Tossing everything in the pot

I was on the “Kick-Ass Female Authors and their Killer Heroines” panel at NY Comic Con last month, and one of the questions that was put to us was about the kind of research we did for our novels.  There were a number of different answers (many stressing the importance of researching a setting; mess up a description of someone’s hometown and you will hear about it), but I’ve been thinking a little more about what research I did for Spiral Hunt and the ways I’ve put it to use or set it aside.

For me, research serves several purposes, each of which plays into different parts of the writing process.  There’s research to get the details right, either of setting or plot or character, and that can come in at any stage for me.  I tend to do a lot of this kind of research in between drafts, to make sure that Brilliant Idea #19 actually has some basis in fact or can at least be justified.  There’s internal research (also known as “making stuff up”), which last week’s worldbuilding post touches on.  But the most fun part of the process, for me at least, is the first flurry of research even before the plot’s fully crystallized.

At this stage, I usually read indiscriminately from both scholarly and less-reputable sources (I’ve never read so much undiluted crazy as when I was researching the Holy Grail for a currently-stalled novel), immersing myself in theories and histories, mythologies and exegeses, all the bits and pieces that might come in useful at some point but right now are just there to catch my attention.  Food for the muse, in other words.  Eventually I zero in on a few particular books as source material and keep coming back to them, though the reading has already done most of its work: I now have all kinds of information banging around inside my skull, ready for use.

A few of the books that I kept coming back to when researching Spiral Hunt are below the cut.  These were part of the original whirlwind that turned into the plot of the novel, but they were also the sources that I read and reread to come back into touch with the root of the story.early-irish

Early Irish myths are flat-out bizarre if you’re not used to them — say, if you’re used to Bulfinch’s and the usually-linear progression of Greek myths.  (Especially if what you’ve been reading are the toned-down, cleaned-up myths that are like the ones I read as a kid.)  Some of it’s due to how much has been lost over time or redacted into unrecognizable forms.  Some of it’s because the narrators assumed readers would have access to a body of knowledge that didn’t survive.  Whatever the reason, these myths had so many gaps and poorly-fitting explanations (e.g., the blurry links between The Wooing of Etain and The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel) that they immediately fired my imagination.   

I read this book for the first time while auditing Patrick K. Ford’s class on Celtic mythology (the sourcebooks for the class were also invaluable), and what I took away from the class was that these myths can’t be “explained” in the sense of stating what the symbols meant, what was supposed to be happening to whom.  There’s nothing obvious about Celtic mythology, which I think is part of why I love it.  


The Mabinogi was another matter. I knew some of the names from reading Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain when I was a kid, but it only takes a glance at the four branches to see that the names are the greatest link between them. (Although I did have a moment of happy recognition when reading along in Kilhwch ac Olwen and finding in the list of Arthur’s men not only Fflewddur Fflam the blazing but also Dallben and Coll son of Collfrewr. Even though they’re definitely not the same figures as in Alexander’s Prydain, it was still like hearing a familiar voice.)

Reading the Mabinogi was like hearing a theme when I’d only heard variations.  It didn’t make the variations any less beautiful or less loved, and the theme on its own had these strange, inexplicable gaps (horse collar?  hammers?), but something about it told me that I’d come to the right place.  Even though I consciously used very little Welsh mythology in Spiral Hunt, a lot of the background and the substructure of the story — below plot, below themes — draws on it.


Dictionaries and basic reference books like this are hardly in-depth research, but they’re good for that last-minute check, the cross-reference to make sure that so-and-so really was such-and-such’s brother, the “oh, crap!” moments that always seem to hit 4/5 of the way through a revision.  But this one I found useful not just for its references and utility, but for the amount of time I could lose reading through it, bouncing from entry to entry and following threads back and forth until a picture began to emerge. 

(Yes, I am the kind of person who reads reference books for fun.  I can also lose hours reading Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.  My twin once successfully distracted me for a whole week by loaning me the Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology.)

This was the first place that I read of the hounds Bran and Sceolang, and about the conflicting myths surrounding them.  And from there, the first fragments of a story began to coalesce.

4 Responses to “Tossing everything in the pot”

  1. March 4, 2009 at 6:43 pm

    Because this is as good a place as any to share it with you, what we’re reading this semester in my Old Irish class is Kinsella’s translation of the Tain, Ancient Irish Tales, and an Early Irish Lyric book that I can’t seem to find a link for. Our professor also recommended Proinsias MacCana’s Celtic Mythology, which I’ve just ordered. Pretty, prety pictures, apparently.

  2. 2 mlronald
    March 5, 2009 at 3:01 am

    I haven’t read Kinsella’s translation of the Tain, though I know I ought to. (I’m more familiar with the tales around the periphery of the Tain.) And yes, MacCana! I’d thought it was out of print, but what I’ve read has been really useful.

  3. March 8, 2009 at 3:11 pm

    I think it is out of print, but I found a used copy. My professor tells us stories about Kinsella showing up to MacCana’s house with a bottle of whiskey and picking his brain for his translation. She knew them both.

    BTW, I lent her my copy of your book, and she enjoyed it. 😀

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