How much do you use the experiences of your own working life in your writing? The reason I ask is that I've been saddened by all the criticism of the NHS coming from people in America who don't know much about it - because I spent most of my life working for the NHS and although I'd be the first to admit it's not perfect, I do believe in it passionately and feel aggrieved that people don't appreciate how lucky we are to have it.
What's this got to do with my writing? Well, I've often used hospital life as the background to my short stories: it was obviously easy for me to do so, being surrounded by it all day every day! - and (as is evident from the popularity of TV programmes like Holby, ER, Casualty etc), I think most people enjoy a good 'hospital story'.
Why? Well ... for a start, the range of characters is fantastic. All human life is there - and that's just the staff! Doctors, nurses, technicians, secretaries, porters, cleaners, kitchen workers, radiographers, therapists ... I won't go on, but you get the picture. One of the things I loved about my job was the mix of people we worked with - young and old, all backgrounds, all nationalities, creeds, origins - I learnt such a lot, over the years, just working with so many amazing colleagues.
And then there are the patients: a never-ending source of interest! There were dear old souls who were so poorly, so lonely, so bereaved or bereft it would break your heart, but they were sweet, patient and uncomplaining. Sometimes they just wanted someone to talk to. Then there were the bad-tempered ones, often suffering from no more than an injury sustained in a drunken brawl - demanding special treatment, or being rude and aggressive - but was it because they were actually nervous of hospitals and doctors? There were frightened children, worried parents, people given bad news, others making wonderful recoveries from operations that couldn't even have been contemplated a few years previously. The stories I soaked up, doing my job, were sometimes sad, sometimes heartening, often moving but sometimes funny: a perfect mental megastore of memories to revisit and work into fiction.
Once, I wrote a story about two male doctors having an argument about their girlfriends - which was rejected by the editor I first sent it to, with the words: 'I can't believe doctors would be so childish or spend their time discussing such trivial things'. The story was (very loosely!) based on a true incident, and I showed that editor's response to the young doctors involved - who fell about laughing!
Best of all, I decided to use the hospital background for my third Sheila Norton novel - 'Body & Soul'. When I proposed the idea of the book to my then-editor, she was a bit dubious. She felt that although TV hospital drama was popular, it might not translate well to a novel. But she agreed to look at the first few chapters - and I'm pleased to say, immediately changed her mind. Because I only used the hospital setting as a background - making the characters the focus of the story rather than going into too much technical detail about medicine or surgery - she agreed that it worked well. It went on to sell to an American publisher and has been translated into Portuguese and Russian.
I've written features about the hospital where I used to work for my local paper, and during my years of working there I also co-wrote and co-edited a staff newsletter, and helped to write sketches and songs for hospital shows. When I won my short story awards, and then years later when my first novel was accepted for publication, the support and encouragement I got from staff at the hospital was just fantastic. Working in a large hospital was great for promotional purposes too, as word spread around the hospital community and I was constantly asked for signed copies!
My working life was often difficult, stressful and certainly not helped by targets, rulings and regulations handed down from government, by constant changes to the organisation and heirarchy of hospital management, or by chronic shortage of staff. But on the other hand, it was rewarding and rich in experience, companionship and teamwork.
Sadly, it's the politics in hospitals that often cause their problems - and in my case, they caused my own downfall. The Trust that employed me failed to support me when a technicality in my contract put my job at risk, and sadly my career with the NHS was cut short a few years before my official retirement - so I went on to experience a whole new world of work, in a surveyors' practice, before leaving to undergo a big operation myself. I still feel cheated and sad that things ended the way they did - but I was a casualty of mismanagement at the top of the Trust, and the tactics of central government.
I don't remember the years before the NHS, which was founded the year before I was born - and I think it's a pity that so few of us do, or we might appreciate it more. My 97-year old auntie told me the story, recently, of being admitted to a hospital in London at the age of 8, to have her tonsils out. She had to share a bed (sleeping at the other end) with a male soldier who was being treated for injuries from World War 1. And when she cried for her mother, a nurse slapped her round the face. 'I didn't think that was very nice,' she told me, quite mildly. Her mother - my grandmother - would have been paying for that treatment - but in those days, nobody complained, much less sued, the hospital. My own mother had her tonsils removed by the family doctor, in the kitchen at home.
There are plenty more stories where those came from! I'll never run out of ideas - thanks to the good old NHS!