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The Story Behind the Story – Part Three – Deadly Diagnosis

Writer’s block is one of the most dreaded things. It fills an author with self-doubt and eventually, self-loathing. If we are to make writing a career, after all, we need to come up with the goods. Fortunately, inspiration isn’t a major problem for me but it comes in waves and I will often panic between books, worrying that I won’t ever write again. Dr Cathy Moreland has become a friend and I feel it almost a duty to provide her with interesting cases to solve.

It was after completing the second full-length novel that I hit a bit of a wall for the first time. I tried for days, and then weeks to force an idea. My books are quite character-driven and I repeatedly attempted to create a central narrative that I felt close to, but I couldn’t do it. I read some great crime fiction during that time. Partly to inspire but also to educate me but still, nothing seemed to stick.

I live a bit of a reclusive life if truth be told, deep in the Scottish countryside with fields of cattle and horses surrounding me. Many days, the only people I’ll speak to (outside my family) are the postman or local farmer. Recognising that I was getting more depressed and stagnant, I decided I had to do something. I needed stimulation. I needed people!

And where better to meet people than in a shop? But I didn’t want to mess employers around, taking on a job half-heartedly with no intention of continuing the work when my great idea for book three came, so I decided to volunteer instead. The town five miles from our village had a charity shop. I’d been a few times dropping bags off or having a browse, so that’s where I went and after filling out a volunteer form, I was told to return Monday morning at nine.

I was quite nervous on my first day and worried about what to say and how to explain my reason for being there. But I decided early on that I wouldn’t tell them too much. I felt it would be a little insulting to say that rather than volunteering in the altruistic manner that they had done, I was only really there to people-watch.

So Monday morning came and I went in. I was given a brief explanation of what might be expected of me and then left to it. I faffed around a bit, rearranging the clothes on the rails in what I thought was an attractive display but pretty soon, I was told that I was best suited in the back storeroom.

I met the other volunteers gradually as they filtered into the shop throughout the morning. Many had been there a long time and from the beginning, I was fascinated to see that like all workplaces, there were undercurrents of dissatisfaction. The front of the shop was ably managed by a woman in her early sixties. Comments about a splinter group of volunteers attempting to overthrow her were mentioned. I found the politics of it all enthralling and within a few hours, ideas for a book were beginning to form!

There is nothing more authentic about small towns than gossip and small-minded pettiness and the charity shop was full to bursting with that along with the clothes and brick-a-brack. There seemed to be an ongoing battle between some of the volunteers about who got to operate the till, apparently a coveted position. (I was shown several times how to do this, but I’m afraid, despite a medical degree and a merit pass from the Royal College of General Practitioners, I was unable to master the bloody thing!) But working in the back room, I was able to watch and listen to the staff and customers.

The charity shop was a community. People seemed to come in just for a chat and the donation side of it was often forgotten. When people did bring in donations, there was often a story behind it, a bereavement or a big clear out. I listened and mentally took notes. When I went home, I started jotting things down.

I must have volunteered for about six months in total. I went in two mornings a week and put on my navy tabard and was happily elbow-deep in binbags. I never told anyone anything about myself. I didn’t say I’d worked as a doctor even when the conversation turned to moans about the local GPs’ lack of interest or care. I certainly didn’t say I was a writer or that their chatter and gossip might end up inspiring a book about murder. The secrecy added to the enjoyment for me and although I like to think I did some good in helping a charity, what I gained from it was so much more.

Deadly Diagnosis features a charity shop and I hope with all my heart that the people I worked alongside never read it! Of course, I have twisted and exaggerated characters but the general flavour of the shop is quite real. I do so hope people enjoy it!

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