Thursday, May 22, 2008

Adventures in Research--Pittsburgh Style

by CJ Lyons

Hi, all you Working Stiffs!!! Thanks, Joyce, for inviting me back to one of my favorite blog spots!

In case you guys don't remember me, I'm CJ Lyons, a pediatric ER doc who did her internship and residency at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, and who grew up in central PA.

My first novel, LIFELINES, was released in March and I was lucky enough to come to Pittsburgh for the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention in April. It was pure serendipity that the convention (one of the largest gathering of book lovers in the nation) just happened to be the month after LIFELINES came out, just happened to be in Pittsburgh, the same town LIFELINES is set in, and just happened to occur right when I needed to do some Pittsburgh based research for the second book, WARNING SIGNS.

With all those coincidences piling up, I was ready for anything to happen during my trip to Pittsburgh. At least I thought I was. Until I heard a few days beforehand that my aunt (who lives in Altoona) was going to need some pretty serious surgery—guess where? Presby. Guess when? The week I'd already scheduled to be here.

Scraping all plans for research, I begin commuting from the downtown Hilton up to Presby (bringing back lovely memories of riding those same buses when I was an intern and my car was in the shop). And I realized that along the way, I was doing research—getting a feel for the rhythms of the city, the different neighborhoods (like what's with the new signs telling you you're in Downtown, Uptown, West Oakland, etc? If you don't know where you are, you probably shouldn't be gawking at a sign to tell you!), the architecture, the views….

And then wandering around Presby—no id, no badge, but I went anywhere I wanted—reacquainting myself with a big, sprawling medical center and how easy it is tohide--er, I mean get lost, yeah, right, who would want to hide in a hospital….

I also had arranged a visit back to Childrens—new again to me, but ready to move on to bigger and better things with its new campus (coincidentally at the site of my fictional Angels of Mercy Medical Center—but hey, I was there first! Well, actually St. Francis was, but who's counting?) when I escorted the wonderful Heather Graham and her troupe of Slushpile Players over to perform for the kids.

The conference over, my aunt well on her way to recovery, I headed back downtown for my last night in Pittsburgh, when, getting off the bus I run into the too-fantastic-for-words Hank Phillippi Ryan (winner of the Agatha for her first book, Prime Time). Hank is looking a bit lost and said she just needed to get out of the hotel but had no idea where to go, so I took her across the Clemente Bridge to the riverwalk.

And this is where it gets weird. You see I have this scene in the second book that deals with a jumper from a bridge. And in that scene I included some of the River Rescue guys and one of their boats.

Guess who happened to be out on the water that Sunday afternoon?

Hank, who is an investigative reporter, sweet-talked our way onto their boathouse and the guys spent an hour with me, let me on the boat, answered my questions (I'd gotten most everything right in my draft, yeah!!), showed me their equipment, and were just the nicest you can imagine!

Turns out one of the medics and I both flew with the old Stat Angels, so we swapped tales about the good ole days over the skies of Pittsburgh. They couldn't believe I'd left the life of an ER doc to write full time (some days I can't believe it either) but they all said they wished they had the guts to do it and were very supportive.

So, despite canceling all my planned research (I still need to get back to Pittsburgh and corner some police officers and see the morgue—aren't they moving to a new facility? Anyone know?) I still ended up getting exactly what I needed—and I didn't even know it.

Ah, the mysteries of the universe….Pittsburgh style!

Thanks for reading!

CJ, whose one regret is that she never made it to Gullifty's for dessert….

As a pediatric ER doc, CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about. CJ loves sharing the secret life of an urban trauma center with readers. She also loves breaking the rules; her debut medical suspense novel, LIFELINES, is cross-genre to the extreme, combining women's fiction with medical suspense with thriller pacing with romantic elements and is told from the point of view of the women of Angels of Mercy's Medical Center. Publisher's Weekly proclaimed 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


Annette said...

Hi, CJ! Welcome back to Working Stiffs. Want some more serendiptiy? I'm currenty reading LIFELINES. And loving it, I might add.

Joyce said...

Welcome back, CJ! I had no idea all that was going on while you were in the 'burgh.

Anytime you want to come back to Pittsburgh for more "research" I'll be happy to take you to Gullifty's. And I haven't been to morgue yet either.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Hey CJ. I love that hardcore research. Nothing like really experiencing it.

Thanks for sharing.

mike said...

CJ--Glad your trip to the Burgh worked out so well for you. I know what you mean about Presby and the hospital complex--byzantine describes its maze of halls and elevators and doors to nowhere. As for Gullifty's, no need to regret missing it (IMHO)--last time I was there, the place was dirty and noisy and the service was grudging at best. Plenty of new places with better service and scrumptious desserts have cropped up in the years since. Pgh is becoming quite the foodie town, as everyone's expanding waistlines attests.

CJ Lyons said...

Hi Annette!! Be sure to let me know what you think of LIFELINES--and keep up the posts on the citizen's academy, I'm loving them!

My old contact with the PPB retired, so I need to find a new one sometime soon....

CJ Lyons said...

Joyce, hey there! Thanks for posting the blog and getting all those pictures in there!

We'll have to plan a research tour of Pittsburgh together--power in numbers and all that!

CJ Lyons said...

Wilfred, hey there, thanks for dropping by! I'm kind of lucky that I don't need to do a lot of research having lived a lot of what I write....but I still try to make sure things haven't changed too much.

Never want to get cocky in this biz! Plus, the folks you meet while doing research are always so wonderful!

