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THE INFORMATION GAP

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Putting together Royal Macnab required some detailed research in some odd places. Having got my theme – the changing social fabric, the muddying of the class barriers, and the changing role of the landlord versus the unchanging landscape, I also had the background of eight years working as a lodge cook on various estates on the Isles of Lewis, Harris and North Uist. I knew my territory, and the lifelong game fishing experience of my husband was also invaluable. But there were gaps in my knowledge in deer stalking and grouse shooting, and the historical elements of the story.

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My sporting estate contacts were tremendously helpful – a deer stalking expedition into the Uist hills, first-hand knowledge of the ancient breed of deerhounds, a lesson in how clay pigeon shoots and a rifle worked, all helped build the world. One part of the story, which arose out of the background theme of the demise and decay of the gentry, concerned the rampant problem of syphilis, which led to the question of how the Victorian age went about treating the condition.

At this time, the internet was not as well-organised and accessible as it is now, and in the end it was thanks to the diligence of staff at the Wellcome Library, and an enlightening phone call with my GP, that gave me the knowledge I needed.

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Before those happy events, I spent a morning on the phone, calling various academic establishments such as the Glasgow University Library and Scottish Medical Archives. Each person I spoke to helpfully directed me to someone else, and near the end of the chain of conversations, I found myself talking to a man buried somewhere in the depths of an academic library stack.  He, too, went to some trouble to track down the number of a medical museum in Edinburgh and told me to explain that I was making an outside research enquiry and was not a member.

I dialled the number and the conversation went like this:

Clerk:    Hello? How may I help you?

Me:        Hi. I’ve been given your number regarding a research enquiry into Victorian treatments for syphilis. Can you transfer me to the medical treatments archives?

Clerk:    May I have your name and account number?

Me:        Oh sorry, no, I don’t have an account. I’m not a library member, this is an outside enquiry. I’m researching a book and looking for information on how the Victorians went about treating syphilis –

Clerk:    But I must have your account number before I can help you.

Me:        No, I’m not a member, it’s an outside enquiry about historical treatments for syphilis in the Victorian era. Is there someone in the medical archives I can speak to?

Clerk:    I need your account number and sort code, please. This is the Clydesdale Bank.

Covered with confusion - as I imagine both of us were - I apologised, hung up quickly and seriously considered the age-old novelist’s resort of just making something up. I also wondered, in the face of a caller relentlessly pursing information on syphilis, why it took the recipient of my call so long to deliver the crucial piece of information that would tip me off I had the wrong number. But one more phone call, rather nervously made, even after double-checking the number, and the man at the other end exclaimed, “I know just who you need! Call directory enquiries and ask for The Wellcome Library!”

Never give up is a sentiment that often crops up in the course of writing – this was one of those cases where it really paid off – I could never have made up anything half so horrible as the stuff the Victorians were actually doing to their poor syphilitic patients …

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