Be the Mouse

A recent exchange with the hubster went something like this.

Him: What’d you do today?

Me: Same as yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that.

Him: You’re a persistent little bugger, aren’tcha?

Me: *shrugs* I’m a writer.

But it’s not as simple as that, is it? Persistence can be grueling at times.

If someone told me ten years ago that in 2021 I would stumble across a true story that’s so meaningful and important it might forever change my writing trajectory, my first reaction would’ve been: Ten years is a lifetime away.

But the truth is if I found this case ten years ago, I wouldn’t know how to do it justice. Today I do. 🙂 This narrative nonfiction/true crime project has so many parallels to my own life, my passion is at an all-time high. Which brings me to persistence. Persistence while researching. Persistence while re-investigating the crime. Persistence while interviewing witnesses. Persistence while submitting the proposal.

The Big Dream

When I wrote my first novel—longhand, by candlelight—the Big Dream was all I could think about. I remember searching for other writers’ interpretation of success and how long it took them to “make it” in this business. Most said a new writer won’t make any money until they’ve written five novels. If they’re lucky, they’ll sell a few hundred copies of their debut. That’s the last thing an aspiring writer wants to hear.

The aspiring writer thinks: If you build it, they will come.

Which isn’t necessarily a bad mindset if it drives the writer to the keyboard. I’m a dreamer. Always have been, always will be. As long as we offset the dream with a dose of reality, I say dream big, dream often, dream without limits.

Now, with a backlist of 17 titles and 5+ trunk novels, I look back on that early advice and it means something completely different.

Writing five novels isn’t only about building an audience. It means the writer has honed their craft. They’ve let their passion lead them on a journey of self-discovery (Think: Who are you as a writer?). It means the writer never gave up. Or quit. S/he continued for love, not money. S/he kept her head down, fingers on the keyboard, butt in chair, and created, edited, rewrote passages, scenes, or whole chapters, and finished five manuscripts.

What else happened?

S/he learned the business side of writing—found an agent, publisher, or learned the ins and outs of self-publishing. Lastly, it means s/he learned how to market a product, build a brand and an audience. S/he persisted, even though the odds seemed insurmountable. S/he leaped out of the nest and learned to fly.

Sometimes this biz can be disheartening, other times it’s super exciting. The ups and downs are all part of this amazing journey. The minute we stop trying to achieve future goals, we’ve already lost. Aside from creatives—writers, singers, artists, actors, musicians, etc.—I can think of no other field that requires as much persistence.

What is persistence?

The dictionary defines persistence as:

  • continuing firmly or obstinately in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition
  • continuing to exist or endure over a prolonged period

The definition clarifies how difficult it is to persist.

What happens in the brain during the act of persistence?

Serotonin is a neurochemical in the brain important for feelings of happiness. It’s also known for:

  • promoting good sleep by helping to regulate circadian rhythms (a 24-hour inner clock running in the background to carry out essential functions like the sleep-wake cycle)
  • helping to regulate appetite
  • promoting memory and learning
  • helping to promote positive feelings and behavior

If you have low serotonin, you might:

  • feel anxious, low, or depressed
  • feel irritable or aggressive
  • have sleep issues or endless fatigue
  • become impulsive
  • have a decreased appetite
  • experience nausea and digestive issues
  • crave sweets

Scientists have studied serotonin levels and persistent behavior in mice.

During foraging, all wildlife explores an area for food and/or water. But at some point, they must move on to a different area. Thriving animals exhibit patience and persistence before exhausting their search at each location.

In the study, researchers required water-restricted mice to “nose poke” while foraging to obtain water as a reward. The probability of obtaining water in each area lessened with each nose poke. The higher the number of nose pokes equaled more persistence in that individual mouse. Scientists also used video tracking to measure how long it took for the mice to switch to a different foraging area.

Mice exhibited optimal foraging behavior. Meaning, they optimized the trade-off between time spent searching an area for water and leaving to find a water source in a different area.

The mice who received serotonin neuron stimulation performed a greater number of nose pokes compared to mice who didn’t receive stimulation. They also took longer to leave an area, suggesting they were more persistent.

This is the first study to show a correlation between serotonin neuron firing and active persistence. Previously, scientists hypothesized that serotonin was involved in patience. We now know a rush of serotonin is involved in persistence, as well.

If our persistence starts to wane, we need to increase our serotonin level.

Here’s how:

  • Eat healthy
  • Exercise
  • Bright light
  • Massage

The list is almost meaningless without more explanation. So, let’s dive into each tip.

