As a reminder, this is the second part for my Weird Things I’ve Had To Research series. You can find my series introduction, which will include a (growing) table of contents, here.
As I said in my last research post, In Treachery Forged‘s first draft was finished a long, long time before I published it. I probably should have worked on the sequel, in all that time (In Forgery Divided would have been out months ago, if I had, instead of with the editor as it is now), but I was trying to sell it to a trade publisher. While I worked out an outline for the entire series, I wasn’t sure I wanted to put the time into writing additional books if I never could sell it. (Then self-publishing became practical, and I finally cottoned on to the practical side of self-publishing, and now…)
During many of those years, however, it was sitting in various agents’ and publishers’ slush piles — it was in one particular publishing house’s slush pile for over four years — and I was trying hard to figure out how to get a publisher to take it. I went to local conventions whenever an editor, agent, or publishing head was going to attend, hoping to glean some trick that would help me get noticed. I was also reading blogs belonging to publishers, agents, other writers, etc., always looking for new information. Sadly, most of what I heard was the same recycled stuff, over and over and over again.
But over the course of one year, at three different conventions and on a few agents and authors blogs, I heard the following sentiment (maybe not in exact words, but something pretty close):
“If I see pull one more manuscript from the slush pile featuring Elves or Dwarves or Dragons, I’m going to throw it across the room in frustration!”
Now, this puzzled me. Outside of a few licensed properties and Tolkien, I wasn’t all that familiar with this deluge of books featuring Elves and Dwarves and Dragons. I’m not saying they didn’t exist, but these same editors, agents, publishers, etc. seemed to have no problem taking on manuscripts featuring certain mythological creatures that seemed far, far more played out to me (*cough*VAMPIRES!*cough*). What was wrong with the trope creatures and races of the Western-style fantasy genre appearing in fantasy genre novels?
But whatever. Agents, publishers, and editors didn’t seem to want Elves and Dwarves and Dragons, and the book I was trying to peddle had all three. Most of the other fantasy novels I had planned, in the Law of Swords series or elsewhere, also included Elves and Dwarves and Dragons. Hm….
Idea: Why not take one one of my Western-style fantasy plots, but replace the Elves and Dwarves and Dragons with creatures from other mythologies?
Problem: While I knew a couple creatures that might fit into the plotline I had in mind, I wasn’t that familiar with them. You might think “these are mythological creatures, so it doesn’t matter what you say about them,” but look at the criticism Stephanie Meyer gets for her sparkling vampires in Twilight — that doesn’t mean you need to get every detail right, but you probably should be familiar, at a minimum, with the basics of the myths behind these creatures, at least, or you risk annoying a lot of people. I had to delve into the research.
I only needed a few animals for my bestiary, to make the book work, but I wanted more than just a “few.” In that quest, I read up on hundreds of mythological creatures, most of which never made it in. Some of the ones which didn’t are merely “didn’t yet,” though, and others have sparked ideas for other stories. This was a lesson that even when you know what you’re looking for you can get a lot of misses in with your hits, but that can still be a good thing.
To start my research, I went off to Wikipedia. Now, I reiterate that Wikipedia is actually a very poor source for research (although sometimes it gives you enough information for certain purposes). It can be a good jumping off point, however, if the topic is too controversial. And it is a wonderful source of lists. Thanks to Wikipedia, I could create my new bestiary by pulling from the lists: Extinct animals, Mythological (now called Legendary) Creatures, and Cryptids.
I skimmed most of the articles (it took days just to do this much with all of them, but this was the heavy research period). I bookmarked a number to consider for potential roles in the book, set aside one I had already decided on using, and discarded a bunch for being either too common (anything related to vampires or zombies, basically) or too ordinary (I can’t remember which one it was, but there was one that broke down to “it’s a meat-eating cow! A cannibal cow! Run!” Er, yeah).
But for most of them, I had to do a lot of reading, even just on wikipedia, to figure out what made these mythological (or not-so-mythological, in the case of a few of them) creatures theoretically tick.
I will say that the Kitsune, especially, I tried to fit with the myth most in terms of tangible characteristics… but not necessarily in attitude and character. I tried hard to make sense of some things.
For example, they were said to always have a ball (or jewel) called a “tama.” If this tama was taken from them, they would panic, and give anything to get it back. In the myths, they claimed these tama would do nothing for humans, just for Kitsune. But what the tama did for a kitsune, there was no explanation (well, none that I could find; I am hobbled by not being able to read the original Japanese myths, and have to make do with someone else’s translations).
