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5 Things Being a Vet Taught Me About Writing

Most writers have day jobs, which feed into their writing. Every Friday I’ll be asking a writer what unexpected lessons their day job has taught them about the craft.

This week, veterinarian and fantasy author Mary Parker shares how being a vet feeds into her writing. Mary Parker works in both emergency and general practice. She published her first novel, 'Fairy Tales Written By Rabbits', in 2015 and is busy editing the sequel between other work commitments. You can find her online at

Mary: I learned so much working as a veterinarian. Vet school was intense but the learning curve is even steeper once you're working in the real world. There are skills that a university degree can't teach, particularly in regards to the fascinating characters that walk through our doors.

Lesson #1 : Everybody has a motive.

In my first year as a veterinarian I was baffled and frustrated by seemingly stupid or outright cruel decisions the general public would make about their animals. Decisions that were obviously wrong to me, with a university education and a youth spent obsessing over animals behind me, were not necessarily obvious to the average person.

Somebody left their cat in labour for two days before seeking help. Two whole days!

Somebody else elected to avoid a parvovirus vaccination for their dog. This resulted in their dog spending two weeks in intensive care while we tried to save it.

One hobby farm starved an alpaca to death by feeding it lettuce.

And one lady presented a cat on Monday afternoon with a rose thorn stuck on its eyeball, which had happened on Saturday.

These scenarios were driving me crazy. How could people be so cruel? Nobody is the villain in their own story. This has never been more true than with people that care deeply about their pets, but have made the wrong decision.

They left the cat in labour for two days because that's how long they took to birth their daughter.

They declined the parvovirus vaccine because they mistakenly believed vaccines had caused their son's autism.

They thought lettuce was a healthy food.

They wrongly believed we were closed Sunday and didn't have an after hours service.

All of these people made what they believed was a reasonable decision. They were wrong, but at the time they thought they were doing the right thing. Believable characters aren't evil for the sake of being evil. Reasons always exist behind every decision.

Lesson #2 : People are full of surprises.

Some events are predictable. When you've been in the job for a few years you grow a healthy sense of cynicism. I have a vast array of medications, advanced diagnostic imaging, local specialist clinics and excellent preventative treatments at my disposal. They're wonderful, but unfortunately most of my job involves convincing and begging people to spend money on their pet's health. Most of the time the 'gold standard' of treatment is not achieved, because the owner is unwilling or unable to pay for it.

Every human places a different value on their animals.

One week I had two cases that demonstrated this perfectly. One diamond merchant euthanised both their dogs with chronic but managed conditions, and then demand a 'multiple pet discount'. At the same time a homeless man stopped eating for three days so he could afford to feed his dog with gastroenteritis on chicken and rice.

You can never predict what someone will or won't sacrifice, as it should be with our characters.

Lesson #3 : There is never a happy ending.

This might seem counter-intuitive to writing, but in real life stories never end. Lives end, but stories don't.

A patient may get better... for now. There is always the risk and fear of a future relapse or complication. Even after death, which seems absolutely final, there is aftermath. Care of the body, care of the people associated with that patient. There is always more happening, stories of those other characters continue.

The world doesn't end when the book does. A good story exists in a world that feels real beyond the vision of the main characters.

Lesson #4 : Familiarity with death.

The most common fact I explain to clients on a daily basis is that bodies don't close their eyes with death. Everybody assumes this because it's what they see in the movies and television.

Death is a process, not a destination. It's not always a gentle sigh. It's super lucky if a natural death is peaceful.

Lesson #5 : Obscure animal facts.

Most writers in their search for facts will develop an incriminating internet search history. Being a veterinarian has already equipped me with a broad knowledge base that includes: animal health, management, physiology, behaviour, medicine and welfare, meat safety and production, zoonotic diseases, grief management and mental health awareness.

Did you know the consequences of describing an alien species as having a digestive system 'like a cow' means it must burp several times per hour, or it will bloat and die? Or that you can perform cross-species plasma transfusions? Or that the feline panleukopenia virus most likely spontaneously mutated into the highly lethal parvovirus that affects dogs?

Fascinating stuff.

Thanks to Mary for this week's post!

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