A veterinary way with words

August 11, 2019
Don Vaughan

Don Vaughan is a freelance writer based in Raleigh, North Carolina. His work has appeared in Military Officer, Boys Life, Writers Digest, Mad and other publications.

dvm360, dvm360 September 2019, Volume 50, Issue 9

Work and life inform veterinary surgeon Nick Trouts successful side gig: best-selling novelist.

Many veterinary clients of Nick Trout, DVM, DACVS, DECVS, are unaware that he is a successful novelist and nonfiction writer with six best-selling books to his credit. Those who are aware often behave in one of two ways, he says. They either grow nervous and ask, “You're not going to write about us, are you?” or they start acting peculiar in the hope of becoming a character in Dr. Trout's next novel.

Quirky clients, slightly altered, occasionally do end up in Dr. Trout's books, but only peripherally. He says he's more interested in telling a strong, compelling story about pets and their owners, and how that special bond can change lives.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Dr. Trout's most recent book, The Wonder of Lost Causes. It tells the story of a single mother-who's also an animal shelter veterinarian on Cape Cod-and her chronically ill son and the “unadoptable” mutt that comes into their lives and changes everything for the better. The story is particularly personal for the author because the 11-year-old protagonist has cystic fibrosis, as does Dr. Trout's daughter, Emily.

Inspired by work

An accumulation of funny, heartwarming and sometimes heart-wrenching stories from his decades of practice as staff surgeon at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts, drove Dr. Trout to try his hand at writing in the early 2000s. “Veterinary medicine provides us with endless amounts of fantastic material for a writer,” he said in an interview. “There are always elements of mystery, intrigue and drama as well as pathos and humor. It's all there.”

Dr. Trout's first book, Tell Me Where It Hurts, was an account of memorable patients and unusual cases. It was rejected many times before finding a publisher and surprised Dr. Trout by becoming a New York Times bestseller. “That success was further inspiration to keep going,” Dr. Trout notes.

After a couple more nonfiction books, Dr. Trout was encouraged by his agent and editor to try his hand at fiction. It wasn't exactly his wheelhouse, he admits, and he asked his agent if he should first take some classes in creative writing. No, he was told-you have a unique voice; don't try to change it.

“Fiction, for me, is much harder, because I have to create the plot as well as characters that will stand up and are believable and have distinct voices and make sense,” Dr. Trout explains. “But the advantage of fiction is that I can cherry-pick certain aspects of a [real-life] story or a case that appealed to me or struck me as strange or interesting, and intersperse that component with other animals and characters. I can draw upon multiple sources, and in so doing I am not constrained by the truth.”

A different voice

Dr. Trout tried a different narrative approach with The Wonder of Lost Causes by writing it in the first person from the perspectives of both the mother and son. “People ask me, why did you write as a woman?” Dr. Trout says. “I did it because I wanted the challenge and because, for the most part, the caregivers of chronically ill children are their mothers. I wanted to give them a voice, and I am thrilled by the positive feedback I have received from single mothers and mothers of children with chronic illnesses. They love the fact that I get it, because to some extent I've lived it.”

As a surgeon attached to a busy practice, one of Dr. Trout's greatest challenges is finding time to write. He snags creative moments where he can-early in the morning, on the commute to work, while away with his family. “One of the nice things about not being contracted to a writing deadline is, you can work on a project on your schedule, and it gets done when it gets done,” Dr. Trout says. “It was harder when I was writing and the publisher would say, 'We need your next book in 18 months,' and I hadn't even thought about what it was going to be. That's a little intimidating.”   

Dr. Trout works closely with his agent, Jeff Kleinman, during the early stages of each novel. They typically start with a general idea, then go back and forth until they have a solid outline, which Trout divides into chapters. Then he starts writing.

Veterinary medicine today

Though his primary goal is to entertain, Dr. Trout likes to use his fiction to inform readers about what a contemporary veterinarian's life is really like. “I was brought up on the works of James Herriot,” he says. “That was a wonderfully romantic era in England, but that's not modern veterinary medicine, and I wanted the reader to see all that is new and exciting as well as the challenges faced by veterinarians today. In one book I have a competition between a large corporation and a mom-and-pop operation. I'm always trying to raise awareness of the challenges and the changing face of our profession.”

At the same time, writing has allowed Dr. Trout to view himself and his work from a different perspective. For example, he says it's made him much more observant, particularly of the human-animal bond. “I'm looking for touching relationships, challenging relationships,” he notes. “I'm looking at dynamics in the exam room in ways I didn't before.”

Dr. Trout points to thriller writer James Rollins as another veterinarian who has made a name for himself as a writer, and he encourages colleagues with a similar dream to give it a try. “You'll face a lot of failure,” he says, “but if you stick with it and get it done, there is a contentment and finality that goes with that. It's a very personal sense of accomplishment.”

Donald Vaughan is a Raleigh, North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Writer's Digest, Military Officer Magazine, Boys' Life, Veterinary Practice News and elsewhere. He also is the founder of Triangle Association of Freelancers.

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