Healthy Snacks

We can’t get serotonin from food, but we can get tryptophan, an amino acid that’s converted to serotonin in the brain. High-protein foods contain tryptophan. For example, turkey and salmon. But it’s not as simple as eating tryptophan-rich foods, thanks to the blood-brain barrier—a protective sheath around the brain that controls what enters and exits. Isn’t the human body amazing?

Like with most life hacks, there’s a shortcut around the blood-brain barrier.

Research suggests eating carbs along with tryptophan-rich foods pushes more tryptophan into the brain, thereby raising the serotonin level.

Some tryptophan-rich snacks include:

  • oatmeal with a handful of nuts
  • plums or pineapple with crackers
  • pretzel sticks with peanut butter and a glass of milk

Exercise

Exercising creates an ideal environment for serotonin by triggering the release of tryptophan in the blood and decreasing the amount of other amino acids. Thus, more tryptophan reaches the brain.

Aerobic exercise of any kind releases the most tryptophan. Don’t fret if you’re unable to do aerobics. The main goal is to raise the heart rate. This can be accomplished by:

  • a brisk walk
  • a light hike
  • swimming
  • bicycling
  • jogging
  • blaring the music and dance

Bright Light

This surprised me, but it makes sense when you consider seasonal affective disorder. Serotonin levels dip in the winter and rise in the summer. What should we do? Spend 10-15 minutes in the sunshine. Or, if you live in rainy climate or can’t get outside, use a light therapy box. Both will increase serotonin levels.

Massage

Massage therapy increases serotonin and dopamine levels. It also reduces cortisol, a hormone produced when stressed. If paying for a professional massage therapist isn’t within your budget, ask a friend/spouse/partner to swap 20-minute massages.

Be the Mouse

Writers cannot achieve goals without some form of persistence. Be persistent, dear writer. Be the mouse.

Reader Friday: Describe Your Writing with Kangaroos

Describe your writing and/or your reading life using a Kangaroo word.

Technically, a kangaroo word carries its own synonym within it (called a joey word), but I don’t know how else to describe this game. Bonus points if you do!

 

 

Fill in the blanks:

My writing puts the ____ in _______. My reading life puts the _____ in ___________.

To get the ball rolling, I’ll start.

My writing puts the sass in assassin, the laughter in slaughter. My reading life puts the fun in funeral.

Your turn!

Rinse and Repeat

Remember JSB’s post about public speaking? Well, before an exciting opportunity two weeks ago, I reread his tips a gazillion times. What he failed to mention was a bizarre side effect of stress—dry mouth. I noticed it when I did my first Zoom book signing. Which is odd, right? I’ve never had a problem with in-person book signings, but on Zoom? I dried up like the Sahara. Halfway through the event it went away, so I didn’t give it another thought. I Zoomed a few more times without incident.

And then, an Emmy award-winning true crime series asked me to appear on their show. (Can’t tell you which one yet, sorry!) I was fine on the drive over. Nervous as all heck, but other than a thundering heartbeat, I could hide my anxiety. After all, that’s what a professional does. They don’t let nerves get the better of them. Plus, I knew this case inside out. How hard could it be? So what if a camera crew would be focused on me.

My confidence waned on the walk inside, but I was still holding my own. Head held high, shoulders back.

Then I sat in the interview chair.

With that one simple act, all the saliva in my mouth turned to dust. And I mean all of it. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, my lips puckered, and words refused to roll off my tongue with ease. Me on the day of my debut TV appearance…

They offered me bottled water—gallons of it through two and half hours of taping. After the second or third bottle, I think they might’ve figured out I wasn’t an old pro at this TV stuff. 😉 Thankfully, I’d spoken to the producer on the phone several times prior, so he had faith in me. “Get her more water please!” And I drank, and drank, and drank.

Mr. Producer told me several times I did an excellent job. I’ll be the judge of that, thank you…in six months when the episode airs. We did have a lot of laughs. But when you’re discussing a shooting and can’t spit out the word “caliber” because your tongue feels like it’s three sizes too big for your mouth…

Well, let’s just say it isn’t a good look. The more I stressed, the drier my mouth became. Throughout the interview I fluctuated between Lord, give me strength and Someone—anyone—please shoot me! But most of all, I needed more water STAT.

On the plus side, the nice part of working on a true crime show is it’s not taped in front a live audience. All I had to do was string together one good sentence at a time and the editor would grab what s/he needs.

