Rapunzel and Research

Last week after I finished a scene on my Rapunzel novel, I was struck with the conviction: I have to research now.

My initial plan with Rapunzel was to do as much research as possible before NaNoWriMo began last November. I was able to do some research, but not as much as I wanted, because I was also trying to finish another draft of Rumpled. Then in November, of course, there was no time for even the most basic research–writing was pretty much my only option if I wanted to finish. That was okay, though–I could research between drafts. Except somehow, March and NaNoEdMo were upon me as if December, January, and February had never happened. So I was putting in over 10 hours a week editing Rapunzel without the time to do the research I’d wanted to do then, either, although I did stop here and there to do a spot of research as needed, mainly into European growing seasons and other garden-related trivia.

I’ve never written something that requires massive research, such as historical fiction novel or novel that incorporates real people as characters. Even though what I write is primarily speculative fiction, I’ve still managed to keep a lot of the human experiences close enough to home that I could get away with not researching except as needed for certain scenes (scenes in one of my past novels that involved curing pork and assembling guns come to mind.)

I don’t think Rapunzel necessarily needs more than this level of research. Although it takes place in a vaguely medieval European world, the actual kingdoms are imaginary, and no specific dates are mentioned, nor any real historical events. Still, there’s something that’s telling me to stop and go deeper at this point, and I’m going to listen to my gut. This story has taken hold of me in a way that nothing has for years, so I’m going to let it continue to lead the way and see what happens.

My research primarily takes two paths. The first investigates the “Maiden in the Tower” motif to which Rapunzel belongs, more deeply exploring the pervasiveness and commonalities of these stories (to that end, I’ve recently ordered a book by the same name both through Interlibrary Loan and Amazon.com). The second one centers on medieval witchcraft trials. I was surprised that I needed to go beyond my local library to find good information on the latter, as I live within the largest library system in South Dakota. Still, it seems most of the witchcraft resources that exist focus on the Salem Witch Trials. I find this an interesting turn, since those witch trials were the descendants of their European predecessors; far fewer witches were tried in Salem than in medieval Europe, and yet somehow those are the trials that loom largest in the public imagination. Is it just the ethnocentrism of living in the U.S. that makes other witchcraft history hard to get hold of?

And then, somewhat unintentionally, I’ve also begun some hands-on research. Last week, it finally stopped raining long enough for me to plant a garden. A witch’s garden figures prominently into nearly all versions of Rapunzel, so of course it’s a central setting for my novel as well, comprising one of the few places outside the tower that Rapunzel has ever experienced. I’ve never been much of a gardening enthusiast myself, but I am an enthusiast of fresh, cheap produce, so for me the garden is just a means to that end. I had a garden a couple years ago that I woefully neglected that produced vegetables in spite of that, and I was halfway expecting this garden to take the same route. And yet, already I’m feeling a greater sense of investment in this garden. Is it because it’s dependent only upon me, when I had my sister and my dad sharing responsibility for my former garden? Is it because I planted every single seed myself? Or am I perhaps channeling a bit of “Mama” (Mother Gothel in the original), who loves her garden with the same fierceness with which she loves Rapunzel? In one scene, Mama justifies taking Rapunzel because of the way her biological father treated plants:

“Your father was cruel, Rapunzel,” Mama said once, throwing aside weeds she had just pulled. “He didn’t even bring anything for clipping the rampion. He just ripped it out of the ground, roots and all. And when I confronted him, his arms full to bursting, he became whiter than a slug’s belly. He blamed his wife, and her desperate cravings. And I thought, if this man cannot be gentle with these living creatures–” Mama spread her hand to indicate all that bloomed around her–“then how could he be fit to care for a tiny babe?”

I was surprised to feel that same sort of protectiveness as I dropped tiny seeds onto the ground, then gently covered them with dirt. Here’s hoping I have a little bit of Mama’s talent with coaxing abundant and nourishing food out of them as well–although I could do without the fanaticism.

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2 Responses to Rapunzel and Research

  1. mariezhuikov says:

    Hi Lacey, I’ve been meaning to comment on your post since it came out, but haven’t had time. How’s your research going? I am wondering if you aren’t finding much about the European witch trials because you are searching in America, so I think you’re right about the ethnocentrism. I find resarch one of the funnest things about novel writing. I love learning about something and then figuring out how to fictionalize it and work it into the story.

    • Hi, Marie. I love research, too, and I think one reason I’ve only done minor, very targeted research for my novels is because I’m afraid I’d just keep doing it and put off writing forever! Also, that there will be the temptation to use everything I learn. But I think it helps that I’m not looking for anything in particular right now, just immersing myself in a certain “climate” to get a better handle on what the world Mama lived in might have been like. The books I *did* manage to find came through Interlibrary Loan, so their due dates alone will keep the research from going on indefinitely. 🙂 I have to start reading faster, but I’m enjoying it. I was especially surprised to find out that 50,000 people were killed during the medieval witch trials, as opposed to about 50 in Salem, with most of those dying in prison. So yes, I think ethnocentrism is definitely at the crux of the lack of information, probably coupled with the fact that fewer written records have survived from that period.

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