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Today’s Workshop Wednesday guest is best selling crime novelist Katherine Howell, sharing her tips on how to use the details of your life to enhance the authenticity of your fiction. But before we get started, here’s a snippet of bio:

Katherine Howell worked as a paramedic for fifteen years and uses that experience in her bestselling crime novels, the sixth of which will be released early in 2013. Her books have won awards and are published in multiple countries and languages, and in print, e-book, and audio form. Katherine holds two degrees in writing and is studying female doctor investigators in crime fiction for her PhD at the University of Queensland. She teaches workshops in writing and editing, and lives in Queensland with her partner, who owns a bookshop.

Katherine’s latest release is Silent Fear:

On a searing summer’s day paramedic Holly Garland rushes to an emergency to find a man collapsed with a bullet wound in the back of his head, CPR being performed by two bystanders, and her long-estranged brother Seth watching it all unfold.

Seth claims to be the dying man’s best friend, but Holly knows better than to believe anything he says and fears that his re-appearance will reveal the bleak secrets of her past – secrets which both her fiance Norris and her colleagues have no idea exist, and which if exposed could cause her to lose everything.

Detective Ella Marconi suspects Seth too, but she’s also sure the dead man’s wife is lying, and the deceased’s boss seems just too helpful. But then a shocking double homicide related to the case makes Ella realise that her investigations are getting closer to the killer, but also increasing the risk of an even higher body count.

I’ve read and loved several of the Ella Marconi series and am looking forward to this latest edition!  But without further ado, here is Katherine’s advice on adapting your experience into fiction…

Katherine: My first novel, Frantic, was published in Australia in 2007 and features police detective Ella Marconi alongside paramedics. It’s been followed by four more novels, and each continues the angle of using paramedics as protagonists, something that not only provides a point of difference for the books but also draws on my experience of doing that job for fifteen years.

I’m often asked about the process of turning that real-life experience into fiction and I always answer that it wasn’t easy. I initially resisted the idea and instead wrote bottom-drawer manuscripts about – variously – cults, forensic science students, and cops chasing a killer with assistance from a ghost. When I did finally recognise the drama and story value in the job, my first attempts to put it on paper overflowed with my grief and anger about the situations I faced daily and the people I tried to save. It took counselling and my eventual resignation to manage these emotions, and even then it was months before they disappeared completely from my writing. Once that happened, however, I was faced with the next problem: how to use these paramedic stories in the procedural crime series I wanted to write.

I’d wanted to have a paramedic as my protagonist, but couldn’t see how to have her plausibly solving crime. Over time I realised I needed a police detective; a scary thought at first, because I felt a huge gap in my knowledge—I knew the paramedic’s world so well, it seemed wrong to not have the same understanding of the detective’s. I wanted to be true to these jobs, and to not know it all made me think I couldn’t do it justice. I saw, however, how many crime novels are written by non-cops (ie, most of them), and decided to give it a try.

This then brought up another problem: to me, being true to the job of paramedic meant putting in every moment of a case, every question and answer, every action, every step of treatment. But as my manuscript grew longer, with scenes rolling on interminably for pages, it was clear this wouldn’t work. I reread a heap of crime novels, analysed how the authors delivered information, and saw that I needed verisimilitude rather than total adherence to the facts. The real-life details were like a garnish, to be sprinkled in here and there to add flavour and impact. Too much of it overwhelmed the most important elements of all, the reasons people pick up a book: characters and story.

I went back to the start of the manuscript and changed how I incorporated my experiences, and finally saw the work come alive. Months of hard work later, and a year after I quit that job, the ms sold as part of a two book deal to Pan Macmillan, and as I write now I keep the ideas of ‘detail is garnish’ and ‘story is king’ foremost in my mind.

Louise:  Thanks Katherine!  Great to see the process of adapting your career experience into best selling crime novels. If anyone has questions for Katherine, or has used their own life experience in fiction, we’d love to hear about it. Just drop in a comment below.

And if you’re interested in other Workshop Wednesday topics, the full list is here.