Tag Archives: Animals

Blissful Ignorance

Sunday this week: a lovely day, and the day I had arranged to go out and “see practice” with Jan-Arne. I had been hoping to do this for a while, but it had proved difficult to arrange. In the event I ended up seeing only one patient, though Jan-Arne did all that he could to drum up some additional business, first by telephoning the previous days clients to see if they needed a follow-up call, and secondly by driving me around the entire district in a vain attempt to run over an animal (or cyclist).

The single call was to a cow with mastitis. I walked into the barn and as with the small animal clinic, had an immediate feeling of coming home. I miss farm work so much. I love the sense of peace that I experience when I am in the presence of dairy cows. These large animals are so docile; they allow us to stand so close and rarely object to being handled, except now and then when they need to protect their calves and even that is mostly done with a doe-eyed gentleness. But there is also a sense of community in farming that is so very different from city life. Years ago in Scotland, working in a dairy practice, I felt almost (only almost) as if I belonged. I wasn’t born to it, and yet as a vet there was a sense of integration. I was wanted and needed within their society, and it is that feeling of belonging that appealed to me, almost as much as the animals themselves.

There were some interesting differences. Norwegian farms are strict on biosecurity. I was fascinated to see the gigantic pair of wellington boots that the farmer’s wife brought out from a cupboard. They fitted right over Jan-Arne’s trainers and he clomped around with feet like those of a yellow elephant. I had to make do with special plastic wellington boot covers. I had the tremendous feeling that I could just walk back into that lifestyle. It all felt so similar to the old days that I could almost see myself there.

Any delusions about that were shattered later when we visited a farm where Jan-Arne was friendly with the family. We looked at a couple of their bottle-fed lambs and all the time the conversation was rattling on around me. I couldn’t follow a word and the farmer couldn’t speak any English. They had a lovely young daughter though, who kept grinning at me conspiratorially. She wanted to show us her pet lambs and tried various methods to capture them, including an attempt to entice them with some food. Afterwards, she raced around the field chasing them, a streak of pink in a pair of purple wellingtons, childish hair flying everywhere. Finally she managed to catch one, a sturdy black lamb of a traditional Norwegian breed. My biggest regret of the day was that in my haste to leave the house I managed to forget my camera. Jan-Arne very kindly offered to take some shots of the field and the child and the sheep and here they are…

Jan-Arne's Sheep 1

Jan-Arne's Sheep 2

Jan-Arne's Sheep 3

Always difficult to get a good action shot, but it was a beautiful setting on a wonderful day.

The biggest revelation occurred when we got back to the practice where I had left my car. Jan-Arne pointed to the house next door.

‘I wonder if Magne and Gerd are in there, enjoying their day off,’ he said. ‘Did you know they lived there?’

Did I know they lived there? My mind was screaming.’Magne and Gerd are married?’ I managed to croak it out at last.

‘Didn’t you know?’ He was laughing at me.

Amazing the things I fail to register. Everyone else knows presumably and maybe they just forgot to tell me, but more likely I missed it. Perhaps they stand and chat at the desk about what they are going to have for dinner. I have no idea because after so long in Norway, my brain just switches off when other people are chatting to one another. They could be talking about me, and I would remain in a happy state of oblivion.

I realised recently that this was, in many ways, a blessing. When I return to Scotland, it always comes as a shock to overhear conversations which my mind automatically processes. There are so many preconceptions based around accent and word use, instant frustration at the banalities of life. Here I escape all of that. I wouldn’t change it, even if it means that occasionally things pass me by. I wondered recently whether this must be like for a young child, having a mind that passes over incomprehensible things that don’t really matter.

When I discovered Magne and Gerd were married, it leaped into my head that I should be worried about whether I had ever said anything reprehensible about one to the other, but of course I was able to dismiss that in an instant. I just don’t have those kinds of conversations. I would love to say I have never said anything offensive about anyone, but of course, there is Scary Boss Lady. Apparently the other staff found “All Change” so amusing that they had to tell her and she read it. Since then, she has tried to convince me she isn’t scary. She even appeared one day in a poncho with the words “Love Me” woven into it. I left no doubt, she told me over a mammary tumour, that it was her I referred to. In case there was any confusion, I had clearly stated “Dagny, the scary boss lady”. She tells me that it will follow her now. Even at the Christmas party, she is in no doubt that her name-tag will read “Scary Boss Lady”. Still, she can’t have been too offended. Apparently she told her friends in the cycling club about me on a train journey. I can imagine their wide-eyed shock as they asked her, “Did she know you would read it?” Of course, I didn’t know. But I was aware it was possible, because I had already friended some of the others on Facebook. Ah well, it’s always a good idea when starting in a new job to begin on good terms with your boss!

