Let’s Talk About the Skeleton in the Room

By SUE COLETTA

I’ve seen way too many medical professionals in the last six months (living with rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis isn’t always easy). As Joe pointed out Saturday—beautifully, I might add—life as we know it can change in an instant. In short, remember to have fun. Laughter really is the best medicine.

One way I’ve amused myself while waiting in the exam room is by analyzing the skeleton suspended by a metal pole. You know the one … the staff usually names it Fred, or something equally common, as though the name will somehow lessen the impact of bad news.

What I find fascinating is the fact that the vast majority of doctors and nurses don’t know the sex of their skeleton, evident by the female skeletons tagged with a male name.

Determining the Sex of a Skeleton

Many differences exist between the two sexes, and the variations run as deep as our bones. This becomes especially important for corpses found in an advanced stage of decomposition. All that might remain is the skeleton, perhaps teeth, and possibly some hair. Even if the pathologist has teeth and hair to work with, that doesn’t mean enough DNA material remains to identify the victim.

This is where the skeleton offers more information. The only exception would be that of a pre-adolescent, where sexual dimorphism is slight, making the task much more difficult. Need to buy time in your story? Murder an adolescent. (Oh, no, she didn’t just say that.) Or have the killer shatter the key areas of the skeleton.

The most common way to determine a skeleton’s sex is by bone size. Not the most accurate, but it’s a starting point. Male bones are generally larger than female bones because of the additional muscle that increases on the male through adolescence and into adulthood.

Another good inclination of sex is the pelvic area.

The sub-pubic angle (or pubic angle) is the angle formed at pubic arch by the convergence of the inferior rami of the ischium (loop bone at the base) and pubis (top of loop) on either side. Generally, the sub-pubic angle of 50-60 degrees indicates a male. Whereas an angle of 70-90 degrees indicates a female. Women have wider hips to allow for childbirth.

Female

Male

There are also distinctive differences between the pubic arches in males and females. A woman’s pubic arch is wider than a male’s as is the pelvic inlet to allow a baby’s head to pass through.

The pubic arch is also referred to as the ischiopubic arch. Incidentally, this difference is noticed in all species, not just humans.

 

 

The area around the pelvic inlet (middle of the pelvic bone) is larger in females than in males. A female skeleton who has given birth naturally will be identifiable because this space widens during childbirth. Even though it contracts afterward, it never fully returns to its original size. In the picture above notice the heart-shaped space.

 

If you don’t want the pathologist to easily ID the victim, perhaps the neighborhood bear takes off with the pelvis bone. You could also have him return for the rest of the body as the coroner is examining the corpse. Talk about adding conflict to the scene! Just remember, most black bears don’t eat human flesh (in my area, anyway). So, do your homework. Grizzly bear, anyone? How about a Kodiak brown bear?

Other Body Clues

The acetabulum—the socket where the femur (thigh bone) meets the pelvis—is larger in males. Also, the head and skull have several characteristics that help the pathologist (or crime writer) determine male from female.

  • In males, the chin is squarer. Females tend to have a slightly more pointed chin.
  • The forehead of males slant backward, where females have a slightly more rounded forehead.
  • Males tend to have brow ridges; females do not.

These differences and more tell the pathologist the sex of the deceased.

So, the next time you’re sitting in an exam room, get friendly with the skeleton in the room. Who knows? You may even sell a book or two when you educate the staff. Do it nicely, though. Some medical professionals don’t like to be schooled by a crime writer, as weird as that sounds. 🙂

Wishing you all a joyous Thanksgiving!

 

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Could a Feather Send You to Jail?

By SUE COLETTA

Raymond Reddington (left), Monny (right), Stretch (center)

While conducting research for my WIP, I stumbled across a law that blew my mind. As many of you know, I’m a huge animal lover. I would no more harm an animal than a member of my family. However, according to this statute, I may have inadvertently broken the law. And you might be guilty, too!

Years ago, I developed a fascination with eagles while writing Wings of Mayhem. When I wrote Blessed Mayhem, I became enamored with crows and ravens, as well. For those who aren’t familiar with Blessed Mayhem, Mr. Mayhem (the antagonist) has three pet crows. So, as the author, I had to know as much about crows as he did to portray him in a realistic manner. For months I studied their mannerisms, favorite foods, habitat, reproductive life, rituals, complex communication skills, body language, etc. And later, befriended a mating couple in my yard. You might remember my post about wildlife.

Some Native Americans believe that when a feather drops from the sky it carries the power of the bird, that crows live in two parallel universes, with one talon in a spiritual realm and one in the physical world, that they’re fore-tellers of change and messengers of the spirit world. When a crow visits, s/he expects to find our authentic self.

In writing, our character’s “authentic self” or “true character” is the 3rd Dimension of Character, the person only those closest to him truly know. The antagonist, especially a killer, will want to portray a false facade in public (1st Dimension of Character) to evade detection.

For my Mayhem Series, I take note of how my body reacts in the presence of crows, and then I transfer that emotion to the page to show Mr. Mayhem’s soft side.

Poe showing Shakespeare how to eat fries.

When my beloved murder of nine glides into the yard — awe-inspiring wings in perfect harmony with members of their tribe — my breath quickens, the world falls away.

As my stiff shoulders ease, I marvel at these incredible birds. I consider it an honor that they’ve let me share in the joyfulness of newborn chicks and the devastation of loss. I’ve reveled in their teachings of how to fly without smashing into a sibling’s wings, the intricacies of how best to crack peanut shells, and the unwavering belief that leftover French fries taste amazing first thing in the morning.

It’s probably no surprise then that when Poe leaves me a feather, I treasure her generous gift. But now, darn it, I found that pesky law …

Authorities created the North American Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918 when folks killed too many birds for the sole purpose of adorning their hats with feathered bling. It’s a broad-brush law intended to protect birds. Which is fabulous. The downside is, the law doesn’t recognize the difference between plucked feathers, shed feathers, or bird pieces. None of it is allowed in our possession. The Act lists over 800 birds. Crow feathers top that list, along with eagles, owls, ravens, hawks, and even blue jays.

In order to keep a feather collection, we need to visit our local Fish & Game headquarters and pull a permit. Maybe one of our TKZ legal minds could weigh in on any stipulations of obtaining said permit? I can’t bear to toss the feathers back in the yard, as the law requires. Poe and Edgar might consider it a slap across the beak.

Did you know it was illegal to pick up a feather? According to this law, not only are we required to figure out the exact species of bird who dropped the feather, but we need to cross-check the list to see if the feather is protected under federal law. The harmless act of collecting a feather from your yard could wind up costing you a hefty fine and even a misdemeanor conviction!

This discovery sent shock waves through my writer brain. Perhaps I could use this law in my WIP. We’re always searching for an interesting new angle, aren’t we?

Some of the ways I considered using this law are …

  • What if the detective uses the Migration Bird Act as “probable cause” to obtain a search warrant?
  • What if the confiscated feathers linked a suspect to the victim?
  • What if the detective witnesses a strange man pocketing a protected feather off the beach (yes, sea gulls are also on that watch-list) and he follows him to a killing lair?

None of those worked for my story, though. Too easy. I may have to abandon the idea.

How might you use the Migration Bird Act to heat up the investigation? Were you aware of this law?

 

Sue Coletta is on a path. She earned her ticket into the crowded arena of dark thriller contenders with her previous novel (“Marred”), and in “Wings of Mayhem” she announces her arrival with the wail of approaching sirens and the quiet horror of a blade swinging at your throat in the dark. Don’t miss this one. A star is born.” ~ Larry Brooks

Look inside Wings of Mayhem HERE.

 

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Dear Writer’s Mate …

By Sue Coletta

The other day I jotted down a juicy detail from my research on the corner of yellow scrap paper. Hours later, after I’d used the tidbit in a scene, I spaced throwing away the note.

You know how we get when we’re obsessed focused on our WIP.

Anyway, later that night, while hanging with the hubby in the sunroom, I went to blow the steam off my tea and the note traveled with the mug. Somehow the note had adhered itself to the base. I slid my fingers down the ceramic, but my husband — always the helper — beat me to it.

When he peeled off the paper, he read my scribbling aloud. “It’s called raccooning. The head acts as a vacuum.” Visibly forcing down a grin, he said, “Well, someone’s had an interesting day.”

