Friday, July 11, 2014

We're Heading in a New Direction

Recently, I made a major change in my website at

My blog has now been combined with that website. So, if you are following or enjoy reading my blog, please head on over to the new site and continue to stay with me!


Friday, May 30, 2014

How I Met the Coroner

Please enjoy this guest post from a fellow writer and Sisters in Crime member:

Guest Post 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, and perhaps you need to know how to bump somebody off. When I began my fiction career in 2001, 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 now had a restraining order against 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.
Tom Adair, Kris Herndon, and her husband Karl
     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 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.
Recently, Chris and her husband Karl (a former depuy 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 2001 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 Yahoo group 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.

Donnell Ann Bell is the author of three best-selling novels brought to you from Bell Bridge Books. THE PAST CAME HUNTING, DEADLY RECALL and BETRAYED. Her next book will be released September 2014. Check out her website on or follow her on TWITTER @donnellannbell or find her on Facebook.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Expert Interviews: Suzy Owens, Detective in the Ames, Iowa, Police Department

Mom, college counselor, teacher, zookeeper, police detecive
In the mid-1980s, when I was teaching high school English, I formed a friendship with a remarkable woman who had four daughters. I used to think of her girls as Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, except none of them died young like Beth March, thank goodness. I taught all four of them, and they were all intelligent, interesting, strong women. My friendship with their mother survived my teaching time with her daughters, despite reading their essays about how all four teenagers shared a bathroom, and the family's junk closet, whose door kept in a multitude of items just dying to fall out. Because their mom is so strong, all four of her daughters are amazing, grown-up moms and professionals in various jobs. All graduated from college and all went in four different directions (an eventuality I could have predicted since they were all so different.) They became a college counselor, teacher, zookeeper, and police detective.

Notice that last profession? Ah ha! I
haven't needed the other three professionals as experts yet, but if I ever have a mystery set in a college, a private school, or a zoo, I'll be set. The fourth daughter, Suzy, became a policewoman and, later, detective in Ames, Iowa. I guess this didn't surprise me since her father was a detective in Illinois during his professional career. But, strangely, Ms. Owens didn't attribute her interest in the criminal justice system to her father. What also surprised me was that Suzy was the youngest, tiniest, and most freckles-on-her-nose daughter. I have a hard time seeing her in a Kevlar vest, toting a gun. But she is.

Recently, I wrote a crime scene for my second mystery, and I passed it by Detective Owens so she could tell me how a detective would look at it versus how an author might write it. This resulted in two weeks and four re-writes. I would like to think she got no satisfaction whatsoever in asking her former English teacher to
"re-write until it's perfect," a phrase I seem to vaguely remember from my teaching conversations with her years ago.

I interviewed Detective Owens for my blog, and these were her answers:

Q: How did you happen to get into this line of work?
A: I didn't plan on being a police officer when I graduated from college. I thought I wanted to work with at-risk children. But I did an internship at the police department, loved it, and loved the people. They happened to be going through a hiring process and I was encouraged to apply. But I would really like to make this clear: I went into this work to make a positive difference in peoples' lives, not to drive fast cars and shoot guns.

Q: What are your credentials?
A: I have a BS in psychology with minors in criminal justice and Spanish from Iowa State University [1999.] I also graduated from the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy with peace officer certification [2000], and I have a Master's in criminal justice from Simpson College [2012.]

Q: What is your typical day like, or is there a typical day?
A: On patrol, I had a lot more variety in my day. But now, as a detective, I make and receive a lot of phone calls, do computer work and report writing, make

more phone calls, and have occasional
interviews. Sometimes my job entails search warrants, testifying in court, or processing a crime scene such as a recovered stolen vehicle or a burglary scene.

Q: What is the most frustrating part of your job?
A: I guess the most frustrating thing
might be the fact that many times there is not a doubt that the suspect has committed the crime, but I don't have the evidence to charge. This is especially true in cases of sexual violence, for both women and children, where the public opinion can lead to stereotyping and doubt toward the victim. If I do have probable cause to charge, it will be another frustrating road trying to get the victim's story told, with no real protections from the law. The defendants get all sorts of protections, while the victims have very few.

