Monday, April 3, 2017

Celebrating Life with Style, Soul, and a Wink

The March 15, 2017, cover of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association features a pair of greyhounds. But not just any greyhounds--greyhounds with paisley. This piece is called "Paisley Paws de Deux" by Dr. Ande Hall, a veterinarian who is now a full-time artist in Kansas. Recently we talked about whimsy and not taking yourself too seriously.

"Paisley Paws de Deux" by Ande Hall, DVM
Ande used to live in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a desert city haven for artists. "I had a practice in Santa Fe for many years and I idolized the art," Ande says. "Whenever I went on a gallery walk there was a little voice inside me that said: I'm going to do that."

"Whenever I went on a gallery walk there was a little voice inside me that said: I'm going to do that."

After moving from Santa Fe to Kansas, Ande took ceramics at the local community college. In Pratt, Kansas, she had her first solo ceramics exhibit and began teaching classes in the medium. Ande says there were several reasons why she started with ceramics. "It was very tactile, I really enjoyed it," she says. "It's art but it's also craftsmanship." She says ceramics had a similar feel in the way you use your hands as surgery does, which was her favorite thing to do in practice.

"Power" by Ande Hall, DVM
"When I first got into ceramics, it felt like a safe art form," she says. "The pressure to produce something astounding was not there. It's an earthy art form and it usually doesn't take itself too seriously. Anything that you made that was a cup or plate or saucer had a function so even if it failed aesthetically, it always had a use. There was a utilitarian function to it."

In 2012 she and her family moved to a different town in Kansas. Not wanting to make the considerable investment of buying her own ceramics supplies and kiln, Ande turned to painting. She now works primarily in oil pastels and acrylic. Looking through her oeuvre on her website, her slogan appears at the bottom of the page: "Lively and eclectic contemporary paintings that celebrate life with style, soul, and a wink."

"I think that as a veterinarian there are perfectionist tendencies. In the long term, that can be wearing."

Ande says her slogan comes from the struggle to not take herself too seriously in anything that she does. "I think that as a veterinarian there are perfectionist tendencies. In the long term, that can be wearing. I try to make art that doesn't take itself too seriously. I like making things that have grace and dignity but also some humor."

"Jest, I surely do!" by Ande Hall, DVM
Grace is a predominant feature in a series of Ande's called "Winged Megafauna." These are large mixed media pieces featuring big pachyderms like elephants and rhinos. "I once saw a documentary on rhino poaching," she says. "It makes me so sad to think that these animals are more valued for their body parts than alive. I wanted to do paintings that juxtaposed their grandeur and size with their fragility and vulnerability. I was trying to think of a way to highlight their plight."

"More Precious than Gold" by Ande Hall, DVM
A large part of the whimsy that Ande breathes into her work comes from the fabric she chooses for her mixed media pieces. "These are a specific project I've been focused on for the past year," she says of her fabric pieces. "My mission is to explore ways to use pattern that are both expected and unexpected. I started with things that were really easy to see, like the paisley patterns to create brindle greyhounds. But then using cabbage rose for a Jersey cow--that was more whimsical."

"Rosy the Jersey" by Ande Hall, DVM
A central concept that has surfaced in other conversations I've had with veterinary artists is that a deep, hands-on knowledge of anatomy helps when conveying an animal's body onto the page. Animals have a central theme in many of Ande's pieces--she also paints flowers--but Ande has a different perspective. "It's not that simple," she says of the anatomy/art link. "Sculpting is easier to apply your familiarity with anatomy. It's a three-dimensional art form and you have a three-dimensional memory of the structures you're depicting whereas painting is two-dimensional. It's quite different."

"Johann" by Ande Hall, DVM
When asked where Ande finds inspiration for her work, she doesn't hesitate to state point-blank: "Everywhere." She admires historic art which sometimes surfaces in her own work, like her piece "Johann." She also takes pleasure in the research of her subjects. One painting might lead to another, she says. Or she'll re-visit a piece she's done in the past. Ande's outlook and practicality make one feel as though the possibilities are endless.

Until next month, happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting!

