Tag: research

Magpie as Pawnee Presence

As I revisited (in research and in travel) the Republican River Valley of The Darkwater Liar’s Account for my next novels, I sought to learn about people of all races who lived and died in that region. My research led to the Pawnee tribe, with its Skidi, Kitkehahki and Chaui bands, who historically and currently call Nebraska and Kansas their ancestral home. Learning invoked my respect, which encouraged further study and blessed encounters with two Pawnee tribal members, who helped me see how the Pawnee people and culture remain vital today. In all of this, I learned about Magpie as Pawnee presence.

Magpie was a significant animal and spiritual figure to the Pawnee, as evident in stories recorded by George Amos Dorsey (1868-1931). G.A. Dorsey was an American ethnographer of North American Indigenous people and an anthropologist for the Field Columbian Museum. He is both a helpful and troublesome character for me in terms of research, as he documented a great deal of Native folklore, even as he desecrated and plundered Native graves and regarded Indigenous people and customs as relics of dead civilizations. Yet, I had to appreciate that several of Dorsey’s Pawnee stories, recorded in his The Pawnee: Mythology, feature Magpie as recounted by specific, named members of the three Pawnee bands in the waning years of the 19th Century.

A few of the traditional stories tell how Magpie stood out from other birds as a helper to humans, an intercessor and actor who would guide the lost and bring healing. Even though I was once-removed from the first storytellers, reading Dorsey’s translation from the Caddoan Pawnee language, I felt a quaver of the old voices through the pages, across time. My world view is far from theirs, but I treasure their meaningful accounts of Magpie and the other powerful animals and characters in their tradition, such as Coyote and Bear. So much so, that I wove a few into my next two novels.

In my next post, I’ll talk about Magpie as a character in my writing, and how I received my own blessing from this bird. (And thanks to Nanette Day, a writer, editor, publishing consultant and friend, for this post’s key illustration, which she designed with a quote from one of my previous posts.)

Writing it Then

Henry Feess & Kelly

I may be the world’s most delinquent blogger, but I have been writing. This new story is requiring a great deal of research. Thanks to the Internet, that process is sometimes too enjoyable.
In my online and “inbooks” research, I’ve been in places as specific as London…Calais…Berlin and Steinhoering Germany and last, but not least, the Republican River valley in Franklin County, Nebraska. The only one of those places I have ever actually visited was that part of Nebraska, where my parents grew up and my grandparents lived as I was a child. (The photo at left is of my Grandpa Henry Feess, holding me in front of the Franklin County Courthouse.) Among those different and distant places are also different times…1900-1960s, with the narrator telling the story in 1968.

My current novel was in process when I had the pleasure of reading Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. It is a fascinating and vivid retelling of the story of Thomas Cromwell, the first Earl of Essex during the reign of Henry VII. She reveals some of the challenges of research, which took her five years, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.
 
“To avoid contradicting history, she created a card catalogue, organized alphabetically by character. Each card contained notes locating a particular historical figure—such as protagonist Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s adviser—on relevant dates.

‘You really need to know, where is the Duke of Suffolk at the moment? You can’t have him in London if he’s supposed to be somewhere else,’ she says.” (1)

Checking facts provides a sturdy framework for plot and character. Thorough research might include contemporaneous fashion, household items, road and topographical maps, train schedules and bus routes, medical procedures and reading materials, to name a few. But then, there’s all the rest. Of course, I’m sure Ms. Mantel would agree. Physical location in time and space is only the first part of the challenge. In my case, I’m involving my characters with actual historic figures, as she did, so I must share her scruples.

 
Characters in historical fiction may not have access to public education and may struggle with common injuries and diseases that have no cure. They may witness death as an ordinary event and find themselves caught up in historic tides, without the luxury or arrogance that time provides for interpretation. Picture a man who only listens to his radio for music and events and reads the paper primarily to develop his political views…a woman who boards a ship or a train incognito, instead of going through a security check and body pat-down at the airport…someone who isn’t traceable with a number on a cell phone or a or credit or debit card, so he or she could get lost and found repeatedly, even reinventing himself or herself, at will.
This lovely ordeal of maybes and maybe nots, this process of writing takes time and mental immersion. It’s exciting and will not be rushed. But it’s a marvelous moment when the characters begin to speak in their own language, in their own time, even talking back when you try to make them do something they can’t fathom from their time and place. Then the real education and fun begin for this writer.

Thanks to Hilary Mantel, I have a new respect for authors of quality historical fiction, their processes and results. Now I just may be addicted, as well, to writing it there and then.


(1) “How to Write a Great Novel,” Wall Street Journal Friday, November 13, 2009. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703740004574513463106012106.html?mod=WSJ_hpp_sections_lifestyle
(2) This image is of book cover, found on Wikipedia and Amazon.com, and the copyright for it is most likely owned either by the artist who created the cover or the publisher of the book. It is believed that the use of low-resolution images of book covers to illustrate an article discussing the book in question qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law. This is my sole intention in uploading the image.