Like many good stories, this one starts with an unexpected challenge from a very surprising character.
Social dancing is one of those activities that bring together a wide range of people. Argentine Tango has introduced me to some amazing characters and to some dear friends —those two categories are not mutually exclusive. But in large part, social dancing doesn’t allow for deep “getting to know you” interactions. It’s easy to have causal conversations and fill in the blanks based on superficial observations.
If someone had asked me to guess what the tall, slender, well-spoken, elegantly groomed woman who came to Tango after competitive ballroom did for a living, I’d have guessed that she was a former model turned fashion industry executive. But one day while waiting for a special Tango workshop in a SoHo loft to begin, K mentioned that she was a forensic pathologist working in the Queens County Coroner’s Office.
I was thrilled.
I was writing a mystery and knew that adding a forensic pathologist to my network of experts would be fantastic. I told K that I wanted to pick her brains and that I’d take her out to dinner after a Tango class in exchange for answering a few questions.
She said, “No.” Instead she made a very interesting counter offer. “Come to my office and watch me perform an autopsy. If you do that, I’ll answer all your questions and you can call me any time if you have more.”
Apparently, everyone — especially mystery writers and readers — wants to pick a forensic pathologist’s brains — but few of them were willing to watch an actual autopsy, which is the best way to answer a long list of those initial questions. I agreed to K’s terms, warning her that I was a bit squeamish by nature. She smiled and assured me I’d be fine, adding that most people balked at her challenge. So one afternoon we headed to her office. On the way we talked about when autopsies are legally necessary and under what circumstances autopsies are requested by families. She also made sure that I had some mint chewing gum on hand.
Once in the office, she introduced me to the staff. They joked and laughed about everything except the corpses and the bereaved — for the dead and the grieving, they had the utmost respect and that never waivered. Not even when they wheeled an enormous body into the room. When I say enormous — I mean it. Two assistants helped K maneuver him onto the scale and he topped out at close to 300lbs. After the external examination, I watched her make the classic Y-shaped incision and remove, examine and weigh his oversized organs. I watched her saw the top of his skull off and remove his brain to be weighed. I saw her take samples for slides.
By this time, I was hovering near the doorway — half in the room and half outside it, chomping on mint flavored chewing gum. My attention alternated between K working on the body and the minty-fresh source of sanity. Before K finished, another body was wheeled in and one of her colleagues began to perform an autopsy. I was fine until the second saw came out to cut into the second skull. I slipped outside into the parking lot and stayed there until the nausea passed.
I passed K’s test. The man on the slab didn’t spring back to life — that would have been one hell of a story — but I survived his surgical procedure. I call or email her whenever I need to check a fact or kill off a character. She helped me with one of the murders in POED and we had a great conversation about drugs and hypnosis while I was writing the upcoming MONSTER — The Strange Case of Dr. Hyde and Her Friends.
K moved upstate and is now a Chief Medical Examiner for a beautiful and semi-rural county. Every now and then she comes down to NYC for a medical conference or to go to the ballet. Over the years I’ve learned about how she came to be a forensic pathologist and her back-story would be perfect for a heroine in a romantic suspense novel.
The best stories always start with a great character!