Archive for January, 2011

Writing About Doctors

Characters get sick, get shot, fall from cliffs. They imbibe interesting poisons, bathe with hairdryers and are pulled at the last second from disasters in abandoned factories, windmills and crypts. The list of ills to which characters are heir is limitless. But a few survive, necessitating scenes in which a doctor must say… something.

Then there are characters who actually are doctors, not infrequently created by writers who aren’t. These fictional docs require backstories, professional personæ and a halfway believable familiarity with the medical world.

In both instances we (non-medical) writers fall back on our own experiences with doctors for dialogue and presentation. This can be problematic if we’re writing a character’s last moments in an oncology unit (Will she finally disclose the name of the twins’ real father before she flatlines?) and our sole medical contact for the last eight years has been with a veterinarian. The character expiring in the oncology unit isn’t there because she didn’t take her heartworm pills, and our fictional doc can’t stand around with a syringe somberly suggesting euthanasia. Searching for anything resembling accurate information that’s also comprehensible, we may read novels about doctors by doctors (in which the renegade good doc invariably pits her/himself against the arrogant, alcoholic/drug-addicted, philandering, embezzler bad doc who happens to run the hospital) or biographies of doctors (“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”) It’s all very time-consuming and rarely provides the sort of quick, authentic, insider detail that can give even a minor character legs. And who has time to do much research on minor characters, anyway?

Singular Intimacies But eureka. Through the usual strange set of circumstances, a Bellevue social worker named Kari Wolf recently insisted that I read a book called Singular Intimacies by a Bellevue doctor named Danielle Ofri. This surprisingly open chronicle of the doctor’s professional arc has been widely reviewed, and this is not a book review. This is a gasp of relief. Because Ofri’s book is a wry, realistic, sometimes-scary and/or heartbreaking but always honest Rosetta Stone for writers who need to write about doctors. Just think – one book!  And check out the link (in Blogroll) to Ofri’s NYT columns, also a goldmine of interesting and useful-to-writers information.

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Abigail Padgett

There are “First Adopters,” brave pioneers who sleep in Best Buy parking lots for weeks in order to be the first to get new techie stuff the minute the stretch-wrap comes off the pallet. But there is no category for the rest of us – Middle, Three-Quarters of the Way and Last Adopters. We aren’t statistically significant. On the other hand, we also aren’t stuck with nine sequential versions of the X-Stream digital waffle iron with built-in GPS.

I’m right down there with the Last Adopters, indeed may be the last, but I’m coming around. Like everyone else on the planet who reads, and especially everyone who writes, I’ve lurked. I’ve watched a publishing industry that’s been around since Gutenberg (1450 C.E.) change overnight. I love trees and rejoiced with them at what digital publishing will do for their numbers. But about my own numbers I remained clueless.

While every author I’ve ever known raced out to design new covers and put at least their backlists up in e-formats, I continued to lurk. I watched the hand writing on the wall and apparently thought, “Gee. A hand is writing on the wall.” Many months would go by before it occurred to me to read the freaking message! Slow, I am slow. The movement of glaciers is fleet in comparison.

But finally I get it. I have a backlist of seven published mysteries, one cool new one that my agent couldn’t sell (too complicated and who’s ever heard of Boston?) and another, new, magical realist series ready to launch one way or another. Except… hey. I don’t have to sit around reading old issues of Field and Stream like I do in my dentist’s office while I wait for something to happen, do I? I can publish whatever I want, whenever I want, myself. Wow.

Stay tuned for Adventures of the Last Adopter, which I envision as something like a marriage of “The Shadow” and “Springtime for Hitler.” Clueless or not , I’m going to publish something!

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