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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Twin Falls

During my last year of residency in Long Beach, my husband John and I agreed that we didn’t want to stay in Southern California anymore. The reasons have faded into the misty past, but in general we felt that it was too crowded. I had visions of either starting my own lab, or at least finding a situation where I could build my pathology department without anybody telling me what I could and could not do. John wanted to manage my lab.

Two situations with potential presented themselves. One was a community hospital in Paso Robles, a lovely medium-sized town in central California surrounded by live oaks and rolling hills. The pathology group in nearby San Luis Obispo was only too happy to offer me whatever coverage I might need. Everyone there was excited about acquiring me, and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Then I found out that the lab was actually owned by the lab manager. That was a deal breaker for me, because I would be responsible for the lab in the eyes of the medical staff and the regulatory agencies to which I would have to answer, but I’d have no authority whatsoever. John wanted me to buy the guy out so that we could run the lab instead, but when I suggested that to the medical staff, they informed me that they were quite happy with the way things were and didn’t want to change anything.

So I turned them down.

Then I got a call from a recruiter about a small doctor-owned hospital in Twin Falls, Idaho that wanted its own pathologist instead of sending everything to the county hospital.  This was the opportunity I’d been waiting for; the opportunity to build my own pathology department.  Back then, in 1977, Twin Falls was predominantly agricultural, with a population of 26,000 and two traffic lights.* It’s high desert, at an altitude of 4100 feet, and not nearly as pretty as Paso Robles. But it did have two hospitals, a brand-new community college and a fairly new suspension bridge over the scenic Snake River Canyon replacing the old toll bridge, and was only 80 miles from Sun Valley. It also had a sugar factory in which sugar beets were converted into White Satin. When we stepped off the plane, the air smelled like manure. It took me back to the way my hometown, Cooper Mills, Maine, always smelled in the summer, and I knew I was home.

The day that John and I left our Long Beach house for the last time was the day Elvis died. It was also the day the hospital in Paso Robles called and said they’d still not found anyone for the pathologist position and would I please reconsider?

I said no.

So over the next 24 years at the Twin Falls Clinic & Hospital as a solo pathologist, I built my department from scratch, and we finally achieved accreditation by the College of American Pathologists in 1997. But it was short-lived.

In 2002, due to increasing unfunded mandates from the federal government, we were forced to sell out to the county hospital, Magic Valley Regional Medical Center, and I joined their pathology group. In 2006, the county hospital was bought out by the St. Luke’s Health System, based in Boise, who built us a beautiful new hospital. St. Luke’s Magic Valley is a 250-bed tertiary care hospital, in contrast to the 40-bed hospital I’d started out in.

John never did get to manage my lab, which ultimately led to our divorce, in 2004.

Twin Falls now has a population over 40,000, which is expected to reach 50,000 in 2020.* There are numerous traffic lights now. We have a mall, a Costco, a Walmart. There are 2 high schools. The scenic Perrine Bridge is now a mecca for countless base jumpers.  Numerous industries other than the sugar factory have made Twin Falls their home, including Chobani Yogurt. But it only has one hospital now.

This is the background for my Toni Day mysteries, and Toni herself is loosely based on me and my own adventures as a solo pathologist in a rural setting. The old hospital, Perrine Memorial, is loosely based on the Twin Falls Clinic & Hospital, and the new one is loosely based on St. Luke’s Magic Valley.

Some of Toni’s adventures have started out as situations that I have actually been in, but none of my adventures have ever included putting my life in danger to track down a murderer. Those are all products of my overheated and lurid imagination. Indeed, my first three books featured villains based on persons in my life that I really wished I could kill. Since I couldn’t do it legally, I did it cathartically by writing about it, and felt much better.

*To find out more information about the population of Twin Falls, Idaho, please visit: http://worldpopulationreview.com/us-cities/twin-falls-id-population/