Bouchercon: It’s All About Community!

No one else in my family writes novels. When I talk about plotting and pacing, my husband gives me the same blank stare that I give him when he goes into detail about software architecture and development. However, my husband has community and coworkers available to him for discussing the intricacies of his work. Sitting at home at my desk, I didn’t have that same community available because writing is generally a solitary occupation. Writers have to go out of their way to find other writers with whom to socialize and talk shop.

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Beth Wasson, Sherry Harris, and me (N. M. Cedeno) at the SinC table at Bouchercon 2019, photo by Molly Weston

Recognizing the need for colleagues who understood my work, I sought out a local organization that I could join. My search brought me to a chapter of Sisters in Crime, an organization created to support the work of crime fiction writers like me. My local chapter, the Heart of Texas Chapter, provides monthly meetings on topics related to crime fiction and writing and creates a place to meet and talk to other crime fiction authors. Suddenly, I had colleagues with whom to discuss my work. I had found my people.

What I didn’t immediately realize was the extent of the community that I had joined. While I knew that other chapters of Sisters in Crime (SinC) existed around the world, I didn’t consider the larger writing community as a whole. Comfortable with my local community, the world community’s existence escaped my attention.

Never having attended one, I knew nothing about large conventions. I have never been a fan-girl, anxious to meet and shake the hand of my favorite authors. If I thought about my favorite authors at all, I would have assumed they were sitting at home, writing, like I was, and sometimes going out to meet with other local authors. Sure, some of the top 5% go on book tours, and children’s authors visit schools. But, I’d never imagined what it would look like if mystery writers and readers from across the country got together to meet, talk about crime fiction, and socialize.

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Helen Currie Foster and Peter Lovesey at Bouchercon 2019, photo by N. M. Cedeno

Then, Bouchercon came to my state.

Bouchercon, the annual gathering of mystery writers and readers named after Anthony Boucher, a founding member of the Mystery Writers of America, celebrated its 50th Anniversary this year with a massive conference in Dallas, Texas. The importance of the event dawned on me as I began to receive notifications from Sisters in Crime about the events that they would be holding during the convention. As a local chapter president, I was asked to attend the chapter presidents’ meeting to be held after the Sisters in Crime Breakfast on a Friday during the conference. With an invitation to attend, vote on important matters, and discuss issues facing chapters, I registered for the conference and signed up to attend the SinC breakfast.

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Rhys Bowen at Bouchercon 2019, photo by N. M. Cedeno

Arriving at the conference, I realized I’d walked into an event that looked like my local Sisters in Crime chapter meetings multiplied a hundred-fold in scale. Instead of local authors getting together to discuss topics and socialize for an hour or two, mystery writers and readers from all over the world came together to talk and socialize for 4 days. And almost everyone was friendly. I found myself riding in elevators with world-renowned editors, discussing the schedule with best-selling authors, and sitting with critically acclaimed international authors at breakfast.

When I could make my introverted-self attempt a conversation, each and every author I spoke to was polite, interested in talking to me, and happy to pose for pictures as I documented the event for my chapter newsletter.

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Me (N. M. Cedeno) and Anne Hillerman at Bouchercon 2019, photo by Helen Currie Foster

After attending lunches, breakfasts, dinners, award ceremonies, and many panel discussions with mystery authors and readers from around the world, I came home exhausted, but extremely happy to have been welcomed into the larger mystery community. While I won’t be able to attend massive mystery conferences every year, simply knowing that they exist is a boost to my spirits.

I look forward to the next time I’m able to join the larger mystery community and talk to colleagues from around the country and around the world. In the meantime, I hope to infuse my local Sisters in Crime meetings with the welcoming spirit and sense of community that I found at Bouchercon.

An Interview with Author Lois Winston

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Lois Winston

Award winning author, Lois Winston, has a new crafting mystery coming out for the holidays! She has kindly allowed me to interview her about her writing and to present her upcoming book, Handmade Ho-Ho Homicide.

