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So, That’s What That Means II

[avatar user=”LeeAnn” size=”thumbnail” link=”file”]LeeAnn Rhoden[/avatar]

So, Allison and I were dropping the kiddos off at school and she says, “I was wondering where the phrase ‘a snake’s den” comes from. When are you going to write that blog?” Lucky for her, I was still trying to decide what to write so I could get right on it.

I’d never heard the phrase “a snake’s den” before. Where I grew up it was called “a snakes’ nest” or “a nest of snakes.” The imagery is the same and thus, I’m sure, the meaning is the same with only geographic differences in phraseology. Okay, then where did that phrase come from?

According to The Phrase Finder the phrase is actually a “a nest of vipers.” Referring to someone as a snake has been an insult dating back to Aesop. Personally, I think the reference goes back further than that – at least as far back as Genesis. Snakes lurk in dark, hidden places and are camouflaged and therefore sneaky. These are negative qualities to have as a human. Anyway, our phrase in English comes from, you know, England. There, vipers specifically refer to poisonous snakes – even more insulting.

Nests were what groups of people, especially those composed of nefarious folks, were called. But in 1644, a pamphlet criticizing a group plotting treason against the English Parliament was entitled A Nest of Perfidious Vipers. It was the first time the two terms can be documented in use together.

 So, now you know!

Forensics & Fiction: The Morgue

“Revise! Revise!” I screamed at the television. As much as I loved Brenda Lee Johnson from The Closer, the scene in the morgue where she’s digging through bodies in search of a Jane Doe, without assistance from a morgue technician, would never happen. EVER!

Here’s what you need to know when writing a morgue scene. This information is taken from the observations I made while working in two different morgues.

Morgue Facts

  • The morgue generally refers to the section of the building where the bodies are kept and autopsies are performed.
  • It is a secure facility.

Police officers cannot walk into the morgue by themselves and mosey about the refrigerated units looking for deceased individuals.

  • Retrieving a deceased individual for a police officer is the responsibility of the morgue technicians or investigators.

Morgue technicians can also be referred to as autopsy technicians or autopsy assistants. See your local office’s website to find out what this job title is called there.

  • There is a receiving area where bodies are brought in and transported out of by funeral homes and transport companies.

The receiving area has a digital scale built into the floor. The scale looks like a rectangular piece of metal and wiggles when you step on or off of it.  It’s used for weighing the deceased. Weight, height, hair color and eye color are all recorded initially when the decedent first arrives. More detailed information, such as tattoos and scars, is recorded later.

  • Morgues depicted in movies are fancier than what I’ve seen – though that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

In the movies there will be a stainless steel wall with a series of small square doors. The pathologist or technician will open the door and pull out a gurney with the deceased on it. My former offices didn’t have that, although the second office I worked in had large doors that, when opened, revealed a series of stainless steel shelves where bodies stacked. Both offices had large refrigerated units (walk-in refrigerators). The deceased were found, in body bags, on stainless steel gurneys or on silver shelves along the wall.

The body bags used for the decedents were either black or white. A white body bag is used if the manner of death was believed to be natural, accidental, suicide or unknown (as long as it wasn’t believed suspicious). Black body bags are used for homicides and suspicious deaths.

  • Both offices I worked in had two separate refrigerated units.

The main refrigerated unit held anything that wasn’t a decomposed body or John Doe. Decomposed bodies (because of the smell) and long-term cases (usually John/Jane Does) were stored in the smaller units. The main refrigerated unit had two doors. One door connected to the receiving area; the other door connected to the autopsy room.

  • The number of bodies a morgue can hold varies greatly on its size.

The Autopsy Rooms

  • At both of my former offices there were two autopsy rooms. Again, this may vary according to the needs of the facility. I imagine Los Angeles has a much larger facility.
  • The larger of the two rooms had 2-4 spaces where autopsies could be performed simultaneously.
  • The smaller room was designed to perform one autopsy. This room was typically reserved for examining homicides and decomposed bodies because it could be closed off from the rest of the facility, limiting the number of eyes on evidence collected and containing the smell of the decomposed body.

A General Description of Autopsy Rooms

  • Each autopsy station will have stainless steel counters with space for the pathologist to dissect tissues.
  • A sink is located in the center of the counters.
  • A special autopsy table, with a drain found at the foot of the table will be placed inside a notch that connects to the sink. This allows the drain in the table to flow into the sink.
  • There may be another stainless steel counter that sits away from the autopsy stations. This is considered the “clean” area. Paperwork for each case can be found here and the general rule of thumb is “clean hands only” because this is the same paperwork that will circulate through the office.
  • A Material Data Safety Sheet or MSDS will also be found somewhere in the morgue. It lists how to handle dangerous chemicals such as formalin.
  • An emergency eye rinse/shower station will also be in one or both of the autopsy rooms in case an employee splashes something in his eyes or has a chemical spilled on his skin.

What You Might Smell In An Autopsy Room

  • Formalin

Formalin is the chemical substance used by pathologists to preserve the tissue samples they collect at autopsy. Formalin is basically the same as formaldehyde – an ingredient found in embalming fluid. Formalin smells like ammonia. It can create a burning sensation in the eyes when inhaled.

  • Other odors.

The best way I can describe the odor of a body being autopsied is a combination of must and blood. I always associated the smell of blood with a musty-metallic-sweet scent. For some people, the smell of blood can be nauseating. Then again, so can the site of an autopsied body.

A decomposed body will smell like a combination of ammonia and rotting chicken. Describing the smell in your novels as “rotting meat” is fine. I’ve just always associated it with chicken.

A Morgue is Not

  •  A long-term storage unit.

The goal is to release the deceased to a funeral home as quickly as possible to make room for new cases. In one instance, we released a decedent to the funeral home the family chose. The funeral home had already transported the body back to their facility. The family called requesting we take the body back because they couldn’t afford that funeral home and that funeral home charged a storage fee. I had to explain to that family member we couldn’t accommodate her request. 

  • A funeral home.

Families are often confused as to what the purpose of these offices is. In one case, when I contacted a family member to find out what funeral arrangements he had made, he told me, “Just cremate her.” I had to explain to him that we were not a funeral home. We can’t make those arrangements. That is the responsibility of the family.

  • A private autopsy facility.

The purpose of coroner/medical examiner is to determine cause and manner of death. If the family wants anything more than that done they will need to arrange for a private autopsy. Private autopsies are costly. The last I heard they ran approximately $3,000, depending on what testing the families wanted performed. A medical examiner/coroner’s office cannot be used to perform private autopsies. It’s considered a conflict of interest and in some states may be illegal.


Singularly Neutral

[avatar user=”LeeAnn” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” link=”file”]LeeAnn Rhoden[/avatar]

Third person singular: he, him, she, her. Seems simple enough. He likes ice cream. She likes ice cream. The tree fell on him. The tree fell on her. The problem with our language is that third person pronouns are gender specific. Not just our language, in most western languages. In fact, according to this article in the World Atlas of Language Structures Online there are only 254 languages with no gender distinctions in the third person pronoun.

The complication of no gender specification is obvious – Person likes ice cream. Who? Is this person a male or female? Is it important to know or is it more important to know what flavor ice cream person likes? The tree fell on person. Is it important to know what gender has been flattened? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Our English language and most Indo-European languages have gender specific third person pronouns. So, we know if the person who likes ice cream is male or female and we know which gender has been victimized by the tree. But, what if we don’t know? What pronoun do we use?

It used to be, that when gender was unknown, the male pronoun was substituted. He likes ice cream. Oh! Sorry, Mary! She likes ice cream. Personally, I don’t have a problem with the masculine being the fail safe pronoun. I’m not that thin-skinned that if someone were to refer to me as “he” or “him” without actually knowing it’s me (I am female) I’d be insulted.

However, at some point in the past few decades in writing the combination pronoun “he/she” or worse “s/he” started showing up. S/He should sign on the dotted line. Way too much work.  And why? Is it to be gender inclusive? Why not use the neutral “one?” One should sign on the dotted line. Is it an attempt to be crystal clear? To know that it’s an actual person rather than something else? It should sign on the dotted line. Perhaps in some legal situations it may be necessary to be absolute.

“They” has been used as an answer. But is using the third person plural pronoun better? I don’t know, I’d rather be “he” than a “they.” Besides the fact “they” is plural, to use it then one has to conjugate the verb in the singular “you” form. Ugh.

For now, let’s revel in tradition and stick with “he” or “one” for the unknown gender. It’s simpler. It’s cleaner. It’s correct. What do you think? What do you prefer?


Irony: A short story


Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Samantha kicked back on the couch with her feet resting on the coffee table. Thirty minutes passed since Jamie called and Samantha was thoroughly enjoying every minute.

I can’t believe he’s buying this. A soft giggled escaped from her throat and she coughed to cover it up.

“Has your computer finished booting up yet?” Jamie was growing more and more agitated as time progressed.

First, Samantha told him her computer was booting up. Then she told him her computer locked up while she was trying to login to the Internet. After that, she told him she received the blue screen of death and she needed to reboot.

He is one determined phisher. Samantha filed down the rough edges of her fingernails.

Jamie from Microsoft, allegedly, took time out of his busy day to call Samantha and let her know the Windows department detected a virus on her computer.

“If you’d be so kind as to login to your computer, I’ll install a special edition of antivirus software on your computer to remove it.”

Samantha knew better. Microsoft doesn’t have the staff or the budget to call every client in the freaking world to remove viruses from their computers. Jamie was, indeed, a phisher and Samantha enjoyed messing with him.

Samantha pulled out a small jar of purple nail polish and unscrewed the lid, dabbing the brush up and down several times before applying it to her toe nails.

“I haven’t got all day, Miss.”

Samantha all but forgot he was waiting on her response. That’s what he gets.

“Sorry,” she began. “If this is a bad time for you to hack into my computer and steal my financial information, you can call back at another time.”

“Excuse me?”

“Did I stutter?” Samantha bent over her knees, blowing on her toe nails to dry the polish.

“Are you even by your computer?”

“Nope.” That was the first truthful thing Samantha said to him since he called. Her computer was upstairs in her bedroom.

“You’ve been jerking me around this whole time?”

“You’re not one to complain, Mr. Hacker-Man.”

“You are a horrible woman!” The verbal abuse continued with a number of colorful expletives.

“Hey, now!” Samantha began applying nail polish to her other foot. “The last man who spoke to me like that disappeared. I’d watch it if I were you.”

“I’m not scared of you.” Jamie’s thick accent was filled with animosity.

“You should be.” She wondered what his reaction to this would be. “I’m a person of interest in the disappearance of my husband.”

“Oh yeah,” he began, “then I am John F. Kennedy, back from the dead.”

Samantha pursed her lips, tilting her head to one side. “How’s your head, Mr. President?”

“I don’t have time for this!”

Samantha rolled her eyes. Unfortunately for Jamie, his temper proved he wasn’t legitimate customer service. A legitimate customer service person would’ve given up a long time ago.

“Give it up, dude. You’re a fake and I know it.”

“How? How do you know? How. Do. You. Know?”

A knock on the door pulled Samantha’s attention away from the phone. The ringing doorbell followed close behind. Samantha walked toward the door on her heels.  Her toes were spread wide.

“Because Microsoft wouldn’t call people to tell them they have a virus.” Samantha opened the door, momentarily blinded by the bright light.


Samantha lowered the phone to her waist before Jamie could finish.

“Samantha Walker?” A plain-clothed police officer stood in front of her holding out a badge. Two uniformed officers stood behind him.

“Yes,” Samantha stammered.

“We have a warrant for your arrest. Please come out here.”

Samantha stepped outside her door. This was the moment she was waiting for.

The detective removed the phone from her hands, placing them behind her back. She cringed as she felt the cold metal of the handcuffs dig into her skin, sending goose bumps up her arms.

“You’re under arrest for the murder of your husband, John Walker.”

They found him.


So, That’s What That Means

[avatar user=”LeeAnn” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” link=”file”]LeeAnn Rhoden[/avatar]

I was sitting in my chair, minding my own business trying to organize my blog posts for the month while my son was running around the house waving a truck in the air like a spaceship and humming a soundtrack for the movie that was playing in his imagination. The space-truck eventually crashed landed on my head. Usually I can ignore being hit in the head by, well, every toy he owns, but I was tired and over being concussed for the day. It was about this time Husband entered the room, watched the boy for a few minutes, then said, “he’s running amuck.”

Perhaps, but what was more important to me, aside from the lump on my head, was the phrase “running amuck.” I thought, “what does ‘amuck’ really mean and where is the ice pack for my head?”

The phrase “running amuck” refers to running around or acting out in an uncontrolled manner. It stems from the ancient Malay word amoq which means “frenzied.” Apparently, in the Malay culture it was frequent that people in bouts of depression or jealousy, or perhaps having partaken of opium or some other drug, would take off on a frenzied murderous rampage through the village. The by-standers would cry out “Amoq! Amoq!” And, with luck, the crazed fellow would be stopped or killed before he could inflict too much harm or damage. Not a place I’d like to vacation. Today, we don’t use the term “running amuck” in reference to a rioting lunatic but rather to describe someone acting in a manner that is contrary to the established order.

So now you know.


Forensics & Fiction: Coroner v. Medical Examiner

Image Courtesy of Simon Howden, at

Image Courtesy of Simon Howden, at

When writing a story that involves a death there are a few things every writer should know about the players involved with a death investigation. First, where will the body be transported? Will it go to the Coroner’s office or to the Medical Examiner? What’s the difference? What details should every writer know?

The Coroner

  • A coroner is an elected official. The only way to get a coroner out of office is to either vote him out or have him impeached.
  • A coroner is not required to be a licensed physician or pathologist. Some states, such as Ohio and Kansas require coroners to be licensed physicians. Other states limit the qualifications of the candidate to being 18 years of age with a valid driver’s license and the ability to pass a background investigation.
  • A coroner can also be a funeral home director, sheriff, retired sheriff, etc. Determining the job qualifications is the responsibility of either the state or county legislation.
  • Coroners who do not have autopsy facilities will send deaths requiring an autopsy to another facility. That facility can either be another coroner/medical examiner office or a private autopsy service.
  • Coroners in possession of a morgue will appoint pathologists to perform autopsies.
  • Pathologists working under a Coroner may have the title: Deputy Coroner, or Pathologist. Either is fine to use in a novel. To be safe, the characters you’re writing can be referred to as “Doctor”.

The Medical Examiner

  • The medical examiner is a trained forensic pathologist required to go through extensive testing and a forensic pathology fellowship. 
  • The medical examiner is an appointed official and can be fired.
  • Just like the coroner, the medical examiner will also appoint pathologists to perform autopsies, however, unlike the coroner, chief medical examiners will also perform autopsies.
  • Pathologists working under a medical examiner may have the following titles:  Deputy Medical Examiner, Pathologist or Doctor.

What Both Systems Have In Common

  • They are both unbiased third parties.
  • They do NOT work for the police, prosecutor or defense.

What are the Responsibilities of the Coroner and Medical Examiner

  • To document evidence of injury and disease
  • To collect fluid and tissues for toxicology and histology
  • To review medical records, police reports, EMT reports, etc.
  • To review witness and family interviews
  • To determine cause and manner of death.

Coroner Systems by State

  • Nevada
  • Idaho
  • North Dakota
  • South Dakota
  • Nebraska
  • Kansas
  • Colorado
  • Wyoming
  • Indiana
  • Louisiana
  • South Carolina

Medical Examiner Systems by State

  • Oregon
  • Utah
  • New Mexico
  • Oklahoma
  • North Carolina
  • West Virginia
  • Virginia
  • Maryland
  • Delaware
  • Maine
  • New Hampshire
  • Vermont
  • Massachusetts
  • Connecticut
  • Rhode Island
  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • Texas
  • Florida
  • Tennessee
  • Iowa
  • Michigan
  • New Jersey

States with both Systems

  • California
  • Washington
  • Montana
  • Minnesota
  • Wisconsin
  • Illinois
  • Missouri
  • Kentucky
  • Arkansas
  • Mississippi
  • Alabama
  • Georgia
  • Ohio
  • Pennsylvania
  • New York
  • Hawaii

 *The above lists were obtained from PBS Frontline. PBS first published this information in 2010. Because many states are progressing toward a medical examiner system for funding and accreditation purposes, I encourage everyone to do a bit of research. If your story is set in a state listed as a coroner system or mixed system, do an Internet search for that state or county to confirm which system it is.

 Have a question? Leave a comment.  





The Point Is Moot

[avatar user=”LeeAnn” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” link=”file” /]

Words mean things. Just what they mean sometimes changes with the times. An example of this is the word gay. A hundred years ago the word gay meant happy and light-hearted. Today, gay refers to homosexuality. I like to explore words and what they mean and sometimes I even like to use them with their old-time definition just to befuddle people. It’s fun!

Today’s word of choice is moot. We’ve all heard the word in reference to a law school exercise called moot court. We’ve also heard it used, and perhaps used it ourselves, in reference to a topic that is only theoretical. Actually, that is the secondary definition. The primary definition is that a moot point is worthy of discussion. Imagine the FUN!

Recently on Facebook there was a debate on exactly what topic I can’t remember (I am over 38) and someone (not me) commented that the point was moot. Bwahahaha! So, of course, I talked more about it, expanded on it, debated it, examined every side and nuance, basically harped on the topic because someone said the point was moot. Yes, it was deliberately irritating. And yes, I know that the person was referring to the secondary definition. I was making a point.

But why has the secondary definition become more common in usage than the primary definition? Is it lack of understanding what the word primarily means? And when did this transition take place? Those are the questions I like to explore. One such explanation is that in America the word moot is most often used with the secondary meaning and in the UK with the first definition. Which just makes it more confusing depending on where you are and who the audience you are writing for is. Many have chosen, and even suggest, avoiding the use of the word moot all together. What then? Are we to stand by and watch a word become extinct? Do we need an Endangered Word Act?

Perhaps the point is moot. What do you think?

Friday Fun!

Thanks for joining us for our first week of blogs. We’ll see you next week! Have a safe and fabulous weekend!