There are quite a few perils involved in my day job as a paramedic: driving fast on blue lights, drunkards with lively fists, an abundance of spilled bodily fluids, and patients who decide—for whatever reason—to answer the door naked. If I’m honest, I can cope with pretty much all of the above, but one side effect of the job is more disconcerting: my wife will no longer watch medical dramas on the telly with me.
The onset of the problem was early in my career and quite subtle. I began to notice that IV drips didn’t drip, those little reservoir bags on the oxygen masks remained deflated (“turn it on, mate, she might feel better!”), CPR revived people within minutes, and everyone shocked the hell out of a flat line even though you absolutely don’t. I think it’s safe to say that bad medicine will throw me out of a story—be it on the screen or on the page—more quickly than I can drive my ambulance back to station after a late finish, and, believe me, we don’t hang around. I assume the same sort of thing applies for legal professionals taking issue with courtroom dramas, crime scene types scowling at CSI’s super speedy lab analysis, or vampire slayers watching Buffy.
Bearing this in mind, I have such a mortal fear of buggering something up that I have become a compulsive researcher. My latest novel, Tumbledown, turned me into a temporary quasi-expert on legal proceedings in the state of Maine, the geography of the Eastern Seaboard, crime scene forensics, the structure of small town police forces, Pride and Prejudice, and the canal district in Holyoke, Massachusetts, amongst myriad other subjects. Despite hours of Googling, poring over maps, teaching myself how to analyse tyre treads, studying photos of rundown warehouses, and amassing a bizarre Internet “favourites list”, I might still have made a mess of something, but it won’t have been for lack of effort.
Somewhat ironically, I still find medical scenes amongst the most difficult to write. The balance between getting it right and not sounding like a pompous arse is always tricky; I hope Tumbledown manages to walk that fine line. Emergency medicine is often an unpleasant, gory, distressing business, and there are a few scenes in the novel that still make me wince when I reread them. Subconsciously, I might be trying to correct a few wrongs, reversing the trend whereby trauma victims survive unscathed after a couple of rounds of CPR (and the prerequisite shouts of encouragement), vomit doesn’t exist, a punch doesn’t really hurt, and no one involved so much as musses up their hair. Dispelling those myths might be a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.