1.   Tell us about your series and your latest book.
Although I’ve written in various genres in the past, I currently write the Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries, a humorous cozy series that debuted in 2011. There are now seven novels and three novellas. The eighth novel, Handmade Ho-Ho Homicide, is currently available for pre-order and will be released October 1st.

Anastasia, a women’s magazine crafts editor, lived a typical suburban middle-class life with her husband and two sons until her husband permanently cashed in his chips in Las Vegas. Turns out the guy was a closet gambler who left her with debt greater than the GNP of Uzbekistan. (The wife is always the last to know.) And did I mention the loan shark wants his money—or else? Anastasia is one step away from losing her home and moving her family into a cardboard box on a street corner.

It would be an extremely crowded cardboard box, given that along with her teenage sons, her household includes her communist mother-in-law, her much-married mother, her mother’s cat, her mother-in-law’s dog, and Ralph, the Shakespeare-quoting parrot. Plus, there’s Zack Barnes, a photojournalist who rents the apartment above Anastasia’s garage and who has wormed his way into her life. Zack is the one good thing that has happened to Anastasia over the past year, except she suspects he’s a spy.

And then there are the dead bodies that keep showing up as Anastasia tries to stave off the bill collectors, transforming this magazine crafts editor into a reluctant amateur sleuth.

      2. What is the most challenging part of the business of writing for you?
Finding new and different ways to kill people. 😉

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Image by Pixabay

3. Tell us about your main character. What inspired you to create this character?
I was writing romance, romantic suspense, and chick lit when one day an editor told my agent she was looking for a crafting cozy mystery series. Knowing my day job was as a designer and editor in the consumer crafts industry, my agent thought I’d be the perfect person to write such a series. So I gave it a try and have never looked back.

In many ways, Anastasia is my alter ego. We’re both Jersey girls with two sons (although mine are no longer teenagers) and have had similar careers. I also had a communist mother-in-law, which led to the creation of Anastasia’s mother-in-law. But my husband doesn’t gamble, is still very much alive, and I’ve never discovered a dead body—yet.

     4. You are a member of Sisters in Crime. Do you feel membership in writers’ groups is important to a writer? How does it help you?
One of the greatest benefits of writers’ groups is being able to network with other writers and learn from them. When I began writing, I didn’t realize how little I knew until I joined several writing organizations and became educated, both in craft and the business end of writing. Not only did I find my agent at a writing organization’s annual conference, I have found friendships that I know will last the rest of my life.

     5. What do you read for fun?
Aside from mysteries, I enjoy historical fiction, biographies, women’s fiction, and anything that makes me laugh.

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Be sure to read Handmade Ho-Ho Homicide An Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery, Book 8 !

Ho-Ho epub cover-72Two and a half weeks ago magazine crafts editor Anastasia Pollack arrived home to find Ira Pollack, her half-brother-in-law, had blinged out her home with enough Christmas lights to rival Rockefeller Center. Now he’s crammed her small yard with enormous cavorting inflatable characters. She and photojournalist boyfriend and possible spy Zack Barnes pack up the unwanted lawn decorations to return to Ira. They arrive to find his yard the scene of an over-the-top Christmas extravaganza. His neighbors are not happy with the animatronics, laser light show, and blaring music creating traffic jams on their normally quiet street. One of them expresses his displeasure with his fists before running off.

In the excitement, the deflated lawn ornaments are never returned to Ira. The next morning Anastasia once again heads to his house before work to drop them off. When she arrives, she discovers Ira’s attacker dead in Santa’s sleigh. Ira becomes the prime suspect in the man’s murder and begs Anastasia to help clear his name. But Anastasia has promised her sons she’ll keep her nose out of police business. What’s a reluctant amateur sleuth to do?

Available  for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Kobo.