Booty?

I have just re-read last weeks blog and realised that by the end, I had left myself running in metaphorical wellies. That sounds very difficult indeed.

The first weeks were indeed tough. Despite my full time work, I managed to complete the amendments to chapters one and two, plus write and send off a further two chapters to Victoria, all within four days. She seemed quite amazed at my haste, but despite the metaphorical wellies, I was determined to hobble onwards. This was my lucky break. So what if my socks were falling down?

I don’t think I have ever been quite so relieved as when my contract arrived a day or two later. From the original end of November deadline, the date had been moved to the ninth of January. Kicking off the wellies and pulling my socks up (see what I did there?) I set to work at a more measured pace.

I guess it might be helpful to include a description here of how the writing process with Working Partners operates. At the beginning, I was sent several pages of information about the project. They included information on the characters and geography as well as an outline of the plot. Because the series is based on a previous series, I was also sent some of the earlier books.

The plotline I worked from was developed by Victoria. It runs to some 10,000 words and lists each chapter and what should occur. Some parts are very detailed. Occasionally, Victoria will specify exactly how she wants a character to feel and what they should say. Other times, there might be an instruction along the lines of “Mandy goes for a walk on the moor and sees lots of wildlife.” The latter directions actually require a lot of work, because I want to ensure the information I add is both interesting and accurate. I love stories where writers weave information into a story in a way that is informative, but not intrusive. I hate it when there appears to be gratuitous information added that is obviously intended to be educational, but that doesn’t really fit. Reading should be fun.

It is quite different, working with someone else on a book. Usually there are so many plot details to work out before I can even start to write and there is so much editing afterwards. Writing with Working Partners is much more a team effort. I like to think of it as being similar to two people producing a lovely cake. Victoria comes up with a recipe and the basic ingredients. I take those elements and using both her directions and my own experience and understanding, I bake and ice the cake. I send back the almost finished article to Victoria and she adds a few special touches. We then send the whole off to Hodder and hope that the editor thinks it’s so great that she wants to share it with everyone.

Obviously this is something Victoria does all the time. She is involved in many such projects. I believe, however, that together we have produced something it wouldn’t have been possible for either of us to achieve alone. It certainly feels very special to me.

Case Files

Although Summer at Hope Meadows is a novel set in a veterinary practice (as opposed to a novel about a veterinary practice) it was important to me that the background was believable. I have noticed that even writers who are known for thorough research often get small details wrong. For those without a veterinary background, it might not be obvious, but for me those errors leap out.

In addition, anyone who has worked full time in mixed practice will know the job is an integral part of life. It would never be far away from the story. I have tried to reflect that reality throughout the book, though there were times when Mandy definitely had more freedom than the average young veterinary assistant. For those reading this in other parts of the world, veterinary assistant is the normal term for a salaried veterinary surgeon in UK practice.

However, the set-up is unusual, in that they are practising in a family setting. I suspect the lines between who was on call, and who would attend cases out of hours could be blurred. They are living in the same house. It’s conceivable there would be more give and take if one of them felt unwell or had an excessive amount of work coming in.

There were a whole host of different cases I had to describe, from an aural haematoma in a cat, to a back-breaking session finding an abscess in a cow’s foot. One thing I found difficult was to find the balance of expertise. Mandy has been qualified for only a year. I didn’t want to make her unrealistically experienced, but nor could she come across as ignorant.

I blurred the lines a little, by giving her some specialist knowledge. For two years working in Norway, I spent a lot of time in theatre, working as an anaesthetist. When Mandy is faced with an awkward client and a difficult case, I wanted to give her the tools to prove herself. So I added the information that she had an interest in anaesthesia. She proves herself in style…. and for that I must give thanks to the wonderful Veterinary Anesthesia Nerds group on Facebook!

One of the joys of fiction over real life is that I can go back and change what happened earlier. Recently, faced with a situation where Mandy literally had her hands full, I was able to go back to an earlier scene and slip the tools she needed for the job into her pocket when she was leaving the car.

The second book is set even more firmly in mixed practice. I have asked for the third to be set at lambing time and they have agreed. (Hooray!) There is the slight complication that I haven’t worked in mixed practice since 1999. During my years in emergency and critical care, I saw only one lamb. Other than that, the nearest thing to a large animal was the Scottish Deerhound I once saw with a neck injury.

Luckily I have friends who still work in the kind of rural practice that Animal Ark represents. It’s important because working in Norway is really quite different. I am no longer up to date with what is permitted and what is common. Perhaps, some time soon, I will make the time to go and see practice with one of them. Any excuse to get my arm up a cow’s arse should be grasped firmly. Even if it is done with only one hand.

Have a great weekend.

Thanks to Jan-Arne Hagen for the photo