Thursday, February 28, 2008

How I Left My Heart in Pittsburgh

by CJ Lyons

Thanks to Joyce and the rest of the Working Stiffs for inviting me!

I love Pittsburgh. I loved living there, I love setting my books there.

After all, what crime writer could ask for more from a city? Three rivers, bridges, tunnels, hills, mountains, inclines, any kind of weather you could ever want…typical inner city urban crime mixed with suburban woes and even rural traditions…wonderful architecture, diverse ethnicity, and oh yeah, don't forget the food!

Every time I write a story set in Pittsburgh I usually include someone from outside wondering that no one swipes the chairs used to mark parking places—and that folks respect their authority! Or I'll have them ask what Pittsburghers have against the verb "to be" and usually shut them up with a Reuben from Primantis.

But all that isn't why I set most of my work in Pittsburgh. The reason is much closer to home. You see, while I lived in Pittsburgh, I was going through the most difficult challenge any doctor faces: my pediatric internship and residency.

There were twelve of us interns, bound together by our trial by fire.

But, more than the usual intern hell that you see dramatized on ER or Grey's Anatomy, more than the gut-wrenching fear that you'll make a mistake and end a life, more than the sleepless nights and endless days, we faced a much bigger challenge.

One of our own was killed. Murdered in a fashion so horrendous that no writer would ever be able to get it past an editor without being accused of being over the top.

Those of us left behind faced our greatest challenge—how to find the courage to keep on living.

How to face the tragedy, the daily reminders of our loss, and still go to work day after day, night after night, trying to save lives and offer comfort to the dying and their families when we had no comfort ourselves.

All my life I'd told stories. Silly stories of superheroes and super villains and rescues and hope. But never before had I truly understood despair.

Never before had I really understood what it takes to dare to dream.


Courage to dare to live with an attitude that dreams are as real and as important as the people who dream them.

After Jeff's death, my writing—always an addiction—changed. I finally understood my obsession with heroes, why I was so drawn to pediatrics.

Why I decided to further specialize in Pediatric ER medicine even though it meant working with victims of violence and sexual assault and neglect, the sickest patients, the poorest patients, the dying and those left for dead.

My dream, my passion had crystallized.

I wanted to change the world. To fight for the little guy, protect the victims.

In my writing I created a world where no one was immune to danger, but also where heroes were born everyday.

And where better to place that world than in the city where my heart had been broken and healed once again? The city where I learned that true evil does exist but that there are people strong enough to face it.

When Berkley asked me to create a new medical suspense series for them, there was only one place I could set it. Pittsburgh.

And so the world of LIFELINES, specifically the Angels of Mercy Medical Center (located suspiciously near where the new Childrens' Hospital is being built ) was created.

When people read LIFELINES, I hope they fall in love with Pittsburgh as well as the characters. That they get a taste for the city and its richness, its sometimes bewildering extremes, its twisted and wry sense of humor.

So why do you love Pittsburgh? Why do you think it makes it such a great setting?

Thanks for reading!
PS: For some of the photos of Pittsburgh that inspired me while writing LIFELINES, go to my website

Award-winning medical suspense author CJ Lyons is a physician trained in Pediatric Emergency Medicine. She has assisted police and prosecutors with cases involving child abuse, rape, homicide and Munchausen by Proxy and has worked in numerous trauma centers, as a crisis counselor, victim advocate, as well as a flight physician for Life Flight. Publisher's Weekly proclaimed her debut medical suspense novel, LIFELINES (Berkley, March 2008), "a spot-on debut….a breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller" and Romantic Times made it a Top Pick. Contact her at

Be sure to visit with CJ on April 17th when she will be at Mystery Lovers Bookshop along with several other writers.


Tory said...

Thanks for visiting us, CJ. Your book sounds wonderful!

I remember hearing about the resident who was murdered when I was pretty new in town and working at UPMC. It must have been so difficult, trying to cope with that in the midst of the other extremes of internship. Did they convict anyone?

What I love about Pittsburgh is being in the middle of gritty, industrial yuck and literally turning the corner (and Pittsburgh has lots of them!) and running into a truly breathtaking view. It's the contrasts that really get to me.

And, I tell my friends from California that Pittsburgh is so health-conscious they put french fries on salads! I swear, most of them don't believe me.

P.S. One of my favorite Pittsburghisms was from when I was collecting data on Presby's Intensive Care Unit. One of the residents said, "This patient needs dialyzed," and didn't understand why the rest of us laughed. Pittsburghese meets high-tech medicine, I love it!

Nancy said...

Can't wait for the book, CJ--especially if this kind of writing is between the covers! Great stuff.

I'll be with you on the 17th.--Maybe we can talk about my cousin with Munchausen by proxy. Totally weird. And awful

Joyce said...

I can't wait to read this book! I love books with a Pittsburgh setting. It's fun reading about places I know. And when there's a restaurant or something that's a figment of the author's imagination, it's fun trying to figure out where it might be.

Your Angels of Mercy is (more or less) the old St. Francis Hospital, isn't it? One of my sisters went to nursing school there. Yep. She got to wear the hat that looked like one of those paper hot dog boats. The cops miss that hospital--they have to take the um, nutcases, over to Western Psych now.