Monday, March 6, 2017

Write What You Want to Read

Sometimes, if you can't find what you want, you just have to roll up your sleeves and make it yourself. And I'm not talking chocolate chip cookies here. A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of talking with Dr. Lydia Staggs, senior veterinarian at Gulf World, the largest marine rehabilitation center in the panhandle of Florida. Besides from a kick-ass day job, Lydia has recently made a splash (gimme a break, I couldn't help myself) in the fiction world with the recent release of her second novel, Rea, in her urban paranormal series, Shamar.

As always, I bugged Lydia about the how's and why's and what's and when's of her inspiration,  perspiration, and exhilaration at being a published novelist. She indulged me mightily. What came from our conversation was twofold:

1. The amount of fun Lydia has writing is almost palpable.
2. When you can't find what you want, you just gotta make it yourself. No excuses.

Here's Lydia's story:

"In 2014, I was home with my son," she says. "My husband was overseas and my child was four at the time and in bed by 7:30 every evening so I was sitting in the house, bored out of my skull. One weekend, I went to the bookstore and couldn't find anything I wanted to read. I talked to the personnel about what I like--fantasy, adventure, series--and they were like: 'We have 50 Shades of Gray. You're a woman, you would like that.' And I was like, no."

Lydia experienced the same situation at a second bookstore across the street. Understandably, she was miffed.

"They couldn't help me and I got really frustrated," she continues. "I complained about this at work and my intern said to me: why don't you write something? I said I'm not a writer. I mean, I write peer-reviewed stuff, which is really dry." But Lydia's staff convinced her to try her hand at fiction.

Lydia Staggs DVM and friend
"I wrote the first three chapters of Shamar and handed it back to my intern," she says. "I told her to read it and if she thought it was crap, I wouldn't go any further. And if she liked it, I would finish it."

End result? I think you can guess. "She said it was fabulous. So I said OK." Since then, Lydia hasn't looked back. With a complex plot bridging urban legend with dark family secrets, the Shamar series now consists of two books and Lydia is finishing a third.

"It started off as a single book," she says. "But it morphed into something else. I kept coming up with more ideas and thought, wait a minute. I could turn this into a series." Lydia anticipates her Shamar series will end with four books but with a caveat: "I don't know if that's really going to happen, but that's the goal. The story between the two main characters will probably end at four," she contends. "But other characters... there might be a sort of spin-off with them. Another series."

What Lydia has done, really, is what all fiction authors should aspire to: write what you want to read. That's how it started for Lydia: by not finding what she wanted in her local bookstores, she created her own universe.

Other authors have commented on this concept. Toni Morrison said: "If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it." And Carol Shields: "Write the book you want to read, the one you cannot find."

Having fulfilled that initial goal of creating the book she couldn't find at the bookstore, Lydia says her writing has now since turned into a therapeutic outlet. "If I've had a bad day, I can sit here and write. When I have a really bad day, I tend to kill half my characters so then I have to go back and save them! It helps me deal with things like compassion fatigue, stress at work, and the challenges of being a mom."

Lydia has identified some of the challenges we face on a day to day basis in veterinary medicine and addressed these issues in her books. Her main female protagonist, Juliet Greene, is a veterinarian. "I wanted to show vet med in its own light," she says. "I wanted to portray the profession correctly and show the challenges vet med has." Her novels shed light on topics such as euthanasia, the challenge of non-talking patients, and the salary disparity between physicians and veterinarians.

"[Writing] seemed so Herculean at the beginning but then I thought, wait a second. Tackle little bits at a time. Remember: you did not become a veterinarian overnight, either."

As such, the old standby of write what you know easily applies to Lydia's fiction in part. However, she acknowledges this concept somewhat tangentially, connecting the physical act of writing in vet med with the act of writing in fiction. "Because I write so frequently in medical records, that pattern of writing helped with my novel," she says. "It didn't feel arduous. It wasn't intimidating because I already write so much every day." 

Lydia makes novel writing sound like a blast. Her enthusiasm and love of her craft shined through our conversation the entire time. "This has been a fun experience," she says but openly acknowledges that the hardest part of the entire process was getting the damn thing published, which to many writers nodding with a wry smile while reading this, is not a surprise. But the writing itself? "I didn't realize until I got started how less of a challenge it really was. It seemed so Herculean at the beginning but then I thought: wait a second. Tackle little bits at a time. Remember: you did not become a veterinarian overnight, either."