Mission accomplished. That’s a rap!

Shamefaced, I crawled into the passenger seat of our truck—and all at once my mouth regained its moisture. Ain’t that a b*tch? I can hardly wait to see what happens next time. Maybe I’ll grow some weird lump on my forehead. Or better yet, my saliva glands will over-stimulate, and I’ll show up looking like this…

I think it’s fair to say no one will ever ask me to do a TedTalk. Probably best.

To understand my body’s reaction to stress, I researched the subject the next morning to find out why this occurred and what to do about it in the future. Turns out, dry mouth isn’t an uncommon reaction.

Researchers have studied this phenomenon.

The term stress refers to a series of events that lead to a reaction in the brain (perceived stress), activating the physiological fight-or-flight response in the body. Anxiety is also a generalized unpleasant and vague sensation of fear and concern with an unknown origin.

Makes sense.

Psychological conditions might affect both salivary flow rate and xerostomia. Furthermore, it was observed that salivary cortisol levels increased during stress, followed by changes in the composition of saliva.

In simpler terms, stress plays a significant role in reducing the salivary flow rate.

So, what’s my advice in case you experience something similar? Hope you’ve got a nice strong bladder. You’ll need it to hold all the water. No, seriously, pack lozenges. If all else fails, smile! Works every time.

I’m a big believer in laughter. If we can’t poke fun at ourselves, we’ll dwell on the negative. I appeared on an Emmy award-winning true crime show (!), and have spoken to the producer several times since. For me, it’s a dream come true. 🙂

Let’s discuss embarrassing moments! Your turn. Extra points if it relates to writing, reading, acting, etc.

How To Explode Your Email List

Back in 2017, Jim wrote a terrific post with tips for success in traditional or independent publishing. One of his top tips for all authors is to build an email list.

Did you follow that advice? If you didn’t, heed Debbie’s warning on how NOT to get started. Even if you’re working on your first novel, you should be actively building your list. I’ll let David Gaughran explain why an email list is the most powerful tool at our disposal.

I’m sure all of you know the power of having thousands of committed readers signed up to your mailing list, allowing you to send each new release into the charts. Even if you’re not there yet personally, this should be something you are aiming for. Every single author should have a mailing list and be seeking to actively grow it.

Now that we know why an email list is so important, how do we go about it?

SUMO

To build an email list, we need a way to collect emails on our website/blog. SUMO is the #1 email capture tool. And it’s free. As of this writing, 886,114 sites use SUMO.

We’ve noticed lots of people struggle to collect emails because the tools just aren’t available or are too expensive. So we thought, why not make our tools available for you?

Our goal, plain and simple, is to help you grow your website.

— SUMO mission statement

Create a scroll bar, pop-up, smart bar, Welcome Mat, or static form to trigger visitors to subscribe to your list. If you offer a free book as an incentive (called a reader magnet), be sure to mention it in your form. No coding required. Takes less than a minute to design a form.

I’ve used SUMO for years with excellent results. I started with a smart bar that hung at the top of the website. I can’t remember why I switched to a popup. There’s no question popups are effective. They’re also annoying as all heck. So, I switched back to the smart bar. A Welcome Mat covers the entire page. The visitor must interact with the form to read the article underneath. They’re effective, but I’ve passed on articles because of them. Do what works best for you.

Pro Tip: Rather than offering the same reader magnet for years, swap it for a new freebie from time to time. Using the same one can become white noise after a while.

A Word About the “F” Word: Free

Being an author requires a long-term game plan. There is no get-rich-quick scheme. For most of us, one book won’t produce enough income to survive. Thus, we need a strategic approach to building our brand. The #1 way to do that is to grow our email list, and a free ebook campaign can accomplish that goal.

Many authors put their books into Kindle Unlimited. Which is fine, in theory, but it won’t grow your email list. Amazon won’t tell you who downloaded your book or how to contact them. Sure, you might gain visibility, but wouldn’t you rather form a long-lasting relationship with a fan who can’t wait for your next book? There’s only one way to meet that goal: grow your email list.

If you’re still not convinced, let me ask you this. How many $5 ebooks have you bought from an author you’ve never heard of without a recommendation from someone you trust? Not many, I suspect. Now, what if the book was free? You’d be more apt to take the chance, right? Of course you would.