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USA Today bestselling and award-winning author Lois Winston writes mystery, romance, romantic suspense, chick lit, women’s fiction, children’s chapter books, and nonfiction under her own name and her Emma Carlyle pen name. Kirkus Reviews dubbed her critically acclaimed Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series, “North Jersey’s more mature answer to Stephanie Plum.” In addition, Lois is a former literary agent and an award-winning craft and needlework designer who often draws much of her source material for both her characters and plots from her experiences in the crafts industry. 

Find Lois at www.loiswinston.com

Writing an Academic Mystery

 

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My books by Dorothy Sayers. Picture by N. M. Cedeño

Academic mysteries are a timeless subgenre in crime fiction. Found on almost every list of the best mysteries ever written, Dorothy Sayer’s Gaudy Night is the epitome of British academic mysteries and is one of my favorite books. Several British mystery series that have been adapted for television are set in the university towns of Oxford or Cambridge with students and professors as witnesses and suspects. Academic mysteries fill a popular niche in the world of crime fiction.

While I enjoy academic mysteries, I never planned to write one. Instead, I fell into it. When I was creating my Bad Vibes Removal Services paranormal mystery series and fleshing out my characters, I blithely imagined my main character Lea to be a graduate student in history who happened to have the ability to see ghosts and the ability to sense the emotional history of a location. Since I made her a grad student, I assigned Lea to my own alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin.

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Cover designed by Brandon Swann

After writing several short stories in the series, I decided to write a novel. That first novel, The Walls Can Talk, was set in an Irish castle that had been moved to central Texas, bringing its resident ghost with it. In that book, I developed a subplot involving Lea’s graduate work. When I sat down to write the second book in the series, Degrees of Deceit, I realized that I wanted to extend Lea’s story line and that the natural setting would be the campus at U.T. Austin. Suddenly, I was writing an academic mystery.

Three quarters of the way into the first draft, a question popped into my head. I realized that most of the books set at real universities were British. I wondered, why don’t American authors set books at real academic institutions? I consulted Google, looking for an answer. And, I discovered that authors in the United States don’t set mysteries at known universities for fear of being sued for “disparaging” the universities.

Which led me to think, British authors do it all the time. Don’t British authors fear being sued?

Back to Google. And, yes, British authors fear being sued too. But British authors have a simple solution to avoid legal action because British universities are organized differently than American universities. Oxford, for example, currently has 39 colleges that are separate entities within the larger university. British authors avoid getting sued by creating fictional colleges. This allows British authors to use the well-known buildings, landscapes, and towns around the real universities while centering the plot in a fake college. Dorothy Sayers even placed a hefty author’s note at the beginning of Gaudy Night explaining how she did this.

Lacking this option, many American authors resort to creating thinly veiled, fictional versions of the university that they want to use as a setting. Consequently, American readers almost never get to read crime novels set among the famous buildings of extant American universities.

Having previously written paranormal and science fiction mysteries, I knew nothing of the complicated legal machinations used by other authors in writing academic mysteries. When I started writing my academic mystery, I jumped into the writing completely blind to the fraught legal matters associated with the genre.

Then, of course, when I discovered the possible legal ramifications, I panicked and stopped writing, afraid that I would have to rewrite my entire manuscript with a different setting. Then, I panicked again, realizing that I couldn’t move the setting to a nonexistent, fictional university because I’d already identified the university Lea attended in the previous, already-published books and stories. I couldn’t keep the story line without the setting.

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Image by Pixabay

In a state of dread, I called the U. T. Austin legal department, where a nice lady told me that I had the legal right to set a story at U. T. Austin as long as I avoided using the names of any actual university employees, past or present. I researched my characters names to see if they resembled any known employees. None did. Relieved, I finished writing the novel.

Still, a nagging worry grew in the back of my brain. I had nightmares that the answer the legal department woman gave me was too simple. If the answer was so easy, why did other authors avoid setting novels at universities? I asked a few lawyer friends their opinion on the matter. They told me I was right to be worried. The answer I was given was too simple. I could still get sued.

