Growing Up With The Dead & How It Inspired A New Suspense Thriller With a Cause

Long before American television was saturated with CSI and Forensic Files, I was living my own weekly CSI adventure with my family in northern Michigan. My father was a medical examiner for three counties and my mother assisted as his office manager. They ran the office out of our home growing up because the county was underfunded and did not provide him with one.

Dad performed autopsies at the small county hospital morgue, but all the records, paperwork, and photographs were kept in our family office. Samples of blood and body tissue were stored in a basement freezer, right under the pork chops and frozen beans like some B-rated horror flick.

During years Dad worked in forensics, I had a hands-on, front row education in death investigation.  One Sunday after church when I was eight, my father toted us all over to the local airstrip. A small plane had crashed the night before and Dad wanted to return to the scene in daylight to scour the area for any remaining body pieces. My younger sister and I paired up to help him. Outfitted in our Sunday best, we roamed the damp field that early spring morning in search of brain matter and skullcap. And yes, we found some.

Once I reached pre-adolescence, I was painfully aware how different my family was from other families. We were living in a generation before TV glamorized forensics. I didn’t know a single other person my age whose father kept body bags in his truck and smelled like formaldehyde. Ironically, my friends found the family business intriguing and to this day, I can’t remember a single time I was teased about what my father did for a living growing up. (At least not in front of my back.)

One of the first times I remember my home life intersecting with my social life was third grade. A new friend came over to play in our fort in the barn loft and soon became intrigued by a 55-gallon barrel. She wanted to take a look inside, despite my strong discouragement. Eventually, she weaseled the truth out of me. I told her, “There’s a man’s leg in that barrel.” It thrilled her. I cowered as she peeled back that plastic and cross section of thigh stared back at both of us.

Over time, I embraced my unconventional childhood. In fact, I feel quite blessed to have had Quincy M.E. for a father growing up. When I started writing I began to tap into my past and discovered that writing crime challenged me in ways other genres did not. For the first time in my life, I felt deeply connected to my past. And I wanted to know more. So, I attended the Forensic Science Academy. From this experience my non-fiction book, Forensic Speak, was born and continues to be used by writers, CSI fans, and even some law enforcement.

My most recent suspense thriller, Hole in the Woods, is a direct intersection of my childhood merging with my writing career. Is it inspired by a murder case my father investigated of a young woman, Shannon Siders, who was brutally raped and murdered the summer of 1989. Her body was left for three months at the Hole in the Woods, a local party spot deep in the national forest and the case went cold for 25 years. I followed the case from its beginning until the killers went to trial in 2015.

Shannon’s story not only lay the groundwork for Hole in the Woods, but also spurred my partnership with the Cold Case Foundation, a non-profit focused on solving the hardest, most forgotten violent crime and missing persons cases. A percent of the sales of Hole in the Woods are currently being donated to the CCF.  And for you cold case followers, CCF just launched Cold Case Live, a one-stop shop for cold case podcasts, web series, articles, private forum, and academy.

During the month of February, sign up for my newsletter and you will be entered into a giveaway to win a year’s membership to Cold Case Live.


About Jennifer Graeser Dornbush

Jennifer is a screenwriter, author, international speaker, and forensic specialist. As she says, “I grew up around death.” The television or movie screen is the closest most people will ever come to witness in the forensic world. But Jennifer was raised in it, as the daughter of a small town medical examiner whose office was in their home. She is the author of suspense thriller, Hole in the Woods; mystery series The Coroner and Secret Remains, and contributor in the upcoming Murder, Music & Mystery anthology (Blackstone, TBD). All can be found online wherever books are sold.  Connect with Jennifer and join her newsletter.


About Hole in the Woods

In 1989, in a sleepy Michigan town, missing high school grad Nina Laramie’s skeleton is found near a remote party spot in the forest. Fear and anger ripple through this tight-knit community when the case goes cold. Thirty years later, Riley St. James is assigned to the case, despite her similar past to the victim, and must face the killers who want their secret to stay in the Hole in the Woods.  If you’re looking for a “can’t-put-it-down” thriller and a way to make a difference, purchase your copy here.