Some of you may be thinking, offer my book baby for free? Gasp! Believe me, I get it. I know how much of your heart and soul you’ve poured into that book, but we need to shed the emotional attachment to move forward. View each book as a steppingstone leveraged for future sales. By sacrificing short-term gains, we set up long-term rewards. Capeesh? Super. Moving on…

Book Funnel

BookFunnel isn’t only a platform to send ARCs, though I do love that aspect. They automatically add a watermark to Advance Reader Copies to help prevent piracy.

Whether it’s delivering your reader magnet, sending out advanced copies of your book, handing out ebooks at a conference, or fulfilling your digital sales to readers, BookFunnel does it all. Just like you, we’re in the business of making readers happy. Let us help you build your author career, no matter where you are in your journey.

All true. You do need to pay-to-play, but they offer affordable plans. The New Author Plan is $20/yearly. If you only have 1-5 books, the New Author Plan might be enough to get started, but you won’t be able to collect email addresses unless you join a group promo. Even then, the starter plan has limitations. So, if you’re hoping to explode your email list, my advice would be to upgrade. The benefits far outweigh the cost.

Mid-List Author costs $100/yearly or $10/monthly (if the yearly plan is unaffordable right now, choose the monthly plan; you can always change it later). The premiere plan is Bestseller for $250/yearly. The plan titles are a marketing ploy to shame you into upgrading. That said, there are a few key differences.

  1. Mid-List allows 5K downloads per month; Bestseller allows unlimited downloads.
  2. Mid-List allows 2 pen names; Bestseller allows 3 pen names.
  3. Mid-List doesn’t include Priority Support, Bestseller does.

There’s one other difference worth mentioning. Mid-List has no email integration. Meaning, after a promo they’ll send a .csv file for you to upload to your list. Email integration uploads the names/addresses automatically. You can add email integration to Mid-List for $50/yearly, if you’d like. Or stick with the original plan and upload the .csv file yourself. Whatever works best for you.

Bestseller comes with 3 email integrations. Meaning, if you separate your email list into segments or groups, you can integrate a specific list for each BookFunnel promotion.

BookFunnel Landing Pages

You’ll need to do some work to setup your dashboard, but it’s a painless process. Add books and create beautiful landing pages in minutes. No coding or tech skills required. A landing page is where we send readers to download our freebie.

We have various options when creating landing pages. To grow the email list, check the box that ensures readers must give a valid email address to download the book. BookFunnel verifies each address before granting access.

BookFunnel Promotions

BookFunnel membership comes with free promotions. Hosts offer several different promo opportunities.

To grow the email list, scroll through active promotions in your dashboard and search for Newsletter Builder promos.

Check the requirements for each promo before joining. Some require a minimum number of subscribers in your email list (usually 1K).

Next, subscribe for updates in your genre. Every time an author sets up a new promotion, you’ll be notified via email. Spots fill up quickly, so don’t delay. Or host and run your own promotion and invite other authors to collaborate.

Pro Tip: When the promo goes live, share your personal tracking link in your newsletter, on social media, and your website. BookFunnel tracks your shares. It’s how you build a good reputation for future promos.

BookSweeps

If you like BookFunnel, you will love BookSweeps.

A premiere membership costs $50/yearly, but it discounts future promo opportunities, promotions that add hundreds of voracious readers to your email list. Not freebie seekers, either. These are book buying readers. Freebie seekers join email lists to get the reader magnet, then immediately unsubscribe.

Even with book buying readers, it’s normal for a few to unsubscribe when you send your first email. This happens for various reasons. Don’t take it personally. Think of it as a good thing. Once you hit a certain number (1K-2K email addresses, depending on email provider), sending newsletters is no longer free. Why pay for a reader who has no interest in your work?

Add a Pen Name

A premiere membership allows three different pen names. If you don’t have an alternate author name, create book specific pen names. For example: I created Sue Coletta for my Mayhem Series and another Sue Coletta for my Grafton County Series. Why? Because my two series have different character types, tropes, settings, etc., all of which we can distinguish under separate Pen Names.

Create a Reader Magnet

Generate email subscribers by adding an ebook to the BookSweeps directory, where readers can download the book in exchange for their email. When we create a reader magnet in BookSweeps, we can link to the next book in the series (for sale), add testimonials, and add sub-genres and tropes. It’s an excellent marketing tool.

BookSweeps Promotions

You do have to pay-to-play, but BookSweeps offers discounts once you’ve run a promotion or two. A $50 promo becomes $25 – $35, depending on the promotion.

The best part about BookSweeps promotions is they do all the work for you. All. The. Work.

