“What was it like?” they’ll often ask.
Pretty gross, actually, but at the same time, illuminating because it confirmed my theory that one of the best ways to draw the reader into a story is to experience that which you describe. Googling a topic may be a good start but won't cut it if you're trying to create a solid and meaningful sense of setting.
A former television journalist, I know how to combine words and pictures to tell a story. However, writing fiction, I've discovered, is a completely different world. Unlike with TV, in novels there's no video to convey the tone and mood of a particular scene. Here, your words are your pictures, and if readers can't see them in their minds, you'll lose your audience in a heartbeat. With my autopsy chapter being one of the most critical in the book, I couldn't afford to do that, and despite a rather strong visceral resistance, I felt I simply had no choice.
You may find my reluctance a bit odd considering I'm often accused of writing some very gritty stuff in my novels. Besides that, I'm no stranger to blood and gore—I'd seen a fair share during my tenure in television news. Still, somehow, the autopsy room seemed different to me, like an intimate dance with death, a messy one, which I much preferred to sit out of. But as it often does, logic won, and like it or not I was off to experience my first—and hopefully last—autopsy (at least from a vertical point-of-view).
First stop, the freezer. This is where they keep the bodies before examination, a thirty by fifteen room with shelves lining three walls, stacked three high. At the time of my visit, every seat in the house appeared to be taken, standing room only. I walked in, gazed at the sea of body bags, then stopped in my tracks. I'm pretty sure this was the exact point where reality finally set in: I was surrounded by dead people, lots and lots of dead people. Guess it makes sense that with a city as large as San Diego, plenty of folks die each day, and they all have to go somewhere; I just don't think I had expected to be standing among all of them.
Next stop: the autopsy room. But first, a little advice before entering: I was shown the exits and told to use them if I began feeling ill.
Once inside, besides an all out assault on the senses (no need for explicit detail here), I think what surprised me most was what a busy place the autopsy room was. Now, I'm going to show my age here, but as a member of the Quincy generation, my preconceived notions were far more simplistic than I had imagined. In my world, I expected to see a lone autopsy table center stage with the medical examiner standing over it and a sanitized view of what went on. All this and, of course, wrapped up in less than an hour.So not the case.
The place was busier than any newsroom I'd ever worked in, except it wasn't the clicking of keyboards I heard—it was the buzzing and whining of saws; probably why they had me change into a white space-suit-looking getup with transparent facemask before entering. Yes, folks, cutting, sawing, and drilling human remains is messy business. Things do fly.
Ten stainless steel tables lined the wall, each with a faucet at the top, a drain at the bottom, and yes, each with a body laying on top—all in varying degrees of examination, and most of them clearly missing things that shouldn't have been. I have to say that the ones without heads were the most unnerving. As they say, parts is parts, but parts belong where they belong. Looking around at the people working here, I got an odd sense of extreme desensitization, that this was business as usual and walking past headless bodies was like a walk in the park.
Wish I could have felt the same.
As for the autopsy itself, after getting past the initial shock, it did become somewhat easier to watch. I’m not saying it was a piece of cake—it wasn’t—but one does adjust to their surroundings if they stick around long enough. Even in situations like this.
As an added bonus, the medical examiner not only described what he was doing as he removed the organs—he also handed each of them to me (luckily I was wearing gloves). Kind of gross, I know, but nevertheless a valuable experiences for a mystery writer. After all, you never know when you might need to introduce a disembodied organ or two into a story—a kidney here, a spleen there. Like I've said, I'm known for writing grisly scenes.
I could go on describing every detail, but at the risk of losing those of you who have made it this far, I'll stop and say this: Despite everything, my autopsy chapter never would have been the same had I not gone through this experience. Unpleasant as it was, the truth is that as writers, we sometimes need to get our hands dirty—in this case, very dirty—but it’s all for the sake of the craft. Simply put, sometimes you have to give until it hurts. I did—I'm pretty sure of it.
Did I achieve my intended goal? I hope so, but if you'd like to decide, here's a link to the chapter, along with a warning: It's a bit gruesome, but at the same time, depicts reality, and that's what we, as writers, should always strive to do.