Any author, writing for a particular period, has to learn about that period in order to make his story believable. If you write about the 18th century, obviously you need to know how people in that period livedpaying some attention to the different classes of people. If you write about Marie Antoinette, you have to know what aristocrats wore, what they put in their hair and wigs to make them white, what the guillotine was like, and even how it worked. And if you don't know, you have to find out. That won't guarantee a good book on an 18th century subject, but without that kind of knowledge, I can almost guarantee a bad one.
Writing about the pre-historic period presents special problemsand advantages. There is an awful lot that we don't know about people of that dim age. We don't know how they spoke, for example. Much of what they used was made of perishable materials. We really don't know who did those famous cave paintings, or even why? Maybe women did them. Not knowing can be a good thing for an author, because it leaves some room for him to invent. In the first book, ZAN-GAH: A PREHISTORIC ADVENTURE, I made a secret society of women, the Women of Na, do the cave painting. Can you prove me wrong?
The prehistoric period left no written records. That's what makes it PRE-historic. To learn about human life circa 12,000 years ago, modern anthropologists have examined peoples in remote areas of the world who were still living in the stone age even into the 20th century. In this way they have gained knowledge of religion, rites of passage, division of labor by gender, language, and many other things that might well have been the same or similar in the ages before writing was known on Earth. As an art historian, I have studied some of this material, and rather freely adopted it for my books.
So I knew something of prehistoric peoples before I began writing the ZAN-GAH series. But it soon became apparent that I needed to look up a few things. in the first ZAN-GAH book, I had my hero, Zan-Gah, making a sling and learning to use itwhich was funny because I never had held a sling in my hand. Googled it. Found enough information to write about it credibly, and the rest is pre-history. Same thing with hand fishing. I wish I could say that I had done it and mastered the art, but I don't even like to fish with a rod. So I looked that up too.
Because Zan and Dael are twins, I did a more thorough search on the subject of twins in tribal societies, and discovered that some of these peoples were afraid of them. The birth of twins is so rare that it must have seemed frighteningly strange when it happened. Did the two new babies share the same spirit? Some societies killed them and their mother at birth (never the father). I hadn't known that but the knowledge came in very handy when Zan and Dael were in a tight spot. Investigation in this case not only gave me necessary authentic detail; it gave me a couple of great ideas for my narrative. Research is like that. It gives you ideas.
There is a chapter called "The Cave." I went to a cave (Missouri, my home state, is famous for them) in order to experience one directly, not just from pictures. Onondaga Cavern is magnificent, and the tour was great! I actually saw eyeless animals and bats, and took notes furiously. I believe I was the only guy in the entire cavern that was taking notes on little note cards. I mention eyeless salamanders in the book. I wrote descriptions of the stone configurations, on the spot, that found their way into ZAN-GAH almost word for word. Other travels supplied geographical information and provided much inspiration for all three novels. The great split in the earth is based on one I actually saw in New Mexico; and the land of red rocks was inspired by my visits to Colorado and Utah.
In the latest book, DAEL AND THE PAINTED PEOPLE, there are two shamans, so I had to do an investigation of shamanism to get things right. A shaman was a kind of "medicine man" who could contact and influence spirits that caused sickness and trouble. In short, they were miracle workers, so I wanted their miracles to seem as realistic as possible. Much of the new story turns on what the shamans do.
An important idea came to me by accident for DAEL AND THE PAINTED PEOPLE. Listening to National Public Radio, which is the only station I care for, I heard a program on crows. Some "crow specialists" were discussing the uncanny way crows can recognize individual human faces, even though the ebony birds all look alike to us. Crows have long memories, and will recall an offense, like the throwing of a stone, for many yearsalong with the offender's face. I didn't even know that there was such a thing as a "crow specialist," but I did some research on crows and learned some more stuff that came in very handy in DAEL AND THE PAINTED PEOPLE. In fact, the crow research became the inspiration and core of my third ZAN-GAH book. By the way, crows and ravens are not the same species at all. Good thing I did my research! Moreover, a group of ravens is called an "unkindness" of ravens, whereas a group of crows is called a "murder" of crows. Just though you'd like to know.
Do I intend to research a fourth book? I said (quoth) it twice in the past, and I'll quoth it again: Nevermore!
Allan is an artist, teacher, actor, author, historian, gardener, and former Boy Scout. He has published articles in The Art Bulletin, Art History, English Literary Renaissance, Studies in English Literature: 1500-1900, Notes and Queries, and Colby Quarterly. He was also Art and Music Bibliographer for Shakespeare Quarterly. He has had many letters in various newspapers, including a dozen in The New York Times. Allan taught the history of art at the University of Northern Iowa for three decades. He now lives and writes in St. Louis.
Win a copy of Dael and the Painted People!!
Ends September 9th.
Open to US only.
Fill out THE FORM to enter.