The Joy of Being a Writer or: Fun with the Facts!
There is a fun little exchange between Dr. McCoy and Scotty in Star Trek IV that I am reminded of when contemplating the leper hospital idea in my book. Having gone back in time to the 20th Century, they have just given a manufacturer the formula for transparent aluminum, which has not been invented yet. Dr. McCoy expresses some concern that they might be altering the future, but Scotty looks at him sideways and says, “How do we know he didn’t invent the thing?”
That is rather how I feel about placing a secret Leprosarium in the heart of 1870s Paris. I did some research about Leprosy and leper colonies when I was working on my book, ‘Disfigured’, and I am pretty certain that there was no such place there. But the writer in me says, “But it was secret, so how do we know it wasn’t there?” And so I took a little liberty with the truth, which is a writer’s prerogative, and I rather feel that as long as I tell you my disclaimer (no such thing), my conscience is clear.
Here are some things I did learn, and included in the book: St. Giles really is the patron saint of lepers, and there was a leper hospital in London for many years, although a very, very long time ago (the 1100s to be exact). St. Giles in the Fields was it’s name, and it is still there after all these years. No longer a leper hospital, though! There really was a Dr. Hansen in Norway who had a hospital for lepers and did research on the disease. The descriptions of the afflicted missionaries in my imaginary hospital are accurate. Everything else was complete fiction.
I consider ‘Disfigured’ to be a Gothic romance, even though it does not contain all the hallmarks to be one, but it was difficult to pigeon-hole it into any particular category. But I liked the idea of having this secret leprosarium tucked away in a very old building, behind forbidding iron gates. It’s a wonderful set-up for spooky happenings, only I decided that St. Giles would be, in fact, a place of warmth and safety. I can’t recall now how or when the idea of even having a leper colony feature in the book came to me, but it certainly proved useful!
When you are reading ‘Disfigured’, and Sylvie is describing the horrible symptoms of the patients she is providing meals for, just look at this old photo and you can picture it for yourself. This photo is likely attributed to Dr. Hansen as it is taken at a leper hospital in Norway, probably his.
Because Sylvie has been seeing and helping to feed nine missionaries afflicted with leprosy in various stages, she is quite accustomed to viewing disfigured faces. This is one reason why looking at Erik without his mask does not particularly disturb her. In the late 1870s, it was still generally thought that lepers were very contagious, and sometimes Sylvie seems to be putting herself in harm’s way. Her compassionate nature makes it difficult for her to keep her distance from the patients. In these days, however, it is known that leprosy is not terribly contagious, as long as proper precautions are taken.
Somehow, I think I just really liked the idea of Sylvie pondering how odd it was that, hidden away in Paris, was this leprosarium, and she was the only person who knew of it. And she wonders what other strange things are hidden away in the city, completely unaware that in a few short weeks, she will be meeting one of the strangest – the Phantom himself!