Not Before Breakfast

Photo by LisaRedfern courtesy

I am not sure if I am actually writing this or not.

You may not understand if you are one of the few people who has not seen the multiplex blockbuster Avengers: Infinity War. The plot basically involves a powerful being named Thanos — think Brock Lesnar in body paint — who (among other things) has to destroy part of the Universe in order to save it. This last gasp measure includes wiping out half of the people on Earth, which he is able to do with a snap of his fingers (I don’t like to do spoilers, but, like, that part of the plot is already out there, and everywhere). The Avengers attempt to stop him, and…anyway, there is a website that you can visit which will tell you whether you are still around or if you were vaporized when Thanos made like Bobby Darin in the interest of preserving all that is, or what is left of it. I checked and it seems that I was expendable and have joined the Hall of Heroes. Of course, no one really stays dead in the Marvel Universe forever so there is going to be some trick that turns things inside out and right side up to set things back to normal at some point down the road.  As for me, I feel like I’m still here, so it looks like I will be able to catch up on this season of Strike Back, keep watching Season Three of Billions, and, of particular importance, write my blog for today, procrastination notwithstanding.

All of this talking and viewing about death, however, got me thinking about mortality. The topic is often the subject of jokes. Abraham Lincoln’s last words, so the joke goes, were “You and your damn theatre tickets.” Bob Hope was asked on his deathbed whether he wanted to be cremated or buried. He reportedly answered, “Surprise me!” I also am fascinated by memento mori in picture form which seems to be a Pinterest topic of interest as well. I hadn’t really thought about the topic until several years ago when I attended a funeral where one of the (adult) grandchildren of the guest of honor was walking around snapping photographs. I was quietly aghast — most of the funerals I had previously been to had been held for Italian relatives and we just don’t do that — but I am sure that the photos will provide fodder for conversation several years and a generation or so down the road (“Who was that?”).

All of the above pales in comparison, however, to what I happened to find recently. I was researching how long a body stuck in a wall would continue to smell (you don’t want to know why I was wondering about that. Really. You don’t want to know) when I came across a term known as “coffin birth.” These don’t happen now (at least in the United States) but they were fairly prevalent here between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries and around the world before then (and to some degree even now).  A coffin birth would occur when a woman who happened to be pregnant would die and be buried. Her body would later expel the corpse of her unborn child. Archeologists (make that “unlucky” archaeologists) have happened upon this phenomenon with semi-regularity. I find that to be the stuff of nightmare, for reasons I can articulate (but won’t) and for reasons that I can’t. The worst thing, however, is that it’s actually given me an idea for a story. I’m not sure that I want to go there — Poppy Z. Brite, I suspect, wouldn’t have hesitated — but I might.

My story notwithstanding…if horror is your game and you want to fashion something around that unfortunate occurrence, have at it. What I want to know from you, however, falls under the general heading of research. What is the most unusual fact — one that you were not looking for — that you’ve discovered online while researching something for your writing project entirely different? Don’t everybody answer at once. Thank you in advance.

28 thoughts on “Not Before Breakfast

  1. The one that comes to mind isn’t particularly unusual or scary or funny, but it did turn the book I was starting in an entirely different direction, so it was significant to me.
    My Blackthorne, Inc. books usually start out with what my daughter calls a “MacGyver Opening Gambit” (but without Mac-type skills). Generally, they’re on an op and something goes wrong. The main storyline was supposed to be one of the operatives returning home to his small town and uncovering Bad Stuff on a major scale that would require the skills of the Blackthorne team.
    For the opening gambit, I thought I’d have the team rescuing someone or dealing with cartels in Mexico. While looking for a location to set the book, I discovered an article that said the cartels had been kidnapping American engineers to build them cell phone networks so they could keep their dealings private.
    And there went my small town, and Dangerous Connections was born.

    • Terry, thanks for sharing. I’m going to check out that subject AND Dangerous Connections!

  2. Oh, thank goodness, I thought you were going to say a coffin birth was a live birth. Now THAT would give me nightmares. Horror is my game (in my beginning writer’s sort of way), but I don’t like to hear of horrible things happening in real life.

    The strangest fact that I stumbled upon while researching something else was that before the 1990s, it was rare for girls to be diagnosed with autism. A girl who was on the autism spectrum might have been considered a disruptive student, a bad playmate during recess, and stuff like that. She could have been brilliant but dismissed as psychotic. This little bit of info gave me an idea for a protagonist for my next horror story. What if a little girl saw and understood a haunting, but no one believed her because she had Asperger’s?