You heard her. Let's roll up our sleeves and get to work. Until next month, happy reading, happy writing, and happy vetting.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Medical Writing: The Cool, Smart Practicality of It All

OK, folks. Let me bend your ear (eyes?) a little bit. There are many facets to writing. We all know this, but sometimes forget it as we get sucked into our own projects and read our comfort books on our favorite topics. But I'm not talking genre differences--literary versus sci-fi versus romance (oh, but watch me try my hand at some sci-fi this year! Scary in an out-of-my-element sort of way but SO MUCH FUN!). I'm talking fiction versus non-fiction and then traveling one level deeper to break non-fiction into creative non-fiction, technical writing, medical writing... Wait. Did I say medical writing?

Yes. Yes, I did.

Medical writing is a thing. A hidden-in-plain-sight sort of thing I was only aware of at the very fringes. Medical writing to me used to be like a shadow that catches at the corner of your eye--you're not really sure what it is but you're vaguely aware of it.
Recently I talked to Laurie Anne Walden, DVM. Laurie Anne just so happens to be both a veterinarian and a medical writer and she enlightened me on this fascinating writing niche, which I'm thrilled to share with you all now. Ready? Let's meet Laurie Anne.

First things first. Laurie Anne opened her medical writing business, Walden Medical Writing, LLC, in 2014. Her journey to her present professional place has not been the typical path medical writers follow. But, as each of our own lives leads a tortuous path and one never knows where she is going to pop out of the woods, Laurie Anne is taking it all in stride. She went from vet school to internship to private practice for more than ten years before she made the gradual shift to writing.

Here's how she explains her beginnings: "I blame it all on the kids." (I suspected I was going to like Laurie Anne before I talked to her and this confirmed it.)

Seriously, Laurie Anne was a full time small animal vet until deciding to go part time when she had her first child. She continued part time after having her second child, but as the kids got older and went to elementary school, Laurie Anne started thinking. "I enjoyed being in charge of my own schedule," she says. "I wondered what I could do at home as a vet."

"I love editing. It's not about being critical. It's about helping people be clearer with their writing."

Some exploration online and contact with a colleague piqued Laurie Anne's interest along the lines of technical writing. "I had always liked writing and reading," she says. "So, the more I looked, I found out that medical writing was actually a thing."

Laurie Anne got her start editing research articles written by non-native English speakers. She says this experience was interesting and positive, though not a sole way to make a living. "I had so much fun doing that," she says.

With the pay for that sort of editing being quite low, Laurie Anne considered it as sort of her "internship" into medical writing. "It was a way of starting to get home-based employment in the field," she says. She spent a little more than a year editing in this way and loved it. "To me, I love editing," she says. "It's so much fun. It's not about being critical. It's about helping people be clearer with their writing. It's like being a hairdresser to their writing. Especially when their first language isn't even English. I think the fact that they're even trying is great."

After dipping her toes in the self-employed editing world, Laurie Anne got serious. She joined the American Medical Writers Association and then passed a certification exam. She's now on the Board of Editors of Life Sciences. "You don't have to have any qualification to say you're an editor," she cautions. "Just go online and announce you're an editor and there you go. I decided a certification would be at least something I could show people." After earning her editing certification and a writing certification from the AMWA, Laurie Anne says she feels better about her editing credentials.

Currently, Laurie Anne has shifted to writing more copy. While she still does editing (because she loves it so!), she primarily is now a medical writer. Laurie Anne is an interesting example of a freelance medical writer who--important point here--still practices part time. "Most people who do medical writing either work for drug companies or for medical publication firms," she says. "So starting as a freelancer is not the way I'd recommend doing it. I never wanted to quit practice so working full time at a company was not an option for me."

"Actually, veterinary training prepares you really well for being a medical writer. You understand the language of medicine."

