crime scene

I'm not sure why so many doctors, former doctors, and medical-field professors are drawn to writing, especially to the mystery form. Could it be that making up stuff for a change is creatively liberating for these very fact-based professionals?

D. J. Donaldson, a retired professor of anatomy and neurobiology at the University of Tennessee, Health Science Center, has had numerous forensic mysteries and medical thrillers published. Now they're being re-issued by Astor + Blue Editions in ebook format.

I read the latest, Louisiana Fever, which has an unusual duo trying to solve the mystery of a contagious deadly virus. I asked him about his process and what he advises writers.

Q&A with D. J. Donaldson:

Q: Let's begin with the psychological aspects of your current work. Can you describe your creative process for us? What inspires you?

I get inspired when I hear of some medical condition I’d love to write about, or learn of some new wrinkle in forensics. For years, when the police wanted a DNA sample from a suspect, they just took a cheek swab to get a few cells from the lining of the oral cavity. The assumption was that the total DNA from the cells of one location is the same as every other cell in the body. So why not just get cells from an easy location?

But it’s now known that some people are a mixture of cells from two distinct individuals. Such a person is called a chimera. It’s believed that chimeras are formed from two separate embryos that fuse in the mother’s uterus early in development. Though it’s an extremely rare condition, an individual like that could have cheek cells with much different DNA than, say, sperm cells. Suppose this person becomes a rapist. If some uninformed police jurisdiction examines his cheek DNA and finds no match to the sperm he left on the victim, they might let him go. Things like that make me start spinning plots in my head.

Q: If curiosity gets you started, how disciplined are you about sticking to the writing?

When I’m working on a first draft, I’m very disciplined. I set aside one hour every morning seven days a week to write. I know that doesn’t sound like much time, but you’d be surprised what can be accomplished in a year following that schedule. When my hour is up, I stop… sometimes in mid-sentence.

I’ve always believed that it’s better to assign yourself a period of time spent writing each day than require that you write some set number of words. Even on days when things are not flowing, that hour will pass. But on such a day, those 500 words you’ve assigned yourself may not come. Then you have to feel lousy and untalented the rest of the day. But put in that hour, and you’ve done your job.

Q: Are you ever blocked?

I don’t start writing until I’ve done a lot of research, figured out who the characters will be, made a loose outline, and see many of the big scenes in my head. By then, the story is screaming at me to get it on paper. That means, no writers block… ever.

Louisiana Fever

Q: I understand that Louisiana Fever and other novels of yours now coming out were written some years ago (i.e., no cell phones). Did you make any changes to suit present-day readers?  

I did think about it. I don’t mean to compare myself with Conan Doyle, but despite some new iterations of Sherlock Holmes in film and TV, no one thinks the Doyle books should be updated to include modern technology. Watson certainly wouldn’t believe that.

As you may have seen in my introduction to the series on my website, I like to think of my main characters as old friends and that my books are just accounts of things they actually experienced. So, in a way, I’m their Watson. Following that … dare I call it logic, the books should remain as originally written because that’s how things happened.

Q: Do you believe in extra-sensory perception, or did you include that to enhance the Louisiana-ish ambience? I'm referring to statements like: "Kit was aware that from time to time, Grandma O showed certain abilities difficult to explain. So she didn’t dismiss this as simply the ramblings of an old woman."

This aspect of Grandma O’s character came about in the first book, Cajun Nights, when my editor wanted me to ramp up the paranormal aspects of the version he read. Coming from a science background, I was never totally comfortable with the direction of that book. So, increasingly, as I added to the series, I made them more and more science-based.

But it seemed to me that Grandma O had already claimed the mystic part of her character so firmly I couldn’t change it. And I’m happy I didn’t. As you pointed out, it does add to the feeling of things afoot in Louisiana that aren’t easily understood and the belief that native Cajuns are not like folks anywhere else. And in fact, Grandma O’s “premonitions” played a big part in the resolution of Louisiana Fever

Q: The medical details in Louisiana Fever are graphic. This sentence is one of the mildest: "Broussard parted the abdominal slit and peered into the peritoneal cavity, where he saw a large amount of dark bloody fluid." How did you write such scenes, and did your publishers ever quibble over graphicness? I found those scenes even more than cinematic, because you explained what we were "seeing," more than we usually get from television shows with autopsies.

To prepare for writing the first book in the series, and later, as I added books to it, I became a regular at the county forensic center, where I watched autopsies and made a general pest of myself questioning the medical examiner and forensic anthropologists there about hypothetical and real cases they’ve had. I’m a retired professor of anatomy, so descriptions like the one you quoted don’t seem unusual to me. But I’ve come to see that my wish to bring an intense realism—sights, sounds and smells—to all my writing can be a bit too much for some people when it extends to the autopsy room. 

Q: What made you decide to focus on a portly main character for your mystery series?

My first forensic mentor was Medical Examiner, Dr. Jim Bell. Unfortunately, Jim died unexpectedly after falling into a diabetic coma a few months before the first book was published. In many ways, Jim lives on as Broussard. Broussard's brilliant mind, his weight problem, his appreciation of fine food and antiques, his love for Louis L'Amour novels . . . that was Jim Bell. 

Copyright (c) 2013 by Susan K. Perry

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