With a complete manuscript hanging in the balance, I set out to try to minimize any legal issues because I really had no intention of disparaging anyone. Most of the novel revolved around a single dorm on the U. T. campus, one that I had lived in as a student. I decided setting the story in a real dorm might be too risky. Someone might think I was writing about actual students in the actual dorm. I couldn’t create a fake college, but I could create a fake dorm. I decided to rename the dorm and set the story in a thinly veiled, fictional dorm instead of in a real one.

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Cover designed by Brandon Swann

After renaming the dorm and changing some details associated with it, I sent the completed manuscript off to the editor for review. The editor liked my story and now my academic mystery is finally ready for publication. Following Dorothy Sayer’s lead, I’ve included a hefty author’s note explaining that the dorm and the story are entirely fictional. Degrees of Deceit comes out later this month.

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Find more about my books at nmcedeno.com or at amazon.com/author/nmcedeno

Homicide Detective Speaks to Writers’ Group

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Logo provided by Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter

At the June Sisters in Crime – Heart of Texas meeting, Detective Dave Fugitt presented an overview of the Austin Police Department Homicide Unit. Local mystery author and Travis County Assistant District Attorney Mark Pryor introduced Det. Fugitt as the best homicide investigator in the Austin Police Department. In his capacity as ADA, Mr. Pryor and Det. Fugitt have worked together on murder cases in Travis County.

Fugitt is a member of the Homicide Investigators of Texas and the International Homicide Investigators Association. The International Homicide Investigators Association holds annual symposiums for detectives from around the world. During these meetings, detectives share ideas for solving cold cases and keep up to date on new techniques and technology in forensics and crime solving. The association also holds regional training events around the United States.

As an APD homicide investigator Fugitt has been the lead investigator on 48 homicides in his career and has closed 45 of them. He would still like to solve those other three cases, one of which is the first case he was ever assigned as a lead detective. Fugitt also has assisted in over 500 homicide investigations as a member of the homicide unit. Of these cases, the detective said that cases involving victims engaged in risky or illegal behaviors tended to be difficult to solve and his first case that remains unsolved falls into that category.

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graphic provided by Pixabay

 

According to Fugitt, each detective in the homicide unit is assigned 3 to 5 homicides each year as the lead investigator. While working those cases, each officer also investigates suicides, accidents, and deaths from unknown causes and assists with murder cases assigned to others in the unit. Cases are assigned using a unique rotation system. This detective rotation system is different from systems used by homicide units in other cities and has been very successful for the Austin Police Department. Other cities have sent representatives to Austin to review this rotation system to see if it would work for them.

The detective provided a wealth of information about homicide investigations for audience members, including describing the interrogation rooms, layout of the homicide unit, and the equipment available to detectives.

Fugitt explained that police officers undergo training and classes to keep up to date with new investigative practices. He has had approximately 5,722 hours of training from the police department. One recent class was “Crime Scene Shooting Reconstruction.” Fugitt also reads Forensics Magazine and Evidence Technology Magazine to learn new methods of evidence analysis and collection. He recommends books for reference material, including Practical Homicide Investigation and The Death Investigators Handbook.

Fugitt has been involved in high-profile investigations, several of which have been documented in books and movies. He participated in the investigation into the death of Madalyn Murray O’Hair and investigated the murder of Jennifer Cave. During the meeting, Fugitt answered a variety of questions for local authors regarding evidence collection and investigation practices. He admitted that he tries to see the victim’s body as evidence to be reviewed, but that it is harder to separate emotion from cases involving the murder of children. He stated that family support is critical for members of his unit because of how much time they spend working on new cases as the lead investigator.

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Graphic provided by Pixabay

The detective shared anecdotes from his own personal experience working in the homicide unit. For example, Det. Fugitt told a story about a case he assisted on when he was first assigned to the homicide unit. The lead detective asked Fugitt to tell him how a small amount of blood landed on a nearby mirror. Fugitt looked at the blood, which appeared to be high velocity spatter, but could not see how the blood could possibly have landed where it did, given the position of the body in the case. He was puzzled, but the lead detective told him to stare at it for a moment and the answer would come to him. After a moment feeling stupid, Det. Fugitt observed a fly landing on the mirror and leaving blood behind. He realized that the apparent spatter was really blood droplets transferred from the fly when it landed on the mirror.

