Research Can Get Weird

Research can be fun, or it can make you feel squeamish.

For instance, there are a bazillion little things a writer might need to look up.  Like finding out if Saran Wrap was used in the 50’s, or, if your character’s taxes go unpaid, how quickly will their problems come about, and just what are those problems?  Liens?  Auctions?  And, what happens then?  Put some songs into your manuscript and you better know the year the music came out.  And words…, if you’re trying to capture a particular era, or a certain decade, it would not be “groovy,” to say “groovy,” if the time frame of your story is in the 80’s.  Stuff like that.

But, then there’s the kind of research you almost cringe over.  Maybe it’s from my old IT days when I knew that the company’s WAN wasn’t intended for personal use.  Maybe it’s knowing how they used to scan for particular bits of information related to porn, or on line gambling and the like that makes me paranoid about looking up the bizarre, or sick or weird stuff.  Whatever it is that makes me feel strange, it couldn’t have been any worse when I decided I was going to have to look up details on death.

If you are the queasy type, you might not want to read much further.  I will admit, thinking about any of this too hard, or reading too much of the topic definitely makes me feel a little less stable in the mid-section.  So, I’ve got some warnings here to stop you before you get mad at me for not giving a heads up.


***WARNING!!!***  Graphic descriptions of morbid nastiness follows!!!





Okay, (chews Alka Seltzer) here we go:

What happens to a decomposing body and why would I need to know?  For one, my protagonist’s parents are killed and their bodies end up in the river.   They will be discovered and I want to write about that accurately.  Also, another guy is killed and not discovered by the police until the next day.  I wrote that he was bloated, but…,  I was wrong about that, and I thought, what else could I get wrong?  (everything!)

How strange it is to Google “what happens after death?”  Lucky me that I needed to do this sort of research and I am here to share it with you.  Doesn’t that make you feel good?  Well, read on.

Immediately after death, the heart stops, the skin goes waxy and gray in color.  Muscles relax – everywhere – and you know what that means.  The body temperature will drop about a degree and a half every hour from this point on…, and men, well men…they get an erection.  (Supposedly this was why women attended hangings back in the old days – I guess as a source of amusement.  “Oh look!  Tee hee!”  And they say our society today is crude.  Gah.)  Interestingly (??) the liver stays warm the longest, and this is used to determine the time of death if the body is found within that time frame.

After thirty minutes or so, the skin is now purple and waxy.  Lips, fingers, and toenails fade or turn white as the blood recedes.  The blood will also pool at the lowest parts of the body – like if the body is left on it’s back, it will leave a bruised looking sort of color.  This is called “lividity.”  <<<(feel free to have fun with that link there)  The hands and feet turn blue and the eyes start to sink into the skull.  When I learned about all this, it made perfect sense.  When our heart is no longer forcing blood through our veins, it’s got to go somewhere, and that somewhere means the lowest point.  Like water settling in a concave area of ground.

With me still?  Or have you left?

Now we are four hours into death, and rigor mortis sets in…, and the blood continues to settle, and the skin continues to get purple.  Rigor mortis is fully established at twelve hours and will reverse after about twenty four hours, and the body will become pliable again, but…that’s when things really start to get gross.

Twenty four hours in, the head and neck are a nice, greenish, bluish color.  There is a distinct smell of rotting meat, and the person is essentially no longer recognizable.  No kidding?  After only twenty four hours?  Huh.  What else?  Well, if it’s 75 degrees outside, that’s the temperature of the body as well.  The body will be whatever temperature the surroundings are.

Three days after, gases in the body tissues build up and form blisters, and the body begins to bloat and swell.  (see I was wrong factually and will need to change this).  This process is speeded up if the body is in a hot environment, or in the water.  (I needed to know this too) Fluids leak from eyes, ears, mouth, and everywhere else.

Three weeks in, hair, skin, and nails can be pulled off.  The skin cracks and splits.  Decomposition will continue until the body is nothing but bones (about a month in warm temperatures) and about two months in cold.  The teeth are the hardest thing in the body and so is the jawbone so they are the things usually left years (or centuries) later.

One last thing…if your person drowns – or – as in my story they end up in the water after death, but, aren’t found for weeks?  Expect them to melt like butter when pulled out of the water – that is if they can even be pulled from the water. Nice little detail at the end.  Say thank you.

I do not envy medical examiners, that’s what I know at this point.  Oh, and that if you aren’t sufficiently grossed out, you’ve missed your calling.

What is the most bizarre research you’ve ever done for your story?




This is a great post Donna, and while it’s not something I’d have been searching for, it was really interesting.
The trouble with trying to work out what bizarre research we’ve done, is that mostly, for writers with our crazy shimmery minds, we may not realise that any particular thing is bizarre.
The best indicator of that is when we notice all the very weird shit the internet tries to get us to be, then have the lightbulb moment that they worked that shit out from what we’ve previously looked at.


    Thanks!! Exactly…like when I go out to Amazon, or FB, or some other site, and voila! Lookee there. Stuff I’ve looked up, shoes, books, um the state of cadavers? A sale on coffins at Crematorium Emporium? Dang. 🙂


What is this research of which you speak?


I did not read the grisly details but I’ve saved it just in case in the future I have a need to know such things.
My weirdest research, actually I can’t remember any. I click back and forth from project, to fact-check, all the time while I’m working on my columns but weird, nah, I’m boring.


    The more I write, the more I seem to do…I recall with the first ms, I think the only fact checking I did was around some music. The second ms was loaded with research b/c it was historic fiction. It was interesting because while researching an area I wanted to incorporate into the story (on the North Carolina/Tennessee border) I stumbled across a story I ended up using as part of my book. It had to do with a circus elephant – the people of this one town hung her for trampling a hired handler. But it was the handler’s fault (he kept stabbing at her with a bullhook, and that part of my story to this day makes me sad and angry for what they did to her. It was beyond cruel and inhumane.


I have a (published) story in which two teenagers lose their virginity. I had to do primary research on that (though I didn’t know it was research at the time).

I had to pull a dead deer from my lake, and I can verify the grisly details you provide here. Yeah.


    Research on losing virginity…now that’s a topic to raise eyebrows!

    This post definitely had a stratospheric yuck factor, and I even held back from some of the more sickening details.


I’ve done some of that exact kind of *cough* post mortem research. Have you read “Stiff: the curious life of the human cadaver” by Mary Roach? It was quite good. Bill Bass, who works at the Body Farm in Tennessee, has also written a couple of good non fiction books which I found to be excellent resources.

I think maybe “nuclear stuff” might be some pretty bizarre research, most specifically Chernobyl and the Chernobyl exclusion zone. While I don’t intend to write a story taking place in Ukraine or Belarus, I intend to write a story set in a similar sort of landscape. Hand in hand with that is, of course, radiation, radiation doses, and its effects (potential and realized) both immediately and long term on humans.

Golly I’m the cheerful sort, aren’t I?


    I haven’t read those books, but I will definitely look them up….so thank you for sharing that info.

    I was in the Ukraine a few years back, and we toured the Chernobyl museum where they had “things” on display they believed were anomalies from the radiation exposure. But those things can’t compare to a story about the living, and surviving radiation exposure. When I think about that, and considering even the least impact to people, (if you can call it that) I always think about the movie Silkwood, and how they used wire brushes to scrub the skin under a blast of water. And having it happen time and again.

    I’ve been tossing around ideas for my next ms, (why I’m not sure since I’ve yet to finish this one) and depending on the direction of I might need to look up being poisoned. That sounds cheerful too, right?? 🙂


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