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."PlayABC News
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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."

Cornwell said she will sometimes be inspired by homicide cases she sees on the news, but she often becomes strongly affected by them, and almost can't help but try to piece the cases together.

"It's painful for me," Cornwell said. "I get these really vivid images because what I know about the physical findings in a case cause me to reconstruct how it happened and I am doing that without trying to and then I am depressed for days."

Cornwell revealed she has already started writing her 20th Scarpetta novel, in which she would only say that Twitter and other modern technologies would play a role.

"These technologies -- they are wonderful, but they can be extraordinarily dangerous," she said. "Whenever anything is new, I am going to explore it in every dimension and figure out how can this be used."

Several attempts have been made to adapt the Scarpetta series into film, but so far all have fallen through. Cornwell said an original script is currently being negotiated to be turned into a major film, a project she said Angelina Jolie "is attached" to, but a deal has not been confirmed.

"There were some moments where I thought my time came and went and any theatrical adaptation of my material has already been done by everyone else," Cornwell said. "It's never over til it's over."

Cornwell said she was told in 2005 that no one wanted to see a "big screen CSI." However, investigative TV shows such as "Dexter" and "CSI" have exploded into enormously popular series, with plotlines that seem to be straight out of a Cornwell novel. While the author said she believes there is still time to bring Scarpetta to the big screen, the forensic TV shows bothered her at first.

"I was shocked. I said, 'Why didn't someone think of this while we had a chance?'" she said. "I simply opened a door and a lot of people have gone through it. I didn't invent forensic science and medicine. I just was one of the first people to recognize how interesting it is."

People's fascination with Scarpetta and forensics, Cornwell said, stems from a fundamental part of human nature that we all want to face our fears, but "in a way that is tolerable."

"It's like looking at the most dangerous animal at the zoo -- the tiger slinking past but you have to have that cage," Cornwell said. "You are not afraid. You get close enough to hear it purr, but you are not in it with it, and therefore it's safe, and my books, particularly 'Scarpetta,' give us a barrier between us and what we fear, which is violence and death."

As a kid, Cornwell said her first love was archeology and her favorite books were by Dr. Seuss, but she started her writing career as a journalist. Cornwell said she became fascinated with forensic investigations when she covered the crime beat for the Charlotte Observer in Charlotte, N.C., and worked on a story about a missing girl who was found dead on a lake shore.

"I would go to that lake shore and I would walk it myself," she said. "I would look thinking maybe there is something here that everyone has missed. Some little fragment of something that would tell us who did this, and that was the beginning of my mind working this way."

As a reporter, Cornwell said she often chased after what she called the "unusual twist" at time before DNA evidence was developed. When she researched Jack the Ripper for her 2002 nonfiction book, "Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper -- Case Closed," Cornwell began gathering and testing British, Victorian-era weapons and police artifacts. Her massive collection now includes long swords, guns of all sizes, handcuffs, whistles, clubs and daggers.

Her research led Cornwell to the theory that Jack the Ripper was Walter Sickert, a British painter, and his weapon of choice to slash through his victims would have been "a very simple sort of dagger." Critics strongly denied her findings.

That curiosity also spawned Cornwell's collection of rare books, including the first book written about the microscope dating back to 1664. She has donated some of her collection to the University of Tennessee.

However, Cornwell's true infatuation lies with writing, and the only thing that seems to scare this crime novelist is the fear of losing that passion.

"I want my next book to be better than the last," she said. "My biggest fear is to lose my passion. The passion for what I do, because then I feel like life would have no color."