How much research do you have to do on Native American Culture? (To write Medicine Man I: The Chief of All Time)
Those of you snickering can stop now. Research, even if you are writing about your own culture, is an important aspect of any book, fiction or not. I am also an editor and too many times I come across stories with very poor research. My favorite saying is: write what you know or what you can learn about. This holds true for Medicine Man.
The story is based on a “how and why” story of the Blackfoot Tribe. I did look online to find a few different versions of the story, basically the same story, but I wanted to be sure the story was out there. Too much native culture has been absorbed and appropriated that I didn’t want to give more out to vanish into someone else’s ideology.
So, when I added in a ceremony, I did spend time looking into those same ceremonies and seeing what was already out there. This might seem like a negative thing to do in fiction, after all don’t we want to write something new, something no one has read before, seen before? In this case, no, I didn’t. I can hear a voice saying, but then it isn’t real! Exactly, its not real, it’s a work of fiction based on reality in some aspects. Would the LDS church be happy with someone taking pictures in the inner sanctum of their Temples and reciting the ceremonial words used there? Would the Masons? The Catholics with a revival tent preacher wearing a priest’s collar and using bits and chunks of Catholicism with their own brand of revival gossip? When taken out of context the risk is the sacredness being used incorrectly and for other purposes.
I handled the things in Medicine Man the same way. If it was available for public consumption on the Internet, I deemed it appropriate to use. I did spend days immersed in myths and stories, finding some I had never heard before. The story starts out in Fond du Lac, WI. An area I was very familiar with, but . . . when you have been away for a while, are the details clear? So I did some online research into that was well, was this road still there, was the gazebo at the park still there, the concession stand?
I did have the chance to go back there, not under the best circumstances, but I took the time to walk the locations I used in the book, to drive some of the roads. To talk to some old friends about what I was doing with the book, they agreed with my take on it. Research, don’t give away things that people don’t already know.
As the story became a multi-cultural blend, I did think, what would happen if a number of people (American Indian) had to live together from different cultural groups, how would they blend over time, conflict? An all tribal Pow Wow can give you some idea, basic ideologies and concepts are the same, a love for Mother Earth, and a connection to her. But what about, matriarchal vs patriarchal, what about who owns the house (err Tipi), marriage and divorce. So, as each character made themselves known in the writing process, I did do research, into cultures I didn’t know much about. Bought several well recommended books, called chapter houses on reservations in the nations the character was from, made notes on what elements I wanted to include.
Then asked the questions, how would a modern Indian, (and no that’s not a dirty word, though it does get shortened to NDN these days) who turned his back on his culture for all his adult life view the different cultures, what would he adopt as his own, trapped in the past with this mix of others? How would he present his modern ideas to people who had never heard of a car, or a computer, or even a wind up clock?
I ended up doing some research on that as well, how did cultures, when first exposed to the modern world react? The Gods Must be Crazy (an older movie) came to mind.
Then came concepts, like how to make an arrow head (Thank you You Tube) Thank you survival books on the shelves in my office. More cultural digging on who would teach kids to do it, Did everyone learn, how did that differ across cultures, so back to the internet, back to the books, back to Universities.
Then, I basically took a virtual Yatzee cup, poured it all in and dumped it out. Chose the bits and pieces I wanted to include from all the cultures represented and put them in, and mixed them. I think the results are a fantastic story that takes the reader on a cultural journey with a taste of many, while gaining a connection with the main characters and their plight.