CJ Lyons said...

Thanks for the kind words!

Yes, the police did an amazing job and caught Jeff's killer within a few days. He was convicted and is in prison.

Ahhh....The Elbow Room, one of my fav places!! They originated the french-fries-steak, my mouth is watering just thinking about it!

And Pittsburghese? My copy editor went and bought a book on it (and a medical dictionary) so she wouldn't mess with my voice--isn't she the best?

We still argue about how to spell "yinz"--I think we finally went with "yunz" just because of how it looked on the page (the i-n-z threw more people) even though it's pronounced "yinz"--hope no one nails me on that, lol!

Annette said...

Welcome to Working Stiffs, C.J. I'm looking forward to the book. Of course, I was eager for the first book that wasn't, too. Ah, well.

I'm from 30 miles outside of the city, but I'm in the city so much that I have both an insider's AND outsider's view of the place. I love it. For some reason, I have been lost in Oakland (usually trying to find one of the hospitals) more than any other neighborhood. The one-way streets always run the wrong way!

Good luck with the new book!

CJ Lyons said...

Nancy, you're too sweet!!!

And let me tell you folks, Nancy has been so supportive of me during this rollercoaster ride! I couldn't have done any of this without the encouragement of sooooo many other writers.

I can't wait to hear more about the Munchausen case--see you at RT!

CJ Lyons said...

Joyce, you caught me--Angels is at St. Francis! I did a rotation there (in the old, old part of the hospital) and fell in love with the creepy atmosphere and even more with the neighborhood and the cemetery next door.

That cemetery will play a huge role in upcoming books (hint, hint).

How cool is it that the new Children's hospital is going to be on the site of Angels!!!

CJ Lyons said...

Annette! Hi there! Oh, I know what you mean about driving in Oakland! I usually just park and walk--or take the bus.

Our parking lot was about half a mile away from Children's--down in that neighborhood where half the houses were condemned and the gangs were starting to move in....yeah, that was kind of creepy walking there anytime of day!

And that's coming from someone who lived in East Liberty--in the apartment building where the Samurai killer hit....

Joyce said...

I think Oakland is easier to navigate than downtown. I go over every Wednesday evening to pick up my pre-med student son. He has a late class and he'd have to wait over an hour for a bus. Nice mom, aren't I?

CJ, do you mean Allegheny Cemetery? Do you know they actually give tours?

Joyce said...

CJ, have you seen the new Children's Hospital yet? It's HUGE! And they keep making it bigger.

CJ Lyons said...

Yes, Joyce, Allegheny mean you have to sign up for a tour?

Way back when, I just walked in during lunch--great place to find a few minutes of peace and quiet, lol!

BTW, one of the contests I'm running with the release of LIFELINES is Where in the World is LIFELINES--email your picture with your copy of LIFELINES and I'll post them on my site and blogs.

You'll be entered to win a $25 B&N gift card.

I'd love to see some entries with Pittsburgh backdrops!!!

Gina said...

Joyce -

I think the cemetery directly next door to St. Francis might be called St. Mary's. I remember walking there when my mother was hospitalized and I came upon a grave. I can't remember the name, but it had the dates "1921-1924" and the words, "Our Darling." This was in 1997, and there were fresh flowers on that grave. I couldn't help but wonder who was still mourning that long-dead child.

Welcome, CJ. I love reading books set in Pittsburgh, and agree with Tory about the sudden beauty -- like coming into town on the Blvd. of the Allies and seeing the PPG complex glistening in the sun, its lower levels shrouded by fog -- it looks like a fairy-tale castle in the clouds.

I am also fluent in Pittsburghese, and I spell it "yunz."

CJ Lyons said...

Thanks, Gina! Now I won't worry about my "yunz" (what's the plural?)

I love that view of PPG! Even better is flying at night in the helo--I was on transport call one Fourth of July and we actually did a run while they were shooting off the fireworks....awesome!!!

CJ Lyons said...

Haven't seen it in person yet, Joyce, only the pictures they send me with their fundraising requests.

I wanted to see it during RT--even promised Heather Graham she could do her performance there (she's graciously going to perform songs and give books to the kids!), but then heard it's going to be another year before it opens...

JennieB said...

Hi, CJ! Thanks for stopping by.

I'm an honerary Pittsburgher myself, thanks to Joyce asking me to become a Working Stiff. I've only been to Pittsburgh once - helping a friend move - but I loved it. The houses... all those gorgeous Victorians with the mantels and the staircases... I cruise the online 'for sale' listings regularly, marveling at the cheap prices, the gorgeousness of the architecture and the monstrousness of the taxes. Pittsburgh is a real estate investors paradise, and if I had an extra couple hundred grand, I'd buy myself a dozen houses and just sit on'em.

Can't wait for the book! Just about a week now, right?

CJ Lyons said...

Hi Jennie! Thanks for stopping by!

Actually, it's only-gulp!-four days until LIFELINES hits the stores....

Kristine said...

Welcome, CJ! It's great to see you here.

I can't wait to read your book!

I love Pittsburgh, but I have to admit the weather this month has been rough. LOL!

CJ Lyons said...

Hi, Kristine!

Have to admit, I'm not missing shoveling snow!!! I just moved to South Carolina and even though it's a bit chilly today (50), it's sunny and should be in the 70's this weekend.

CJ, ducking the snowballs hurtling her way!!

CJ Lyons said...

OMG--just read on the PG site (I try to read it and the Trib everyday) that Myron Cope sad.

His voice rings on in my memory, associated with so many good times...

Annette said...

Yeah, it was all over the local TV news yesterday. I don't think there'd have been as much coverage if the mayor had died! Myron was definitely the face (and voice, heaven help us) of Pittsburgh for many.


Nancy said...

It's my theory that "yunz" is singular and "yinz" is the plural.

But I could be wrong. I grew up in western PA, not Pittsburgh proper.

Joyce said...

I always use yinz, not yunz. That's why Pittsburgers are called "Yinzers." And don't forget to put "n'at" at the end of every sentence. Here's an example: "Ah'm goin dahn ta Heinz Filled to see da Stillers n'at. First I gotta redd up da hahse n'at."

The sad thing is, I think I really sound like this sometimes!

Joyce said...

Okay, here you go:

Joyce said...

Here's another one:

Okay, I'll quit now!

CJ Lyons said...

LOL! If you guys can't decide between yunz and yinz, I feel safe.

I tried to put in just enough Pittsburghese without it getting overdone...didn't want readers to feel they needed a translator!

CJ Lyons said...

I actually sent this one ( to my copy editor, lol!

She finally gave in on "redd" as opposed to "read" and "slippy"...

Gina said...

I always thought yunz was the plural of you, sort of a northern version of "Y'all."

CJ Lyons said...

I think you're right. Still trying to figure out what we have against the verb "to be", lol!

Robin Searle said...

Hi CJ! Just wanted to say that I can't wait to read Lifelines! I took one of your online courses last year while I was writing my first romantic suspense (which landed me an agent btw!) and the information you provided was wonderful - just what my book needed! Thanks so much!

CJ Lyons said...

Hi Robin! Super congrats on the agent!!! Woohoo!!!

Hope you enjoy LIFELINES!

Thanks for stopping by today.

lisa curry said...

Great blog, CJ, and your book sounds terrific!

Joyce, my mother went to St. Francis for nursing school -- she, too, had the paper hotdog boat hats! I'd forgotten all about those. My aunt went to Mercy -- her nurse's hat was more of a wingy thing. :-)

CJ Lyons said...

Thanks, Lisa!

I remember those nursing hats--we used to have a charge nurse, who even decades after nurses stopped wearing them, still wore hers everyday, complete with dress, starched apron, white stockings and white heels...

She was formidable! You did NOT cross her, believe me!

Joyce said...

CJ, we had a nurse like that when I worked at AGH. She once told a patient who was being a pain in the ass that she was going to rip his skin off! She meant it, too.

CJ Lyons said...

Wow! Joyce, that nurse just might need to show up in a book.....hehehe....

Thanks again for inviting me to join you guys (yunz)--I had a blast!!

Joyce said...

CJ, feel free to hang out with us anytime! We loved having you here!

Anonymous said...

Oh, so much to say, but probably a little late in the proess to be heard. This is Joyce's sister, Amy, the "old" St. Francis Nursing School graduate--1971 to be exact. Not that old--right? Say "yes" please. I loved hearing all of the Pittsburgh and SFGH stories. When I came back to Pittsburgh last year for my brother-in-law's 50th Birthday Party, or was that 2 years ago...yup...anyway, it was held at a restaurant near the old brewery at the Bloomfield bridge, so I took a detour out to see my old stomping grounds. I was heartbroken to see that there really IS no St. Francis any more. Still brings tears to my eyes. That hospital became an integral part of my life, and I still carry it around. And, by the way...we called them "french fry boats". Still have mine sitting in the closet in case I need it for a Halloween party. Although I moved to Durham, NC 22 years ago, I still get teased about my failure to use "to be". And, as far as the yinz thing goes, Joyce can vouch for the fact that we weren't even permitted to say that when we were growing up. We'd get "the look"...which I know Joyce has described to you before. in the South they say "ya'll" (singular) and "all o' ya'll" (plural). CJ, can't wait to read Lifelines and all about the Angels of Mercy Medical Center. So sorry to hear about your friend's loss. I don't know the story about the murder, since I haven't lived in Pittsburgh for some time. I'll talk with Joyce to catch up on that. Best of luck with your book.

CJ Lyons said...

Amy, thanks so much for chiming in! French Fry boats--what a perfect description!! I'm gonna have to use that someday in a book,you realize, lol!

Hope you enjoy LIFELINES!

Anonymous said...

CJ--I'll be watching out for that "french fry boat". Will head over to our favorite local bookstore...The Regulator...and see if they have Lifelines...if not, I know they will order it for always.

CJ Lyons said...

Thanks, Amy! Enjoy LIFELINES!