Please, Ms. Medical Examiner, It's Dark Here in the Morgue. Can You Turn on the Lights?

Posted by Kate Flora

When I was a much younger writer, I thought writers sat at their desks and made things up. I never realized how much research a writer—especially a mystery writer whose work is going fall under the coolly critical and educated eye of the passionate mystery fan—needed to do in order to get things right.

That was many years ago, back before I spent ten years in the unpublished writer's corner. Back before I made my first tentative phone call to set up a breakfast with a female state trooper and then sat there surprised by how cool and hard-edged and unforthcoming she was. I was timid and had limited interviewing skills. I was most comfortable sitting by myself at a desk and living in my head and here I was trying to get everything I needed to know to create a credible female Maine State Trooper for the book I was writing from someone whose responses didn't go much beyond the simple yes or no. It was a miserable breakfast and a great learning experience. I was able to put her cool distance and her clear “us vs. them” barrier to work later in creating a character. And I set out on a road I had never imagined.

Once, for example, I wanted to have a female teacher who was accused of an improper relationship with a student get arrested and taken out of her class in the middle of the school day. In the book, the cops were trying to make an example of a person they believed had done something despicable. In real life, I had never even had a ticket for a moving violation, and I wanted this scene to feel very real. So, living in a small town with an obliging police chief, I called him up. When he returned the call, he identified himself as Chief Wetherbee and asked how he could help me.

“Well, Len,” I said, “how can I get arrested?”

There was a pause, then he said, “Well, Kate, there's the usual way.”

“And barring that?”

He said, “We've got a pretty quiet week. When would you like to get arrested?”

We agreed on Friday, no time set. And on Friday morning, a uniformed officer in a creaky leather jacket, and approximately the size of Godzilla, rang my doorbell, and my research adventure began. I picked up my coat. He took the coat, checked the pockets, and let me put it on. I picked up my purse, he asked me to show him some ID, then took my purse, handcuffed me, and put me in the back seat of his car. Because of the handcuffs, I couldn't take real notes, but I was taking a zillion mental notes all the way to jail. Then they took my shoes away, handcuffed me to a rail, and went through the booking process. Mug shot. Fingerprints. And put me in a cell. Shut the door. And went away. It was at that moment, sitting in a cinderblock cell on a plastic bench, staring at the combination sink and toilet and the locked door, that I realized I'd forgotten to ask Chief Wetherbee what happened AFTER I got arrested.

Eventually, they opened the door, gave me my shoes, the fingerprint card, mug shot, and booking sheet, and the Chief drove me home. When I got home, I started to shake, and I didn't stop for an hour. I also ended up with six single-spaced pages of the details and protocol of an arrest.

On my first ride-along, years ago, the lieutenant who'd set it up had warned me, “Don't talk too much. They don't like doing this. Don't really want you in the car.” So I sat there as we cruised through the dark streets of Portland, Maine, trying to be a good and polite guest. Three hours later, I knew the officer's life story. I knew about his marriage and its failure. I knew what an adrenaline junkie he was, and how much he loved the shift he worked. I knew the story of a dozen houses, who lived there, what crimes had happened there. I was beginning to see what he was seeing as we watched passing cars, did traffic stops, watched groups gathered on the street. By the time the shift was over, we were talking about what connection, if any, there might be between being Catholic and being a cop.

Over the years, on other ride-alongs, I've heard how one officer met his wife, been driven past several officer's parents' homes, compared diet secrets, heard truths and lies about marriages and their break-ups, and once had an officer tell me how suddenly, in middle-age, he found himself noticing women all the time, something that had never happened to him before. I've gone along on a stake-out and actually caught the bad guys. I've sat in a driveway in a cruiser while a cop spent half an hour trying to get the local judge's alarm to stop ringing. I've sat in the half-empty lot of a motel while two cops parked door to door and talked about strategies for growing greener grass.

At this point I know something important about doing research—everything is grist for the mill. It may not be the earth shattering truth that's revealed. What may come into play a year or ten years down the road is the flotsam that decorates a detective's desk. The dinosaurs and pictures of cute dogs or statues of the three stooges. I've passed the test of being handed a thick stack of the goriest pictures the lab guys could find, getting through them without being sick once, not even when the heap of brains was pointed out. I wouldn't want the job—it's way too hard for me—but if I'm going to give it to one of my characters, I want to make it as authentic as possible.

I've taken a Citizen's Police Academy in the nearby town of Waltham, Massachusetts that covered everything from how 911 works to the use of force continuum and criminal and constitutional law. In one class, we stood by the side of the road using the radar gun on passing motorists. Another night, we got to play the cops and the cops got to be the bad Katecar_2 guys. While the whole class stood watching, I tried to make my first traffic stop. I grabbed my door handle and opened the door, determined to be cool and professional and use everything I'd learned. To show real control and command presence. My nightstick caught on the door handle. I slammed my nose into the car window. I got out, red nosed, red-faced and flustered, charged up the car I was stopping, and the cop who was playing a smart-assed bad guy looked up and said, “Oh, a girl cop. Aren't you cute.”

Probably, in those few hideous, embarrassing moments, I learned more than I could learn in ten interviews about how hard it is to be a cop on patrol.

To try and get some caution into my series character, Thea Kozak's, head and teach her to be better at self-defense, I took my police department's RAD course. I've done crime lab tours. I've shot handguns and shotguns. I've dusted for fingerprints and lifted them with tape. And I've asked a million questions. All in the service of getting things right.

Once, on a crime lab tour, I was left standing in a dark morgue by a Medical Examiner with an odd sense of humor who left the room and turned off the lights. I knew that just five feet away was a freezer full of bodies. I was not amused.

I've learned a lot about police procedure, crime scene investigation, police training, investigative technique, reading the streets, the qualities that make a good detective. I have a whole notebook on how to dig up buried bones. I've learned about birth parent searches and meth labs and American sign language.

I used to be afraid to ask. Now I know that I'll sometimes be rebuffed, but usually I get an incredible response from people I ask for help. Two weeks ago, needing to know in detail the procedure for taking a body out of the water, I called a diver up in Maine whose name I'd been given twelve months before by a friend of a friend. I told him who I was and what I was looking for. Without hesitation, he began to describe the process. How many divers would be involved. That they would do location and verification dives to assess the situation, taking notes on underwater slates with #2 pencils. Take photographs of the body in place. Bag the head and hands and feet. How they would note the position the body was found in before it was bagged, underwater, and placed in a Stokes basket. How after the body was recovered they would go back and do additional dives to search for evidence. His information was thorough, it was detailed. He understood what I was looking for.

When I go to speak at libraries, I'm often asked how hard it is to do the research I need for my books, and whether people are willing to talk to me. I always say the same thing—how I'm constantly amazed at people's generosity and their willingness to share what they know so that I can make my books more real. Sometimes it is scary. Sometimes it's ugly. Sometimes I come home and shake for hours. But I now understand that research is important. And I hope that when people read my books, some of that experience, some of that truth, and a lot of the wondering that I do and the questions I ask, will come through.

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