Detective Fugitt was a wonderful speaker and willingly answered the questions put to him by authors in the audience. Several members of this blog, Ink-Stained Wretches, attended the meeting and thoroughly enjoyed it. Sisters in Crime, Heart of Texas holds monthly meetings on a variety of topics, including inviting  guest speakers of interest to mystery authors and readers. Check them out at Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime

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Full disclosure: N. M. Cedeño, the author of this blog, is also the current President of the Sisters in Crime-Heart of Texas Chapter. She writes traditional, sci-fi, and paranormal mysteries. Her new paranormal mystery, Degrees of Deceit will be published later this year. Her work can be found at amazon.com/author/nmcedeno

Learning to Write My Way: A Cautionary Tale

Don’t do what I did.

First, I learned how to write. Then, I learned how not to write. Then, I had to relearn how to write again.

woman-thinking writingWhen I first started writing, each story was a new adventure with new characters and settings. Stories ideas would come into my brain, marinate for a few days, and then I’d start working. I didn’t make a conscious plan to create stories in any particular genre. I wrote stories for me, telling the stories I wanted to tell as the ideas came to me. Having analyzed and written short stories during my education, the process came naturally to me. I simply sat down and began working, knowing the story needed a strong opening, rising action, a climax, and a dénouement.

As I grew more confident in my work and began submitting my short stories to magazines, I thought I’d figured out how to write. So I challenged myself to complete a novel length work, 60,000 words. I decided to write a mystery novel.

WritingMessyBut although I’d analyzed novels previously, the only thing I’d written of any great length was a nonfiction honor’s thesis for my undergraduate degree. I had never studied how to craft a novel. While I knew the story still required the same basic pieces, the idea of creating something so long and complex without preparation seemed daunting. I decided to read books about the process, to learn what I needed to know before diving in blindly.

Unfortunately, I chose the wrong books to direct me. Though the books came with great reviews and were highly recommended for learning to craft mystery novels, they all espoused one particular style: a carefully plotted method that involved mapping the book in detail in advance. Recognizing this as the method I had been taught to produce nonfiction, I thought, “Oh, I can do this. I’ve done this before. This must be the way to produce book-length works.”

All of my short stories had been written in a free-flowing, organic style with minimal advance plotting. I scribbled down a handful of notes and ideas on character or plot and started working, letting the story come to life on the page as I went. When I tried to write my first novel, I dropped that spontaneous process and tried to plot everything as the books I’d read suggested.

leave-839225_1280And thus, I shot myself in the foot. I inhibited my writing process by trying to follow someone else’s methods.

The joy went out of my work.

I was unable to get beyond a chapter or two before quitting.

After reassessing the situation, I began looking for other ways of crafting novels. This search lead me to discover the “pantser vs plotter” approaches. “Pantsers,” people who wrote “by the seat of their pants,” making things up as they went, were a whole category of authors. Their approach was fundamentally opposite to the “plotters,” authors who planned and outlined all the details in advance. Once I learned about these basic style differences, I found other authors who advised beginners to find their own method for writing books and not try to use anyone else’s. I found blogs and quotes from successful authors that said the only rule for writing was to actually put words on the page. How you arrived at that point was irrelevant.

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All pictures from Pixabay

So I took another stab at writing a novel, having finally understood that I had to write “my way” and not somebody else’s way. I finished my first novel, a second, and a third, and now the fourth will be coming out later this year. So, learn from my mistake. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to follow their method to write a book. Find your own process and start writing.

Writing in an Atmosphere of Intimidation

Most writers, like all artists who create work for public consumption, have to overcome their own inner critics to create a finished work. The voices of doubt are strong and loud in their heads. Will anyone read it? Will anyone like it? Will people hate it? In the past, that inner voice of self-doubt was the main voice an author had to overcome.

