Monday, February 5, 2018

Poetry for Pets

Poetry is . . . what is poetry? High school English class taught us it doesn't have to rhyme and the work continually featured in literary and poetry magazines shows us poetry can almost be damn well anything as long as someone believes in it. OK, maybe that's getting a bit too Disney but in all seriousness, poetry is still a bit of a mystery to me yet I find myself continually drawn to it, trying to understand, trying to learn, and in the process of it all, collecting more and more pieces that I like. It's like broadening one's palate. On that note, I was delighted to snag Dr. Marjorie McMillan to ask her about a recent book of poetry she's published. Marge, owner of the Windover Veterinary Center in Walpole, MA, and board-certified veterinary radiologist, has recently published Cold Wet Noses, Whiskers and Tweets, a book of poems for and about animals. Here's what she had to say. 

"I have been seriously writing poetry for about five years," said Marge. "I belong to a poetry writing group and we meet to encourage each other and critique each others' work. Much of my poetry is about nature and animals and I finally had enough poems to publish a collection. I also wanted to be able to convey to my clients and the general public some of the emotions that go along with being a veterinarian."

"I wanted to convey to my clients and the general public some of the emotions that go along with being a veterinarian." 

Most people have an inclination toward a particular breed of pet for a plethora of reasons. I wondered if a certain favoritism found its way into Marge's poems, but she emphasized the individual. "It's not so much a particular species or breed," she said, "but what inspires me as a poet is a certain animal or situation or emotion that I want to express in powerful language." Evoking emotions in those who read her poems is the aim. 


Tackling the subject of rhyme in poetry, Marge said she's in it for the challenge. "I like to write in rhyme and meter; it's harder than open style, so I like the challenge, but not all topics lend themselves to rhyme and meter. It's hard to get it really right like the great poets. Most people who are not serious readers of poetry seem to prefer poems that rhyme."

Given the intricate, intimate, and sensitive nature of most poems, it seemed to me there must be a certain level of empathy required to write poetry. Herein lies my connection between the creative arts and veterinary medicine because to truly connect with patients and clients, a veterinarian (this also applies to physicians and others in the wide spectrum of medical sciences) should also be highly empathetic. I asked Marge if she thought attributes of poetry writing crossed over into the successful practice of veterinary medicine and vise versa.

"Poetry allows me to connect on a deeper level with clients and it also gives them insight into the depth of my feelings. It creates a stronger veterinarian-client bond." 
"There has been much published lately about the mental health of veterinarians and the suicide rate," she said. "Poetry allows me to process the very difficult emotions around ending animals' lives, the difficulty of dealing with angry and sometimes impossible clients, and the joyful experiences. It allows me to connect on a deeper level with clients, especially around the loss of their pets, and it also gives them insight into the depth of my feelings. It creates a stronger veterinarian-client bond." 

This connection between the sciences and arts is occasionally nurtured at graduate school; see the elective course at North Carolina State University's College of Veterinary Medicine featuring writing, reading, and discussing poetry, short stories, and novel excerpts in order to "help engender empathy for clients, encourage moral reflection, and sustain the joy of being a veterinarian." See VetWrite's interview with Dr. Elizabeth Stone for more on that. Another example is the Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities, and History of Medicine at Duke University. 

What's more is Marge's fulfillment from having others read her work. "A poem isn't a poem until it is read by someone else," she said. "Writing poetry has allowed me to connect in a deeper and more spiritual way with animals and nature."

What's extra special about Marge's clinic, Windover Veterinary Center, is that the creativity does not stop with her. Cathy Symons, a certified veterinary technician and certified canine rehabilitation professional is an associated specialist with the clinic and has written a book titled Blind Devotion: Enhancing the Lives of Blind and Visually Impaired Dogs. Joan Powers, Windover's hospital manager, was the photographer for Cathy's book. "I have a wonderful staff of creative women," said Marge. "The writing is a way of helping clients and animals in a right brain way. It allows us to step out of our usual medical roles and left brains and relate to clients in a different way. I also think it allows us to listen differently and hear beyond the factual medical history." 

