There’s an interesting article in the Guardian that suggests medicine – the writer, himself a doctor and a novelist, points out that there are very many examples – he picks out Chekhov, Bulgakov, Conan Doyle, Somerset Maugham, Michael Crichton, Abraham Verghese, Khaled Hosseini.
His argument is pretty strong – doctors get to see people at times of crisis, doctors are empathic (mostly); junior doctors have to learn to take a history and present it to the consultant on ward rounds, and thus develop an ability with communication (listening as well as talking) and with story.
Having recently spent far too much time in hospital, I concede he makes an excellent case. I think I’ve certainly found lots of material from the other side of the fence – and not just if I follow through with my threat to turn it into a medical thriller. After the next operation and recovery, of course.
However I suspect he’s just cherry picking, or has fallen into the Texas Sharp Shooter logical fallacy. He’s a doctor and a novelist, and therefore he is attuned to the existence of the rest of the group who fall into his segment of that particular Venn diagram.
I wouldn’t mind betting that the same is true of all the lawyers who are also novelists. I recall when I was at Liverpool University and changed course from Law to English Language and Literature, my Law Professor made that point. Who did he mention? Henry Fielding, certainly. Erle Stanley Gardner, possibly. John Buchan. John Mortimer. I would add John Grisham, Scott Turow, Lisa Scottoline.
A similar case could be made for the reasons – they see lots of people in time of crisis, they have to have an understanding of human nature, they have to be able to construct a narrative.
So where does that leave me – with experience in the software business?
Writing a business plan was by far the longest work of fiction I produced before I completed my first novel. And I certainly met a lot of people, of all kinds. Do you have to be empathic in business? You certainly have to understand something about human nature. I think I have a fair supply of ideas for villains and victims both from some of the people I met. I do love a revenge story after all. I am sad to say that the first example that sprang to mind here was Jeffrey Archer’s first novel, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less.
Ah yes, there are quite a few politicians who have turned novelist too, aren’t there?
Of course, most writers do need another source of income. Here in the UK most writers are reported to be earning below minimum wage. So it’s just as well that working at stuff that is not directly related to writing provides inspiration.
So this gives me an excuse for my favourite anecdote about strange experiences in the software business.
We were meeting with a guy, let’s call him Mike, who had approached us as he was interested in a partnership. He had, he said, lots of experience in tech sales, and would be interested in selling our software product in exchange for a share of the revenue he generated. He asked for a generous revenue share, and based on his experience and his projections of the sales he could make, it sounded as if he might just be worth it. He was a little reluctant to provide references, though. We could understand that he might not want to let his current employers know he was thinking of striking out as a freelance, and he said his other experience was too far out of date.
There was a distinct whiff of rat at the this point.
Still, we continued discussions, and my business (and life) partner inserted his usual rat trap into the conversation. I won’t say what that is, exactly – he might need it again….
At the end of the meeting Mike suggested he would provide us with a draft agreement the following week, and we parted amicably.
When it arrived, I read the agreement very, very carefully. It started out so positively, with lots of wildly optimistic projections of the sales potential he could see for our software product. (Fiction, again!)
And right at the end, just one tiny sentence that made me gasp and then set me off laughing at the guy’s sheer nerve.
If he didn’t make the projected minimum sales target he’d set for himself (one that was far more reasonable that initial wild projections, granted), then at the end of the first year he would be entitled to purchase our Intellectual Property for the miserly sum of £1.00.
Yes, that’s right.
Of course we confronted him, and he came over all hurt and defensive. Of course he would work hard, he said. He was motivated to make a success of the venture. And there was no intention at all for him to spend a year doing nothing at all and then take our IP…. He just had to do something to protect himself – he wasn’t prepared to put in the amount of time required for nothing.
I’m still not sure if he would make a better victim or villain. It was so inept an attempt that I can’t imagine he would actually succeed in defrauding anyone. But he certainly had every intention of doing so!
So, medicine, law, business – what is the best source of experience for writers? I don’t think there is any best. As Nora Ephron famaously said, “It’s all material.”
Glad to be out of the software business…