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art from Pixabay

But today, writers face an additional level of fear and doubt between themselves and their goal of reaching publication. They face an online atmosphere of intimidation. They face a world in which a work may be torn apart by a Twitter mob or Facebook mob before it’s even published.

In the last few years, several YA novels (Blood Heir, A Place for Wolves, The Black Witch, and The Continent to name a few) have been delayed or pulled from the publishing process before their publication date because of online criticism. Someone found what he or she considered to be a flaw in the advance reader copies of the works and cried out loudly enough to enrage mobs of people echoing the criticisms.

In one case, someone was offended by a character’s racist ideology. The character was designed by the author to be racist and to grow to recognize their own racism as the story progresses. That was a point the author was trying to make. In another case, an Asian author, who wasn’t raised in the United States, wrote a fantasy story drawing from her own perspective and background which touched on the history of indentured servitude and human trafficking in Asia. She was charged with being insensitive to U. S. racial history and U. S. cultural context.

The authors were vilified online, attacked personally and professionally, until they or their publisher felt driven to pull their books from the publication schedule. Their stories were prevented or delayed from reaching an audience by mobs who hadn’t even read the books.

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art from Pixabay

Authors’ voices of self-doubt are already strong. Throw a harassing mob on top of that inner critic, and many authors, especially debut authors, will fold under the weight of the criticism. Because of the fear of online mobs harassing, attacking, and vilifying them, some authors are censoring their work as they write it. They are looking for ways to avoid offending anyone. These authors decide to err on the side of caution. They think, “Perhaps if I avoid this subject altogether, I can avoid offending someone. Perhaps if I don’t mention (fill in the blank), no one will attack me.” And, so begins the self-stifling of free expression out of fear of mob rule. Differing points of view vanish. Stories go untold out of fear. Difficult subjects are avoided completely rather than discussed.

Still other writers deal with the issue by asking someone else to review their work, looking for potentially offensive material. They hire “sensitivity readers” in hopes of catching any potential problems before publication. They hope that one person’s opinion of what’s acceptable will work for everyone, an idea that is doomed to failure. Authors can’t control what different readers see in their words because every reader’s inner vision, life experiences, and point of view will be different. What one reader sees in a story, another may not see at all.

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art from Pixabay

It’s not merely harsh reviews these authors fear. They fear being trolled. They fear their phone ringing with obscene calls and incessant threatening texts, their web pages and Facebook pages being overwhelmed with threatening comments. They fear receiving death threats. They fear nonstop harassment of their families. When mobs consider offending someone akin to physically harming them, authors who write about difficult subjects risk sparking nonstop attacks with every work they release.

We are living in a Fahrenheit 451 world, a world in which the crime of accidentally offending someone can cause a book to be pulled from publication before it ever reaches a single vendor. We live in a world in which the crime of offending someone is punishable by online lynching. We need these attacks to stop. We need all voices to be heard and debated, not silenced before they ever reach publication by people who deem themselves to be “woker-than-thou.”

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N. M. Cedeño writes short stories and novels that are typically set in Texas. Her stories vary from traditional mystery, to science fiction, to paranormal mystery in genre. Most recently, she has been writing the Bad Vibes Removal Services Series which includes short stories, the novel The Walls Can Talk (2017) and its sequel coming in fall 2019. Learn more at www.nmcedeno.com or amazon.com/author/nmcedeno

Death Investigations in the United States

Nationally renowned and award-winning mystery author Jan Burke came to speak to the Sisters in Crime Heart of Texas Chapter recently about two subjects dear to her heart: missing and unidentified people and the lack of uniform standards and training in the medico/legal death investigation system in the United States. She reminded the crime fiction authors in the crowd that they have a platform to bring attention to subjects such as these.

