Patricia Cornwell makes a killing

Mystery writer Patricia Cornwell visits a forensic medical center in Baltimore.
CBS News

(CBS News) Author Patricia Cornwell has been making a killing WRITING about killings - all kinds of killings. Martha Teichner gives us a read on her prolific career:

The "Scarpetta Patch" - which represents the scales of justice, a caduceus, and enlightenment - is on Patrician Cornwell's sleeve. It's on jewelry. It's also on her $3.5 million helicopter.

The crest is for Dr. Kay Scarpetta, the fictional forensic pathologist Cornwell created, whose high-tech crime solving skills have sold more than 100 million books.

The crest, the expensive toys . . . right away, you find yourself wondering, Who's who here? Patricia Cornwell took up flying because one of her characters flies. There's always that kind of overlap.

"I created my characters, but they've also created me," Cornwell told Teichner. "I do things because of them and they do things because of me, and it's a strange balance."

But together, their lives and hers have an outsize quality about them. Note the billboard in New York's Times Square. Her next Scarpetta book, number 20, is out Tuesday.

But the Patricia Cornwell up there can't forget the child whose father walked out on Christmas Day when she was five . . . who was put in a foster home when her mother was hospitalized for depression.

"I learned to use my imagination as a coping skill 'cause if the world was too painful, then I'd make up my own," Cornwell said.

"Did you find that looking back as an adult that those kinds of ruptures left scars?" asked Teichner.

"They did, but you know what? I honestly wouldn't change a thing," she replied. "What it's given me is a great deal of empathy. I still remember my mother sitting at the dining room table, just desperate, trying to figure out how she was going to pay the bills. And I wanted so badly to take it away from her. I'd go panning for gold in the creek behind the house, a little scavenger, thinking 'I'm gonna find treasure somewhere and then my mom won't be poor anymore.'"

Their neighbors up the hill in Montreat, N.C., happened to be the Reverend Billy Graham and his wife, Ruth.

"Ruth Graham just swept me off my feet in terms of being a friend," said Cornwell. "That was absolutely life-altering, because I thought, if this woman sees something in me that makes it worth her spending her time, on me? Then maybe I'm not so bad."

Ruth Graham also gave Cornwell her first journal, saying, "I want you to write."

Now, Cornwell uses her journals to take notes. She showed Teichner one, written while going to the San Diego Medical Examiner's Office in 2011: "So basically, I'm describing gray clouds, low, that probably would burn off, so that I can populate, you know, what I'm writing about with what it looks like, just like a reporter does."

She also showed Teichner her office in Boston. Cornwell has never before allowed journalists to see where she writes.

"How many hours do you work a day on writing?" Teichner asked.

"I work as long as the characters are still talking to me," she said.

Kay Scarpetta began talking to Cornwell when she worked at the morgue in Richmond, Va. "I thought, wouldn't it be interesting to have a woman character who works in such a dark place? When a really bad case comes into the morgue, you almost feel like the weather's changing. You feel it in the air. It's like it's going to rain."

"Postmortem," her first Scarpetta book, was published in 1990. Soon, she needed bodyguards for crowd control at book signings, and she was making tens of millions of dollars. The "CSI" phenomenon had been born on the best-seller list.

"Basically, Scarpetta created the forensic genre, the forensic thriller, and now we're overwhelmed by it," Cornwell said. "I mean, you can watch autopsies on TV now. And that has changed how I write. I give you a huge dose of forensic science and medicine. But at the same time, that's really not what the story's about. The story's about what Scarpetta's going through and how she gets where she needs to be."