However, research, particularly at this early stage, can also be the thing which brings your story to a screeching halt just about the time the characters are beginning to speak. This is frustrating when it happens, but how can you create believable dialogue if you don’t fully understand the context—the who, what, where, when--within which these characters ought to be?
Once you start digging into what you don’t know, there’s a pause in writing. You’ve got to haul out a book, or go hunting around online—enter the jungle of clicking around and hope you don’t pick up some electronic disease during your search for knowledge.
Only after you have satisfied that “need to know” can you get back to the story again, now, hopefully armed with some better understanding. You can only hope that those characters, just now taking ghostly shape, will successfully shrug on this new mantle, this new layer of detail, and begin to speak through you more clearly.
There’s always a sense, for me, when I start a historical novel, I’ve got to enter another reality, get inside that skin of a place, a period. For this story, I’m venturing out of the European world and trying to find the entrance into that of another Tribe, as well as the business of reaching back in time. The early 50’s coincides with my own childhood, and it is occurring to me that here’s small bit of time experience I share with my characters. Nevertheless, the distance between my “Stone House” childhood and that of Sascho and Yaotl of the NWT Tlicho is wide.
In other historical novels I’ve written, I’ve thought a lot about the context, the time, the place, the material culture, the tools and technology, surrounding my characters. As mentioned above, Fly Away Snow Goose has an extra dimension of difference for me, in that I’m challenged to enter a culture with which I’m really not familiar.
The Iroquois, whose world I tried to enter in the course of writing Genesee, were a much more settled people. The Athabascans of NWT in the early 1950’s--in all their divisions and tribes --are a people whose world remained migratory, much like the world of the last ice age. Many families still seasonally followed the animals who give them everything—food, clothing, shelter, and tools—the caribou.
To help me understand, I’m turning to ethnographic studies of the kind where the social scientist becomes first of all, an apprentice to his subjects. And in the course of doing this research, and trying to dig in emotionally, I’m sometimes brought up against my own culture’s prejudices and preconceptions.
By the 1950’s where this story is set, the lifeways of the people of this fragile land were in flux, due to government policies dictated by a colonizing culture which enforced its will in many ways. The residential schools, designed to “kill the Indian” in the child, were Canadian law. Increasing numbers of whites and their agents, powerful, faceless mining corporations, were entering their land, violating treaty rights, taking possession, and leaving pollution behind. These unfamiliar entities claimed to own the ancient places and pathways of the De’ that the Tlicho and their neighbors had walked for the last 10,000 years. It’s against the background of these upheavals that this story will be told.
For these brave children, it’s about resistance, about language and belief, but even more, it’s a way of seeing the world—not as “mine” or “yours”—but as a web of interdependent relationships. I could stumble around forever trying to get this right, but instead I’ll quote Chief Seattle, Leader of the Suquamish and Duwamish 1st Nations.
“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together; all things connect.”