Here are five ideas that a beginning writer of medical thrillers can’t go wrong thinking about.
- First of all, you’ll need a good conspiracy. It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering, but one of the reasons thrillers do so well sent in the world of medicine is that the field is so rich with drama at the four-way intersection of life, technology, big business and government. This gives you an unlimited vein of conflict to mine for suspense.
- Give your main character the potential for greatness combined with an Achilles heel. This rule applies, I believe, for all good characters, whether they appear in literary works or genre fiction, comedy or tragedy, and for that matter, whether the character is hero or villain. My hero in Final Mercy, for example, neglects his private life for work and pays a price.
- Don’t forget the huge role that women play in modern medicine. When I was in medical school in the late seventies, there were only 14 women out of a class of 100 (and some of our professors actually smoked cigarettes while lecturing). Most med school classes today are 50-60 percent female. So, if your hero isn’t a female, make sure you’ve got some strong female secondary characters. This will lend your story texture and verisimilitude, not to mention the potential for relationships. No spice, no flavor.
- Sling the jargon like a pro. If you spend all your time explaining things like V Fib, ET tubes and laparoscopy, you’ll end up insulting the reader and making characters sound like robots. The average reader can understand most medical terms through context alone, and furthermore they will deeply appreciate the fact we believe they are smart enough to figure things out. Whenever possible, don’t interrupt the flow with mini-lectures and definitions that don’t fit in with the narrative.
- Go for the new. The success in recent years of medical thrillers—including medical TV shows—has created a big audience out there for this genre, but as also made our job a little more difficult in the sense that a lot of the easy ground has already been broken, and sometimes more than once. Yesterday’s fresh idea has become today’s cliché. The mysterious epidemic caused by the toxic water supply, the underground cabal engaged in euthanasia, and the ever-popular organ harvesting plots. You get the point. There’s still a ton of great ideas out there awaiting development, but you’ll want to have some familiarity with what’s already been done. No one, however, should let that intimidate him or her from taking the leap. We all possess individual quirks and experiences that will inevitably lead us to fresh fields, though perhaps a little further from the highway. Onwards!
Frank J. Edwards MD
Frank J. Edwards lives in Western New York.
He entered the Army after high school and became a warrant officer helicopter pilot, serving a tour in Vietnam. He studied English and Chemistry at UNC Chapel Hill, went to medical school at the University of Rochester, and later received an MFA in Writing at Warren Wilson College.
Frank served as a faculty member in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center in the 1990′s, leaving academic medicine to start a regional emergency medicine group, now called Delphi Emergency Physicians, where he continues to serve as the medical director.
In 1994 he started the first writing workshop for medical students at the U of R’s Division of Medical Humanities and remains active in the program.
He has written several books, including the medical thriller Final Mercy, a collection of poetry and short stories called It’ll Ease The Pain, and two books of medical nonfiction.
Please visit him at www.frankjedwards.com.
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