Caught red handed or off scot-free?

I tried really hard to make my characters different from the people on which they were based,  because I really didn’t want to get sued for slander or libel, but apparently I didn’t do a very good job, because numerous people have recognized them.

This was most true of my first book, Murder under the Microscope, which was based on an incident that happened over 30 years ago, when I was the solo pathologist at the Twin Falls Clinic & Hospital. One of the surgeons who had been there at the time recognized who Sally Shore was based on, who Tyler Cabot was based on, and thought it was so cool that I had killed both of them off.

One of the doctors asked me which surgeon had had a coronary bypass, allowing Sally Shore to be his temporary replacement, and was quite disappointed to learn that I just made him up.

A physician on the staff of the hospital in another town recognized George Marshall, the curmudgeonly gastroenterologist of Gnarly Finger fame.

Most of my techs that worked for me back then recognized who Lucille was based on.

My second book, Too Much Blood, was based on a sleazy lawyer that got all the Clinic doctors (except me) and many others involved in a scheme to avoid paying taxes. It worked quite well for five years until Black Monday happened and it all came crashing down. Everybody involved found themselves liable for hundreds of thousands in back taxes, interest, and penalties. This adversely affected the bottom line of the Clinic, which was doctor-owned, for many years thereafter and I really believe it contributed to our necessity to sell out to the county hospital in 2001. Everybody around here knows who that was.

I spoke at Kiwanis last year about my books, and I had a few there to sell if anybody wanted to buy one. One of the members requested the one about Jay Braithwaite Burke using the name of the person on whom he was based.

My third book, Grievous Bodily Harm, was about an administrator whose ambition was to become CEO of a behemoth hospital system and didn’t care whom he had to step on to get there. He was not above blackmail and sexual harassment to get what he wanted. The administrator on whom Marcus Manning was based was a pathological liar and treated employees like s**t. He’s long gone. And strangely enough, nobody has mentioned that they recognized him. I find that hard to believe, but there it is, don’t you know.

My friends and I go out for breakfast on Saturday mornings, and one of the waitresses told me once that I needed to write a book about sexual harassment, and I said, “You haven’t read Grievous Bodily Harm, have you?”

She hadn’t, but I bet she did right after that.

As I’ve said before, my first three books were my way of killing off three of the most threatening people in my life. They were a catharsis. The characters in the other books are totally made up, with the exception of three physicians. No, four. Oh yes, and Rollie Perkins, the coroner, is based on a local mortician who was one of my favorite people. Sadly, he has passed on. The Commander is based on a retired cop who was also one of my favorite people.

I’m always willing to use real names in my books upon request. My ophthalmologist, Robert Welch, MD, asked me to use his name in The Body on the Lido Deck. He was the ship’s doctor, and quite disappointed that I’d made him look like Richie Cunningham instead of George Clooney.

Everybody laughs when they think they recognize somebody. So far, to my knowledge, nobody has been offended.

Nobody, so far, has told me that they recognized themselves.

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Reviews from Heck

I got a couple of bad reviews for Too Much blood this week. I won’t say I’m not upset, because I am. Nobody likes being told that her magnum opus is just so much dreck. I know, I know, everybody doesn’t like the same things, and I can’t please everybody, but I can’t help feeling bad. I know perfectly well that everybody doesn’t hate Too Much Blood, because I’ve got 4 and 5 star reviews too, and I’m glad they got to me first.

I’m not going to post either of these reviews in their entirety, but I feel that certain aspects deserve comment.

First item: HIPAA.

“I found it odd that Toni is able to get information that a typical pathologist probably wouldn’t be able to get her hands (on).”

“Toni looks up confidential medical information on several people who are definitely not in her care (she’s a pathologist for crying out loud, she doesn’t take care of live patients) in
order to “solve the case.” Again, HIPAA laws anyone? That is completely inappropriate and really puts doctors in a bad light, because it suggests that we think this is okay. It’s NOT. People get fired for doing things like that all the time.”

These reviewers are absolutely right; HIPAA is a big deal, and people do get fired for violating it. However, there is such a thing as need to know. Doctors have much more leeway than other medical personnel because they have a need to know about patients, whether they’re taking care of those patients or just providing consultation. Pathologists are consultants.

Pathologists do deal with live people, 99% of the time. They aren’t the primary caregivers, but what they do impinges directly on their care. Every specimen they get should come with adequate medical history, supporting lab data, radiological reports, and any particular concerns the submitting doc might have. But they don’t.  Specimens come to us with no history, or history that isn’t pertinent to that particular specimen. So we have to be able to look that up, or we can’t do our job properly and might not be able to provide the specific information the primary doc needs to know. We might fail to fail to handle the specimen properly for their needs if we don’t know what their needs are, and surgeons aren’t always available by phone. Having access to the electronic medical record is essential for pathologists. When I’m signing out cases, about 25% of my time is taken up by looking things up in the medical record because I don’t have enough information.

Next item: phones.
“In the very first chapter of this book, Toni’s home phone rings in the middle of the night and her husband picks it up. First, what about a pager? A pager on vibrate? A cell
phone? How has this never occurred to her through medical school, residency,
and now her job? If I were her husband, I would have lost it much sooner.”

“How can a medical professional not know about pagers or putting one’s phone on vibrate mode? How can a spouse of a doctor not be used to having the phone ring in the middle of the night occasionally? It would seem to me to be par for the course in marrying a
pathologist who needs to be on-call regularly.”

Pagers make noise. Cell phones on vibrate make noise. A cell phone that vibrates loud enough to wake me up would also wake up my husband, even if it’s under my pillow. Even if it didn’t, my getting out of bed to go out of the room to talk on it would. I know this, I used to have a husband. Even if it didn’t, I would still have trouble getting back to sleep, and for nothing because I wouldn’t be going to do an autopsy in the middle of the night. This seems blown out of proportion as something to condemn an entire novel for.

Third item: Toni’s arrogant and unlikeable.

“Toni Day is extremely nosy and a really unlikeable character. If a character is going to carry a whole set of books named after her, she’d better be someone people want to read about. I
was hoping she would grow and develop over the book, but she was the main reason I couldn’t finish it. She is pushy, arrogant and says the most inappropriate things like she is on the autistic spectrum. I personally would want to divorce her too.”

“Toni uses the excuse that since she did the autopsy on the dead man that this gives her the right to ask all sorts of invasive questions to people she barely knows. In what universe is this okay?”

That hurts. I can’t help taking that one personally, even though I shouldn’t. Toni’s a fictional character. I’m really quite mild-mannered, and not nearly as arrogant as some doctors are. It puts me in mind of a CAP inspection I once did, where the pathology department had seventeen Phase Two deficiencies, which they had 30 days to fix or the entire lab would lose accreditation. At the summation conference, chaos ensued. The techs were bewildered; the pathologists livid. Nothing had changed in ten years, they protested, and they’d been through five other inspections in that time, and nobody else gave them any Phase Two deficiencies. I can’t help it, I told them, I have to call it as I see it, and you are welcome to appeal it. I told them how to do that. I was the epitome of reasonableness. I never raised my voice.

To my utter astonishment, I got slammed for being arrogant and condescending. The regional inspector called me to discuss it. I told him exactly what happened. He allowed as how I did exactly right, and that lab was just going to have to suck it up and fix those deficiencies.

But it didn’t make me feel any better. I still dread doing CAP inspections. Maybe so close to retirement I won’t have to do any more.

But I digress.

Last item: excessive and oddly placed swearing. One reviewer had an issue with swearing in both books.

Guilty as charged. I swear a lot. Nobody cares. Most people laugh. I write the way I talk. In the future, I shall warn reviewers that if they don’t like strong language, perhaps they shouldn’t review the book.

So how did I handle these two reviews? What did I do to make myself feel better? I looked up Lisa Scottoline, who is a best-selling author whose novels feature kick-ass lady lawyers whose language is as strong as mine. She has many many 4 and 5 star reviews, but she also has some 1 and 2 star reviews, and some of them put a lot of emphasis on all the swearing these lady lawyers do.

If Lisa Scottoline gets a few bad reviews, who am I to complain about a couple? It’s life, for a writer, to take the bad with the good and deal.

In other words, suck it up, princess.