Opportunities for freelance medical writers can vary widely. Currently, Laurie Anne has a bulk of work writing articles that summarize recent research in the scientific literature. "I'm summarizing what's relevant in these articles and what will make veterinarians' lives easier," she explains. She says this work has been interesting and challenging. "Some of the research articles I have to summarize are not in the areas I have any expertise in, so it's great that I have this opportunity to learn about new stuff," she says. And then Laurie Anne taps into one of every clinician's fears: hard core radiology. "I have had to edit some radiology documents that were basically all physics," she says. "Oh god." I feel your pain, Laurie Anne. I feel your pain.
Radiation physics??? NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!
She's also recently written various client education articles, which she enjoys, as it's a marriage of her clinical and writing skills. "Actually, veterinary training prepares you really well for being a medical writer because you understand the language of medicine and understand where it all comes from," she says.

Laurie Anne stressed that her path isn't likely the most usual path for those interested in pursuing a career in medical writing and encourages folks who might be interested in medical writing to do their research first. The American Medical Writers Association is a great place to start and has lots of resources.

Until next month, happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting!

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The fun, the challenging, the personal: daily blogging the vet way

Happy 2017, dear readers! I'm fortunate to start the new year sharing a delightful conversation I had recently with Dr. Shawn Finch, a veterinarian at Gentle Doctor Animal Hospital in Omaha, Nebraska. Shawn's daily blog,, caught my eye some months ago. During our conversation, she shared with me some of the reasons why she writes what she writes and I'd like to share them with you, too.

Shawn Finch, DVM

Shawn started blogging in 2006 and her first blog, Riley and James, was prompted into existence by one of Shawn's brothers, a web designer. "I first wanted to get the word out about preventative veterinary care," explains Shawn.

While Shawn doesn't regularly post to Riley and James anymore, it's still available as a resource. Blogging part deux occurred when Shawn's brother suggested she write shorter posts on a daily basis. "I really liked that idea," says Shawn. "It has more structure and it's been fun to post something every single day. I need external structure to get anything done, so that's been helpful."
One of the many cool things about is its color palette. This was something that struck me immediately about the site and I didn't realize until talking with Shawn that there's meaning behind the look. "When my brother asked me how I wanted the new site to look, I was thinking about how dogs and cats see things differently than we do. For example, we used to think that they can't see three dimensionally and we know that's not true and we once thought they could only see black and white and that's not true, either. So I thought it would be cool if the blog was in the colors dogs and cats can see. I've had fun with that."

Love it. has been live for about 16 months now and Shawn still considers it relatively new. However, she's just now feeling the friendly pressure of daily writing requirements. "When I started, I had a bunch of stories and could fill up my post queue without writing daily," she says. Now, she's running out of her backlogged content and is pushed to writing in real time. "It's a bit scary," she says, "But it also makes me think through my day."
Example of the dog/cat color vision palette on
This act of daily writing and quiet reflection is becoming very important to Shawn, especially as she identifies herself as an introvert. "Sometimes, with the days in the clinic packed, if you're not able to pick your way through the day, you can find yourself depressed and not really be able to put your finger on it," she says. Writing daily on her blog gives Shawn the space and time to look back on a busy day and internalize it. "It also allows you to think of things from a happier perspective," she continues. "You can write whatever you want. Even if you just gave vaccines all day, you can go home and write about how cute the dogs were. I really like it."

"[Writing]... allows you to think of things from a happier perspective."

Shawn says her goal for her blog is to connect to pet owners. "I get a little tunnel vision in the clinic," she says. "I get caught just thinking through: is this dog sick or healthy and how am I going to fix it. I want to relate to the owner and in a twenty minute appointment, you can kind of do that, but not really. I wanted to look at the more fun side of pet ownership. Not that it's all fun--some of it is sad--but leave the technical side out of it. Make it more relatable. I'm such an introvert and in the exam room, I think that I'm coming across as relatable but I'm probably not."

There have been many things written about the benefits of daily writing, as in a journal, and what Shawn is talking about exemplifies this in a fantastic way. "It's a good stress reliever, too," she says.

And her blog really is relatable. She breaks her blog into three categories: fun, challenges, and personal. Some posts are directly related to her daily life as a vet and others aren't. It's a glimpse into a life that is sometimes vet but always (subtly) writer and observer. It's extremely calming.

