No Research Stone Unturned

Author FRAN WOJNAR visits The Real Me today with her story of diligent research for her novel, Magdalena’s Conflict.  And, lest you think I’m partial to this book because the protagonist is Sister Camille: I met Fran long after her book was published!

Before writing the murder mystery Magdalena’s Conflict, I centered my research for Eliza, an Iowa Pioneer, on immigrant customs and stories. I had read the early Iowa Palimpsests and Annals of Iowa. A book about murder would be a challenge for me. If a TV program pictured a person with a gun or a police chase, I would switch channels. Since my story involved the possibility of poisoning and persons afflicted with emotional issues, I had “hard” research to do.

I started with cyanide, my choice of weapon. In Deadly Doses by Stevens and Klarner and Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie, both authors mentioned the sources of cyanide in apricot pits, but, I needed the recipe. Two pharmacists eyed me with suspicion when I asked about the procedure.

I took a tour of the Contra Costa County Crime Lab where I met a police lieutenant who suggested I check out the drug called Laiatral, which contained small quantities of cyanide made from apricot pits. Laiatral, though illegal in the US, was used in Mexico as a treatment for cancer. I was assured that it could be produced in a kitchen in about an hour. I found the recipe in the Contra Costa County Library.

My next questions concerned autopsies. I needed to know things like: Would a body show trauma after ingesting cyanide? What trauma? If a body was buried five to six days, could cyanide be detected in an autopsy? Where? How soon after ingestion would death occur? Could the victim taste cyanide in a cup of coffee?

I called the coroner’s office:

“Flanagan here. This is the Contra Costa County Morgue. What is it you want?”

“I need to talk to the coroner about details for a book I’m writing.”

“The coroner doesn’t do autopsies. We contract with a group of pathologists. Give me your name and phone number and I’ll pass it along.”

Before 7:00 AM the next morning, my phone rang.

“Is this Fran? This is Dr. P. Do you want to come over to the morgue this morning? I’ve got a stack of bodies.”

Watching an autopsy never entered my mind. After I caught my breath. I managed to get out, “I need to ask you a few questions for a book I’m writing.”

“I’m here now. It’s up to you,” he responded.

“Can you talk while you work?”


“I’ll be right over.”

Author Fran Wojnar

When I arrived at the morgue, a deputy met me and ushered me down a dark hall into a large well-lighted room. If the musty odors that smelled like body fluids didn’t convince me, the three bodies on long tables did. Maybe it was the alarmed expression on my face that convinced the staff to gather close to me against the cupboards along the wall, cutting off the view of the tables.

To my surprise, they had questions for me: How long does it take to write a book? What’s the plot? Can we be in your story? Slowly, I began to relax and was able to get answers for my own questions.

Psychotherapy. In my novel Sister Camille believes Mother Rosaria was murdered. Because the newly elected Mother Cordelia thinks Sister Camille suffered from a persecution complex, she orders her to a psychologist. For this research, I asked a psychologist friend to role play potential psychotherapy sessions. In the exercise, my friend’s demeanor changed toward me. It was not our friendly discussions at home. He took the side of Mother Cordelia and agreed Sister Camille had a suspicious nature and the death of Sister Rosaria was none of her business. This irritated me. Sister Camille, whose role I played, wanted to shout, “You wait and see.”

In one session Raymond questioned Sister Camille’s relationship with her parents and siblings. He grabbed onto my childhood memories like a squirrel gnawing on a nut. I thought he distorted my tales. I felt bruised by our sessions.

My husband observed, “You’re finding out some things about yourself.”

I replied, “Huh, but, I don’t know if it’s Sister Camille or me.”

Police Procedures

For this research, I volunteered in the Juvenile Unit at the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office. The unit was at one end of the large homicide division. I thought I’d be able to hear the detectives talk about their cases and get a feel for their language. Instead I was I holed up in a cubicle and couldn’t hear one word. The restrooms were on the other side of the homicide division, so I’d walk slowly through it hoping to hear them talk. After a few weeks of these walks, the detectives got used to seeing me. I asked one of them, Lieutenant K., if he’d be willing to read the procedural sections of my novel. He was a fan of the mystery writer Joseph Wambaugh and made a big point that a writer doesn’t learn police procedures from watching police shows on TV.

One day I filled him in on my years as a nun. His large eyes bulged. He yanked out his middle desk drawer and slammed a ruler down shouting. “You were one of those knuckle busters!” We both howled with laughter.

Another time I asked him if he’d ever used a jeweler’s loupe. Again, he pulled his middle desk drawer out, and slammed a loupe on his desk. When I asked to see his gun, he leaned over and emptied all the bullets on the floor, then handed it to me.

Lieutenant K. read the police actions in my novel and made suggestions. When he said he’d hire my fictional Detective Kummer to be on his staff, I knew the book was ready and all the research I’d done was worth it.


I should have known better than to promise a report on a road trip, especially when it consisted mostly of I-5 and exits like this one, with Nothing on either side of the road.

Road 27: No one wanted to bother thinking up a name for these exits off I-5?

Don’t get me wrong — I loved traveling with the expert road tripper, Ann Parker, who knows all the nice, clean rest areas, and how to get to the Olive Pit where the shelves are filled with the best in olives, oils, nuts, and jams. It was the long stretches between the Olive Pit and the Safeway gas pump, that had nothing to hold my attention. Good thing we never lacked for great conversation and fine snacks.

Now and then, there would be a single house, far off the road, nothing but dried grass and hills around it. I wondered who lived there. A family? How far was it to the nearest school? church? doctor? Starbucks? Maybe a single cowboy lived there, or a female rancher. (Is it ranchers who take care of cows? I saw a few cows here and there.) Maybe an old couple were running a tulip farm that I couldn’t see.

I was nearly 40 the first time I lived in a single, unattached house, and over 50 when I first owned one. There’s something comforting about hearing neighbors next to me, above me, a stone’s throw away.

I’d never make it in the land of rom-coms when the career woman in a big city “sees the light” and returns to the family farm/ranch/homestead in a flyover state.

I love having cut flowers available to grace my table. I’m grateful that someone else plants them and digs them up for me.

A Holiday By Any Other Name

Can you have jet lag after a road trip? Apparently so. Thus, after a 700-mile RT to Ashland, Oregon, I’m repurposing my May 5 post on Kevin Tipple’s blog.

Next week, I’ll report on the Ashland trip. This might make me a week behind for the rest of the year, but I’ll have to risk it!

A Holiday By Any Other Name

First, I never met a holiday or celebration I didn’t like. Birthdays, anniversaries, Saints’ Days, Countries’ Days—I love them all. When I taught physics in college, my students and I gathered in the lounge every Friday to celebrate the birthday of a scientist or mathematician. Enrico Fermi on September 29, 1901; Marie Curie on November 7, 1867; the patent for the Sundback zipper on March 20, 1917

I may be the only person you know who begs a friend for a ticket to her son’s high school graduation, even though I met him only once as we passed in her driveway. I love pomp. I love circumstance.

I grew up just outside of Boston, where Patriot’s Day (April 19) was as big a holiday as the Fourth of July, and Bunker Hill Day (June 17) overshadowed Labor Day.

I cheered for my father every year as he marched in the Sons of Italy band on the Feast of San Gennaro. Technically on September 19, but in reality the feast went on for about two weeks at the end of September, because there was no end to the number of sausages or cannoli one could consume in honor of the fourteenth century Neapolitan martyr. The odor of fried zeppoli would last another two weeks.

One of the biggest fusses erupted on Columbus Day (October 12) with the city’s largest parade taking over the news. It was a while before I realized that the rest of the country hardly takes notice of the anniversaries of Paul Revere’s ride or our loss to the British at the Battle of  Bunker Hill. It took even longer for me to accept that some parts of the country didn’t even believe in Columbus’s achievement.

I was nearly 40 when I first ventured out of the EST zone and traveled to California, where among the parking meter holidays for October was Indigenous Peoples Day!

