Researching Fairies

What was wrong with me yesterday?

Whatever it was, I’m clearly not right yet. I’m still completely exhausted.

The problem with writing is that, like any other intense activity, it requires focus, concentration. And I just don’t seem to have that right now. And my throat hurts. I think I’m sick, honestly.

I woke up this morning and, although I knew it was going to be below freezing today, I just couldn’t face wearing the same old jeans or corduroys again. So I wore one of the skirts I wrote about yesterday, which looked like this:

At the university, I went to the library and picked up two books on fairies, The Fairies in Tradition and Literature and An Encyclopedia of Fairies by Katherine Briggs. I read the first one and took notes, then taught my classes, then came home and read the first one again, taking notes until I fell asleep. Not actually on top of the book, but pretty close.

When I woke up, I sat down to write this post. But my head doesn’t feel particularly clear, and as I said, my throat hurts. I think the season of being sick is upon us.

This is the place in my research process where I just read for a while, where I start to get a feel for my subject. What I’m looking for at this point is some way of approaching it, some point of view. Also some way of dividing it up. Do I write about fairies by looking at them historically: folklore fairies, literary fairies in their various centuries? Do I write about the characteristics of fairies, their interactions with humans, fairy poetry, fairy paintings? I’m still trying to decide.

What I do know, already, is that there’s an awful lot of information out there.

One thing that surprises me is how many people claim to have seen fairies in one form or another. Add that to the people who claim to have seen ghosts, or to have had other sorts of supernatural experiences, and what do you get? I mean, it’s so easy to discount things like that, to say there’s no scientific validity to them. But what are they really? Our brains tricking us? Or something genuinely strange about our world that we’re interpreting in the ways we know how, as ghosts or fairies? What shape is reality, I guess is what I’m asking. And I ask this as a fantasy writer, meaning that I need to know reality in order to bend it, or break it, or otherwise shape it anew.

I did read something in one of Briggs’ books that started me thinking about story ideas. It was an excerpt from Ancient Legends of Ireland by Lady Wilde, Oscar’s mother, about the Banshee:

“But only certain families of historic lineage, or persons gifted with music and song, are attended by this spirit; for music and poetry are fairy gifts, and the possessors of them show kinship to the spirit race – therefore they are watched over by the spirit of life, which is prophesy and inspiration; and by the spirit of doom, which is the revealer of the secrets of death.

“Sometimes the Banshee assumes the form of some sweet singing virgin of the family who died young, and has been given the mission by the invisible powers to become the harbinger of coming doom to her mortal kindred. Or she may be seen as a shrouded woman, crouched beneath the trees, lamenting with a veiled face; or flying past in the moonlight, crying bitterly; and the cry of this spirit is mournful beyond all other sounds on earth, and betokens certain death to some member of the family wherever it is heard in the silence of the night.”

For some reason, this reminds me of a story by H.H. Munro called “The Wolves of Cernogratz.” A wealthy family has moved into the von Cernogratz castle. They are told that if someone dies in the castle, the wolves will howl for them, and the Baroness says that is not true, a relative died in the castle recently and no wolves howled. The faded old governess speaks up and says that the wolves will not howl for just anyone, only for a member of the von Cernogratz family. She says that she herself is one of the von Cernogratz. She is not believed, is thought to be claiming an ancestry that does not belong to her. But several weeks later she becomes sick, begins dying. And the wolves begin howling.

“Not for much money would I have such death-music,” says the Baroness.

“That music is not to be bought for any amount of money,” says one of her relatives.

The governess dies, listening to the howling of the wolves.

My story would not be like that. I would focus on “persons gifted with music and song,” because I’m interested not in hereditary aristocracy, but in the aristocracy of creators, of people who are gifted with artistic talent and use it. But it would be about who the Banshee wails for, who deserves to have that sort of warning.

I have other work to do tonight, this being February as I said some time ago – the difficult month. But writing my Folkroots column teaches me so much. If you’re going to be a writer, I highly recommend writing non-ficton – in some form.

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5 Responses to Researching Fairies

  1. John Stevens says:

    I had a crap writing day yesterday as well, but I am not feeling as bad today as you are. Do try to rest!

    I like the Briggs’ encyclopedia (it is here on a shelf by my desk). Thank you for reminding me about it. Despite its proximity I did not think to consult it for a story that I am currently writing that involves a fairy apocalypse.

    Writing non-fiction (well, columns hither and thither) has helped me a lot, mostly because deadlines give me a structure for writing and they exercise the old writin’ muscles. The current column over at SFSignal is giving me a lot of space to get ideas out of my head and help me reflect on my fiction. Hopefully it will lead to me writing more and better fiction.

  2. rushmc says:

    People have always seen things. Things they misperceived as one thing rather than another, things they didn’t understand and so created an explanation for, and things that weren’t there at all (various types of brain events), which also needed some sort of an explanation or mental category to put them in. If you look at the records over time, it is the local culture that determines how these things get reported: as fairies; as witches; as UFOs. And this does not include the many instances of proven or suspected fraud.

    It doesn’t strike me as much of a mystery, really.

  3. Tim Pratt says:

    I love the Briggs, and dip into it frequently when casting about for story ideas. (Indeed, I recently wrote a middle grade book that owes most of its existence to flipping through Briggs and reading about nursery bogies.)

  4. I’m having a lot of fun with Briggs! A fairy apocalypse . . . What an interesting idea! (Anything like a unicorn apocalypse?) Tim, that sounds fascinating, and I’m looking forward to hearing about the book when it comes out!

  5. John Stevens says:

    It’s this kind of fairy apocalypse:

    Everyone knew that Bilbo and Leslie would take one of the unfortunate faerie children, despite the havoc caused by their revelation. As soon as Kyle saw the tweet from @BBCBreaking that said “30% of the world’s children under 4 revealed to be switched with faeries at birth,” he looked around the café and told the first person who met his eyes (after four dodged him) “I bet Bilbo and Leslie get a kid now!”

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