It sounded like an insane idea, trying to write 50,000 words of a new novel in the month of November. My life was busy enough already, wasn’t it? I was working three days each week as a Covid 19 vaccinations health professional, plus teaching regular Yoga classes and caring for my family. I didn’t exactly have a lot of spare time. How could I even consider such a ridiculous challenge?
National Novel Writing Month
NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. It started in San Francisco in 1999 with just twenty-one participants challenging one another to write a novel during the thirty days of November. In 2021 there were hundreds of thousands of participants worldwide. This was my first time to take part, and it was a fantastic, if demanding, experience.
I decided to attempt NaNoWriMo this year when the idea for a story came to me. I was hearing news almost daily about the growing crisis in midwifery care in the UK. As a former midwife I have first-hand experience of the pressures facing midwives in the NHS. Several of my colleagues on the vaccinations workforce are former midwives. They were all telling me about burnout, crippling staff shortages, and their frustrations at being unable to provide the care they knew women and families needed. My social media feed was full of midwives’ accounts of bullying, excessive workloads and intolerable working hours. The system is haemorrhaging midwives at an unsustainable rate.
I was also worried about the ever-increasing medicalisation of birth. Inductions of labour and caesarean sections are becoming ever more common as one-size-fits-all policies and the fear of litigation take precedence over individualised care. A shortage of midwives makes family-centred care extremely difficult.
I kept thinking about these problems. It did not seem too far-fetched to imagine a world where midwifery no longer existed, or only on the fringes of society. What if one day all babies were born by caesarean section? What if women became afraid of birth by any other means, and believed it to be dangerous? In some countries today it is already illegal for anyone to assist a woman to give birth at home. What if that happened in the UK?
What would it be like to be an outlaw midwife, risking everything to care for women who could not or would not access the straitjacket of hospital birth? What if she was the last midwife?
A Midwife on a Boat
One evening I happened to watch a TV programme about a young man living on a canal boat. This sparked my imagination. The midwife in my story would live on a boat. She would live in Britain in the near future, in a time when climate change has made large areas of the country uninhabitable due to frequent flooding. She would use a combination of clinical knowledge and holistic skills to help the women who come to her boat to give birth. She would grow her own herbs to make natural remedies. She would have a big ginger cat, and keep chickens. People would call her a witch.
I started writing The Last Midwife at the beginning of November, and kept writing. I wrote every day. It was difficult to make the time, but I can be determined when I set my mind to something. I ordered the NaNoWriMo 2021 ‘Winner’ t-shirt at the beginning of the month to motivate myself. If I did not hit 50,000 words by November 30th, I would never be able to wear that t-shirt!
Writing can feel lonely sometimes, so it was wonderful to feel part of a huge community of creativity. Via the NaNoWriMo website, I accessed pep talks, encouragement, and advice. Every day, after working on my novel, I visited the website to update my wordcount; the sense of achievement was addictive. I kept writing.
A Secret World
Writing every day was tough, but it was also enjoyable. The world of my novel became my secret place where I could immerse myself and forget the cares of my real life. I loved putting my characters in new situations and watching how they behaved. Sometimes I was frustrated by a problem with the plot. On other days I got the satisfaction of seeing a new way forward.
On 29th November, one day early, I reached the 50,000 word goal. I put on the t-shirt and celebrated. Then the next day I returned to my keyboard to continue. I wanted to find out what happened next.
The Last Midwife
My story is still some way from being finished. Once I reach the end, I will have to begin the long and painful process of editing. It will be some time until The Last Midwife is ready to meet the world. But I have had enormous fun writing it so far, and I care about my characters too much to give up on them now.
Back to the story!
Karen Lawrence is an author and mother of seven living in Billericay, Essex, United Kingdom. Karen has published two books and is currently working on three novels.
Letting the Light In: How A Baby With Down Syndrome Changed My Life is Karen’s personal account of having a baby with Down Syndrome. It is available from Amazon at
Karen’s first book, Finding Your Calm Space: Thirty-One Ways to find Calm in a Crazy World is available from Amazon at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Finding-Your-Calm-Space-Thirty-One-ebook/dp/B08NZ1W9QY
If you would like to follow Karen and be kept up to date with her writing, please sign up at http://karenlawrenceauthor.com/join-the-mailing-list/
You can learn more about NaNoWriMo at the website:
A midwife friend started a petition to gain much-needed attention for the midwife staffing crisis. At time of writing, this petition has now gained over 117.000 signatures. Please sign if you feel able.