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Jan Burke

In the United States, 600,000 adults and children go missing every year. The vast majority are found relatively quickly. However, over ten thousand people remain missing for more than a year. And sadly, around 4,400 unidentified bodies are recovered every year. In an attempt to match the missing with the unknown dead, the Department of Justice and the National Institute for Justice created an online database called NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

However, only three states require reporting of unidentified remains to the NamUs database. In most states, individual counties make the rules regarding handling of unidentified remains. Consequently, a person who vanishes in one county may turn up dead, lacking identification, four counties away, and their family may never be notified. This creates what NamUs calls the Nation’s Silent Mass Disaster: a huge volume of unsolved cases regarding missing persons and unidentified dead bodies.

One example of this problem is the case of Lupita Cantu. Lupita disappeared from San Antonio, Texas, in Bexar County, in April 1990. That same year her body was found near Pearsall, Texas, and buried as a Jane Doe, because authorities couldn’t identify her. She wasn’t identified until 2011, when DNA analysis finally matched her with her family. Pearsall is only about 55 miles from San Antonio, in Frio County. Had the counties been required to report unidentified remains and missing persons to a central clearinghouse, Lupita might have been identified much sooner. This problem is even more extreme in places where it’s easy to cross state lines. Someone who disappeared from one state might never be linked to remains found two states away.

NamUs creates a central clearinghouse for missing persons and unidentified remains, allowing both families of the missing and law enforcement agencies to enter information into the database in hopes of matching the missing with the dead. NamUs also can provide law enforcement agencies in rural, low-population, or underfunded counties the forensic resources needed to identify the dead, including forensic odontology, fingerprint examination, forensic anthropology, and DNA analyses. Families of the missing can receive DNA collection kits so that their data may be compared with the DNA from unidentified remains.

The NamUs clearinghouse is necessary because of the lack of uniformity in the handling of deaths by the medico/legal system in the United States. Each state has different standards and rules that apply to the person whose job it is to declare whether a death is natural, accidental, or homicide. Some states have medical examiners. Some states have coroners. Some of these people are elected. Some are appointed. Some are required to have medical training. Some are required to be forensic pathologists. And some aren’t required to have any special training whatsoever. Within each state, whether a county uses a coroner or a medical examiner may vary by county and by population.

This patchwork quilt of laws means that there are over 2,300 different systems for dealing with death for the more than 3,100 counties (or parishes, or whatever the state has labeled the entities) in the United States. Multiple scientific studies have reviewed these systems, and all have consistently returned the same recommendations. The population would be better served by a more consistent set of rules and regulations across the United States. The current system creates great disparities in the administration of justice.

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Jan Burke, photo by Helen C. Foster

For instance, in a county where a justice of the peace (J. P.) decides the nature of death, where the county has no medical examiner and must send bodies several counties away for autopsy, the county’s budget may determine if a death by unknown causes is ever reviewed. Consider this scenario. Suppose a fifty-year-old man is found dead in his bed at home. The house was locked and police can see no visible evidence of foul play. The police may ask the J. P. to find the death is suspicious, to have the body sent for autopsy in a neighboring county. However, the J. P. has the power to deny that request. The J. P. may say that since nothing looks suspicious, the police should assume it’s a natural death, close the case, and save the county the money they would have paid for the autopsy.

Crime fiction writers use death to build plots in novels all the time. Ms. Burke suggested that by mentioning NamUs as part of a fictional family’s search to find a missing loved one, authors can raise awareness in the general public about this resource available to real families who are missing a relative. She also requested that writers be accurate in their depiction of death investigations. Many people are under the misapprehension that all death is investigated like it is depicted on C. S. I. and other similar dramas on television. Those shows don’t remotely reflect the reality of death investigations in many parts of the country. As writers, we can do better. We can reflect reality.

*****

N. M. Cedeño writes short stories and novels that are typically set in Texas. Her stories vary from traditional mystery, to science fiction, to paranormal mystery in genre. Most recently, she has been writing the Bad Vibes Removal Services Series which includes short stories and the novel The Walls Can Talk (2017). Find her at nmcedeno.com or amazon.com/author/nmcedeno or on Facebook.