Kitsune were known as tricksters with the magic of illusions and several other, similar traits… but I saw no evidence of this whenever they approached someone who had taken their tama, even though I could concoct a myriad of ways for them to retrieve their tama if they did use these powers. Well… it isn’t explicitly stated, but doesn’t it make sense that these tama would be the “power source” (or focus, or whatever — similar to magic wands in Harry Potter, in my view) for the Kitsune’s illusory magic?
I’m not going to reveal everything about what factors were research and what were logicked or made up about the major players in my book — the Kitsune, the Wulver, the Haltija, the Bunyips, etc. — because, well, that would spoil a lot of the fun in it. In fact, beyond what I’ve already stated, I’m not going to mention them at all. Instead, this is going to focus on a sampling of the cryptids I did research: Why I chose them, what I learned about them, and why I ultimately didn’t include them in the story.
If Elves, Dwarves, and Dragons are considered “cliché,” I figured horses, chickens, oxen, and so forth must be as well. They appear in so many books, you know?
Okay, so I didn’t get rid of ALL the horses, chickens, oxen, and so forth, but I figured I should expand my fictional world’s selection of livestock beyond these “cliché” animals. I figured most mythological creatures would be a little too strange for human domestication, but perhaps I could find a set of extinct animals instead.
The first extinct animal I considered were Moas. Now, I didn’t really think I needed to do much research on moas — after all, they showed up in a lot of Discovery Channel shows on extinct animals as the prey species all those extinct post-dinosaur preditors ate. We’re talking a 300-500 lb. flightless bird, here. Basically, a giant kiwi (or ostrich, or tinamou…). I could include them in the story as part of the setting — someone might be a moa farmer; domesticated moa for food, moa drawing carts, moa being hooked up to plows, etc. The most common “background” animal in the game was there, waiting for me, without a single bit of research required.
Then someone reminded me of Final Fantasy, and the video game creature the Chocobo.
Well, as I didn’t want my fantasy world to too closely resemble one of the most recognizable video game series in the history of video games, I scrapped those ideas. I may have left an artifact or two of my original plans (I can’t remember for sure if any of the Moa survived the purge from my manuscript), but I couldn’t use them quite as prolifically as I had planned.
But horses, oxen, cows, and so forth are boring (at least as boring as Elves, Dwarves, and Dragons, right?), so I went looking for something else.
I considered Dire Wolves (too Game of Thrones), Mylodons (interesting, but no opportunity to include them), Camelops (too indistinquishable from camels), and Aurouchs (those almost made it in, but I instead used a different critter). Really, my scouting of extinct species wound up being something of a bust.
I may have, however, solved a bit of a family mystery… but that leads us into our next category of critters.
A cryptid can be many things — a creature that is, as Wikipedia describes it, a creature that has been suggested to exist, but has not yet been scientifically documented.
This can mean creatures of myth and folklore that there might be some sort of real-life basis for, or creatures that have been declared extinct that are rumored to still exist.
My mother used to teach English in Kanazawa, Japan. While she lived in a city, there was the occasional bit of wildlife wandering the streets. One night, my mother recalls, she literally walked right into the middle of a pack of Japanese red wolves. She was understandably shocked, but they didn’t bother her and she was able to walk through them without any issues.
Problem: This breed of wolf supposedly went extinct in 1904. It was the 1960s.
They are, however, a cryptid: There were sightings of these wolves for decades after they “went extinct,” but there wasn’t any scientific documentation of them. Now, it’s been over fifty years; even if they were still alive back then, so if there were a few lingering packs of this breed of wolf still alive back then they probably are all gone now. However, finding that these wolves were cryptids (or rather, that she wasn’t the only person who sighted them after they were declared extinct) makes the idea that they really weren’t extinct more realistic than the thought she walked through a pack of ghost wolves.
And it wouldn’t be the first time a supposed cryptid was found to be real. Witness the Okapi: A sort of cross between a giraffe and a zebra. It was believed to be pure folklore, but one man spent fourty years trying to convince the world it existed. Not only did it exist, it was a common animal, with large herds to be found throughout Africa. The end result became the poster child for those who feel cryptozoology is more science than psuedoscience. (Literally; the Okapi was adopted as the symbol of the now-defunct International Society of Cryptozoology).
The problem is that cryptids aren’t all extinct animals that might still be around, or common creatures we just have a hard time believing exist until confronted by whole live specimens. Cryptozoology is a fringe science, at best, because too many cryptozoologist (especially amateurs) are little more than the stereotypical Bigfoot Hunter — chasing a myth in the least scientific way imaginable. The discipline hasn’t had a real success since a name for it was derived.