Q: How do you do this work--homicide and sexually-based crime work--without getting emotionally upset?
A: I make sure I have healthy outlets for stress: exercise, talking to others, stepping away from it all as needed. Sometimes I get emotional, but realize I'm just a small part in the whole process, and I have to tell myself to do the best in my role.

Q: What kinds of crimes bother you the most?
A: Sex offenses, with domestic violence a close second. These cases have such a stigma, and it is so hard to move forward with judges and juries.

Obviously, I couldn't go into great detail with Suzy about the various cases she's worked, but from her answers I find it clear that she is neck-deep in the kind of work with which I have no experience
from my own career. This makes her a sensational expert for my mysteries. I can reseach, read cases, and check out books from my local coroner, but having first-hand experience nearby is a wonderful consequence of teaching for so many years. Thank you, Detective Suzy Owens, for being there when I have questions, and especially for not laughing when they are stupid questions.
They obviously take their work seriously.
Detective Owens is second from the right.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Expert Interviews: Bill Underwood, Warren County Coroner

The third expert I interviewed for my book, Three May Keep a Secret, is Bill Underwood, Warren County Coroner, who works out of our town, Monmouth, Illinois. Monmouth is a college town in west central Illinois with a population of 10,000. Bill and I met in a local restaurant over coffee. 

[I should mention that this post is a reworking of an earlier post when I was still writing that book.]

     My interview with Bill involved learning answers to my quesions about shootings, stabbings, and fire deaths. He is highly qualified to answer these
questions. While he is not a doctor, he did study mortuary science so he knows his way around death and bodies. It became apparent, as I questioned him, that he has seen some amazing events during his time on the job.

     Underwood is the gateway for laying people to rest in Warren County. Usually he has 140 cases a year and 250 deaths. He signs both death and cremation certificates, and both are filled out and filed electronically these days. No one can
be buried or cremated without a signed certificate, so if there is a question, the certificate is held up until the death is investigated. The coroner can also order an autopsy even if the family does not agree. Whenever there is any suspicion about a death, the coroner has the legal ability to keep a body from being disposed of until the suspicion is satisfied.

Underwood can order tests, or the medical examiner can order them when he does an autopsy. Usually they do toxicology tests and tissue blocks, and they always keep sample tissues. The best test, especially for a DUI, is from the vitreous fluid in the eye (I don't even want to think about that one.) The medical authorities also save samples of tissue from the brain, liver, lungs, and other organs.   

     Bill is called out to home deaths, ER deaths, hospital deaths less than 24 hours old, suicides, homicides, and sometimes hospice deaths.

     When he is called out to a death scene, Bill takes photos or has the Illinois State Police take photos, say, in a gunshot death. He talks to the authorities at the scene and, in the case of a fire, waits for the Fire Marshal. The coroner has two jobs at the scene: (1) get the
body removed once photos and an exam are done; and (2) notify the family. The latter is very important and, because scanners can be bought by private citizens, that notification sometimes becomes a nightmare.

     Several examinations determine cause and manner of death. At the scene the coroner checks for the time of death, which might be determined by rigor mortis and lividity. Sometimes a temperature is taken, particularly in the death of a child. In adults the core temperature goes down one degree per hour, and in children two degrees per hour after death.

If the death is suspicious, Underwood accompanies the body to an autopsy or one of his deputies does. He has four deputies scattered through local funeral homes. A forensic pathologist does the autopsy, and the coroner and state police attend the postmortem. In our area that is done at the Peoria County Morgue. It is
really important that the "chain of evidence" be protected, so this is why the coroner signs a card saying he has checked the body at the scene and accompanied it, or caused it to be accompanied, by qualified personnel.