    And I may have to turn a coffin birth into a live birth and use that, too. (Ugh, I just creeped myself out!)

    • Priscilla, it wasn’t just girls. There were any number of guys I went to grade school with who, as I look back, had the same problem and were simply considered to be behavioral problems. Catholic schools, too, so it wasn’t tolerated.

      It sounds like you have an amazing and very original story idea. Good luck with that. I can’t wait to see it. Thanks.

  3. Good morning, Joe.

    You are right, I don’t want to know why you were researching the body-in-the-wall information. Just reassure me that you don’t need help.

    As to your question, I’m not into horror, so here’s my unexpected finding: I’m finishing a middle-grade fantasy set in the Midwest, Ohio, to be specific. There is a link to an ancestral wizard, who had contact with the Indians. Since the Indians living in the Ohio River valley during the late eighteenth century were Shawnee, I decided that my young magicians would use Shawnee for their magic spells. When I looked online for a Shawnee dictionary, I started with Amazon. Nothing. After I had followed link after link for a couple days, I discovered a two-volume dictionary – SAY IT IN SHAWNEE – by Samantha Holland. Then I discovered that she lived outside my hometown of Bellefontaine, Ohio. After I bought her books, she was even kind enough to review the Shawnee phrases I used in my book. It’s amazing what we find in our own backyard.

    • That’s a terrific story, Steve. Thanks for sharing. The world is much, much smaller than we think. I’ve heard it said in meetings that coincidence is your Higher Power acting anonymously. Just so.

      Let us know when your book is published!

  4. It appears I also am expendable, but just like you, here I am this morning, reading this post.

    I learned at an early age — my father loved to share interesting information — that before embalming became the norm premature burial was a real event as demonstrated after the exhumation of some coffins which, after opening, showed scratch marks on the interior, or bloody fingers, or in some cases fingernails completely bitten off in an attempt to escape.

    What I did not realize is that this continues to occur in modern times. I assumed that embalming was a requirement for burial in the Unitec States. WRONG!

    While researching for my next WIP, I discovered embalming is not required in Texas where I intend to be laid to rest someday, and I also discovered that some funeral homes have been caught charging for embalming while not going through with the process in order to save money.

    Long story short — people are still buried alive in 2018. So I am going out cremated, and I would love to hear your idea for that story, Joe.

    • CJ, I have entire days where I fell like I’m being buried alive…seriously, I have heard of that, and indeed, once in a while there is still a story about a mortuary assistant being started by someone suddenly sitting up when, um, they should be beyond that.

      As for my idea for that story, I am sure you will hear it sooner rather than later, CJ. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Coffin birth–I had never heard of it. Like Priscilla, I thought you were going in the direction of a literal live birth in a coffin! 8-0

    I didn’t understand why it doesn’t occur now vs. historically–at first thinking certainly an autopsy would reveal such things but not everyone is autopsied. But then I looked it up and it explained it was because of whatever chemicals are pumped into the body etc when prepped for burial. Either way, UGH!

    I am sure I have run across unusual facts doing research, but if not in the midst of that research, I can’t recall them. Since I love to learn for learning’s sake, that’s why research takes up an inordinant amount of my time–to my detriment usually because I do a lot more research than writing.

    • BK, ugh sums it up nicely. Thank you. Re: research vs. writing, that happens I think to all of us. I recall a science fiction author — one who was known as a “hard science” author — who had earth spinning in the wrong direction on the first page of what became known as his classic novel. Happens to the best of us!

  6. Some of this post is truly the stuff of nightmares but I find it hard to believe Stephen King hasn’t written about most of it. I’ll probably dream about it now as it’s like a song you’ve heard sticking in your mind. It’s interesting, though. 🙂 — Suzanne

    • Suzanne, I wake up almost every morning with a different song in my head. Thank heaven for Spotify. This morning’s was “I Got You” by Split Enz, for some reason…anyway, Sweet Dreams, this post nothwithstanding!

  7. Take heart if you’re a Thanos victim. Since he wiped out half of life, that includes the various flora in our guts so the survivers are spending lots of time on the toilet.

    I was doing research in the library, pre-Internet, on South American flowers and found a book about Confederate families who fled to Brazil at the end of the Civil War and created their own settlements in Brazil. I made those settlements into a country and set my book there.

    Never discount the value of browsing stacks near research topics or following weird links in your search results.