Shawn writes occasionally for DVM360, too. (Read about how Shawn's clinic uses underwear as a tool for positivity here.) It was surprising to me to find someone who is so engaged in writing and yet Shawn says the art is somewhat new to her. "I didn't really start writing until I started Riley and James in 2006," she says. "I didn't realize how much I would like it. Once I started there, I just started writing a lot. It was never something I did as a kid or thought I would be good at; I had no formal training. But, it's really fun." 

You see that word Shawn keeps using? Fun. Talk about positivity!  

Subscribe to Shawn's blog for a daily dose of wonderfulness (and fun) and visit her on Twitter: @Finch93.

Until next month! Happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Utopian Feline Future

I must take a moment and share something wonderful with you all. The other week I was reading Vetted, a daughter publication of the DVM360 empire. The October 2016 issue was devoted in part to veterinarians providing their "predictions" for the future of the vet industry. There were the standard  "new technologies will save the world" and "cure for cancer" hopefuls, but, amidst the well-meaning tropes, I found a gem.

Enter Dr. Elizabeth Colleran, feline specialist, and owner of two feline specific hospitals in Oregon and California. Her entry is provided below (a more extended version is available online):

"As Northern American cities continue to grow and urban migration increases, the conflict between demand for feline companionship and well-meaning efforts to sterilize cats will escalate. Chemical sterilization techniques will improve and fewer colonies of cats will be found. This will create a shortage of cats just when people want to adopt. Recognizing this, veterinarians, geneticists, ethologists and other scientists will start working to build a population of cats that people want. The protection of cats will become a worldwide undertaking with every country working to create a healthy gene pool of cats for whom homes can easily be found. And that's how cats will be responsible for world peace."

I love it. No, I love YOU, Dr. Colleran. You have created the perfect blend of scientific fact with socioeconomic observations combined with a healthy dose of full-hearted, well-intentioned assumptions and voila: the future seems bright.

Thank you, Dr. Colleran, for providing us with a utopian feline future.
Stay tuned for the next post on the first Monday of January. Until then: happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

21st Century Vet

I'm a bit of a Luddite, I confess. My iPhone and iPod are out of date and I just don't get Snap Chat. I always prefer a map over innately trusting GPS directions and I can't quite trust making a bank deposit on my phone yet.

But I'm not immune to the fact that there's a lot of cool stuff out there. Even I can get excited about the latest gadgets for writers (although you will have to pry my Moleskine notebook out of my cold, dead hands). And of course the world of veterinary medicine is chugging right along with new medical advances at an impressive rate: 3D printing and micro fracture detection in horse limbs using acoustic sensors are just a few of the newest and brightest technologies in our industry's future.

I hadn't really given a lot of thought to the way technology and vet med can combine in creative ways, although this is really the way scientific discovery begins, right? So you might imagine how delighted I was to talk to Dr. Doug Thal, equine practitioner and practice owner in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Doug has spent the last five years developing an app for horse owners called the Horse Side Vet Guide. A writer himself, Doug began by compiling his knowledge and writings of equine ailments to form something practical for use on the farm. Here's the story of how he did it.
Horse Side Vet Guide app
In practice for almost 25 years, Doug was frustrated. "Over time, I have become frustrated by misunderstandings that have arisen from poor information and poor decisions that horse owners make based on something a friend said or something they picked up from the internet," he told me. "I've written articles on horse health and given seminars--all the usual stuff. I felt in the moment they were helpful to the people who read the articles or attended the seminars. But really, I didn't feel it was enough. The people who needed that information the most weren't reading and weren't in attendance."

Doug had at his disposal more than sixty of his own articles and started thinking about how to better organize them to make them more accessible. "In 2011 I got my first smart phone and was amazed," he says. "It dawned on me that here was all this power on your belt, all this access. How could it be used to change how people use information to help their horses? I decided at that point, I was going to make an app."
Doug Thal, DVM
Doug started as anyone should start an overwhelming task (and writing an app from scratch on the entirety of equine ambulatory medicine is about as overwhelming as you can get, in my opinion) and it reminds me of a rhetorical quote: how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. But it's not just about taking it step by step. It's thinking about the overall framework.