     I asked Underwood about inquests because I remember reading about them in the past. In fact, I read a newspaper account of an inquest concerning a fire that happened years ago, resulting in a fatality. Inquests used to always be held because the law said they must be held in all deaths. But recently the law was changed to say an inquest "may" be held. Rarely are they held now except in the case of a suspicious death. The coroner can call the inquest and he has a jury pool of six people. He calls in witnesses and uses depositions to indicate the cause of death and how it will be labeled. There are five causes of death: homicide, suicide, natural, undetermined, and accidental. an author, I only concentrated on the first one. And talking to Bill determined an important decision about my research: I have decided to draw the line on ever seeing an autopsy as part of my book research. Ever. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Expert Interviews: John Cratty, Former Monmouth Fire Chief

Following the interview with our local Police Chief, I next went to the fire department. I use a lot of book research in my mysteries, but talking with experts is really helpful in getting the details right.

I interviewed Chief John Cratty in 2011 when he was the Fire Chief of our little town of 10,000. His work in fire departments encompasses 33 years. Before coming to Monmouth, he began his career in my home town. There, in Galesburg, Illinois, Chief Cratty worked for 31 years as a firefighter, captain, assistant chief, and fire chief (the latter from 1994-2009.) In 2010, he was named Fire Chief in Monmouth, and he held that post for two years before he went on to the position of City Administrator. It's obvious that public service is in his blood.

I was particularly interested in the fact that Chief Cratty had been an investigator with the fire departments because information about why fires start and how they spread was central to writing my mystery, Three May Keep a Secret, coming out in November, 2014.

Besides asking Chief Cratty for specific information, I also had him read a description in my mystery and tell me if it sounded accurate.

We met at the north fire station in town, and I was able to see the forty pounds of equipment the firefighters wear, and the facilities and trucks they use.

I asked Chief Cratty about three areas that were crucial to getting the facts right in my novel: (a) What happens when small towns like Monmouth have house fires in the country? (b) How would such a fire-fighting scene look? (c) What are some of the basics of fire investigation?

He explained that small fire departments cooperate when a fire breaks out in the
country on a farm or in a family home. The various departments have mutual aid agreements and the dispatcher who receives the call about a fire will know what district the fire is in and "drop" the alarm. Volunteer firemen and off-duty firemen have cell phones that get automatic texts or audio pagers that alert them about such a fire. Each department responds to the location, but the first department that arrives takes charge. Then the Chief of that department can continue being in command or he can let the Chief whose jurisdiction the fire is in take charge. A "box card" is also available for the fire location so the Chief can check what equipment is coming and what is available. The various departments have quarterly meetings to share training and update information.

Because my mystery takes place in the small town of Endurance, I needed to know how this works. In my mystery, a fire breaks out in a home a few miles from town. TJ Sweeney, police detective, goes to the fire, and I needed to be able to describe what she saw when she arrives that night.

Chief Cratty told me that, when going to a fire, life safety is the number one concern. Their second concern is saving
property. They set up the trucks with the engines going, water hoses on the fire. Then the firemen go inside, trying to "push" the fire out. Pushing the fire includes cooling it with water while trying to drive the fire out openings like doors and windows from the inside of the house. This makes more sense than pushing the fire from outside the house to other areas of the house that are not on fire. If it's a highly offensive fire, they try to save property. If it is a defensive fire they try to contain it from other "exposures" (buildings.)

He gave the example that if they get to a fire and see flames in the first floor rooms, and the front and side windows are in flames, two people can go in with one hose and push 150-200 gallons of water per minute on the fire. They work in teams and the Chief keeps track of who is where and which team is at which location. Sometimes they need to call the gas company if they need to disconnect gas, and then they can lose minutes of time waiting for that disconnection.

The individual firefighters' masks have transmitters so they have radio
communication to the command center on one channel (dispatch frequency) and communication to the other men on another channel (fire ground frequency.) In the end, the Chief has to decide whether to "salvage" (use tarps to cover furniture and keep out water damage), or "overhaul" (cut into the walls and ceilings to check the electrical switches and see if there is smoldering.)

