I started to ask Dr. Baker if that smell was coming from the suite when a technician wheeled a gurney covered with a lumpy blue plastic tarp past.
The smell of human death is unlike anything else, and now I can write with some authenticity. I felt as though I’d survived some thriller writerly rite of passage.
And then Dr. Baker asked if I wanted to see the cooler.
I tried to pretend to think about it—I wouldn’t want him to think I was a freak—but my insides danced like Elaine on Seinfeld.
“We’re pretty full,” Dr. Baker said. “Since it’s Monday. And there may be a smell, even though it’s cold. Sometimes there is.”
“A smell” didn’t begin to do this justice. This was an entity, foul and festering. Twenty gurneys with bodies covered in blue plastic tarps like the one in the hall were lined up in two parallel rows. Plastic bags containing personal effects sat on top, probably on a stomach or maybe between the legs.
I wanted to tell him to shut the door, but I also wanted to breathe in the smell and commit it to memory, because this is the stuff that makes a story real. If the author has lived it, the reader’s experience will be so much better.
“Are these all identified?” I asked. “And from this weekend?”
“We’ve got an unidentified in the back freezer that was found in the river a year ago.”
Suddenly I’d smelled enough (although the odor clung to my nasal passages far longer). Death is one thing, but being left in the morgue’s freezer because no one wanted you or no one knew where to look was heartbreaking.
After the tour, I thanked Dr. Baker for his time and his candor. My mind swam with everything I’d experienced, and I spent thirty minutes making notes in the car before heading home.
The visit did more than give me fodder for a great scene. It challenged my fears about death and caused me to reevaluate not only my approach to research but also the importance of finding the key details and character quirks that make a story so engrossing—like a little silver disco ball hanging from the autopsy room ceiling.
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