Guest blog: Katherine Howell

(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.

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.

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

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.

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.

a few drafts I sent it to my agent.

rang me the next week. ‘Bad news.’

I shut my eyes.

‘It doesn’t work. There’s
no suspense.’

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?

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.

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.

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.

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”.

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