Monday, February 23, 2015

Do you want to write a medical thriller or mystery?

Has the nightly TV news made you think about writing a novel on an Ebola or measles epidemic?

#The first step in writing is a medical thriller is research.
This type of research needs depth and breadth. Not surprisingly, many medical and scientific thrillers have been written by physicians or scientists, like Robin Cook, Michael Crichton, Kathy Reichs, and myself.

Let me explain what depth and breadth means. Someone (If I tell you who it will ruin the mystery.) “poisons” a diet doctor in Murder: A New Way to Lose Weight. This toxin was the cause of a rash of real poisonings in New Mexico in the 1980s. I wove the information from two scientific articles into my tale of an intentional poisoning and set the novel in Albuquerque as an oblique clue.

To add authenticity to all my medical mysteries/thrillers, I reference key articles in the “Scientific Epilogues” of each novel.

How did I find such arcane articles? I read articles on science and medicine in newspapers and magazines and on line. I also read scientific journals, especially the journal Science, and look for trends. For example, the dead diet doctor had been studying ways to modify the bacteria in the guts of obese subjects as a way to help them lose weight. I thought this research had humorous aspects and is a promising area of research.

#The second step in writing medical mysteries is creating a filing system that allows retrieval of articles by several headings.
If you're not careful, all your research becomes a lot of clutter. So I cross-reference materials I stash in real and virtual files carefully. I note not only the medical or scientific issue discussed in articles but also the location (if outside the U.S. or in New Mexico) where the research was done and the possible social significance of the work.

For example, I’ve had files on Ebola and other tropical diseases for twenty years ago. No, I don’t plan to write a novel on Ebola, but I know these articles are good sources of information on the problems faced by health care workers during epidemics and the responses of citizens to quarantines.

# The third step in writing a medical novels is basically scientific education.
It’s finding clear ways to explain complex issues in human terms.

Among the propaganda spouted by Cuban tour guide in 2013 was the statement: Cuban scientists had patented a drug for cancer. When I got home, I investigated her claim and found researchers in Havana had patented a therapeutic cancer vaccine to treat a rather rare type of lung cancer (non-small cell). This drug revs up a patient’s own immune system to produce cells, which recognize substances found on the surface of tumor cells but not on the surface of normal cells. These immune cells then slay the cancer cells, but not the normal cells.

Okay that’s a heavy dose of science. What’s the social relevance? This patent demonstrates several Cuban scientists are doing competitive science, and the Cuban government understand the importance of commercialization of their research. I also discovered U.S. scientists were trying to augment existing scientific exchanges between the U.S. and Cuba, despite the embargo on Cuba. (Editorial in the journal Science on June 6, 2014.)

I thought Sara Almquist, as an epidemiologist and heroine of my previous medical thrillers Coming Flu and Ignore the Pain, would be the perfect protagonist to do a little “scientific diplomacy” in Cuba. The result is my thriller Malignancy. Of course, Sara gets involved in a lot more than science; it wouldn’t be a thriller without danger.

So are you ready to write a medical mystery or thriller?