    • Marilylynn, that’s a fascinating element which wasn’t explored in the comic book version when it was printed in 1992. Maybe the film sequel — which I believe is scheduled for 2019 — will deal with it. That is interesting, but I had never heard about the Confederate families moving to Brazil. Amazing! Thanks for the information…I’m going to check into that myself. And good luck with the new book.

  8. While researching my latest story, I stumbled upon the case of Anatoli Bugorski, a Soviet scientist who was struck in the head by a proton beam in what he thought was a defective particle accelerator. A sub-atomic particle drilled through his brain, but after the swelling went away, he lived a normal life.

    • M.C., thanks for reminding me about that episode. Didn’t Dr. Bugorski, immediately after that incident, exclaim “I have half a mind to quit!”? Seriously, I wish I had an incident like that for an excuse…

  9. The way I deal with these thoughts and subjects, Joe, is to lie in the corner and whimper until my wife comes home from work.

    • Jim, you have us all beat on the way to handle things. That is why you are a bishop and we are all rooks. Thanks!

  10. Grave juice.
    I was doing research for a book (An Unquiet Grave) in which a body had to exhumed and we were looking into the phenomenon known as adipocere, or corpse wax. This is a condition that happens to a corpse when soil conditions combine to preserve a body with a waxy covering. Corpses have been found preserved almost life-like after hundreds of years due to this.

    But that led us to a…well, more colorful exhumation situation wherein if conditions again are “right,” the exhumed body liquifes. Hence the colorful name given by gave diggers that cops picked up.

    When the book was sold to a French publisher, our translator emailed us confessing he had no way to translate it. I wish I had a copy of the French edition handy because I can’t remember what he came up with, but I do remember he was quite proud of it.

  11. Gtave juice…oh my. Kris, you never disappoint. It takes a lot to make my stomach roil but you did it! Thanks!

  12. Not about research per say, but when I was a teenager my best friend was what we would have called a freak. He suffered some condition that made his body outgrow his heart. He stood 7 feet tall and weighed about 180. Had extreme Coke bottle glasses. But he was the smartest guy I’ve ever known. A pure electronic genius. He was also big into science fiction and once nearly had me convinced that he was an alien from a planet called Thanos. He maintained his story until he challenged me to shoot him in the leg with a BB gun to show that he was impervious to pain. I shot him from about six feet away in his living room. I have to give him credit, though. It took a full minute of gripping the chair arm before the tears welled up in his eyes. Fortunately, I could outrun him with a BB in his leg.

    • So Dave, it sounds like your friend had…Marfan Syndrome, maybe? That’s a heck of a story. I was cringing throughout the last third of it. He’s lucky that your aim was good, as there’s an alternative scenario there where he could have been singing background vocals for The Supremes. You must have been a really, really good friend for him to trust you like that. No surprise there. Thanks for sharing.

  13. Keeping with your theme, here’s an interesting tidbit I learned a while back. In areas prone to flooding or high water tables, bodies are typically buried in shallow ground to prevent the casket from rocketing from the earth. Imagine witnessing that particular horror? This is a real concern in New Orleans, for example, where the water table is so high they bury their dead above ground.

    I learned this next tidbit from my conversation with our state Medical Examiner, and it fascinated me so much I wrote it into CLEAVED. No matter how a killer tosses a corpse into water, the body sinks to the lake floor in the kneeling position. Bodies react differently in salt vs. fresh water, but the kneeling position remains consistent 99% of the time. Of course now, each time I drive by the lake I wonder if there’s a body on its knees … waiting for the gases to build up and raise it to the surface.

    • After Hurricane Floyd flooded the coastal region of NC and an appalling number of coffins floated away, people learned the value of putting a identification plate on coffins. Don’t know if it’s now a law, but it should be.

      • And here, Marilyn, I thought that the reason for that was to keep the coffin from being reused! Thanks for the clarification!

    • Thanks, Sue. The practice of above-ground burial throughout Louisiana came from France, but indeed, what you describe occurred in the French Quarter cemeteries (some of which still have ground burial sites) where the water table is higher. The caskets would thump up against the surface, burst forth — after making a knocking noise, which frightened the gumbo out of folks — and go sailing merrily down Canal Street toward the Mississippi. Those were the days. There are a number of below-ground cemeteries still in existence in New Orleans and, um, open for business, including a Jewish cemetery in the Gentilly area and a small section of Mount Olivet (where Professor Longhair and Shirley and Lee are buried)….

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