But, that bit about cryptozoology aside, there are quite a few creatures that fit into the category of Cryptid that are good material for fiction — even cryptids which are known hoaxes.
If I were writing a Terry Pratchetesque Light Fantasy, I might consider including something like a Wild Haggis into the story… but that wasn’t what I was going for. I did, however, have an interest in adding Jackelopes to my plans.
Well, researching Jackalopes turned up quite a few critters I’d never heard of (or only heard brief mentions of), before — Wolpertingers, Rasselbocks, Skvaders, Al-mi’raj, and any number of horned rabbits. Most of these are derived from taxidermic hoaxes, and a few may have been the result of a viral disease, but it didn’t matter: I had a whole set of related creatures I could use for populating my fictional world. I could make some of them domesticated breeds, some wild, some of different sizes or shapes….
I did a lot of research into the myths of horned rabbits. They actually made it into the book… but while I had done hours of research on them, I think they contributed little more than a paragraph or two to the story.
On the other end of the spectrum, there was the Amarok (which I would, forever after, mistakenly type as Aramok. My dyslexia strikes again. I think we eventually got them all corrected to the proper spelling, but I’m not sure). I read the Wikipedia article and never followed up on my research. I planned to include it, but only as part of a throwaway scene. Yet, because it fit in so well with something I needed doing involving a Kitsune character (Kitsune, I had learned, were afraid of dogs and wolves; a giant wolf was the perfect creature to play upon a Kitsune’s worst fear) I wound up featuring the Aramok in an inciting background incident — far more of an appearance than the brief mention of the various horned rabbits I’d spent hours researching.
I think I did just about the right amount of research on some creatures I wound up using, but while they might appear on lists of cryptids, I think they’d be better discussed in the final category I was drawing from for my bestiary: Creatures from Myth and Legend.
Humanity has come up with a lot of mythological creatures in the millennia upon millennia of human history. Some of these turn out to really exist (though their mythological properties may not be quite what the myths claim), like the Hoan Kiem Turtle of Vietnamese myth. Others are possibly misinterpretations of other critters, like oarfish being mistaken as sea monsters. Some are fairly believeable and realistic, like the Poukai, which may be a cultural memory of the extinct Haast’s Eagle.
Many of them, though, are pretty hard to believe. I mean, suppose you heard about a creature that was a water spirit, greatly dreaded by the locals. It is described as a giant starfish with a “dog-like face, a crocodile-like head, dark fur, a horse’s tail, flippers, walrus-like tusks, and a duck-like bill.” A supposed corpse of this creature was measured as “eleven paces long and four paces in breadth.” Would you believe such a thing might exist?
But that is the Bunyip. A creature of aboriginal Australian folklore, the Bunyip never appears described in the same way twice… but it inspires fear and terror. Every account claimed they were a large monster, preferred living near rivers or wetlands, territorial, deadly, and fiercely protective of their young… but their physical appearance changed with every person who spoke of them.
Not much to go on, is it? But hey — sometimes ambiguity can help you. Suppose the reason all bunyips are described differently is that they’re shapeshifters? Suddenly, you’ve got something. Keep them very deadly, maybe add a story-specific power or two, and hey — you’ve got a creature that can be a deadly danger for your characters.
And in another “good for the story, but I can’t find much there,” I had the haltija. Known by about a dozen different names (including Vaki, which I used in the book), they are a sort of “guardian spirit” from myths of Finnish origin. They come in a lot of varieties (distinguished, in the book, as different breeds of vaki), but most are small, playful brownie-like creatures with powers related to the element they are guarding; until you get them mad. Then… well, it depends.
There are a lot of mythical creatures, however, who simply don’t work in the kind of fantasy story I like to write… and I’m not just talking the hundreds of variations on vampires, zombies, and werewolves out there. I mean, I was looking for intelligent humanoid creatures of myth, but I couldn’t figure out what I’d do with angry humans who could run fast despite backwards feet (the Abarimon), or headless men like the Blemmyes. I needed beasts of burden, but a camel with the head of a donkey (the allocamelus) is just boring. And while I wanted background animals, how the heck would you use a fairy hedgehog? (Don’t answer that — I think I’ve got an idea. But it wouldn’t have worked in this book).
I did, however, find a number of creatures I could use… but I didn’t need to do much research on them once I found them (basically, all I had to do was confirm that they were myths and not fiction. Wait a second, here… um… confirm that Wikipedia hadn’t come up with these myths on its own? That there was some actual myth behind these myths? Okay, that works): Firebreathing chickens (basan), donkey-sized “unicorns” that would work as beasts of burden (abada), venemous crocodile-shark hybrids (wani), and more could add a lot to my world without requiring huge amounts of research (or large amounts of description).