I laughed so hard I could barely speak through the tears. Once I managed to regain composure, I shared all the gory details of my research into decapitation, the guillotine, and a chicken who lived 10 months with no head. After 21 years together, this conversation didn’t even faze him. He gets me. But it made me wonder what a different spouse might think if they’d found a similar note.

Let’s face it, writers can be fascinating and entertaining at times, but there must be days where a writer’s mate must shake his/her head in disbelief. It’s in this spirit that I share helpful advice for the good-natured, supportive, and understanding folks who live with a writer.

Dear writer’s mate, you may find your writer staring at the ceiling, or out the window, or even at a blank wall. And you may be tempted to think it’s okay to barge in and chat about your day. Make no mistake, there’s a lot going on behind-the-scenes that isn’t visible to the naked eye. Your writer is hard at work, creating, visualizing the story, agonizing over that one missing piece that’ll bring it all together.

Please don’t interrupt. Instead, back away from the desk — nice and slow — with no sudden movements. Trust me on this. You don’t want any part of causing your writer to lose focus. It’s not a pretty sight.

At other times, your writer may have some “unusual” documentary requests. Dear writer’s mate, just go with it. Creative decisions are not easy to explain. Your writer may not even know what s/he’s searching for; it could be anything from plot details to a twist that hasn’t yet revealed itself. Being immersed in similar story elements, situations, locations, conflicts, unsolved mysteries, or even a killer’s modus operandi may help spark ideas.

Dear writer’s mate, your writer may experience a spontaneous yet overwhelming urge to drag you to desolate swamplands, woodlands, back alleyways, or back roads that lead to nowhere. Don’t panic. Your writer is simply looking for the perfect place to dump or pose a corpse, and 99.99% of the time it’s not your dead body s/he’s envisioning. I should warn you, though. Should you ignore the advice contained herein, the latter could change. You don’t want to be amongst the unfortunate .01%, do you?

Rest easy, dear writer’s mate. Nine times out of ten the victim is the rude waitress who served you and your darling writer on Friday night. Fun fact: while you were figuring out the tip, your dinner date was plotting the waitress’ excruciating demise. Did you not notice your writer’s unflinching stare? The eyes tell the story. When the lids narrow but your writer’s gaze doesn’t seem to focus on anything in particular, it’s a telltale sign that s/he’s thinking about murder. Oh, while we’re on this subject, it’s safer for the entire family if you never — I repeat, never — peek at your writer’s search history. If panic sets in, you might be tempted to phone a friend. The next thing you know, your writer’s face is plastered on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.

Dear writer’s mate, your normal routine is subject to change without notice. You know those three-course meals you love so much? Yeah, well, at times they may be replaced with frozen dinners, crock pot dishes, and takeout menus. Leftovers will almost always make their way to the dinner table, especially if your writer is on deadline. Also, your writer could try to make it up to you by firing up the grill, but you may want to keep an eye on those steaks. They can, and will, turn to ash if your writer jumps back into the WIP.

Granted, at the time s/he slapped the meat on the grill s/he had every intention of fixing you a nice meal. But then, something within range diverted his/her attention — the disembodied call of a pileated woodpecker, an unusual tree stump with a silhouetted face embedded in the grain, a stick snapping in the yard for no apparent reason — and this propelled your writer into the office where s/he only planned to write one quick paragraph before the story enveloped him/her into its warm embrace. The time continuum is difficult to explain to a non-writer, but just think of it as your writer’s Bermuda triangle.

Dear writer’s mate, at some point you may need to save your writer by gently reminded him/her to step away from the keyboard. Please use caution. Only use this step in an emergency, like if your writer has stayed up all night, downing copious amounts of coffee or tea and resembles a strung-out raccoon. Or if your writer has skipped breakfast and lunch because the words are flowing faster than s/he can type. Or if your writer has spent a full week in his/her pajamas. Otherwise, please refer to my initial advice.

Dear writer’s mate, I realize I’m throwing a lot at you. What I haven’t mentioned is how fortunate you are to love a writer. Writers are fun, loving, dedicated, intelligent, witty, weird, nutty, unique, passionate, humble, and above all else, loyal. Consider yourself lucky to share in your writer’s imaginative world, where nothing has limits and anything is possible.

Over to TKZers. What advice would you give to a writer’s mate?

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