  • 5 days before the promotion they send you the group promo images for FB and Twitter; they even create a shareable image for your individual book.
  • On promo day, they send you a reminder email with links to the shareable images.
  • During the promo, they remind you when the promo will end.
  • After the promo, they send you an email on what to expect next.
  • 5-10 days after the promo, they send you the spreadsheet with the email address, a separate spreadsheet for the winner and runner-up. That email also contains links on how to upload the list to your email provider, tips for writing a welcome letter, and other valuable information about nurturing your email list. 

Pro Tip: When running a promotion on BookFunnel, Facebook, Twitter, or your website, add a Sweep in the BookSweeps giveaway directory to increase your reach. Free traffic!

Writers: If you follow this advice, your email list will explode with new subscribers.

Readers: If you join BookFunnel or BookSweeps (both free for readers), your e-reader will explode with free books. Win-win!

Over to you, TKZers. What’s your #1 tip to grow your email list? Please share your experience.

Reader Friday – Traditions

Reader Friday – Traditions.

TraditionstraditionsSundown today marks the start of the year 5781 on the Jewish calendar. Our family tradition revolves around the meal (which is true for virtually all Jewish holidays–they tried to kill us, we prevailed, let’s eat). Sweet dishes are the norm on Rosh Hashanah, to kick the new year off to a sweet start. At our table, dessert is always Pflaumkuchen (plum cake). The recipe varied, depending on which relative was in charge of dessert, and living where we do now, prune plums are almost impossible to get, but regardless of the details, it’s always going to be plum cake for dessert.

Any holiday traditions you’d like to share, food or otherwise? Have you ever included them in your writing?

Reader Friday: Where Will You Hide the Body?

You’ve just committed the perfect murder (all that research finally pays off!), but to be successful the cops can’t find the corpse. Your DNA, a stray hair, fibers, or fingerprints might lead them back to you.

Where will you hide the body?

Hint: it’s the location of the book you’re reading. Get those creative juices flowing! Where in that location will you stash the evidence?

Are you dumping the evidence (latex gloves, murder weapon, etc.) with the body?

If no, what’s the distance between the evidence and the corpse?

 

Reader Friday: Name an Activity You’ve Never Tried

What’s one activity you’ve always wanted to try but haven’t?

This activity might include writing in a different genre, bungee jumping, paragliding, skydiving, public speaking, writing from a new perspective, or scaling the side of a mountain.

What prevented you from doing this activity?

Age should never be a deterrent, but let’s face it, older bones may be more brittle, eyesight may not be as sharp . . . blah, blah, blah. You know the drill.

With that in mind, if you were twenty years younger, would you try this activity? What is it about this activity that appeals to you?

Writing Hacks: Keyboard Shortcuts

Picture this. You’re in the zone rockin’ the WIP, the words flowing from your fingertips faster than you can type. And then . . . splat. You’ve hit a brick wall. That special character or symbol isn’t on your keyboard.

Sound familiar?

So now, you need to stop, go to Insert, then to Advanced Symbols and scroll through the list to find that pain-in-the-butt character. You could leave yourself a note in the manuscript to deal with it later and continue on, but wouldn’t a keyboard shortcut make life easier?

With that in mind, I offer the following . . .

SYMBOLS & SPECIAL CHARACTERS 

Please note: these shortcuts can be used on the web or in Word by using the numbers on the top row of your keyboard. If you use your numbers keypad, you may get different results.

ALT + 1 = ¡

ALT + 2 = ™

ALT + 3 = £

ALT + 4 = ¢

ALT + 5 = ∞

ALT + 6 = §

ALT + 7 = ¶

ALT + 8 = •

ALT + 9 = ª

ALT + q = œ

ALT + SHFT + Q = Œ

ALT + w = ∑

ALT + SHFT + W = „

ALT + e = ´

ALT + r = ®

ALT + SHFT + R = ‰

ALT + t = †

ALT + SHFT + T = ˇ

ALT + y = ¥

ALT + SHFT + Y = Á

ALT + u = ¨

ALT + i = ˆ

ALT + o = ø

ALT + SHFT + O = Ø

ALT + p = π

ALT + SHFT + P = ∏

ALT + a = å

ALT + SHFT + A = Å

ALT + s = ß

ALT + SHFT + S = Í

ALT + d = ∂

ALT + SHFT + D = Î

ALT + f = ƒ

ALT + SHFT + F = Ï

ALT + g = ©

ALT + SHFT + G = ˝

ALT + h = ˙

ALT + SHFT + H = Ó

ALT + j = ∆

ALT + SHFT + J = Ô

ALT + k = ˚ (degree)

ALT + SHFT + K = Ó

ALT + l = ¬

ALT + SHFT + L = Ò

ALT + ; = … (to create ellipsis you can also press CTRL + ALT + .)