"The structure I created was based on a horse owner's observations," Doug explains. "It was this idea that really any information accessed needs to start with what the horse owner observes. That sort of approach really seemed to be lacking anywhere else. What people do is go out and see that their horse has a runny eye. Then they'll go back to their computer or ask their friend about it. And the response they'll get is: oh yeah, I had that once and I just squirted some saline in there and it went away. And that might be true, but the question remains: what's causing the runny eye? For some reason, many times that question is lost or disregarded."

Doug's app is based on this informational organization. "I thought of every single observation I've ever heard a horse owner describe to me and started writing," he says. This process evolved from writing in Microsoft Word to File Maker, and then putting the database online. From website to app took even more time and outside help. "I had a strong idea of what I wanted the app to look like but it turned out conceptually, I just was pretty far off," Doug says. "We ended up going through five different app development teams over the course of about two years until finally in late 2013, we launched an ISO app and two months later launched an Android app."

He had arrived.

"We went through an unbelievable adventure just trying to get to that release," says Doug. "And when we did finally get it out, we were proud of it."

Doug reports that his app has been well received and has been downloaded in 70 different countries. His Facebook page is one of the best ways he's been able to get the word out and engage with folks and herein lies the next challenge: marketing. "Marketing is always a challenge," Doug acknowledges. "It's like, ok, we've made this incredible product. I naively thought that you make this great product for only $5 and every horse owner is going to buy it and boy, was I in for a shock. It's just amazing what it takes to market something like that." The key, though, is Doug's belief in his own work. "I'm trying to get it out there because I so believe in it."

Perhaps most interesting is that Doug describes how the app development process has made him become a better veterinarian. "It's helped me fundamentally analyze on a deeper level what it is that we're doing when we communicate with a client about an animal," he says. "I feel like I'm more in touch with what my clients really need and I'm better able to really dive into that. I feel like it's helped me analytically."

"It's helped me fundamentally analyze on a deeper level what it is that we're doing when we communicate with a client about an animal."

I'll jump in here for a moment to clarify some points. The point of Horse Side Vet Guide is not to diagnose a medical problem. That's a vet's job. We all know that. Instead, this app is meant to help owners work through the problem they are seeing in front of them. Step by step, the app takes the owner through identifying what they are seeing, how to determine if it's an emergency, and what it is they need to describe to their veterinarian.

"I wanted it to be an endeavor that vets would feel ok about," Doug says. "I was very careful to make the clear message that this was not encouraging people to diagnose their own animals." Doug says this very fact does frustrate some users. "They say, well, what good is this if I don't have a diagnosis. The answer is you can't have a diagnosis, you shouldn't have a diagnosis." That's for the vet to decide.

Horse Side Vet Guide is always evolving and constantly expanding. Both the website and app update constantly and Doug can--and does--add new information. "I can change something right now and when you open the app, you'll immediately get the updated version," he says. There is also a feature that allows customer feedback if they receive a null search. Doug has added more than one hundred other data points from customer feedback.

Doug says he's also never wanted this app to contain only his thoughts. Gradually, he is adding contributor vets. These folks review his work and there's the hope that soon other vets will write their own content. "It really is supposed to be providing the best information to horse owners, not just my own stuff," he says.

Until next month--happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Growing the Genre: Veterinary Medical Thrillers

What reader doesn't love a good thriller? When the stakes are high and an unlikely hero is thrust into the cross hairs, the reader is engaged, rooting for the underdog, anxiously waiting for a resolution that brings back the balance between good and evil. Add to this the setting of a veterinary clinic and a hero who is a veterinarian and, well, come on. What's there not to love?

This is where Dr. Clare Walker comes in. She, too, loves a good thriller and just so happens to be

a) a veterinarian and
b) an author. 

An author of vet med thrillers, no less. So, you see dear readers, I simply had to talk with her.
Clare Walker, DVM

Let's cut to the chase. Clare recently independently published her first novel, The Keys of Death. It's in the genre of veterinary medical thriller. Move over, physician and medical thriller novelist Robin Cook. The vets are taking charge of the thriller now. (Insert sound effect for the slapping of latex exam gloves.)

