(Katherine Howell's debut novel, FRANTIC, was published in Australia earlier this year. I read it at the beginning of the summer and was taken with the way she alternated female protagonists, kept up a relentless pace and found the humanity in the difficult job that is being an emergency medical technician. As a special guest-blog to close this month, I've invited Katherine - herself a former EMT - to introduce herself to American readers.)
I was one of those kids who was always scribbling down a story, and by my late teens I knew I wanted to write novels. I began with imitations of Stephen King, and later Patricia Cornwell. I then wrote a police procedural where the pertinent clues came courtesy of a ghost because I didn’t know how actual police would find such things out and I was too shy to ask. Ridiculous, really, when by that point I was working beside them every day in my job as a paramedic.
Equally ridiculous, a writing teacher told me, was to ignore my experiences there as a basis for stories. While I wanted to write about what I was living, I couldn’t see how any of it could be digested down to fit into a narrative. The years of trauma and shiftwork were taking their toll and in an average day at work I often swung from biting my tongue in rage, wanting to scream at people for their stupidity and risk-taking, to fighting back tears over a total stranger’s grief and loss. Whenever I tried to write an ambulance-related scene, these emotions flooded out and the story turned into nothing more than a rant. It took months after my eventual resignation for me to begin to deal with these feelings and get some perspective on how far from normal I’d been.
Besides all that, I wanted to write crime novels, and it was hard to see how to use paramedics as the protagonists. I did hear of a case where paramedics in Sydney attended a burglary and listened to the victim’s shaken tale of how it happened and what was taken, then later the same night were called to another scene where they recognised the stolen goods, but such a tale is a smidge too coincidental for a plot where the parts needs to be causally linked. Anyway, crime novels require more than a simple break and enter. Lives should be at stake. Paramedics see plenty of that, but my problem was how to bring them together with a crime-solving plot.
It seemed there were three possible ways to do it: the paramedic could be the victim, the perpetrator or the solver of the crime. I was hoping to write a series, and I didn’t want the paramedic to be the constant victim or the constant perpetrator, and it seemed too much of a stretch to have them solving the crimes. Was there a way to meld the three roles? I stewed on this for a long time then realised I could have two protagonists: one a paramedic, the other a police detective. That way I could have trouble happen in the paramedic’s life, with her being a combination of victim, driven to try to solve her problem, and perhaps, at times, a little of the perpetrator as well, while the detective tried to figure out what on earth was going on.
So I developed a plot, and began writing ‘Frantic’. In this book, paramedic Sophie Phillips is shattered when her cop husband is shot and their baby kidnapped. Detective Ella Marconi struggles to discover whether the act is revenge by a bereaved father whose wife and child Sophie couldn’t save, or if Sophie’s husband Chris was involved with police corruption. Sophie soon makes up her mind however, and decides she will stop at nothing to save her son.
After a few drafts I sent it to my agent.
She rang me the next week. ‘Bad news.’
I shut my eyes.
‘It doesn’t work. There’s no suspense.’
At that time I was starting a Masters in writing. Aha, I thought, here’s my thesis subject. Suspense in fiction: what is it? How does it work? How the hell can I get more of it and save this story?
I dived into my research, and learned that for suspense to build it is essential that readers both care for characters and feel uncertain about what will happen to them. I read about the need to establish a large dramatic question early on, while also posing smaller questions which are then answered on a scene or chapter basis, building the reader’s curiosity but not keeping them hanging too long for some kind of answer. I learned about the dotting-in of clues and red herrings, and I saw how to break scenes and chapters at points where the reader was simply dying to know more. I read about how putting in little hints that lead a reader to imagine the worst for a character can greatly intensify suspense. I applied all this and more to the ms, and rewrote it countless times, eventually replacing everything but the original premise.
With the redrafting I also became more adept at choosing what emotions to give to my paramedics, and what to leave out. So, when my paramedic Sophie attends an emergency birth, I have her feel my fears and joy from the births that I attended. When she’s caring for a man trapped in a car crash beside the body of his friend, I give her my thoughts on what that must be like for him, and the actions of my colleagues and I in simultaneously dealing with his injuries and his grief. It’s my fatigue she feels when rushing from one emergency to the next, my sweat that soaks her shirt, my adrenaline that makes her hands tremble as she pulls on her gloves.
After three years work the manuscript was ready. Knowing that if publishers liked it, their next question would be “What else do you have?”, I prepared a one-page outline for the second book in the series, ‘Panic’. In it, paramedic Lauren Yates thinks she has the best of reasons to lie about seeing a killer at a murder scene, until, months later, a stabbed man tells her with his dying breath that the same killer attacked him. Suddenly Lauren has not only blood on her hands, but Detective Ella Marconi on her back. Ella sees Lauren as the perfect witness in the perfect case because she can testify to the dying man’s words. But soon the detective realises the paramedic is hiding something big: something Ella is as determined to expose as Lauren is to protect.
This time ‘Frantic’ got a good response from my agent. Within weeks Pan Macmillan Australia bought world rights to both books, and soon after we had deals with France, Germany, Italy, Russia and the UK. ‘Frantic’ was released here in Australia in May, and has received excellent reviews, from “action plotted as tight as a tourniquet” to “an adrenaline rush of a thriller”.
After taking four years to write ‘Frantic’, having only one to write ‘Panic’ has been a challenge, but I’ve recently received the good news that the publisher loves it. Now I’m working on the outline for the third book, and tossing about ideas for the fourth. Each will again feature another paramedic alongside Detective Ella Marconi, and for each I’ll once again delve into my ambulance memories, reliving some of my best and worst days, and giving my readers an true insider’s view of paramedic life.