Once the fire is contained and secondary flare-ups are put out, an investigation begins to determine the origin and cause of the fire. This can take days or weeks. The Monmouth Fire department can pinpoint
the origin. If there is a fatality, they notify the local and state police and the state fire marshal's office. In all fires, the MFD does the initial investigation and then shares the information with the insurance company. As far as the cause, they rule out many potential causes first. Lightning? Was the electricity off or on? Propane tanks? candles? Cigarette smoking? The origin is often easy to spot because of a vee ("V") pattern, sometimes on wood trim. The deepest char has burned the longest, and so that may be the start of the fire.

I asked specifically about arson. Chief Cratty said that this kind of fire is usually very aggressive, and if it has multiple spots of origin, it is often from a gasoline pour. A reverse pour means the arsonist puts gasoline in various spots and lights one or more, hoping all will catch fire eventually. The heat from the fire can cause carpet fibers to melt, and if some of the spots with fuel don't ignite it leaves a melted fiber pattern on the spot, and the odor of gasoline is still present for sampling.

All of this information was important to me because fire is a huge ingredient in my novel. Fire is a key part of both character development and the plot. Before speaking to Chief Cratty, I had done quite a bit of book research on fires and arson, but I didn't know exactly how small town fire stations operated. Former Chief Cratty was an excellent source of information to make sure my novel's fire details were accurate.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Reviewing James Montgomery Jackson's "Cabin Fever"

I'm taking a brief break from interviewing my expert sources today to add a review of a great thriller I just finished called Cabin Fever. I was honored to receive an Advanced Reader Copy of Jim's book which is coming out April 8, 2014. I would strongly recommend it for people who enjoy thrillers and ridiculously cold weather.

James M. Jackson’s new thriller, Cabin Fever, grabs you in the first chapter and 
never lets you go. It is the second Seamus McCree book but it can be read as a stand-alone. His earlier book, Bad Policy (2013), is the first in the McCree series. Cabin Fever has many wonderful qualities, but I’d like to describe three: the setting, McCree’s character, and the non-stop plot.

You will shiver as you read this book because it is set in the upper peninsula of Michigan, a place Jackson knows well. Three feet of snow, minus four degrees, thick mud, your breath crystalizing in the wind, no cell phone coverage, and ten hours of daylight all add to the atmosphere of the novel. It is not a place for the faint of heart and it is quite isolated, a characteristic Seamus McCree desires. Added to the weather are gorgeous constellations in the night sky, black bears, loons, moose, wolves howling, snowmobiles, snow shoes, cross country skiing, and you have the world of Seamus McCree. But the isolation is top on the list. This setting works well with his plot because there are times McCree could use help, but the elements are working against him.

Why would a character go to a remote cabin in Michigan? Seamus goes there for peace and quiet after the thrilling, but scary events of his life in Cincinnati in Bad Policy. Now he just desires to be alone and figure out why he can’t keep love alive in his life. He just lost his girlfriend and is skittish about commitments. Part of this isolation comes from his father dying when Seamus was young and his mother turning into an emotionally remote parent. McCree is a problem solver, a very intelligent guy, a former financial examiner, and a great dad. He’s also physically tough when he needs to be. But right now he just wants peace and quiet.
James Montgomery Jackson

 This is not to be. Into his life comes a naked woman, unconscious on his front porch, in the middle of a blizzard. She is practically frozen, has an erratic heartbeat and shallow breathing, and she is suffering from hypothermia, frostbite, and a high fever. Once conscious, she has amnesia. To make matters worse, she has fresh rope burns on her wrists and ankles. Who is this woman and where did she come from? He can’t leave the cabin to ski for help because she might die while he is gone. He has no cell phone coverage so that won’t work either.

Meanwhile, a crazy paramilitary organization with a smart leader and keystone cop followers is looking for an escaped female prisoner. By the time Seamus does get help, the police suspect him, the paramilitary thugs are after him, and dead bodies begin to pile up.