ALT + SHFT + : = Ú

ALT + “ = Æ

ALT + ‘ = æ

ALT + z = Ω

ALT + SHFT + Z = ¸

ALT + x = ≈

ALT + SHFT + X = ˛

ALT + c = ç

ALT + SHFT + C = Ç

ALT + v = √ (square root)

ALT + SHFT + V = ◊

ALT + b = ∫

ALT + SHFT + B = ı

ALT + n = ˜

ALT + m = µ

ALT + SHFT + M = Â

ALT + , = ≤

ALT + SHFT + < = ¯

ALT + . = ≥

ALT + SHFT + > = ˘

ALT + / = ÷

ALT + SHFT + ? = ¿

COMMON SHORTCUTS

On my keyboard “Command” equals the “WIN” key—I use a Windows keyboard on a Mac—but yours might be CTRL or COMMAND (Mac users) depending on the keyboard type.

<Command> + C = Copy

<Command> + X = Cut

<Command> + V = Paste

<Command> + Q = Quit

<Command> + W = Close File or Window

<Command> + N = Open New file

<Command> + O = Open Existing file

<Command> + S = Save

<Command> + P = Print

<Command> + F = Find a word or phrase­­­ on web pages or in Word. If the word or phrase appears more than once, press ENTER to move to the next instance.

<Command> + Z = Undo Action (To redo the action, press <Command> + Y)

<Command> + A = Select All

<Command> + B = Bold (To stop bold, repeat command)

<Command> + I = Italics (To stop italics, repeat command)

<Command> + U = Underline (To stop underline, repeat command)

<Command> + T = Open New Browser

<Command> + D = Bookmark Page

<Command> + B = View Bookmarks

WORDPRESS SHORTCUTS

Most of the above commands also work on WordPress. Here’s a few extras exclusive to WordPress …

<Command> + 1 = Heading 1

<Command> + 2 = Heading 2

<Command> + 3 = Heading 3

<Command> + 4 = Heading 4

<Command> + 5 = Heading 5

<Command> + 6 = Heading 6

<Command> + 9 = Address

ALT + SHFT + n = Check Spelling

ALT + SHFT + j = Justify Text

ALT + SHFT + d = Strikethrough

ALT + SHFT + u = Bullet List

ALT + SHFT + o = Numbered List

ALT + SHFT + q = Quote

ALT + SHFT + w = Distraction Free Writing Mode

ALT + SHFT + p = Insert Page Break Tag

ALT + SHFT + l = Align Left

ALT + SHFT + c = Align Center

ALT + SHFT + r = Align Right

ALT + SHFT + a = Insert Link

ALT + SHFT + s = Remove Link

ALT + SHFT + m = Insert Image

ALT + SHFT + t = Insert More Tag

ALT + SHFT + h = Help

Most social media sites offer their own shortcuts in the help menu. YouTube, however, offers several cool hacks to save time.  

YOUTUBE SHORTCUTS

Press 1 = jump ahead 10% through the video.

Press 3 = jump ahead 30%

Press 4 = jump ahead 40%

Press 5 = jump ahead 50%

And so on.

Press 0 = restarts the video

Spacebar = pause/un-pause video

← Go back 5 seconds

→ Go forward 5 seconds

↑ Raise volume

↓ Decrease volume

F = Fullscreen

ESC = Exit Fullscreen

MISC.

CTRL+ALT+DEL = Quit Frozen Application. This command opens the Task Manager. Select the application that stopped working and press END TASK.

Do you have a favorite shortcut that you use regularly? Please share!

Want to have a little fun? Include a special character in your comment. ♠♣♥♦ If it’s not listed above, be sure to tell us how you created it. 

What Really Goes On In The Morgue

I invited my buddy, Garry Rodgers, back to TKZ for a fascinating behind-the-scenes trip to the morgue. He’ll hang around for questions/comments, so don’t be shy. Now’s your chance to ask an expert something you might need for your WIP. Enjoy!

Most living people never visit the morgue.

Most never think of the morgue except when watching TV shows like CSI or some new Netflix forensic special. The screen may show in hi-def and tell in surround sound, but it can’t broadcast smell. That’s a good thing because no one would tune in and the actors would be looking for real-life morgue jobs like homicide cops, coroners and forensic pathologists.

