On Friday, everyone was talking about the Super Bowl and the teams and whether they were going to a Super Bowl party. Super Bowl madness was sweeping the country. When asked what I was going to be doing, I replied, "I am going to learn about dead bodies."
Yes, you can imagine the looks I got.
Fascination with Death
Dead bodies are fascinating whether you write romance, romantic suspense or urban fantasy. You're probably wondering what could possibly be so fascinating about a dead body. I don't have a dead body in my first book, but I have a couple in my second. In my third, dead bodies will make a likely appearance. This past weekend, I attended a workshop led by the Chief Medical Examiner of Dallas and it was everything you ever wanted to know about dead bodies, but didn't know you wanted to know.
You may wonder what I could possibly want to know about bodies. Did I want to know what inappropriate rigor was? (That's what happens when a body goes into full rigor in a position indicating they were moved, because you wouldn't naturally find someone dead with their hand stretched to the sky.) What about instant rigor? (Instant rigor can occur when the ATP in your muscles is already expended and death robs them of the chance to form anymore – in other words, shoot someone who is running full out and they will go into rigor a lot faster than someone who wasn't . Almost before they hit the ground in some cases.)
Did I want to know whether you could tell how long a body has been dead based on liver temperature? (Sadly, the answer to that one is nope.) Did I want to know how you could tell the difference between a bruise and a wound? (The close up images of bruised tissues and a fresh wound are vividly different in blood pooling patterns.) What about the signs of abuse? (Horrifying what consistent and regular physical abuse can leave on the body, much less the mind.)
Would it amaze you to know how clever some victims can be? Or whether a body can be dressed after it is killed? Or how many criminals force their victims to redress themselves before they kill them? (To answer all three of these, one woman who was raped and brutalized and forced to redress before being sent to brush her teeth by her attacker, wiped her mouth on the shoulder of her sweater, trapping his DNA before he made her wash it away from her mouth. Brave and smart lady that.)
Yeah, me too. But as a writer, when you strive for authenticity, these are the kinds of questions you have.
Writing About What You Don't Know
These aren't things you can learn by doing it yourself. At least, I can't learn how to do them myself. I can't go and perform an autopsy and I'm unlikely to go to a crime scene to see the actual body. It's one thing to objectify the dead in a story or to think about it as a mental exercise, it's entirely different to look at photos of dead people, found in various different positions and to answer the question of how they died, where they died and when they died. It's not always clear, not like it is on television.
In fact, liver temperature is total bunk and here I really trusted Dr. Mallard on NCIS when he inserted the thermometer into the liver and pronounced when time of death likely occurred. So many factors can affect what the body's temperature is that there is no slide rule to go by. A body can be frozen, it can be found in the desert (while hardly a desert, did you know a body can skeletanize in a week in Texas? I didn't) and a person could even have a fever before they died. All of these factors affect the temperature the body is found at and without all of these precise data points, the coroner or medical examiner cannot give you the details that we are used to seeing on our favorite forensic shows.
Death is a vital part of many novels, particularly in mystery, suspense and even urban fantasy. People die in urban fantasy and they may not be killed with a gun or a knife, but death is death. By understanding what death can do to a body, we can get a better understanding of life and how that death may affect our characters. We also learn that death is a horrible thing and when I say horrible, I mean terrible, awful and irreverent of life.
In Prime Evil, a serial killer haunts Chance. He uses a knife to kill his victims and he leaves them to bleed. Chance survived that attack. However, in many ways, what happened to her that fateful night continues to haunt her. As a writer, you want to find the truth in your story – that nugget, that moment that changes the lives of your characters forever.
Death is, too often, that moment.
Feel free to check out my novels Prime Evil (Urban Fantasy) and Remembering Ashby (Sweet Romance). I promise, the dead bodies are rare.
So, rigor me this – what did you think inappropriate rigor was? S'okay, you can tell me.
Prime Evil (November, 2009)
In her first full-length novel, Heather Long takes readers to the farm rich countryside of Northern Virginia as hedge witch Chance Monroe fights for her way of life when serial killer Randall Oakes returns from the dead. Chance must confront a troubled past, a supernatural adversary and a sizzling passion that’s lain dormant for years.
Nearly a decade ago, Randall Oakes left hedge witch Chance Monroe for dead. Now he’s back along with her ex-lover, Jack. The FBI wants Chance in protective custody, but Chance knows it won’t be enough to protect her from Oakes. Connected to the earth, Chance must rely on her supernatural senses and her own wits to survive this game of cat and mouse.
Remembering Ashby (April, 2009)
Peace among the clans has been nonexistent for the past centuries. But now that clan Lairds have decided to summon the God-touched people from their magical Isle to perform the rituals of Beltane to bless the peace talks between the clans, peace is within reach.
Melanie is honored to be chosen as one of six maidens to represent the Goddess at this important event. She is meant to be a vessel for the power of the Goddess while forgetting the failures of humanity during the festival. She knows should be concentrating on her part as a Maiden of the Hunt, yet she cannot banish the handsome Scot from her mind. Running in the Hunt is as sacred as the Goddess herself, and should her desires be known, there could be dire consequences for her and the clansman. However, she can’t find the will to deny his pull.
The mists of the Black Mountains enhance the excitement of their forbidden love while providing an escape from the Islanders encampment. Can they give in to their desires at the expense of their destinies?
Especially once The Sorcerer discovers their dalliance…
About Heather Long
Heather Long lives in North Texas with her husband, daughter and their menagerie of animals. As a child, Heather skipped picture books and enjoyed the Harlequin romance novels by Penny Jordan and Nora Roberts that her grandmother read to her. Heather believes that laughter is as important to life as breathing and that the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus are very real. In the meanwhile, she is hard at work on her next novel.
I'm giving away a PDF copy of Heather's Prime Evil to a commenter -- tell me what things you see done wrong on your favorite crime television show or book (please don't name the author or the title of the book) that drives you nuts-- like where the hero thumbs off the safety on his revolver (revolvers don't have safeties!). Or if you have some obscure scientific fact you've learned in your travels...
The winner will be chosen and announced next Tuesday, February 16th.