This is a thriller of a plot with an amazing main character and a setting that works well with the plot and also parallels the inner life of Seamus McCree. I’d highly recommend it for people who love page-turning thrillers.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Expert Interviews: Police Chief Bill Feithen

While writing my mystery, Three May Keep a Secret, I enlisted the help of several experts who could teach me about dead bodies, guns, autopsies, and murder investigations. In all my years of living in Monmouth, Illinois (pop. 10,000), I've only talked once, briefly, with a police chief. For my murder mystery, I screwed up my courage and made an appointment to see the current Monmouth Chief of Police. I didn't want to waste his time or come across as an idiot when asking questions. So I prepared in advance with facts I specifically needed to know for my book. In this post, I will leave out a few of those facts. No spoilers.

Because I was interviewing experts, I needed to know they were, indeed, experts. Police Chief Bill Feithen has been the head man at the Monmouth Police Department since February, 2012.Chief Feithen not only has academic degrees in his chosen field, but he also has in-depth, applicable experience. He holds an Associate Degree in Law Enforcement from Kishwaukee College; a BA in Sociology and Criminology from Northern Illinois University; and a Masters in Public Administration, also from NIU. Prior to coming to Monmouth, he worked his way up from patrolman to sergeant to lieutenant and, finally, chief of police in the Dekalb Police Department. He held these various positions from 1975 to 2012. Feithen has had experience in patrol, investigations, and administration. The Police Chief has been heavily involved in community activities, and he belongs to so many professional organizations that I'd have to write another post just to list them all.

When I interviewed Chief Feithen in August, 2012, I was half done with my book, but I needed to find out information I didn't know and verify details I'd already written. I asked for his expert advice in four areas: cold case files and evidence, identification of bodies, gun identification, and police procedure. Here is an abbreviated version of some of those questions and his answers.

What is the diference between case files from the past and case files from today?
     (It was important for me to know this because of plot details in my book.) Chief Feithen said evidence today is better preserved than it used to be. Evidence bags in the past were often paper, while
today police use both paper and plastic. Sometimes evidence has to "breathe;" hence, plastic. Today, blood evidence is dried before packaging. Since DNA is now a tool for law enforcement, envelopes with flaps someone has licked are put in an evidence bag. Today, handwritten notes are bagged so they can be checked for fingerprints and the contents examined. Sometimes handwritten notes are "fumed" to bring out the fingerprints. Older cold case files have black and white photos, and some might have Polaroids that have deteriorated over time. Lab tests would be included both today and in the past, but today's tests are, of course, much more sophisticated.

I had done some online research before I asked him about the old cold case files in my novel. I had included the medical examiner's report, witness interviews, task force meeting notes, detective notes, newspaper articles, photographs, lab reports, and objects from the scene.He verified those contents and added a few additional items. He also added that cold case files would have to be preserved well.Maybe they were in a basement and got damaged in a flood, or they were in an office and somehow got misplaced, perhaps during a move to a new office. Back in earlier decades, evidence wasn't always well preserved, especially in smaller town police departments.

Years ago police departments were not required to keep evidence beyond a certain point, and they routinely purged
when a case was done. They didn't have as much guidance from the courts as departments have today. In Illinois, today, the evidence in certain cases, expecially in major crimes, is kept forever. This is always true of Class X or higher cases. But once the statue of limitations has ended for more minor cases or all appeals are over, evidence is routinely purged. The courts, as well as the State's Attorney's office, give guidance today on the status of cases and when to throw out evidence. In my book, my cold case file was kept because of the nature of the crime.

How are bodies identified?
Today it's much easier because we have DNA and fingerprint databases and a huge
amount of material at our fingertips. But decades ago, they didn't have DNA, and they had fingerprints on hard copy cards. Often there were no dental records. The police would have gone to the relatives of a victim and asked them for doctors' names or operations the victim had in hospitals. Often broken bones, scars, or deformities would be markers for identification. 

