Researching Fact to Fiction

Kathryn White writes for children of all ages and is obsessed with animals. She’s published by Little Tiger and Egmont and regularly visits schools and runs interactive workshops. Her latest title for Bloomsbury Education is Sea Wolf.

Some of my books are triggered by just one word; but the word has to inspire, pull me in and make me search for more.  I gather words like pebbles.  Imagine walking along the shore and amongst the many pebbles that make up the shingle, there are strange shapes, marbled colours, and sparkling stones. As the wave foams back, I see an unusual stone and put it in my pocket. Sometimes I can place that word instantly into a book, or it will become the title of a book: such as The Tupilak.

If not used, then over time I store words away and hope they’ll reappear when needed, but this isn’t always the case.

The structure of my book is rarely
formed from the outset. My story will emerge through fog, the characters’ outline becoming more and more distinct, powerful. And, it is invariably research that determines the fluidity of my writing; I learn, I rewrite, I learn more and rewrite. Facts must dictate fiction – or it doesn’t work.

As with The Tupilak, I tripped over the word and was compelled to find its origin. There, the story began in the magic carving once used by the Inuit to cast powerful, evil spells upon those they deemed deserving.

White bone ― whale, seal, even human bone was carved into macabre shapes, distorted faces filled with maligned intent.  This was to be my story. But in researching the origin of this amazing artefact, I discovered so much more.  At the start of my research, I was a world away from the people of Alaska, from where my character dwelt; the people who started this strange, dark ritual, centuries ago. The deeper I delved into the history of the Inuit, the more tragic and inspiring their story became.  They survived in conditions we could only imagine. Their roots, beliefs and family loyalty were present: stretching out through each village to make it unshakeable, immense.

As with The Tupilak, I tripped over the word and was compelled to find its origin. There, the story began in the magic carving once used by the Inuit to cast powerful, evil spells upon those they deemed deserving.

White bone ― whale, seal, even human bone was carved into macabre shapes, distorted faces filled with malignimg_20160929_095602728ed intent.  This was to be my story. But in researching the origin of this amazing artefact, I discovered so much more.  At the start of my research, I was a world away from the people of Alaska, from where my character dwelt; the people who started this strange, dark ritual, centuries ago. The deeper I delved into the history of the Inuit, the more tragic and inspiring their story became.  They survived in conditions we could only imagine. Their roots, beliefs and family loyalty were present: stretching out through each village to make it unshakeable, immense.

So, what happened when companies drilling from the oil industry in the U.S. discovered such riches under the feet of the Inuit? Communities were destroyed. Inuit children taken from their heritage and shipped to American prefab schools, which had been hastily constructed to ensure the next generation integrated into the new economic structure.  It’s the age-old adage of the developed world, we know better than you, what benefits you. Families became disenfranchised, traditions almost lost, identity diminished and as a result ― alcoholism increased to epidemic proportions.  All this, I discovered from one word, from one image: the Tupilak.  And, a people I grew up knowing so little about, soon became real, challenged and alive.

For Sea Wolf, my latest book, I discovered the Newfie. A beast with immense character that is, to any writer, irresistible. I knew I wanted to write about the wonderful sea beast called the Newfoundland.

Although Sea Wolf only physically emerges in my story at the end, it is the mystery of this immense creature that weaves its dark presence through the book.  The more I researched, the more I was amazed by the facts surrounding this creature. Newfoundlands, Newfs or Newfies have webbed feet and a water-resistant coat.

This animal is made for the sea!  Males normally weigh 65–80 kg and females 55–65 kg, placing them in the “Giant” weight range; but some Newfoundland dogs have been known to weigh over 90 kg, and the largest on record weighed 120 kg and measured over 1.8 m (6 ft) from nose to tail, ranking it among the biggest Molosser. They may grow up to 56–76 cm tall at the shoulder, yet they can manoeuvre as gracefully as a dolphin, mermaid or Sea Beast. Depending on how your story’s panning out.

But the most fascinating part of my research was the rescue stories, the real dramas that set this animal apart from others.

In 1881 in Melbourne, Australia, a Newfoundland named Nelson helped rescue Thomas Brown, a cab driver, swept away by floodwaters in Swanston Street on the night of 15 November. Nelson’s copper dog collar engraved with his name has survived and 130 years after the rescue, acquired by the National Museum of Australia. It is now part of the National Historical Collection.

In the early 20th century, a Newfie saved 92 people who were on the SS Ethie, which was wrecked off of the Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland during a blizzard. The dog retrieved a rope thrown to it in turbulent waters and brought the rope to people waiting on the beach. A breeches buoy was attached to the rope, and all those aboard the ship were able to get across to safety including an infant in a mailbag.

In 1995, a 10-month-old Newfoundland named Boo saved a hearing-impaired man from drowning in the Yuba River when he fell in whilst dredging for gold. Boo saw the man in distress and instinctively dived in, took the drowning man by the coat arm in his strong jaws and dragged him to safety. The dog had never been rescue trained.

Hatshepsut ― my next word ― was my Pharaoh in my tale, The Gift.

Hatshepsut ruled in popularity for twenty-five years after the death of her husband Thutmose II.

I dug down into her history and uncovered treachery around her son Thutmose III who finally came to rule. I also discovered her devotee and possible lover; Senenmut, the ultimate designer of her tomb. I travelled back through time and learned of a Pharaoh that I ‘d never been taught about in school ― and a female Pharaoh, too.

These are just a few of the words that prompted research and triggered such discoveries and subsequent books.

Other words I enjoy purely for the sound, particularly for picture books and younger fiction, the sort of words children love to hear and use in rhyme. Words such as a ‘flamboyance’, meaning a flock of flamingos, right down to the simple sound of ‘banana’ ― researching this word was quite fruitful.

There is a rather large diversity of banana species, writing in The New YorkerMike Peed had the following to say about this diversity:

There are fuzzy bananas whose skins are bubble-gum pink; green and white striped bananas with pulp the colour of orange sherbet, and bananas that, when cooked , taste like strawberries. The Double Mahoi plant can produce two bunches at once. The Chinese name of the aromatic Go San Heong banana means ‘you can smell it from the next mountain.’ The fingers on one banana plant grow fused; another produces bunches of a thousand fingers, each only an inch long.

And of course, there is the amazing fact that banana plants actually move, their roots taking them across the ground by up to 40 cms in a lifetime, which is why plantation owners leave space for this extraordinary advance.

For me, research is the discovery of so much.

It is the experience of one word that can turn fascinating fact into a wealth of fiction, opening up a whole new world.

 

Kathryn’s latest title is Sea Wolf  the story of siblings Ethan and Maya and their daring adventure to Black Rock. This title is part of our High/Low fiction ideal for struggling and reluctant readers, those with EAL and those with dyslexia.

www.kathrynwhite.net

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