CJ Lyons said...

Hi Mike! You know, I think it's the memory of places like Gullifty's and Primanti's and the Elbow Room, etc that I really miss more than the food--I had such great times there with my family and friends!

Tory said...

Welcome back, CJ! Your first blog impressed me enough that I recommended LIFELINES for the first meeting of our book club at work. People loved it, and thought you'd really gotten Pittsburgh down. (My favorite bit? When the pushy real estate salesman ends up on the hospital BOD at Lydia's hearing. Pittsbugh is SUCH a small town!)

I brought up the issue of theme for our book club discussion. I'm currently reading a book called EMOTIONAL SAFETY and wondered if it could be called a theme: one relationship is clearly safe, one clearly not, one is safe but takes a while for Lydia to realize it, one we're still wondering about at the end of the book.

So, I have to ask. Am I at all close? Inquiring minds want to know!

And, by the by, I agree with Mike - never that impressed by Gullifty's desserts, except their killer cookie for 2, which I sometimes get on my birthdays. (Today's my 50th but I'm in Massachusetts, so not this year!)

Annette said...

C.J., if you invite me along on the tour of the morgue you and Joyce are planning, I might just be willing to share my new contacts in the Pittsburgh Police Bureau with you.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

I've been trying to witness and autopsy (I know, sounds gross) or into a morgue. No luck yet. Kind of in the immortal words of Dr. McCoy, "I'm an engineer not a doctor."

Annette said...

Happy Birthday, Tory!

CJ Lyons said...

Hi Tory!!! Wow, I'm blushing--thanks so much for the kind words about LIFELINES.

You know, for anyone with a group or bookclub, I am always happy to talk to you guys even if it's via Skype or the phone.

I love theme--don't get me started on how powerful a tool theme is for a writer, I teach entire workshops on this!

But you're exactly right--the theme in LIFELINES is relationships. More specifically how as adults we create our families, and family doesn't necessarily mean the one you're born into.

Amanda's story, WARNING SIGNS, is more a coming of age story (fitting since she's the youngest) and is about learning to stand up for yourself, find your voice in this world.

Okay, I've rambled on long enough--but you started it, lol! Honestly, I couldn't finish a book without understanding its theme, to me that's the heart and soul of any novel, ties the plot and characters together....

Happy Birthday!!!

CJ Lyons said...

Ohhh....Annette, that's tempting, we'll have to see what we can put together!

Anyone with a contact with the FBI? Specifically their crimes against children squad???

Wilfred, maybe we can get a group tour--less hassle for them???

Now you guys have me scrambling to check and see when I can make it back to Pittsburgh!

CJ Lyons said...

PS: Wilfred, be careful what you wish for--that's how I switched my college major from technical theatre to pre-med, from watching an autopsy!!!

Tory said...

Regarding FBI "Crimes Against Children" contacts, I'm training coordinator at Mercy Behavioral Health and I vaguely remember some training with someone who does/ did work for the FBI crimes against children that's being offered this summer, though my brain is so far from work gear this morning I can't remember which training it is! (Child abuse? Internet crimes against children?)

Anyway, when the training happens in July, I could ask him if he's willing to answer some questions from a published author, though you may need something quicker than that . . .

Martha Reed said...

C.J. welcome back. If you're looking for a place to hide, try UPMC Children's Hospital in Oakland. I was there last weekend and the place is a maze - I expected to find the Minotaur around the corner, and I lost my car - stumbling into the wrong parking garage at 10PM. Yikes! Hey, wait a minute. Who's hiding in the hospital, hum...? Any hints?

CJ Lyons said...

OMG, Tory!!! That would be fantastic!

I'm working on a non-fiction project (a book proposal) on helping parents protect their families from internet crimes and I have a fiction project with a FBI CAC specialist that I'd like to set in Pittsburgh.

No rush at all! Thanks so much for thinking of me!!!

CJ Lyons said...

Hey, Martha! I know, Children's is like a maze with all the crazy expansions over the years--and I saw photos (love the online Post-Gazette and Trib!!!) of the new hospital and it's like ten times the size!!!

I could tell you all some scary stories about folks wandering the halls of a hospital at guy we called "the whistler"

Oh no, can't tell you who's hiding out there--that's for a future book!

Wilfred Bereswill said...


Not to wory, at my age, I'm not switching anything except I'm trying to figure out this writing thing.

I'm a believer in hands-on research. I want to know the smells, feel, sounds, atmosphere that pictures or text can't cover. As far as the group thing goes, it would have to be in St. Louis for me. Pittsburgh isn't right around the corner.

CJ Lyons said...

Wilfred, did you attend the Sisters in Crime's Forensic U in St. Louis? I heard it was great!

And you're right about hands on--especially the smells, so powerful to get those right!

Joyce said...

CJ, I'll ask at work and see who is the CAC person in Pittsburgh. Too bad you didn't have this question yesterday--there was an FBI agent in the station.

Wilfred Bereswill said...


I ran the shooting gallery for Forensics U. 53 ladies shooting their first handgun. A little nerve wracking, but nobody got shot but the targets. It was especially fun when the range owner let me shoot the Uzi in full automatic.

It WAS great. It was also nice bouncing ideas off Dr Lyle. You see, mine is a Thriller about bioterrorism.

CJ Lyons said...

Joyce, you're too sweet! Thanks!


CJ Lyons said...

Sounds like a great time!!! And Doug is a great guy--he and I and Tess Gerritsen did a mock autopsy at the first ThrillerFest that was soooo much fun!