I love it when friends find success. And after getting to know Richard Mabry, MD, here at WU, I do consider him a friend.
Richard, who was a long-time physician in private practice, then a professor for Southwestern Medical School, had plenty of works published before he turned to fiction. He wrote hundreds of articles for medical journals and contributed to or authored eight textbooks in his field. After his first wife died, he wrote a book on grief as well (The Tender Scar: Life After The Death Of A Spouse; Kregel, 2006).
But he did, eventually, turn to fiction, peppering his stories with what he knew best: medicine.
Yesterday, Richard’s debut novel of medical suspense, Code Blue, was released by Abingdon Press–the first in a three book deal. I’m thrilled he’s with us today to tell us more about it and his journey to publication.
Interview with Richard Mabry, MD, part 1
Q: What do you tell people, when they ask what Code Blue is about?
A: It’s about a young doctor who retreats to her hometown after her world falls apart, only to find that small towns have long memories, and some folks don’t want her there, while at least one wants her dead.
Q: What was it about writing medical thrillers that attracted you? Was the road to publication well paved or full of bumps? Any dusty manuscripts under the bed?
A: I’ve always incorporated medicine into my fiction, because that’s what I know, after 35 years of practice. It took me a while to gravitate into “medical thrillers,” though. When none of my first novels gained the attention of editors, I decided to try my hand at a “cozy mystery.” I quickly found I wasn’t suited for that genre, but from there I moved to medical thrillers and discovered I was comfortable there.
I garnered over forty rejections with three prior novels before getting a contract, so I guess you could say there were a lot of speed bumps and quite a few potholes along the way. I still have those three unpublished novels on my hard drive. I consider them the equivalent of the first waffle, the one you practice on and throw away before getting serious. Maybe someday I’ll try to dust them off, but the more I look at them, the more I can see why they’re unpublished.
Q: When you look back on those early efforts, what do you notice? Where do you see the most improvement in your writing?
A: These early books were flat. There wasn’t tension on every page, as Donald Maass advocates. The writing was good, the characters well-drawn, but there was never the feeling of “this has to happen or else…” that carries a book forward.
In addition, I think my writing is much better since learning that less is more. Don’t explain. Don’t reveal everything at once. Use beats instead of speaker attributions when possible. Work backstory in gradually, not in a dump in the first chapter. There are so many things to learn, and the best way to master them is to practice, make mistakes, correct them (based on valid advice), and move forward.
Q: Code Blue is full of interesting plot twists and characterizations—a solid mystery. Do you like to work with an outline when you write? Plotter or pantser? Day or night writer? Procrastinator or get-down-to-worker?
A: I’m a semi-pantser. From the start, I know the main characters (male and female leads), the opening scene, the overall plot, and the way I hope to resolve it. What I usually don’t know is who the villain will turn out to be, what secondary characters will populate the story, and a few other details. In one of my unpublished novels, I discovered about 70% into the book that my favorite secondary character had to be killed in a car accident. I grieved over that one.
My best time to write is in the morning. Since I’m retired, I can take my coffee to my office and work in my robe if I want to, but somehow I do better work if I’m shaved and dressed. The least I can do for my characters is show them that much respect.
One of my favorite books is Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies For Fun And Profit, and he introduced me to the term, “Sunday writer.” That’s the person who works full-time and writes on weekends. I’m more of a reverse Sunday writer. I try to write five days a week and take weekends off. Contract deadlines stimulate me to write, but I’ve been known to take a day off, and Wednesday mornings are reserved for golf (weather permitting).
Q: You know, as much as it pains me – and it does, because I’m a big fan of jammie pants and slippers – I think you’re on to something re: cleaning up before sitting down to do the job. Think it’s something to do with respect for characters = respect for self and the art of writing? Or maybe it’s just a feeling of, “All right, time to stop hopping around the Internet and be serious.”
A: There’s that, certainly. Mainly, I’m retired but for almost four decades I got up, got dressed, left the house and “worked.” If I’m serious about my writing, I need to do the same thing–even if it’s under the same roof–so I realize I’m not practicing a hobby but a vocation.