Clare relates how her novel was born. "The germ of the idea occurred to me back in the 2000s. I was working as a vet in the suburbs of Chicago. You hear funny things sometimes and there was a rumor that there was one animal hospital in the area that was haunted. It just got me thinking: a haunted veterinary hospital, that's really interesting. Not that my novel has anything to do with a haunted veterinary hospital, but it was based on me rolling with that thought and going further and further out. I got the idea: what would be a veterinarian's worst nightmare? I thought about the animals we put to sleep via humane euthanasia. What if they woke up? That would be a vet's worst nightmare. So that was the thing, that was the spark that made me start writing the book."

Clare has been interested in writing for most of her life and has said from early on that she's held two major interests: books and natural sciences. "I completed the first draft of the book in 2008 as the thesis project of a masters degree I was obtaining in written communications," she continues. "That version was about half the length of the current version. Then I began revising several years later and finally finished it."
A little ambiance...
The search for an agent to represent her work became, after a while, a road block. "I spent a couple of years shopping the novel around for representation," Clare explains. "I got some interest from agents, but they all passed on it. I thought to myself I could grow old and die waiting to get representation for this novel. This was around 2012, when independent publishing really started to be a thing."

Enter the budding popularity of the independent publishing avenue for writers. Clare easily lists some of the hotshots in independent publishing's recent history (Amanda Hocking, Hugh Howey, The Martian) in her reasoning why she chose to go that route instead of pursuing the questionable fate of waiting for an agent via traditional publishing. "Independent publishing is a thing now," she says. "The lines are blurring. So I decided to go for it."

"I thought to myself I could grow old and die waiting to get representation."

Let the record show that although The Keys of Death is Clare's first novel, it wasn't her first published work. Prior to publication of The Keys of Death, Clare independently published a collection of short stories called Startling Figures. The stories in this collection are of the paranormal/supernatural variety and some involve vet med, too. Clare started with publishing these stories as a way to test the waters of independent publishing. Finding that this method suited her, she went that way again for The Keys of Death and intends to continue down the independent publishing path with her next novel and a second collection of short stories.

One noteworthy reaction from an agent early on was eye-opening, stark, and -- I agree with Clare -- incorrect. Clare was told simply there wasn't a market for vet med thrillers. "I think the timing [for this genre] is excellent," Clare retorts. "People love animals, love their dogs. Vets have a good reputation. There's a huge market for this. These are the same agents who were turning down J.K. Rowling by the dozens. So, never mind. We will go directly to our readers, thank you very much."
"Never mind. We will go directly to our readers, thank you very much."
Currently, Clare has just finished the first draft of her next short story collection and is almost half way through the first draft of her second novel, which is a new vet med thriller, independent of The Keys of Death. It is set in the desert of the American Southwest. "It has a completely new cast of characters," says Clare.
Clare Walker, DVM
As a writer, Clare thinks one of her greatest strengths is creating strong characters. "People really seem to like my characters," she says. "But one of my weaknesses is the speed with which I write. I think I'm too slow. But, you know, I have to make a living. I have to work enough hours at the vet hospital to pay for this writing habit I have."

"I would not be able to write the books that I write if I weren't a veterinarian."

Speaking of working at the vet hospital, Clare enthusiastically acknowledges how being a vet has benefited her writing career. "Writing the vet med thriller -- it's the perfect melding of my two interests: vet med and writing. It's the best of both worlds. When I'm writing a scene that has to do with something veterinary, whether it's a surgical scene or a necropsy or what goes on at the vet hospital -- those scenes basically write themselves because it comes from my own experiences and my own expertise. I would not be able to write the books that I write if I weren't a veterinarian. It's such a cool mixture."

The excitement with which Clare talks about her writing does not wane throughout our discussion. I can tell Clare loves her characters. She describes her cast in The Keys of Death as real people with real problems; she gives them real compassion, almost empathy for fictitious folks. But Clare also stresses that The Keys of Death, despite the title, is uplifting. "Vets do have a good reputation in the world," she says, "but have recently taken a bit of a beating. And now we're reading about how mental illness is a problem among veterinarians so I think this book is really uplifting."

See? A hero in a thriller usually comes out on top in the end, whether she is an FBI agent, private detective, CIA operative, or veterinarian. Justice (and science!) wins again.

Until next month! Happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting.