Researching? Or just Reaching?

Posted: April 16, 2014 in Writing
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I recently completed a rather complex chapter in my daughter’s and my tween urban fantasy novel, The Last Princess. Over and over I found myself stopped in my tracks as little nagging details cropped up that needed to be researched. By the time the 5,750 word chapter was finished, I felt like I had done as much research as some whole novels I had read.

Without going into a great deal of redundant background, our novel features the modern descendents of the ancient fae (faeries, elves, orges, etc.) that have fully interbred and integrated with humankind, and only our hero, Cat can see them for what they are. In this chapter Cat and her best friend, Rose, are at a girl’s summer camp with Cat’s mom as a chaperone. We had a lot to cover in this chapter, so I wrote a series of short scenes, covering four days of activities.

In one of those scenes Cat meets an elf-born, who happens to be her archery instructor. Elves are known for their prowess with the bow and arrow – particularly because of Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings elves, but also the original folklore told of something called “elf-shot” which people in the Middle Ages blamed for unusual diseases in both man and beast. This I already knew. But for our story I needed our elf-born archery instructor to impart some lessons about taking care of nature, and also he needed to have a skill at carving.

My first inclination was to give him some native American attributes, and so I started researching which peaceful tribes were known for their use of the bow and arrow. Then I started thinking of native American totems and how they were carved. However I soon learned that totems are largely a modern stereotype and were rarely if ever used in realty by native Americans. So I went back to the drawing board.

Elves were originally a Norse myth, so since my archery instructor was going to be Scandinavian I decided to research the early natives or that area. And to my delight I discovered the Sami.

The Sami first hunted, then later domesticated the local reindeer. How could I resist? They hunted with bow and arrow (check!) and were skilled at scrimshaw, which is carving on bone and antlers (check!). But the clincher was the fact that the Sami made their own shoes out of reindeer fur, and they always made them with the toes curled up on the end.

So my elf-born archery instructor was born:

Alfson“Goot morgon! Good morning!” Mr. Alfson came around the corner with several more girls in tow. He had some keys in his hand and he stopped next to a door set into the wall of the snack bar. “We’ll get started in a yiffy.” He sounded just like my Swedish grandmother, but he had short, white-blond hair and big blue eyes and was even taller than my dad. He was movie-star handsome and looked like he’d just skied down a snow-covered mountain, in his white turtleneck sweater and dark green ski pants. I looked down at his shoes.

They were made of brown fur and decorated around the top with red beads. And the toes were pointed and curled up. I barked out a laugh before I could stop myself.

Rose leaned close and whispered, “What’s so funny?”

“His pointy shoes! Because he’s an el―”

“Because I am a what?”

Everyone was staring at me, and Mr. Alfson’s raised his eyebrows.

“Because you’re … so obviously not an elf!” My chuckle sounded forced. “I mean look at you – you’re so tall!” Cheese, I’m an idiot! But an elf with pointy shoes? How could I not laugh?

“Yah.” He frowned at me then went back to unlocking the door. “Where I am from in Lappland they are traditional. Very warm. Made of reindeer fur.”

I had to bite my lip to keep from giggling. Rose punched me in the arm.

This was only the first in a long series of research rabbit holes I went down for this chapter. I also researched:

  • Basic archery and how to teach it
  • Archer equipment
  • Swedish names
  • Popular girl’s names (various nationalities)
  • Scrimshaw
  • How to write a Swedish accent
  • Gaelic sayings and how to pronounce them
  • Japanese instruments
  • Jack rabbit habitats
  • How to tie-dye
  • Camp pranks
  • Maple trees and those nifty “helicopter” maple seeds
  • A pretty flower that blooms in the summer and thrives in the North American mountains, that is ugly before it blooms
  • Dark elves

So my question is this? Does it make a difference to your average 9-year-old girl whether or not I get the smell of a Maple tree just right?

And my answer? I certainly hope so.

  1. Glynis Jolly says:

    Chances are it will be a 9-year-old girl who will want to know what a Maple tree smells like. She’ll probably also what to know where the smell of Christmas comes from. Tell her it comes from the Blue Spruce tree.

    If your book is for the young and inquisitive, by all means, try to get the research in. Anyway to keep their curiosity up is a good thing.


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