‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ is a common question asked of most writers. I dare say, the vast majority of us who write in the crime genre have no difficulty in replying, but surely we can’t write what we know, because we don’t pootle around murdering people for research purposes, do we?
That being said, many authors have career backgrounds that equip them with an encyclopaedic knowledge of their chosen professional field, whether that be in the police, as a psychologist, a teacher or, in my case, as a nurse.
With thirty years in the NHS mostly spent at the front line of mental health services, I fall into the category of life-experience writer. I don’t have a professional writing background. No creative writing degree, no work as a copywriter, no short story competition awards; nothing that would single me out as a potential fiction author.
However, the writer was lurking within, waiting, and biding its time, until about four years ago when my heart decided to challenge me by developing a dramatic electrical fault. That malfunction eventually curtailed my NHS career and as I’m not one for thumb twiddling, I sought a focus for my mind to preserve what little sanity remained. Physically, I was in poor shape as I patiently awaited treatment. What to do? Before my own body let me down, I bounced determinedly through life, so the thought of hours watching the television, learning to knit, or sitting reading day after day, filled me with dread.
‘Ah-ha! I’ll write a useful clinical guideline for student nurses.’ What a brilliant idea. I congratulated myself on resolving my dilemma so quickly. Nurses are problem solvers. It’s what we do. ‘I can achieve that. I have a Masters degree and if I can write a dissertation then I can write a book, ’ I said to myself, somewhat unconvinced.
As it turned out, my motivation for the task was miniscule. I’d been banging on about psychosis and the importance of early intervention, for the past decade. On top of my day job as manager of a specialist service, I wrote articles, spoke at conferences, carried out training for NHS staff, and I was exhausted. A more dynamic challenge was required to take me out of my comfort zone and rescue me from burnout.
Many years ago, while working on the acute psychiatric inpatient units as a staff nurse, I would, on occasion, allow my imagination to wander as I questioned the ability of mental health professionals to identify clinical mental illness from eccentricity, deliberate malingering, or even from religious fervour. ‘What if Jesus decided to pop back to earth, perform a few hands-on miracles, wafted around praying and behaving bizarrely? If he did and he got arrested for his trouble and detained under section, would we treat him for mental illness?’
There was my nugget of an idea. It had festered in my head for years until the day I set myself the task of writing a story- a novel no less - that would entice readers to stretch their views and question their beliefs about mental illness, stigma, and treatments. It had to entertain; not preach.
Using a piece of well-known research carried out in the 1970’s as my hook, I explored plot ideas and began to write. The words did not come easily at first as my thinking patterns had been moulded to the factual, not the fictional. I dug deep to find my creativity until I located it in my sense of humour department, just left of ludicrous imagery and sitting behind the door marked, ‘I’ll never forget when …’.
The initial draft manuscript was appalling. The descriptions of how a psychiatric ward functioned in the early 1990s were spot on, and the plot was a good one, with a refreshing premise, but as for the rest of it – a dreadful muddle. How did I know this? Firstly, when I read it out loud it sounded stilted and awkward, and secondly I paid for a full critique.
If you want to know the truth about whether you can write, or whether what you have written can be shaped into a publishable work, then I cannot recommend these two courses of action highly enough. The report that came back to me from a thoughtful but honest editor was exactly what I needed to have confirmed. The detail and facts in that report still guide me to this day and have helped me to learn a whole new vocabulary. POV, WIP, narrative arc, and foreshadowing were terms that I’d never come across previously. I looked them up. MS did not stand for Multiple Sclerosis.
The following weeks and months were spent revising the original manuscript using advice and learning from whatever source available. Online courses, magazine articles, and books fed my thirst for new knowledge. Writing about the art and skill of mental health nursing was the easy bit. Double-checking the Mental Health Act requirements prior to more recent amendments, researching what was in the news, and reminding myself of the medication used at the time the book was set, was straightforward. Making it real, bringing the stories to life, that was tough.
A Justifiable Madness was the result and I was incredibly fortunate to have been published by Bloodhound Books, who continue to support my writing career and tolerate my ignorance of the publishing world.
Since that first novel published in September 2017 I’ve used my experience and knowledge to fuel another book set in the world of mental health nursing. For my second novel, Divine Poison, I had to research poisons more thoroughly than ever before and found it fascinating. With three books now published by Bloodhound and a fourth nearing final stages of completion, I suppose my efforts demonstrate how nurses never stop learning and writers write: a great combination.
Alison Morgan lives in North Bedfordshire, with her husband and slightly potty dog, their adult children have long since run away in embarrassment, determined to live normal lives. Nurse turned writer, Alison has 30 years of experience in the NHS, mostly spent at the sharp end of mental health nursing where she specialised in psychosis, and pushed herself to achieve a Masters Degree in Advanced Practice. With burnout fast approaching, an unexpected illness challenge forced her to sit down for longer than five minutes. She set about writing a clinical guideline for nurses but became distracted by a story in her head which would not be denied. Her debut novel A Justifiable Madness, published by Bloodhound Books, is inspired by her life and career as a psychiatric nurse, and her fascination with the extremes of human behaviour. Her second novel Divine Poison was published in January 2018, and her third novel, The Camera Lies also published by Bloodhound Books, is available on Amazon now.