I did two of those real-life morgue jobs for a long time. I’m a retired murder cop and field coroner who spent a lot of hours in that windowless place. Now, I’m a crime writer and thought I’d share a bit of what really goes on in the morgue with my crime-writing colleagues.

The morgue is strictly off-limits for anyone not having a specific reason to be there. That’s for a few reasons. One is the place can hold sensitive court evidence. Two is that it’s a somewhat disagreeable place due to the odor, temperature and the continual chance of contracting a contagious disease. The third reason is dignity. Even though the majority of the morgue occupants are no longer alive, they’re still human entities and not some sort of a morbid exhibit.

The morgue is a place of business. It’s a medical environment where the deceased are stored, processed and released to their final disposition. The morgue operates 24/7/365 as death pays no attention to the clock or the calendar. But, the morgue is busiest between 8:00 am and 4:30 pm Monday to Friday—holidays exempted. Morgue workers need time off like anyone else.

A city morgue, like I worked at in Vancouver, British Columbia, is an active environment. It has a dedicated shipping and receiving area with a loading dock much like a typical warehouse. Bodies arrive by black-paneled coroner vans or on sheet-covered gurneys brought down from the wards. They’re booked into a ledger, assigned a crypt and, yes, marked with a personalized toe tag.

Vancouver General Hospital’s morgue is like Costco for the dead. Stainless steel refrigeration crypts, stacked three-high in two rows of nine, have shelving for fifty-four. The freezer unit stores eight and isolation, for the stinkers, can take six sealed aluminum caskets or “tanks” as we called them. These tanks are also used for homicide cases, locked to preserve forensic evidence.

A grindy overhead hoist shifts cadavers from wheeled gurneys that squeak about fluorescent-lit rooms, touring them to and from roll-out metal drawers. Refrigeration temperatures are ideally set at 38-degrees Fahrenheit (4-degrees Celsius) while the ambient range in the autopsy suites is held at a comfortable 65 / 18. The storage rooms, laboratory and administration areas are normal office temperature, and they’re set apart from the main morgue region. Support staff, for the most part, have no sense of being so near to the dead.

Operational personnel in the morgue are highly-trained professionals. The workhorse of the morgue is the autopsy technician or attendant called the “Diener”. It’s a term originating from German that translates to “Servant of the Necromancer”. Dieners have the primary corpse handling and general dissection responsibility. They do most of the cutting.

Hospital pathologists are primarily disease specialists. They spend the majority of their day in the laboratory peering into microscopes and dictating reports. It’s a rare general pathologist who stays with an autopsy procedure from incision to sew-up. Usually, hospital pathologists come down to the morgue once the diener has removed the organs and has them ready for cross-section.

A hospital pathologist takes a good look for what might be the anatomical cause of a sudden or unexplained death. The main culprits are usually myocardial infarctions, or “jammers” as they called in the heart attack word. Aneurisms are another leading cause of dropping dead, and they’re often found in the brain.

Hospital pathologists sometimes do partial autopsies when they want to confirm an antemortem diagnosis. That might be a certain tumor or the extended effects of a runaway respiratory disease like Covid19. Sometimes, there’s no clear cause of death such as in a heart arrhythmia or a case of toxic shock.

Forensic pathologists are an entirely different animal. These are meticulous medical examiners with a tedious touch. It takes years of specialized training and understudy to become a board-certified forensic pathologist qualified to give expert evidence in criminal cases.

Forensic autopsies are peak-of-the-apex procedures inside the morgue. In a setting like Vancouver General Hospital (VGH), there are six autopsy stations in one open room. At any given time, the slabs are occupied and there more in the pipe. Not so with a forensic procedure.

There are two segregated and dedicated suites for forensic autopsies at VGH. Protection of the corpse, which is the best evidence in homicide cases, is paramount. So is maintaining continuity of possession, or the chain of evidence, that ends up in court. In a forensic autopsy, there’s utmost care to ensure the body is not compromised by contaminating it with foreign matter like DNA or losing critical components like bullets or blades.

In a homicide case, the body is taken from the crime scene in a sterilized shroud and locked in a tank. There’s an officer or coroner appointed to maintain continuity from the time the cadaver is bagged until the corpse is laid out on the slab. This is a critical element in forensic cases and one that is treated as gospel.

A forensic pathologist stays with the autopsy from the time the body is unlocked from its tank till the time the pathologist feels there is no more evidentiary value to glean. This is usually a full-day event but sometimes the body is put back in the tank, held overnight, and the process goes on the next day. This completely depends on the case nature such as multiple gunshot or knife wounds.

There are police officers at every forensic autopsy. Those are the crime scene examiners who photograph the procedure and pertinent physical properties. Detectives receive evidentiary exhibits like foreign objects such as fired bullets or organic particulates. There might be semen samples or other questionable biological matter. Then, there are usual suspects for toxicology examination like blood, urine, bile, stomach contents and vitreous fluid.

Radiography is done in almost all forensic autopsy cases. A portable X-ray machine scans the body as it lies on the table. In some situations, MRI / CT technology is helpful.

But, nothing beats the eye and experience of a seasoned forensic pathologist. They observe the slightest details that even a general pathologist would miss. However, don’t dismiss what a good diener can spot. It’s a treat to watch a forensic pathologist and a diener work when they’re in synch.

At day’s end, folks in the morgue are much like anyone else. They have a market to serve and they do it well. They’re also prone to talk shop in a social setting. There’s nothing like having drinks with a diener who’s into black humor.

 

What if six members—three generations—of your family were slain in a monstrous mass murder?

FROM THE SHADOWS is part of Garry’s “Based on True Crime” series. Available on Amazon and Kobo.

 

 

 

 

I couldn’t write a piece about what really goes on in the morgue without a few war stories. In my time as a cop and a coroner, I’ve been around hundreds of cadaver clients. Maybe more like thousands, but I never kept track. There were a few, though, that I’ll never forget.

One was “Mister Red Pepper Paste Man”. My friend Elvira Esikanian, a seasoned forensic pathologist of Bosnian descent who cut her teeth by exhuming mass graves, is a gem. She also has a wicked eye for detail.

I brought this old guy into the morgue after finding him dead in his apartment. Neighbors reported him screaming like someone was skinning a live cat. They rushed in and found him collapsed on the floor. No idea what killed him, but no sign of foul play.

Elvira opened his stomach and it was positively crawling. She knew what it was—botulism. Elvira told me to go back to the scene and look to see what he’d been eating. I found it. It was a jar of red pepper paste that was years past its expiry date, and the inside was a mass of organic activity.

Then, there was Kenny Fenton. He was found dead after being dumped beside a rural road and left to rot for a week in hot weather. I brought him into the morgue as intact as possible but it wasn’t easy. Kenny went into a stinker tank before Dr. Charlesworth could take him on.

As a routine, Kenny had a radiography session before his dissection. It showed a bullet in his gut. Not a run-of-the-mill bullet, of course. It was a .22 short with no rifling engraved on its sides.

Turns out, Kenny was accidentally shot in the neck by a Derringer dueling pistol. The bullet cut his carotid, hit his spinal cord, bounced back to his esophagus and he swallowed the dammed thing before bleeding out and dying fast. The crew he was with thought it was better to dump Kenny than report it.

And I can’t wrap up without a bit of spring foolishness that went on in the morgue. It involved my buddy—Dave the Diener.

Dave had about thirty years in the crypt before he met me. In fact, Dave had something to do with me getting hired by the coroner’s office because he thought I might be a good fit. Dave may, or may not, have been right.

It was the First of April and a Friday morning. Dave liked Fridays because he usually left early once his cutting was done. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, and I’ve done it myself.

But this Friday was different—probably had something to do with the date. I snuck into the morgue real early and prepared Dave’s first case. I needed some weight so he wouldn’t suspect anything off the bat. I put a bunch of concrete patio blocks on the crypt’s drawer base. Then, I placed my cadaver inside a shroud and laid it on top. I even attached a toe tag and made the right entries in the ledger.

I wasn’t there but sure heard from the other staff who were in on it. Dave rolled-out his first subject-for-the-day and unzipped the shroud. Smiling at Dave was the puckering face of a blow-up sex doll.

That’s the kind of stuff that really goes on in the morgue.

Garry Rodgers has lived the life he writes about. Garry is a retired homicide detective and forensic coroner who also served as a sniper on British SAS-trained Emergency Response Teams. Today, he’s an investigative crime writer and successful author with a popular blog at DyingWords.net as well as the HuffPost.

Garry Rodgers lives on Vancouver Island in British Columbia at Canada’s west coast where he spends his off-time around the Pacific saltwater. Connect with Garry on Twitter and Facebook and sign up for his bi-monthly blog.