I used to be a paramedic and now write crime thrillers about people in that job. In my first novel, Frantic, so much trouble begins for paramedic Sophie Phillips when she’s called to a woman in labour. With the birth of her own baby and all its tears and joy still fresh in her mind, she’s pleased to be going to the case, in contrast with her colleague Mick, who like most paramedics, dreads birth calls because so much can go wrong. Soon they’re struggling with the situation when the baby is born unconscious and not breathing, then they can’t stop the mother’s haemorrhage. Later at the hospital Sophie thinks “this job, sometimes … you felt capable of the work, powerful even in your capacity to save lives, and then the universe showed you exactly who was boss”.
While I never went to a case like that, thank goodness – all the births I attended resulted in healthy babies – I was able to use the anxieties I felt and the outcomes I worried about to throw challenges at my characters. And because when writing crime novels, a good rule of thumb is to decide the worst possible moment to make things worse for the characters then try to make them even worse again, it’s not long before I have Sophie’s own life turn into a disaster when her husband is shot and their baby kidnapped.
In my second book, The Darkest Hour, it’s another paramedic, Lauren Yates, whose life is thrown into turmoil when she finds a murdered man and his killer in an inner-city alley. This never happened to me either – again, thank goodness – but I’ve spent my share of time out and about late at night, in dark alleys, and around dead bodies.
In my next novel, Cold Justice, out next February, the past haunts the present when Detective Ella Marconi is assigned a twenty-year-old cold case and gets an anonymous letter telling her to talk to the girl who found the body. That girl is now paramedic Georgie Riley and she swears she knows nothing more about the case than she said at the time. She has more pressing concerns anyway, such as being stalked by a mysterious man, but as Ella digs deeper into the case it seems the killer is increasingly desperate to tie up loose ends and that they might both be targets. I didn’t find a body as a schoolgirl, nor have I been stalked, but when I drive through the areas where I worked, I see the past all around me: the sites of the accidents I went to, the crosses on the roadsides, the houses where we saved somebody’s life and those where we couldn’t.
This is the great thing about using real life experiences in fiction. Writing about roaring down city streets in an ambulance with lights and siren going when you’ve actually been there, and you know what that siren sounds like inside the cabin, you know what the paramedics talk about on the way to a case, both shows readers an unknown world in close-up and gives the work that unmistakable ring of truth.
About Katherine Howell
Katherine Howell’s novels have been published in Australia, the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Russia. Frantic won the 2008 Davitt Award for crime fiction. Recent UK reviews describe her work as ‘finely paced and engrossing’, and say that ‘[this] former Sydney paramedic is set to do for that profession what US author Patricia Cornwell did for forensic pathologists’.