But for some of these creatures, I had to dig deeper.
At a certain point, I figured I had enough critters to fill out a bestiary. It was time to start the more intensive research.
For major races (substituted for the Elves and Dwarves) I had Kitsune, Wulvers, and Haltija. To replace the great beasts (Dragons and the like) I had the Amarok and the Bunyip. And for color and background, I’d decided upon moas (whose role was later diminished), aurochs (whose role was taken by the abadas), abadas, wani, basan, and various horned bunnies I’d bring together under the general term “jackalope.” And I figured I could include real-life critters like normal chickens, rabbits, cows, pigs, birds, and fish, no matter how cliché these creatures might be.
Time to start writing! Or not. I may have already spent several days just reading the Wikipedia articles, by this point, but I hadn’t done any intensive research. My first stop was to the library… again, or not. The local public library has a lot of reference material, certainly, but most of what I would need to confirm or get additional details on these critters just wasn’t there. I had some books with Kitsune myths in my private library, but our collection on mythology focused more on the Greco-Roman tradition than anything else I was looking for, just like the public library.
For most of those lesser critters, I didn’t need to do much research. Once I confirmed at least one other source (whether it said the same specifics about them as Wikipedia or not) mentioned the amarok, wani, basan, abada, moa, and aurochs I figured I had enough material for them. Bunyips, well, I glanced around enough to know that no two sources agreed, so there’s nothing “definitive” on the subject; the wikipedia entry would be enough for them, too.
The haltija proved to be a real challenge. Clearly, they were popular Finnish myths (often associated with Christmas, strangely enough), and I found a number of references to them on the internet, but most were in Finnish (which Google translate isn’t very good with, though the results were sometimes hilarious) and those that weren’t provided very little actual information on what they were. I did find, somewhere (the link has been broken for a couple years, now; the site went down in the middle of writing the book), a list of what the various breeds of vaki were called. I had roughly the same information on Wikipedia (it has since been edited out, but it used to be here; you might still be able to find it if you dig into that article’s history far enough), but it was good confirmation.
I copied the list into my notes, thankfully, so at least I had the right names to distinguish them. The rest of the information on them I needed for my story I had to piece together with, say, a single line of description in one place and a brief paragraph in another. It was a lot of work, but in the end I put it all together. And probably used nothing that wasn’t in one of the two Wikipedia articles… (though this was a lesson in saving notes and not just references; I cannot remember the various types of vaki off the top of my head, and I can no longer find the list online, but I still have it in my notes).
Wulvers were another problem. The only thing I could find on them was a single, short paragraph on Wikipedia. They were perfect for what I had in mind for my story, though. In desperation, I checked out Wikipedia’s sources. I found a reference to a single book — a 1932 book on Shetland Traditional Lore by Jessie Saxby.
A quick trip to bookfinder.com later (bookfinder, by the way, is my favorite tool for finding specific out-of-print titles for purchase. Not very useful for browsing, but that’s what a used bookstore is for) and I bought the book. It wasn’t much help — I found that the Wikipedia article was basically a copy of everything that was in the book — but, again, it confirmed that this was not something someone put up on Wikipedia as a joke. It made it a little more clear that the wulvers were actually just one wulver, singular, in the “traditional lore,” which meant having a whole race of the creatures might be a bit much…
But then, I’ve seen stories where phoenices (phoenixes? It’s not supposed to even have a plural, so I’m not sure which would be correct) were a relatively common type of magical bird, and the myths usually agree that there was only one. I went ahead and used the wulvers anyway.
Jackalopes are easy to find material on, and I had a ton of books (both “myth” and, in the form of manga and anime, “fiction”) on Kitsune.
Now my research was done, and it was time to write. Well, my research on mythological creatures was done, anyway….
THE END RESULT
Well, you can see my final interpretations of these creatures in the book.
I do plan on sequels. If I can ever justify taking the time to write it (hint: Buy the book if you want more!) I’ll probably use a few more “rejected” creatures, which will mean more research. And, to keep all those editors and agents and publishers happy, even though I’m self-publishing, I won’t ever use an Elf or Dwarf or Dragon in these books (at least, none of these by their more recognizeable names and varieties).
That said, my book with the Elves and Dwarves and Dragons has done pretty well, so I think I’ll keep them around in my other works. Cliché or not, they work.