You see her name throughout bookstores and all over Amazon.com. Best known for crime novels featuring the forensic examiner Dr. Kay Scarpetta, her books have sold some 100 million copies in 36 languages in more than 120 countries. She’s authored 29 New York Times
Patricia Cornwell graduated from Davidson College in 1979, started her career with the Charlotte Observer and then the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Richmond, Virginia—where her forensic thrillers’ leading character would earn her paycheck, too. It was during this post that Cornwell wrote her first novel, Postmortem, which won the Edgar, Creasey, Anthony and Macavity awards as well as the French Prix du Roman d’Aventure prize. It was the first book ever to claim all these distinctions in a single year.
Cornwell is often credited with bringing forensic science into mainstream crime fiction, paving the way for forensic science to fill the entertainment world.
“I didn’t invent forensic science and medicine,” she said. “I just was one of the first people to recognize how interesting it is and make it accessible.”
Immersing herself in the research is a large part of the job, as Cornwell works to understand criminal minds, forensic technologies and the science around every wound and death. She goes to the real-life stories, accompanying first responders and investigators at crime scenes, spending time at morgues.
When one character was to become a helicopter pilot, Cornwell learned how to fly a helicopter. When another character was interested in motorcycles, she learned how to ride. Scarpetta was going to recover a dead body underwater—Cornwell learned scuba diving.
“I have a stick-your-finger-in-a-wall-socket approach,” she told Crime Watch Daily. “Things that jolt me … but give me creative energy for what I do. If I haven’t experienced something, I’m not sure I can really describe it and, therefore, I can’t write about it.”
She gives writers the same advice. Cornwell told audience members at a lecture at the University of Leicester in the UK, “If you don’t have a story that you want to write about … go turn yourself into a character. Go find something, and dig in.”
Cornwell’s literary career includes the Scarpetta series and two other series, non-fiction books about Jack the Ripper, two cookbooks, a children’s book and a biography of Ruth Graham.
To recognize young writers at Davidson who demonstrate exceptional talent and a passion for writing, Cornwell established the Patricia Cornwell Creative Writing Scholarship. The scholarship is offered to one student in each first-year class, and several awardees have gone on to win top writing prizes from Davidson, including the Henry T. Lilly Award for Excellence in English, the Vereen Bell Memorial Award and the Charles E. Lloyd Award.
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