Marge has a second collection of poetry in the works as well as a book half finished about her lawsuit for gender discrimination. She also confirms that her favorite poet is indeed the wonderful Mary Oliver

Until next time, dear readers: happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Expounding Inspiration

There's quite a story behind the creation of a newly published children's book series on being a veterinarian and I recently talked with the author, Dr. Rebekah Hartfield, to get the scoop. Rebekah's ambition and desire to inspire the younger generation to go forth and conquer (and while they're at it, maybe try their hands at rural veterinary practice) is brimming with sage positivity and it's my pleasure to share it with you.

Rebekah's "Doctor Hartfield Veterinary Book Series" is a series of six books pitched for fourth graders and under. "Fourth graders understand it," Rebekah says. "And for pre-K and kindergartners, they just enjoy the story. I've read to pre-K through fourth grade and they all seem to enjoy the book." The first book in the series, Rosie the Pig, was published in August of this year. The book tells the story of how a young girl named Abby and Dr. Hartfield diagnose and treat a pig named Rosie with respiratory disease. It's based on a true story. But, we're getting ahead of things.

"I want to encourage kids to want to learn about all the different species and hopefully inspire them to want to practice in those areas."

Rosie the Pig started when Rebekah was in her fourth year of vet school. "At the time, my younger sister was in graphic design school and she had to do a senior project," says Rebekah. "We had talked about how I wanted to do something more with my platform when I graduated as a veterinarian." Coming from a creative family, Rebekah also paints and is a photographer and was looking for ways to weave creativity into her new profession.
Rebekah Hartfield, DVM
"It just so happened that a couple of things occurred at the same time," Rebekah continues. "A friend had called me up and needed a good book recommendation for her daughter who was 10 and wanted to go to vet school." Rebekah did some research and came up nearly empty handed. "Most of the books were way over a ten-year-old's head," she says. "They were too wordy and not very creative." That got her thinking. Rebekah identified a need in the market for books on being a veterinarian that were pitched for a younger audience. So she brought the idea to her sister. "That's kind of how it started," she says.

But the origin story isn't over yet. That Thanksgiving, Rebekah's niece visited and one of Rebekah's pigs -- named Rosie (you guessed it) -- was sick. "We went to the barn and I showed my niece how to do an exam and what went into diagnosing and treated Rosie. Rosie got better and I called my sister and said: I've got my story."

Pistol the Horse is the second book in the series, with a release date planned for May 2018. Each book in the series will be about an actual case in a different species. Rebekah says the dog story might be about heartworm, since she encounters that disease frequently in her Oklahoma practice. The other books will be about cases in a cat, a cow, and a goat.

One of the unique aspects of Rebekah's book is that in addition to the story, there are interactive puzzles which makes the book visually stimulating on many levels. Rebekah's sister was the illustrator. With pronunciation guides, Rosie the Pig teaches kids about anti-inflammatories and antibiotics, rounding out the spectrum of an entertaining yet highly informative guide to vet med aimed at young kids.

One of the other goals Rebekah hopes to accomplish from her book series is to encourage kids to go into rural veterinary practice. "We just don't have a lot of rural veterinarians," she says. "In Oklahoma there's a pretty big shortage of vets serving these areas. I want to encourage kids to want to learn about all the different species and hopefully inspire them to want to practice in those areas."


Ambitious and busy, Rebekah has many more irons in the fire. She says she has a whole list of goals. "I want to have this children's book series but I really want to create a series of books for each age group leading up to college," she says. "I have a current page on my website about how to prep to be a vet but I'm also working on another page about college, talking about the GRE and the entrance essay." Rebekah mentions when she decided to apply for vet school, she was unaware of all the different requirements. "I had to scramble around and get my credits -- I didn't even know you had to take the GRE." 

"Don't let a "no" stop you from achieving your goals."

"Another part of my platform is about inspiring kids. I want let them know: don't let a "no" stop you from achieving your goals." Rebekah says she encountered a lot of no's in her life as she attempted to get into vet school, and once she got in, it wasn't easy, either. "But I made it through," she emphasizes. "And through all of that, it made me a better veterinarian and it gives me a story to tell other people who are maybe going through the same thing and struggling themselves."

Rebekah's Rosie the Pig is available on her website, which is where you'll also find her blog and other resources.

And until next month, dear reads: happy reading, happy writing, and happy vetting.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Becoming a Writer.... via The Beach Boys

One aspect of writing that people, including writers themselves, often don't realize or appreciate is that the art takes time. Sure, there are writers (and journalists of course) who work to a tight deadline, turning out excellent copy like a riverboat chopping at the Mississippi. But many writers, whether fiction or nonfiction, need weeks, months, years (dare I say decades--Donna Tartt, I'm looking at you) to piece together the bits of a puzzle that inevitably will make the final product. 

To that point, on a much smaller scale, I first read about veterinarian-author Dr. Jim Murphy in an article from Veterinary Practice News late last fall. Jim had just published his first book, Becoming the Beach Boys, 1961 - 1963. It wasn't until late spring of this year that I took the opportunity to talk with Jim about his writing and it wasn't until right now that you're seeing the fruition of our conversation. 

So it goes.

On a much grander scale, it took Jim eight years to write this book, which has been described by the author as "...an academic look at the band's origin," including over 80 interviews, twelve appendices, and 1,100 foot notes. 

Aren't you curious how and why Jim did this, while still finding time to practice veterinary medicine in DC? I was. So I asked him.

"I was still practicing part-time," Jim says. "On days off I would try to write as much as I could." On work days, he would write at night. "I had charts on my wall, Post-It notes all over the place--where should I start, where did this person or that person enter the story. You know, writing is really about solving problems. I had three dogs while I was writing the book. Sometimes, before writing, I'd take them for a walk in the park. It was so relaxing and I would think about the problems I was having and more often than not the solution would just come to me."

"I loved it because you learn so much when you write a book, especially that first book." 

Jim was candid about how much time the sometimes-tedious research process took. "Writing non-fiction is a lot of research, involving digging into the Library of Congress, making phone calls, finding people, going through old high school year books," he says. "That part is really time consuming, really taxing. You spend hours and hours and hours which is ultimately productive but can be a drain. You've got to really love that sort of detective work. Then doing the interviews and figuring out what part of it can I use, then writing it up, transcribing--all of that. It's really a different type of writing than fiction."
Dr. Jim Murphy
As Jim continued to write, his draft grew. And grew. Then grew some more. At one point, it clocked in at 180,000 words. "It was crazy," he says. "I had all kinds of side stories. I culled a lot of that stuff, saved it and included it on the website for supplemental reading for diehard fans. But I loved it because you learn so much when you write a book, especially that first book. And I looked at it like, OK, this is cool, I'm learning and I'll forgive myself for making these mistakes. And if I write another one, whether it be fiction or non-fiction, I will have learned a tremendous amount about this process and I won't make these same mistakes again." 

"Life is short, time is finite, you never know how much more time you have so there is nothing, in my opinion, that is more important than doing something that brings you joy."

Dear readers, I cannot fathom working on a single project for eight years. Maybe I have a fear of literary commitment. A copy of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest waits, unread, on my bookshelf. And that's just reading. But when Jim explained his reasoning behind keeping his nose to the grindstone, it made sense. "The thing about The Beach Boys book, in everything that's ever been written about them in dozens and dozens of books over the last 55 years, no one had gotten the origin story correct," he says. "And I felt like, I can do this. I think I can find some of these people. That's what kept me going. There were times when the structure was all messed up and I was moving things around, backing up every night, frantic I was going to lose something because the document was so big and the only thing that really kept me going was: I think I can do this. I think I can see the light at the end of the tunnel."


"[Writing is] frustrating, it's difficult, but it's so fulfilling when you get the words right."


At the end of the day, Jim says it comes down to doing what you enjoy. "That's something important in writing," he says. "Life is short, time is finite, you never know how much more time you have so there is nothing, in my opinion that is more important than doing something that brings you joy. When I was writing The Beach Boys book, there was not a day when I could not wait to sit down, turn on the computer, crack my fingers, have a cup of coffee, and tackle it. I was like a kid on Christmas morning. It's frustrating, it's difficult, but it's so fulfilling when you get the words right."

So what's on Jim's to-do list now? Fiction. He's working on a novel. "It's animal related," he says. "It's inspired by the [veterinary] profession. And it's so different. I don't have to interview anybody, and I'm free to create whatever I want to create. What I'm finding now, I kind of like this [fiction writing] because you can be as creative as you want. It's an open world. It's liberating. You can go anywhere with it."

Dear readers, I hope you're going where you want to go in your own reading and writing. Until next time, happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting.  


Monday, September 4, 2017

Write What You Will, Write What You Want

Let's start a debate. Many of you are probably familiar with the adage "write what you know." To an extent, I get it. If you're not a veterinary orthopedic surgeon, you probably shouldn't write an article on the latest hardware for TPLO surgery for the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. But when we're talking fiction, things change. As far as I'm concerned, this rule goes out the window. I mean, it doesn't apply to writers within the fantasy or speculative fiction genres. Who has experience with dragons? Talking toasters? Self-aware pirate ships? Orcs? If I want to write a novel about kraken, I shouldn't be discouraged simply because I don't have a doctorate in krakenology. Likewise, it's fun to research and learn about something new in order to write about it. Everyone knows that.

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
At first, Michael describes the basement as filled with standard collector's paraphernalia from resort hotels circa early 1900s. "Then," says Michael, "I turned the corner. There was a big shelf display that said 'Dr. Roberts'. It was floor-to-ceiling full of this man's commercial goods and I said: this is want I want to write about."

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
Suffice it to say, Michael had stumbled upon the holy grail of writer's research. Now it was time to craft the story between the lines recorded by history.

"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 talked to a professor at the school and asked him: how would you put down a cow in 1917? We ended up having a really nice conversation about ethics." Herd health also come into play in the novel, as Dr. Roberts was a renowned and frankly innovative dairy expert. "In one scene, the doctor is called out to an overcrowded barn where lots of the animals are sick," Michael says. "I had to figure this scene out in terms of what could cause this--what could wipe out a bunch of animals in an overcrowded barn in a relatively short period of time?" Spoiler alert: Michael aptly decided on coccidiosis. This vet approves.

"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.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Gone Fishin'--an update

Ah, summertime. This is adventure season, folks. Hiking, biking, explicitly NOT running (way too hot for that foolishness right now), roller skating, swimming, grilling, traveling, lightning bugging (I just made that up but it involves sitting on the porch at dusk drinking sangria and enjoying the company of lightning bugs), and reading.
Anna in cat form in summer mode.
And very little writing.
Get in, losers. Road trip.
Catch me in February, all sunshine-deprived and wrapped in blankets in a ball on the couch and you've got your writing weather. Not now. Now is the time for celebrating sunshine.

Hell yeah, summertime!!!
You may deduce this is as the reason why VetWrite slows down come May, into June, and now with this you're-not-fooling-anyone-Anna update in July. You're right. You're so smart.
This is so you.
So here's the deal. I have two fantastic interviews with authors coming up for posting this fall. Keep your beautiful eyeballs peeled for September. Until then, get outside, go kayaking, bird watching, wash your dog. Wait, that's my to-do list. OK. You get the point. I'll catch you when school is back in session.

If you're really jonesing for some reading material, I'm pleased to say that I've had a few fiction pieces published recently (when it rains it pours, but mostly a drought). Scoot on over to my "Fiction" page for the deets. But I'm way more interested in what you are reading and what you are writing. Dish, please, in the comments section.

So, until September, happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting, my friends and dear readers.

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.