How do you identify gun owners? 
Today the police trace gun ownership from the manufacturer to the retailer to the customer. Current retailers are required to keep records for ten years on
gun purchases. Even private sellers must keep a record of buyers. If a gun is used in a crime, the police can often trace the serial number. The number is on different parts of the gun, depending on the gun maker. And what if a criminal tries to destroy the identification number of a gun? Labs can sometimes raise numbers if a criminal tries to grind them down.

Police Procedure: In a homicide, who would be called in to assist?
Usually a state evidence team and additional detectives from the state police, Galesburg, and Macomb. Also a CSI team would be called. They would form a homicide task force or major case squad. If a bomb is involved, the ATF, or another federal agency, might be called in. Chief Feithen was police chief in Dekalb, Illinois, during the multiple shootings at NIU which killed five students and injured twenty-one more on February 14, 2008. He said that crime involved a student from the University of Illinois. The Dekalb Police Department was assisted by the Champaign police as Dekalb detectives spoke to individuals in the Champaign area whom they wanted to interview about the suspect.

[I have a feeling being Police Chief in Monmouth is a bit less stressful than being Chief in Dekalb.]

Then I asked him...well, no, I can't tell you that because you might figure out whodunit in my book. You'll have to wait until it comes out in November. 

Chief Feithen is an intelligent, experienced person, and he answered my questions about murder with a directness and frankness that would do my fictional Endurance Police Chief proud. I think the Monmouth community is fortunate to have him in this office, and I look forward to asking him more questions down the road. This is one of the great advantages to living in a small town, writing a small town murder mystery, and having helpful experts just a few blocks or a phone call away.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Do You Want to Use a Lifeline and Call an Expert? Here's How

My first mystery, Three May Keep a Secret, is coming out this November from Five Star Publishing. Notice the word "first" in that sentence. Over the past two years, I have had many "firsts" in writing this mystery. One of those was getting up my nerve to call and make an appointment to talk with experts whose professions involve crime, dead bodies, and fires. After all, I really didn't have a mystery published yet. At the time I needed their help, I was a retired English teacher dabbling in the world of crime. What did I know? 

I'm lucky to live in a small town of 10,000 in west central Illinois, and my book takes place in just such a town. Talking with experts who deal with small town crime is much more helpful than speaking with someone, say, who works in urban areas. This made it a little less scary to call for that appointment. However, if you're a "big city" person, the same interview basics apply.

If you are contemplating expert inteviews, just keep in mind that the worst these experts can say is "no." However, none of mine did. People seem to love talking about their work, and it is always flattering when someone asks you for advice. So, screw up your courage and call or email. Then, once they've said "yes" and your legs have stopped shaking, start thinking about the interview. Perhaps my thoughts can help you with this process.

Preparation. In preparing for the interview, I try to remember I am a writer interviewing experts. So first I need to act in a professional manner. I do my homework by choosing the professionals I need and researching their credentials for experience and expertise.

Do I interview the expert while I am writing my novel or before the area where I need expert help? I've done both, and sometimes after I've written a scene, I take it to the interview and ask the expert if it is realistic. This was true, for example, when I wrote a scene about being in a fire. Fortunately, I've never been there, but the Fire Chief said I imagined it quite realistically.

I call early or email, and set the date, time, and place that will work for both of us. In the case of the Police Chief and Fire Chief, I met them at their offices. My coroner and I met at a local coffee shop (love living in a small town!) My police detective and I email, and we continue to do so every time I have a question. Also, I make sure to leave a contact number in case the designated interview falls through. After all, with these kinds of experts an emergency might develop quickly.

It's very important to go to the interview
with questions I want to ask so I won't waste their time or mine. Let's consider the Police Chief. First, I want to ask general questions. For example, I asked about cold case files. What might be in them? Would the contents be different in the 1960's compared to today? I also ask very specific questions about weapons, procedures, or criminal thinking. I asked about destroying the number on a gun. My questions might also verify plot points I've written or am thinking about. I asked my coroner about post mortem lab tests. Who orders them? Is there always an inquest? How has the law changed regarding inquests? I can also ask my expert if a particular plot twist or fact is possible or realistic. Often they have amazing stores of their own that are true but sound stranger than fiction.

The day of the interview, I arrive early. Believe me, you can cut down on anxiety if you plan to arrive early, covering all possibilities including traffic. I bring my questions with plenty of room to take
notes. I also like to take a small recorder, but I always ask the person being interviewed if he is fine with being recorded. Usually, he appreciates the fact that I am trying to be very accurate. I like recording an interview because if I'm writing down answers I'm not thinking as quickly about follow-up questions. I write down something I want to go back to or information I need to emphasize. I take brief notes but mostly I listen and think. Often my source will give me other resources--people I can interview that might be helpful. My coroner also loaned me books that explained crime scenes, procedures, and the condition of the victims' bodies in various kinds of deaths. Made for great, late-night reading.

Listen carefully during interviews. Many of the answers will lead you in new directions. Don't be afraid to throw in a question you hadn't intended to ask.

The last thing in the interview is an
exchange of business cards. I always ask the expert if I may call or email if another question comes up. Often I need to clarify one of his answers or my understanding of it. This works quite successfully.

After the interview, I type the information, along with my thoughts and reactions. I do this immediately while the ideas are fresh in my mind. I also generally write a "thank you" note or email to thank the expert for his time and help. If he has given me a great deal of help, I acknowledge him in my book.

Coming up next: A discussion of my interview with our local Police Chief, Bill Feithen.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Expert Sources: The Often Unsung Heroes of Mysteries

It's hard to believe that three weeks ago I was sitting in The Sugar Bowl in Old Town Scottsdale having lunch with Annette Mahon, enjoying the blue Arizona skies, and loving the mid-seventies temperatures. Annette is the author of five quilting mysteries about the St. Rose Quilting Bee group. Now, in early March, I'm looking out my living room window at the snow blanketing my Illinois yard and contemplating the zero temperatures.

At least the sky is blue. Today.

It always stirs my thoughts when I talk with other writers. Something Annette said caused me to consider the expert sources I use for my mysteries. She explained that the Scottsdale Police Department has a public relations person whom writers can call for answers to their police procedure questions. That thought stayed in my head for several days. The entire Phoenix/Scottsdale area is so huge that comparing it to my little town is ludicrous. I don't think we have a specific public relations person designated as "the one most likely to return calls to authors."

Annette and I are members of the Sisters in Crime Scottsdale chapter called Desert Sleuths, and at a recent meeting we heard a Phoenix police detective discuss the procedures used for arresting people in the metro area. The scenarios were quite different from those used in our little town. Needless to say, the severity
of the crimes differs considerably between Phoenix (pop. 4.3 million) and Monmouth, Illinois (pop. 10,000 on a good day.) One trip walking past the waiting room of a Mesa, Arizona emergency room told me that. Gun shots, stabbings, and domestic violence aside, those scenes are rare here in our little hamlet.

I remember thinking, "Gosh, I have such great experts I can call and have a sit-down, face-to-face, interview. It might cost me a cup of coffee, but I come away with amazing information that finds its way into my mysteries. While most of my experts have worked earlier in more populated places, they now deal with small town crime and police procedures. That's what I'm writing about, so I'm really fortunate to have these resources at my fingertips." Every expert I've interviewed in the past year has been pleasant, funny, professional, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable.

I also have secret weapons. Over my many high school teaching years, I came into contact with some 4,000 students. Many of them are now in positions where they have information I need. A quick
phone call: ("Really? You got a 'D' on that Moby Dick paper twenty-five years ago? What can I say? I was young and inexperienced. On the other hand, can you tell me...") The internet has made it speedier to contact these former students when their areas of expertise collide with information I need to know. Believe me, I'm not beneath calling in a few favors, just like my protagonist, retired teacher Grace Kimball.

Back in our town I must admit that as a first time mystery novelist I was a little worried about calling these "expert" people. What if they didn't want to talk to me? After all, I don't really have a murder mystery published yet. I'm just writing it and maybe I won't find a publisher. Then I had one of "those talks."

