Plot twist: Neurologist turns her hand to romance writing and grabs the prize

There were always clues that aspiring novelist Dr. Anne Lipton would eventually immerse herself into the world of make-believe, fantasy and adventure.

"One of the things that I wrote about in my medical school essay was Nancy Drew," says Lipton, who lives in Vancouver. 

"Nancy Drew ... inspired me to try to be a medical detective and find out what was going wrong when someone was sick and how to make them better."

Lipton, who is originally from Michigan, did end up becoming a "medical detective" — and a pretty successful one to boot. The Northwestern University graduate became a neurologist, even penning multiple books on dementia care.

But now, her career has taken a plot twist. 

Lipton is one of the inaugural recipients of the Harlequin Books Creator Fund Award, awarded to up-and-coming female writers in the U.S. and Canada. Harlequin, a Toronto-based publishing house, is one of the most successful publishers in the world, with a focus on romance, fantasy and historical fiction.

Romance writing, a genre sometimes dismissed as "empty entertainment", is big business. According to the Romance Writers of America, the billion-dollar romance genre makes up 23 per cent of the fiction market. 

In recent years, the genre has undergone a feminist makeover, challenging archaic tropes of damsels in distress and other stereotypes.

Lipton's manuscript — a time travel Christmas-themed romantic comedy set in the video game industry — is a nod to that.

"[My main character] is a strong female protagonist who works in a male-dominated industry," she said. 

Roshini Nair/CBC

Commonalities between novels and neurology

It was a move to Ireland that set the stage for Lipton's career change. Despite having a position ready, it was taking a long time for her medical credentials to be recognized in Ireland.

As she waited to be certified, Lipton, who had already written non-fiction, decided to try her hand at writing a novel. 

She loved it.

Part of the process of novel writing mirrors her work as a neurologist. Lipton said she was drawn to neurology, and dementia in particular, because of her patients' rich life stories. 

"Because dementia often affects older people I was able to hear many very exciting and interesting life stories," she said. 

"I would say one reason I didn't go into something like emergency medicine is because once the patient leaves the emergency department you never hear the end of the story. And so I like to have a satisfying story arc in real life and in my novels."

A community of writers 

A move to Vancouver seven years ago happened to coincide providentially with NaNoWriMo — National Novel Writing Month — in November. 

Lipton, who happened to move in the month of October, said she almost immediately got together with other writers in the city.

The internet-based creative writing challenge gives participants exactly 30 days to write a draft of a book or novel, with a minimum 50,000 word count. Close to 10,000 people participate in the challenge across the country. 

"I know sometimes people say that Vancouver is a hard place to meet people but I found this a great way to meet people. We all had a shared interest. Most of the people there also enjoyed reading so we discussed books and writing and it was a great way to meet people."

As part of her award, Lipton will receive financial and editorial support from Harlequin — but there are no guarantees her manuscript will get published.

"As a writer, sometimes it's more competitive than applying to medical school in terms of trying to get published," she laughed.

In the meantime, she's hoping for a riveting finale.