Q: You also mentioned the importance of days off, which is something I think a lot of us struggle with and is probably something you have struggled with as a doctor. It’s so easy to be encumbered by the weight of our unfinished work because most of us work on our manuscripts at home; we feel their heavy breath on the backs of our necks 24/7. Did you ever have to push through Writer’s Guilt for not working seven days a week on your script? What have you to offer on the value of breaking away from work on occasion?
A: Oh, I suffer from guilt any time I have an unfinished or even unedited piece on my computer, especially if there’s a deadline looming. I’ve taken the advice of several author friends, though, and given myself permission to take a day off–Sunday, for me–to refresh myself. In addition, my long-time friend, attorney, and golf partner and I head for the golf course every Wednesday when weather allows for several hours of therapy. We don’t keep score (heresy for the purists), and we talk about everything. When I have a problem with a manuscript, often these outings cause the solution to pop into my head–what Stephen King calls the work of “the boys in the basement.”
Q: The main character of Code Blue, Cathy Sewell, M.D., has a far-reaching history with not only the town of Dainger but with many of the town’s citizens. How did you go about managing these detailed histories, not to mention the plot convolutions themselves?
A: I start with a character sketch of the protagonist and other main characters. As I see the need for others, I add their information to the character sketch. As for plot convolutions, I have to sit down and think them through until they’re clear in my mind. Then I add those notes to my character sketches. And if anyone is curious, I don’t use any kind of writing software or special diagrams to keep track of all this. It’s no more difficult than keeping track of hundreds of medications, doses, side effects, and interactions, and that’s something every doctor learns to do.
Q: No index cards? No outline? I’m impressed. Maybe I should ask you to offer us some memory tricks.
A: Teri, you know as well as I do that our characters become very real to us. After about the third revision of my first book, my wife–who is my first reader– commented, “You know, I feel like Ben and Rachel are living in our house.” When you get to know your characters intimately, it’s not that hard to keep up with their lives.
Q: Code Blue plunges the reader into the world of a medical doctor. As an M.D. yourself, this may at face value seem an easy task, but I wonder if it was especially challenging for you to gauge your knowledge against what others would like to know, what they already knew, and what would be pertinent to the story. How did you decide what to include and what to leave out?
A: It may surprise your readers to know that, even though I’m a physician, I research the medical aspect of every scenario I write. That research used to mean consulting textbooks and journals, but now I can do it all online. As for how much to put in and leave out, I try to include just enough to give the reader the feel of the drama involved in almost every medical situation without being too graphic or too technical. In my first draft, I usually overwrite the technical details, because it’s easier to tone down the writing in the second draft than to add to what I’ve written.
Q: One of the tensest scenes for me involved a woman giving birth to a baby in distress via C-section. It seemed very authentic. So often we hear that medical dramas on television are full of inaccuracies. How medically accurate was Code Blue? How important was it for you to remain accurate?
A: I did a lot of research for that one. My own OB experience was several decades ago. Babies are still pretty much born the same way as they were then, but the monitoring capabilities and technical support, especially for a C-section, have made great strides.
My own practice was ear, nose, and throat with a subspecialization in allergy and nasal/sinus disorders, but I’ve worked with doctors in almost every imaginable specialty over the years, so I have a pretty good general knowledge. Nevertheless, I do research every medical scene for accuracy. It’s important to me that I get it right.
As for inaccuracies in medical TV shows, I have to confess—I don’t watch them.
Q: Medical savvy aside, there’s also a lot of legal information throughout your novel, including issues of banking and insurance. How did you go about conducting your research?
A: A lot of that was practical information picked up over the years. I do have a few people whom I ask specific questions, including my wife, who has extensive experience in medical billing and administration. Here’s where the Internet gives way to a phone call or a question over golf or dinner. However, I’m always careful to ask someone with expert knowledge. The world’s biggest liar is “they say,” followed closely by “I’ve heard…”
Click HERE for part 2 of my interview with Richard Mabry.