Whilst all paramedics write, there are few that take their writing ability past the thousands of case sheets we write up each year. But some do and its always an interesting discussion because paramedics also love to read!
The key reasons that anyone writes is simply to communicate something, entertain people or to add to a body of knowledge. It is also a powerful reflection tool that can assist people process situations.
Today we are interviewing one of those paramedics who we can classify as a paramedic, and a writer, Harry Colfer (pen name). Harry is a critical care paramedic with decades of paramedic experience to his name. He has published a short story series and two novels. The short stories aimed to produce one story for each of the thirty-two major AMPDS codes (the system used worldwide to categorise emergency calls), and the novels he has now embarked on are a series featuring the same characters. The first one is a murder mystery called Dead Regular.
All paramedics have a story to tell. This is Harry's.
There are few paramedics who write, when did you first realise you wanted to be a writer as well?
HC: I have to admit, I’m not sure. I found it easy to write English assignments at school, but I would always leave them to the last minute. As a result, for along time I viewed writing as a chore. It’s always been an essential part of my work life and crewmates often ask if I’m writing an essay on my patient report form. I’ll quip back, “Paperwork’s the only thing that covers your arse, so if you’re happy wearing a G-string, just write one line.”
Back in 2012, I was having another one of my work-related rants when my wife suggested writing a book. I started dabbling with a few scenes and soon discovered I enjoyed creating fiction. I guess it all really stems from there.
What was your first manuscript and what was the inspiration behind it?
HC: Those few scenes I mentioned were eventually cobbled together into my first novel, Dead Regular, but due to the main character’s view of his fictional management, I was reluctant to publish. During the editing process, several sections were deleted and they spawned my series of short stories (Ambo Tales from the Frontline). I released Number 01: Abdominal Pain and Number 25: Psychiatric as ebooks, mainly to gauge the reaction from my employer, so I guess they were my first published works of fiction.
How many books have you published since then?
HC: Well, the crazy concept I came up with for the short stories was to write one for each of the thirty-two AMPDS codes we use to categorise emergency calls. It seemed a cool idea at the start, but it has taken up a lot of my time. When one of them won the chance to be pitched to TV / movie producers at the Gold Coast Film Festival (Queensland Writers’ Centre ‘Adaptable’ 2020), I was hoping I’d hit the big time… then COVID came along. Although the festival was cancelled and my Zoom pitches were fraught with tech issues, I did have a local production house interested. But then they decided my writing was more suited to a book, so I bit the bullet and published Dead Regular. One year later I’ve now published two novels and twenty-three short stories, plus two collections.
Have you a favourite?
HC: For a long time my favourite short story was Number 24: Pregnancy, partly because it was written from my ‘fear’ of working with pregnant crewmates! But since then, it’s probably Number 27: Stabbing, seeing as it won the 2021 SD Harvey Short Crime Story Award. As for the novels, I’m particularly fond of Beneath Contempt as I wrote that ‘pantser style’, from start to finish with little plotting. It’s a fast paced thriller, but you would need to read Dead Regular first to understand some of the content.
Where do you get your inspiration, information or ideas for your books?
HC: I’ve been working frontline for eighteen years, but most shifts could provide a writer with enough material for a book or two! That said, I’m very careful not to transgress any patient confidentiality issues. The idea for a story may have been sparked by a real job, but then I totally fictionalise it, and often amalgamate jobs together to create something completely new. You know those paramedics who tell you about a job that sounds amazing until you realise you were there and they’ve embellished their role out of all recognition? My stories are something along those lines. That said, I have a lot of research experience and Beneath Contempt required interviewing remote paramedics as well as days / weeks of disappearing down the Google rabbit hole. And I mustn’t forget to mention the role of my ‘alpha reader’: my wife. She’s my biggest fan and harshest critic, often suggesting additions and storyline ideas. Over the years, I have managed to get her to modify some of her feedback from, “That’s crap,” to the more useful, “That’s crap because…”
What is your work schedule like when you're writing and how do you balance writing with full time paramedicine?
HC: I tend to write at night when the house is dark and quiet, there’s less interruptions and as a paramedic, I’m used to working late! Also, I set myself the very low goal of 200 words a day. Every day. It can be achieved even after a twelve-hour shift, and although it may not sound much, it often acts as a catalyst to write more.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?
HC: The psychological benefits. Unfortunately, many of us suffer from the often confronting nature of our job, but so far I’ve been pretty lucky in that regard. I’m not sure whether it’s the job that’s sapped my empathy, or whether I had low empathy levels to start with that made me more suited to the job. Who knows? What does wind me up, though, is bureaucracy, especially unnecessary, incompetent, and nonsensical bureaucracy, but hey, no ambulance service has ever had any of that… Anyway, at one point I took a break from writing and noticed I was getting more wound up with the job. It was then that I realised my writing acted as a pressure-release valve. So be warned, if you annoy me at work you may discover your first name used for a less than savoury character in one of my short stories!
On average how long does it take you to write a book?
HC: How long’s a piece of string? I can smash out a short story in under twenty hours, including the editing, but that can be over a matter of weeks, an hour here, an hour there. Dead Regular took two-and-a-half years to finish the first draft, but then six years of editing and dithering about whether or not to publish it! The first draft of Beneath Contempt was knocked out in five months, but it took twice that to edit it. If you want to start writing you’d better be in it for the long haul!
Do you hear from your readers much and if so, what kinds of things do they say?
HC: Reader feedback is one of the things that keeps me writing. I have a dedicated group of beta readers and use a system through BetaBooks that allows them access to early manuscripts. That provides them with the ability to add emoji comments, which is a great way to know if your writing’s hitting the mark. After publication, I encourage people to leave a review on GoodReads, seeing as it’s a free forum. Dead Regular is currently running at 4.89 stars out of 5 and you can read what people are saying here: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/55843965-dead-regular
HC: Not saving lives… you mean like most shifts? Seriously, wildlife photography is my thing, and of course, reading. It’s often said that every writer has to read, but I now write personal notes on every book I read, what I liked, what I didn’t like, and any style aspects I can assimilate. I also love travelling, but we’ll have to see how that goes after fortress Queensland eventually opens up.
If you could have dinner with two people who would they be?
HC: Whimsical? David Attenborough, to inform him that if he had retired earlier I’d have had his job and never become a paramedic; and Jeff Bezos to ask him to advertise my books and perhaps slip me some lose change.
Reality: My Mum and any one of numerous family and friends in the UK who I’ve been unable to visit due to travel restrictions.
As a parting piece of advice for any budding paramedic writers out there, what do you think makes a good story?
HC: Paramedics always talk about their jobs and some are really good at the description and punchline. Listen to the way they deliver the story and try and emulate that in your writing. And always be ready to jot notes down, use your phone. Ideas can present to you at the weirdest times, like 3:30AM while you’re half comatose on a night shift. But they’re often fleeting. Capture the moment, but don’t delay CPR!
Lastly, where can people find your books to purchase?