Archives for category: Research

Research is one of my favorite things about writing a novel. Though I will never turn down the chance to tear through a library like Hermione, the research that gets me really excited is the stuff you can’t get out of a book. If I was smart like my friend Maya, I would use writing a novel as an excuse to research things I’m already passionate about. Instead, I studied just enough ethnography in grad school to justify chasing characters down rabbit holes in the name of understanding and find myself doing things like joining a hackerspace and going to a startup launch party and trying (and failing epically) to learn how to program and wandering around questionable parts of San Francisco in an attempt to understand an extremely intelligent character in my thesis novel who gambles on an obviously terrible startup idea.

A few months ago, I wrote a scene that starts with Professor Julius, one of the characters in my novel SIREN, working in a vegetable garden. It wasn’t an important scene, but he was an important character–the protagonist’s mentor–and his choice to keep a garden piqued my curiosity. SIREN takes place at a boarding school that houses and feeds students and faculty alike, but Professor Julius wasn’t just gardening to unwind. He was gardening to feed himself, and I couldn’t figure out why. I knew that the food at the school wasn’t bad. The novel begins with a character sneaking into the kitchen for a loaf of the school cook’s homemade bread, so why would Professor Julius go through the trouble?

I decided to investigate.

Sunflower Starts

These sunflowers might look innocent, but they are secretly plotting to take over the world.

Gardening should be in my blood. Some of my earliest memories are of digging potatoes with my grandfather and stealing peas from my parents’ vegetable garden, but apparently some things aren’t genetic. I have tried to keep a garden in four states and three different climates, and almost everything I’ve tried to grow has shriveled and died. And that was when I started with plants that had already gotten past the delicate seedling stage and were already hardened by life at Home Depot.

potted plants

Survivors

Logic (by which I mean baseball) would say that I’d struck out, and I was beginning to think that Herbology was a class at Hogwarts because keeping a garden growing is just magic in a floppy hat. But writing Professor Julius’s kale patch and inheriting a seemingly empty planter box* gave me just enough of an excuse to start collecting seed packets again.

I had no reason to believe that this time would be any different than my previous attempts to grow things, but luck has been on my side so far this year. Before I had a chance to do what I usually do (dirt + seeds + crossed fingers = ?), I stumbled on Garden Betty, who has been blogging through the process of going from seed to vegetable. Simple things like knowing when seedlings need heat and when they need light has made all the difference. It’s been a little less than a month now, and a tray of seedlings is occupying my desk, Lemon Queen sunflowers are threatening to take over the kitchen, and a row of radishes is putting up their first leaves in the planter box outside. I’m no gardening expert, but I can list a dozen things I’ve done wrong now, and when I run into trouble I’m starting to learn what questions to ask.

seedlings

This was my desk…

When I started gardening, I thought (optimistically) that I was going to learn about self-reliance and experience the satisfaction of biting into a tomato I grew from a seed. If my luck continues to hold, maybe I will. In the meantime, I no longer wonder why Professor Julius keeps a garden.

And that has made all the difference.

All of my basil plants are named Pesto.

All of my basil plants are named Pesto.

 

*The planter box was actually planted with strawberries. Thank goodness for Twitter:

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Lately, I’ve been writing about my adventures in Russian folklore, particularly with Linda Ivanits’ Russian Folk Belief.

One of the most interesting creatures in the book is the Domovoi. The Domovoi are a bit like the house elves in Harry Potter but much more serious. Sometimes, they are believed to be an elderly and deceased relative. (One of the names that they sometimes go by is “grandfather.”) Though they occasionally help out around the place, Domovoi are more like household guardians or fiddly managers with opinions on everything from the behavior of the residents of the household to the color of the horses in the stable.

They’re cranky, but, still, I find Ivanits’ description of these spirits delightful:

If angered by his family’s sloppy management, abusive language, or neglect of him, the spirit would cause the walls of the house to creak, bang pots, tangle needlework, spread manure on the door, and turn everything upside down in the yard.

Okay, so spreading manure on the door isn’t really delightful, but as an over-imaginative child who spent her childhood in a creaky house, I would have much preferred to think that I was just listening to grandpa tapping the walls passive-aggressively than listening to the house settle. At least then I could have asked him to shut up and let me sleep.

 

While I was looking for a picture to put at the top of the page (Thanks, University of Pittsburgh!), I stumbled on this fantastic (and hilarious) post about Domovoi on Woman. Legend. Blog

As a writer and accidental English major,* I try to be well-rounded, but I have a big knowledge-gap in folklore. Fortunately, I live not far from a university with one of the best folklore programs in the country. Recently, I spent an hour browsing UC Berkeley’s folklore course descriptions online, and the search paid off in a small stack (two three books) about Russian folklore and a long list of other traditions to try.

I began with Russian Folk Belief  by Penn State professor Linda Ivanits. Russian Folk Belief is a small book, but it is dense. Though there is a nice collection of myths and tales at the end, the first half of the book is filled with the sort of detail that is probably meant for a scholar looking at Russian folklore with a magnifying glass (rather than a fiction writer studying tropes and archetypes). Getting anything out of it that was useful for me meant being willing to wade through debates about whether or not a mythological creature is the same as another mythological creature from another region with a slightly different name, but I believe the search was worth it.

Anyone who has listened to me for more than five minutes, knows that the public domain is a big passion of mine, but I’m not sure I’ve ever said why. I believe in the public domain so much because stories have a way of becoming part of us, almost as if these things made of language (when allowed to ripen over time**) become a language of their own. How many Cinderella stories are there out there? How many stories have wizards and magical helpers and goddesses disguised as old women? These archetypes and tropes are our literary inheritance, a gift from our ancestors, so every generation doesn’t have to start from scratch.

I haven’t been studying folklore for long, but I’ve already noticed that it’s a pattern that folklore books are either books of folklore and are often located in the children’s section at the library, or they are impossibly dense academic books. Reading the stories themselves is easy, but I find the patterns most valuable as a writer because I find it much easier to make something really original out of an archetype than a character that already has a name and a face.

For those who are less inclined to dive into something that dense, I’m going to spend the next few posts introducing some archetypal characters from Russian Folk Belief that have inspired me. I hope they inspire you just as much.

* After changing my major four times–which sounds worse than it is because I was an English major twice–I got enough credits to graduate before I had time to switch programs again.

** I believe that in order to write the stories that will become legends, writers need a lifetime to finish speaking and fully develop the places and characters and ideas and phrases they’ve created without competing with others for their own creations, which is why I will never be completely copyleft.