"What's the worst thing they can say?"
"So, they say 'no.' That just means you go to Plan B, right?"
"Right. And Plan B is?"

As it turned out, I discovered that people are very pleased, enthusiastic, and flattered to talk about their work. Here I
am, a novelist who used to be an English teacher, and who knows nothing about bullets, dead bodies, or arrest warrants, but I'm learning fast. Yes, I've done my research from books on these topics, but the real expert is so much more informative. Believe me, people who are police officers or coroners are happy to fill me in on those details--especially the grizzly ones--and I'm happy to give them credit for doing so. Readers today call authors out when they see errors in crime procedures so it pays to be accurate. So far no expert has turned me down, and each has been amazing at clarifying answers to my questions and making suggestions that I might not have considered.

These unsung heroes are going to be the subjects of several blog posts over the next few weeks. I plan to begin with a post about how an author might go about preparing and doing an interview when working with expert sources. Then I'll follow up with descriptions of the experts I used and the kinds of information I gained from talking with them. I'll discuss "my" police chief, fire chief, coroner, and police detective. I know it doesn't have quite the lilt or alliteration of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but it works for me.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Annette Mahon: Mystery and Romance Writer, Quilter, Book-Lover, Mom

During this winter in Arizona, I've had the pleasure of meeting a fellow member of Sisters in Crime, Annette Mahon. On a beautiful Arizona day, we enjoyed a fabulous lunch at The Sugar Bowl in Scottsdale.
Photo from Annette's
Author Facebook Page
Annette has a new book coming out this September, and I plan to interview her for this blog prior to her book launch.

Like me, Annette has been interested and passionate about books since she learned to read. She is retired from her earlier career as both a librarian and the host of a library cable show called "The Children's Room." Her educational background includes a Master's Degree in library science from Syracuse University.

Annette is married, and she and her husband raised three daughters. Although she is retired these days, she continues to write novels, especially mysteries. Her earlier books were romances published by Avalon, and many of those are now available online as e-books. Montlake Romance published two of those online recently--Holiday Dreams and The Secret Santa.

Growing up in Hilo, Hawaii, she has used that knowledge to create a strong Hawaiian presence in her romance novels. Her latest published book takes place in Hawaii when her fictional quilting bee group travels there. Readers interested in that locale will love her romance novels and also her latest quilting bee mystery. But you don't have to be a quilter to enjoy her novels.

One of Annette's biggest passions is quilting, so it is no wonder she has written a series of mysteries around the sleuthing of the St. Rose Quilting Bee friends. In A Phantom Death, her protagonist, Maggie Browne, becomes involved in a murder investigation when a young man, Jonathan Hunter, is murdered on land near Maggie's son's ranch. Maggie knew Hunter when he was a young boy, growing up with her son and in and out of her home. Now he has had great success playing the lead in a group of actors who are doing The Phantom of the Opera. Unfortunately, Scottsdale was his final stop.

Maggie and her friends wrestle with the clues and relationships that lead them to speculate on the murder. It also helps that one of Maggie's sons is a police officer. All the while they are quilting together or volunteering at Gammage Auditorium where the musical is playing.

Along the way, the reader also hears about quilts and quilting. Currently, Annette has written three more books in this series. The most recent is St. Rose Goes Hawaiian. The cover features an
The plumeria flower
original Hawaiian quilt wall hanging based on the plumeria flower. Prior to this fourth quilting mystery, her books were all set in Scottsdale. They include Bits and Pieces, An Ominous Death, and A Phantom Death. In September, she will be adding Bright Hopes. The title is, of course, the name of a quilt pattern. All of these mysteries have been published by Five Star Publishing, the company that is currently producing my first mystery for publication. Annette has been an invaluable help since she is far along the publishing road compared to my beginning efforts. 

If you would like to check out Annette's books, you can do so on her website here or go! to her Facebook Author Page, Author Annette Mahon, and, while you're there feel free to hit the "like" button. 

Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to talking to her again in August.