My bottom line is this: don't ever think that just because you're not already an expert in something that you can't or shouldn't write about it, at least in a fictitious sense.
Ahem. Excuse me. Let me step off my soapbox.
Now then. Let me introduce you all to this month's VetWrite feature. Trust me, this ties in with my mini-diatribe. Back in late spring of this year, I had the opportunity to talk with author Michael Kula whose first novel, titled The Good Doctor, came out this year. A piece of historical fiction, The Good Doctor is about Dr. David Roberts, a veterinarian in Wisconsin at the turn of the 20th century. We chatted about the book, the writing process, and the challenge of writing about a veterinarian while not being a veterinarian.
An associate professor in the Writing Studies program at the University of Washington-Tacoma, Michael's story line started somewhat fortuitously when he stumbled upon a sensational love scandal involving a veterinarian at the turn of the century in small town Wisconsin. As he dug deeper into historical records, the story grew into what Michael describes as quite "sensational stuff" given the time period.
After further research, Michael reached out to a local historian. "I was guarded about my idea," he says. As it happens, however, the historian of this small Wisconsin town had his own personal historical museum in his basement. [In another universe, this would totally be the setup for a horror story.]
|Courtesy Michael Kula|
Michael calls Dr. Roberts the "Martha Stewart of the veterinary profession"; a man who made and sold his own veterinary products. "He really did brand himself," he says. "He had a huge line of products under his name: Dr. Roberts' Veterinary Company."
"He was the Martha Stewart of the veterinary profession."
But it got even better: in this basement museum, the historian pulled out a copy of Dr. Roberts' memoir. "At the time," says Michael, "I didn't know this guy had written a memoir late in his life."
It turns out ol' Dr. Roberts had a reputation of being a womanizer. "After his first wife died, he was married three more times," explains Michael. "In 1955, when he was about 80 years old, he was married to a 24 year old who was working for him at the time. He had written his memoir with this young woman. Local legend has it that when he passed away, apparently he had a room full of these books that he had published but didn't distribute. When he died, the young woman burned them all. Apparently, there are only four copies of this thing in existence."
One of the copies was owned by our now beloved hero, the local historian.
|Courtesy Michael Kula|
"The story is based on historical facts," he says, "but it's not factual. It was a journey of trying to humanize this guy. While he was kind of a scoundrel, he was, by all accounts, incredibly caring and generous. There was a good guy in there somewhere and I hoped to capture that in the book."
"How would you put down a cow in 1917?"
Because Dr. Roberts was a veterinarian, animals and veterinary work factor heavily in this book, which was a challenge as Michael strove to capture these actions accurately. "Some of the veterinary-specific aspects were hard," he says. Michael notes how easily he could interview today's veterinarians, but quickly found they lacked insight into what vet med was like one hundred years ago. The closest thing Michael could grasp in terms of early 20th century medicine was a veterinary instruction manual from 1905. Then he turned to the University of Wisconsin-Madison Veterinary Hospital.
|Courtesy Michael Kula|
"I had to figure this scene out: what could wipe out a bunch of animals in an overcrowded barn in a relatively short period of time?"
The book's narrative is driven by three different characters: Dr. Roberts, his wife, and the woman who becomes his mistress. "The love triangle that develops comes in part from the characters' connections with animals," says Michael. Social stratification in the early 1900s also plays an important role. In real life, as in the book, Dr. Roberts comes from rural Wisconsin but Michael explains that he lacked historical evidence regarding the veterinarian's wife's roots. "This is where I took some liberties," he says. "In the book, I had her come from big city money. Part of her character is drawn to her husband because of the sensitivity she saw in him in his occupation. But she had no background or interest in rural life, agriculture, or animals." Enter the woman who eventually becomes Dr. Roberts' mistress who does have a rural background. Do you feel the heat rising, or is it just me?
"Why would anyone read historical fiction? I just didn't get it."
Some of my constant readers may be aware that in the end, I like to know why a writer (or artist or musician, etc.) does the thing they do and how it makes them feel. Michael's answer was satisfactorily revealing. "The funny thing was, when I was in grad school, I wrote very literary, straight fiction. I remember thinking: why would anyone read historical fiction? I just didn't get it. Then I fell into this project. I've since realized I can't imagine doing anything else. It just fits me." What more could you ask for?
Until next month, dear readers, happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting.