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.

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