Crime Novelist Patricia Cornwell on Blood, 'Boundaries' and Her Next Book

PHOTO: Best-selling crime novelist Patricia Cornwell brings her famed heroine Dr. Kay Scarpetta into a new investigation in "Red Mist."
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Best-selling crime novelist Patricia Cornwell learned to fly helicopters, analyze blood splatters and reconstruct complex crime scenes all for the sake of her famed heroine Dr. Kay Scarpetta.

"It has completely reshaped how I think and how I feel and probably how I act," Cornwell told "Nightline" anchor Terry Moran.

Cornwell's 19th novel, "Red Mist," is the latest in her "Scarpetta" series, which has sold more than 100 million copies. Scarpetta, whom the author fondly calls "Big S," is the chief medical examiner for the state of Virginia and was introduced in Cornwell's 1990 novel, "Postmortem."

Book cover for Patricia Cornwell's "Red Mist." Credit: Penguin Publishing

"I would rather deal with a medical examiner and a victim and try to reconstruct what happened with this person than sit down with a serial killer on death row -- even though I have done that before," Cornwell said. "I am much more drawn to the people who are trying to bring order out of this violent chaos and maybe even make things better."

Not one to use secondary knowledge, Cornwell is a firm believer in experiencing something first-hand before making her characters go through it. She will spend months researching a topic or an idea for a plotline, and it turn has learned how to ride a motorcycle, become a certified scuba diver and a helicopter pilot.

As research for her novels, Cornwell has also worked extensively with the National Forensics Academy at the University of Tennessee to study body decomposition, ballistics and blood splatter patterns.

"I've always believed human blood is red because it really needs to draw attention to itself," she said. "It is the biggest tattle tale: 'Look, something bad happened.'"

However, Cornwell said she has certain "boundaries" about where she will take her readers in her novels and what she will expose them to, because she said she feels a sense of responsibility to them.

"There are some things I will never show them and they will never hear from me, because I have something that I have found damaging, and I am not going to give that to them," Cornwell said. "What I would never do is something that is, 'wow, I wonder what would happen if you did this to a dead body,' because that would be awful.

"I've never taken a scalpel to a dead body," she said. "Even if somebody asked me, 'Would you like to learn how to do an autopsy?' I would say, 'A novelist doesn't practice on a real person.' When I have wanted to do something like that I go get a turkey from the grocery store and we tattoo it or do whatever we are going to do to it because I don't use human volunteers."

Having steadfastly refused to reveal the killer's identity until the end in her early novels, Cornwell changed direction during the '90s. Books such as "Predator," "Trace" and "Book of the Dead" replaced Scarpetta's first-person narration with an omniscient third person that directly exposed readers to the sadistic imaginings of the perpetrator, which the author began to feel uncomfortable with.

"I started finding it was disturbing to me. I couldn't sit in my chair for very long. I couldn't eat at my desk anymore. I grossed myself out. I never eat at my desk anymore," Cornwell said. "In the early books, you hold Scarpetta's hand. It's a much safer journey from her point of view."

Some have speculated that Cornwell actually based Scarpetta's character around herself, but the author laughed it off.

"I dropped chemistry. I practically blew up the lab in college. I'm an English major," she said. "But there are things about [Scarpetta] that are wishful thinking on my part... she is such a disciplined thinker. I think she can endure probably more things than I can and be very level."

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