I’ll join in on celebrations of any kind, however, and so I was ready to embrace some of the new-to-me holidays like Cesar Chavez Day (March 31) and the Feast of Junipero Serra (July 1). Admissions Day had me confused at first— was the whole state celebrating the arrival of freshmen to various campuses? Some kind soul eventually explained to me that September 9 was the day California had been admitted to the union.

“How can you not  know that?” a native asked me.

“You’re right, I should know,” I responded, struggling to gain back my dignity. “After all, Massachusetts was on the Admitting Committee.”

In other words: give me a break.

Back to Cinco de Mayo. There was a time when I celebrated May 5 only as the birthday of Peter Cooper Hewitt, inventor of the mercury vapor lamp, precursor to fluorescent lighting.

My ignorance caught up with me when my first book, “The Hydrogen Murder,” was released. In it, my protagonist, a Boston native like me, refers to Cinco de Mayo as Mexican Independence Day.

Shoot me now. I received a flurry of attacks. Just like a gringo, they all said.

It turns out (in case you’re also a short-sighted East Coaster) that the real Mexican Independence Day is September 16. Cinco de Mayo celebrates a short-lived victory over the French, and apparently is a big deal only in the US.

But count on me to join in on your favorite holiday celebration. Especially if there’s cake involved, I’ll be there. Just give me a few minutes and an Internet connection so I can bone up on the correct details.

One question, many answers

I just finished “teaching” a writing class.

The ” ” here are to indicate that a good teacher, which I hope I am, does as much learning as teaching. Sometimes teachers aren’t interested in learning, but in simply transferring information. Sad, I think. Students answers to questions can be more interesting and enlightening than what the teacher expects.

There’s a famous example of this in the annals of physics teaching. As the story goes, a physics teacher posed this question on an exam and got surprising results.

Show how it’s possible to determine the height of a tall building using a barometer.

One student answered this way:

“Take the barometer to the top of the building and attach a long piece of rope to it. Lower the barometer until it hits the sidewalk, then pull it up and measure the length of the rope, which will give you the height of the building.”

What? The teacher expected a different answer, using the standard equation involving the difference in pressure at the top and bottom of the building.

When challenged to come up with “the right answer,” the student gave several. Among them:

1. Take the barometer out on a sunny day and measure the height of the barometer, the length of its shadow, and the length of the shadow of the building. Using simple proportion, determine the height of the building.

2. Take the barometer and begin to walk up the stairs. As you climb the stairs, you mark off the length of the barometer along the wall. You then count the number of marks, and this will give you the height of the building in barometer units.

And so on. If you’d like more than a dozen more methods, click here.

My favorite remains this one:

“Take the barometer to the basement and knock on the superintendent’s door. When the superintendent answers, say: ‘Mr. Superintendent, if you will tell me the height of this building, I will give you this barometer.’”

Thus, using a barometer (as a bartering tool) to determine the height of a building.

How would you grade this student?

** Legend has it that the student was Niels Bohr (1885-1962, Nobel Prize in physics, 1922), but then there might be other answers to this question.


Which one of us do you think posed for the cover?

For your convenience, here’s a summary of all the books included in SLEUTHING WOMEN–10 FIRST-IN-SERIES MYSTERIES.

Sleuthing Women Mysteries is a 10-author anthology of first-in-series cozy mysteries, including my first, The Hydrogen Murder.

A short description of each of these full-length mysteries follows.

Assault With a Deadly Glue Gun, an Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery by Lois Winston—Working mom Anastasia is clueless about her husband’s gambling addiction until he permanently cashes in his chips and her comfortable middle-class life craps out. He leaves her with staggering debt, his communist mother, and a loan shark demanding $50,000. Then she’s accused of murder…

Murder Among Neighbors, a Kate Austen Suburban Mystery by Jonnie Jacobs — When Kate Austen’s socialite neighbor, Pepper Livingston, is murdered, Kate becomes involved in a sea of steamy secrets that bring her face to face with shocking truths—and handsome detective Michael Stone.

Skeleton in a Dead Space, a Kelly O’Connell Mystery by Judy Alter—Real estate isn’t a dangerous profession until Kelly O’Connell stumbles over a skeleton and runs into serial killers and cold-blooded murderers in a home being renovated in Fort Worth. Kelly barges through life trying to keep from angering her policeman boyfriend Mike and protect her two young daughters.

In for a Penny, a Cleopatra Jones Mystery by Maggie Toussaint—Accountant Cleo faces an unwanted hazard when her golf ball lands on a dead banker. The cops think her BFF shot him, so Cleo sets out to prove them wrong. She ventures into the dating world, wrangles her teens, adopts the victim’s dog, and tries to rein in her mom…until the killer puts a target on Cleo’s back.

The Hydrogen Murder, a Periodic Table Mystery by Camille Minichino—A retired physicist returns to her hometown of Revere, Massachusetts and moves into an apartment above her friends’ funeral home. When she signs on to help the Police Department with a science-related homicide, she doesn’t realize she may have hundreds of cases ahead of her.

Retirement Can Be Murder, A Baby Boomer Mystery by Susan Santangelo—Carol Andrews dreads her husband Jim’s upcoming retirement more than a root canal without Novocain. She can’t imagine anything worse than having an at-home husband with time on his hands and nothing to fill it—until Jim is suspected of murdering his retirement coach.

Dead Air, A Talk Radio Mystery by Mary Kennedy—Psychologist Maggie Walsh moves from NY to Florida to become the host of WYME’s On the Couch with Maggie Walsh. When her guest, New Age prophet Guru Sanjay Gingii, turns up dead, her new roommate Lark becomes the prime suspect. Maggie must prove Lark innocent while dealing with a killer who needs more than just therapy.

A Dead Red Cadillac, A Dead Red Mystery by RP Dahlke—When her vintage Cadillac is found tail-fins up in a nearby lake, the police ask aero-ag pilot Lalla Bains why an elderly widowed piano teacher is found strapped in the driver’s seat. Lalla confronts suspects, informants, cross-dressers, drug-running crop dusters, and a crazy Chihuahua on her quest to find the killer.

Murder is a Family Business, an Alvarez Family Murder Mystery by Heather Haven—Just because a man cheats on his wife and makes Danny DeVito look tall, dark and handsome, is that any reason to kill him? The reluctant and quirky PI, Lee Alvarez, has her work cut out for her when the man is murdered on her watch. Of all the nerve.

Murder, Honey, a Carol Sabala Mystery by Vinnie Hansen—When the head chef collapses into baker Carol Sabala’s cookie dough, she is thrust into her first murder investigation. Suspects abound at Archibald’s, the swanky Santa Cruz restaurant where Carol works. The head chef cut a swath of people who wanted him dead from ex-lovers to bitter rivals to greedy relatives.

Pre-order your copy now and it will be delivered on May 1st. Give this present to yourself and have plenty of fun reads on hand for all your summer vacations!

Buy Links:

The Voice of Gloria

Link from the Past
A few years ago, Valley Free Radio host Alan Vogel read my short story The Fluorine Murder, the 9th periodic table story, on his show.  How interesting, if a little strange, to hear a male voice reading as Gloria Lamerino.

Writing Advice

Another theft of a good topic from the LadyKillers Blog: Writing advice, with a Real Me twist.

Sometimes I think there’s more advice on writing than actual writing.

Oops. I’m breaking one rule already. The one that says Never use second person.

But I’ve finally found a rule I can live with.

Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. – Stephen King

King reveals secrets to Minichino

I can’t be sure I understood perfectly what Stephen King said, but I’ll take a shot at it.

Write the book you want to write, alone in your room. Then, when you have a draft, participate as much as possible in the writing community. Enlist all the help you can for critique and pay attention to every suggestion. Not that you follow that suggestion verbatim, but you do something to address the problem.

The community laser, c. 1968

My first exposure to a grown-up career (excluding that of pizza chef on Revere Beach) was in physics research. The centerpiece was a six-foot long helium-neon laser in a basement laboratory where no fewer than eight or nine of us worked at any one time. Communal research, you might say, with one log book for entering data. Over a period of five-and-a-half years, I don’t remember a time when I was alone in the lab, even in the hours after midnight.

I did have to write my dissertation alone, but that was fun—without computers, I was committed to pasting dozens of photos onto multiple copies of the book, using rubber cement. A high!

When I thought of writing as a “career” (only my tax man knows whether it really is one), I worried that I’d be lonely. Could I work for hours on end with no company? No one to talk to across a glass tube, glowing red and providing the necessary stimulus to discuss the issues of the day? No one to share a couple of hard-boiled eggs with when there was no time to hit the White Castle across the street?

It turned out I didn’t have to worry. Because as the King says, after that first dump of words, I could open my door to all the members of Mystery Writers of America, the California Writers Club, and Sisters in Crime; to crowds of subject matter experts, critiquers, and beta readers.

Thanks to all of you!


April 7, 1969 is listed as one of the birthdays of the Internet.

One of? You mean you can’t Google “Internet birthday” and get a definitive date for the invention of something we use every day? Apparently not.

For example:

• On April 7, 1969, the first Requests for Comments (RFC) were published by the Pentagon’s ARPA project. RFC documents describe the theoretical foundations of the Internet and interconnected computers.

• On September 2, 1969, the first local connection between two computers was established at UCLA.

• On the evening of October 29, 1969, the first data travelled between two nodes of the ARPANET, a key ancestor of the Internet.

• On January 1, 1983, the switch was made from Network Control Protocol to Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol, to accommodate the much larger and more complicated network that would eventually be needed.

As for the WWW, the multimedia portion of the Internet, some say it was invented on Christmas Day, 1990, when the first practical HTML browser was completed; others say August 7, 1991, when CERN unveiled the browser to the world.

Does anyone else think it’s ironic that a chief source for information on everything from movie times to important dates in history doesn’t know when itself was invented? (Pardon the grammatical license. I could check the Internet for proper usage, but can I trust it now?)

It seems the only things we’re really sure happened on April 7 are

• King Kong opened in movie theaters (1933) and

• It’s Russell Crowe’s birthday (1964).

As long as there’s some excuse to eat cake, I’m satisfied.

A Name of His Own

Read More…

Where am I?

Only a few weeks ago,  I was in Phoenix, Arizona. It’s no secret that I’m more of a street-tree person than a cactus person, but I have to say that the people of Phoenix were welcoming and friendly to the hundreds of mystery writers and readers who landed there for a conference. So, thanks to the organizers and attendees of CACTUS CAPER.

My panel topic was “The Making of a Cozy Murder: What defines a cozy?” moderated by the legendary blogger and mystery fan, DRU ANN LOVE (If that isn’t a great name for a fan . . .)

On a panel with Ritter Ames, Carolyn Greene, Donna Andrews, and Dru Ann Love

We discussed the tropes of cozies, such as the don’t-kill-a-pet rule (no such limitation on little old ladies) and, as Donna Andrews observed, the “Keep it clean” admonition.

One of the more interesting questions Dru Ann addressed to the authors: “Would you make a good amateur sleuth?”

I’d never thought about that before, but (slam to head) I realized my answer had to be NO!

My main shortcoming, besides my current inability to give chase, is that I have a notoriously bad sense of direction. Make that: no sense of direction. I am orientationally challenged. I’m not just referring to getting lost on the freeways, but getting lost in a restaurant.

For example, say I’ve been to the restroom, clearly marked by a large sign. Say I want to get back to my table, where my friends are chatting, expecting me to return. Uh-oh. An embarrassing moment, more so even than if I’d gone into the men’s room by mistake. Unless the restaurant is smaller than my own kitchen, I’m lost.

I try to orient myself by standing at the threshold into the dining area. I try to locate the sign-in desk. Where did we go from there? Can I see the table I left? Many times, I end up seeing my server (I am good at remembering faces, at least). I make an excuse for needing help to my table.

I’ve had this disability all my life, therefore there’s more of a chance now that I’ve remembered to drop bread crumbs on the way to my target—I try to notice that I’m taking a right at the large fake palm, so I should take a left to get back. ETC.

Bottom line: don’t be surprised if I abandon you on our next date. And never, never ask me for directions.