Doctoring the script – an interview with medical crime fiction author Candy Denman

Candy Denman

Candy Denman is the author of the Dr Callie Hughes series of murder mysteries. The doctor works as a forensic pathologist for the Sussex Police as well as being a part-time GP. Her curious nature often gets the better of her, and finds her going beyond the call of duty investigating suspicious deaths. This often attracts the ire of the police, who as often as not, are caught napping.

TBF: Before becoming an author, you worked as a nurse. Can you tell us a little about how that informs your writing of medical crime fiction?

CD: Working as a nurse has been brilliant because I get to meet all sorts of characters and meet them under really stressful circumstances at that! I have worked as a midwife and in the emergency department, as well as on general wards and in GP surgeries. I have seen people at the beginning and end of their lives, and I have been there for many of the messy bits in between. As a writer, I don’t think you can have a better training ground than that.Candy DeCandy Denman in her nursing daysnman in her nursing days

TBF: You’ve written scripts for popular national television shows in the UK, including Heartbeat and The Bill. What are the differences between writing novels and writing for the screen?

CD: A script writer, particularly on a long-running series, has to fit into the programme and characters that have already been defined by someone else.  It was only on Doctors, where I was on the team from the beginning, that I was able to influence the main characters and their stories as well as the particular episodic stories that I scripted.

As far as technique goes, there is more dialogue and much less description in a script, as a lot of the creative work is done by the casting director, or the location scout. For example, I would say a character was a teenage girl with attitude or a tired executive and describe the location as a suburban residential street or large office block and that was it – someone else found the actor and place for me. In a novel, you have to work harder!

TBF: What was it like seeing your characters come to life on TV? Were they recognisable or as you envisaged them?

CD: As a writer, it’s always a real thrill to see something you have written on the screen or on the shelf. Were the characters on TV recognisable? Sometimes! And sometimes very much not. There was one occasion, on The Bill, when I was surprised to find that quite an important character had actually changed sex. The director thought that it would make the character more sympathetic if it was played by a woman, and he was right. You’d be surprised by how little of the dialogue had to be changed…

TBF: What, if anything, do you find other crime writers get wrong when writing about medical issues in their books?

CD: A common fault, and one I’m guilty of myself, is that, as writers, we want our characters involved as much as possible, often pushing credibility in order to do that. I have Callie Hughes doing home visits far more than she would in real life and even going into the hospital. This isn’t a problem just in writing medical stories, I know police officers often complain that senior detectives wouldn’t be doing interviews and house-to-house enquiries.

TBF: What drives you to write? And what are your strongest influences?

CD: It’s a real stress buster! I honestly find it relaxing to live in a world of my own making. Okay, horrible things might happen but it’s not to me and I can explore situations that I would never want to actually experience. And if I’m having a difficult time with someone in real life, I can write about it and it often helps me to see the other side to the problem, see it from their point of view, and if after that I still can’t see the good side to someone, I can alwaysCandy reading to Dennis and Peach kill them off. In the book, that is.

TBF: What are you reading at the moment?

CD: During this awful, Covid-19 period, I have found that I want to read softer, nicer books. Still crime of course, but nothing too horrific. I have just finished Big Sky by Kate Atkinson, as I like the gentle, slightly depressed, humour that Jackson Brodie brings to the books. For similar reasons I love to read Elly Griffiths’ books and Louise Penny is another favourite author.

TBF: Your protagonist Dr Callie Hughes is quite a forthright individual. Is she based on anyone you know?

CD: She is a mix of several women that I know and who have influenced me in my life. Female doctors have to be strong characters in order to simply get through medical school, at least they did when I was training. I think that it’s better now, or at least, I hope it is.

TBF: Dr Callie Hughes is at times not taken seriously by her male colleagues, in particular the obnoxious detective Bob Jeffries. Was it a conscious decision to show her tackling these issues that women often face in the workplace?

CD: Absolutely. I don’t know many women who have not encountered some sort of sexual harassment or discrimination at some point in their working lives. It sounds terrible to say it, but it’s true. Whether it was being passed over for a job because we might get pregnant, or having to put up with sexual innuendo or even being groped in the stationery cupboard, most women have war stories of one sort or another, and it’s time it stopped. I don’t want my daughter to have the same experience of working life.

TBF: We’re curious as to how writers will tackle the corona virus pandemic. Your books are quite realist and it will be a hard fact to ignore, especially with the medical themes. Do you envisage it playing a role in future books?

CD: I am torn on this. I agree that I am going to have to tackle it at some point, and it would seem strange to ignore it but I don’t feel ready and I’m not sure that people are ready to read about it.

Candy’s latest book is VITAL SIGNS, the fourth in the DI Callie Hughes series. Check out all her books.

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