Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Guest Blog with , S.R. Howen

Today I have the pleasure of having a "new" to me  author stop by and visit my blog to talk about her new book, Medicine Man I: The Chief of All Time.  This book intrigued me because of my own Native American roots.  Look for the review below. :)  With that being said, I was curious to find out how the author researched for this book.  And the author was nice enough to indulge me. 

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.  


  1. Excellent advice, Shawn. I have also found that a lot of times people will research, fall in love with what they discovered and want to share all of it with the reader. The end result is often a dry as dirt tale due to a huge data dump.

    Needless to say, you did not do that. You wove the research into this story with a masterful hand. You gave us enough so we could envision the scenes and people, but not so much we were bogged down with
    details. Of course, being the editor and publisher, I am a bit biased.

    Marci Baun
    Wild Child Publishing
    Freya's Bower

  2. That's always a balancing act, how much do I include, but not so much that the reader groans and shuts the cover, never to open it again.

    When writing in any time period other than our own the temptation is there to "teach" the reader or "show" them everything you know about something. In Medicine Man I had to keep my thoughts on what would the MC, Shannon, know or not know, what would puzzle him? And expand those things while keeping common place things out of his thoughts, but still show the reader the interesting bits.


  3. Yep, good advice. Pick out the most fitting details to the story or scene, or the most relevant, and maybe save the others for another story, maybe. What we learn never goes to waste.


  4. The lost bits story file. Every writer needs one. Thanks for stopping by JB

  5. Bravo, Shawn. Here's to the lost story bits file - you never know when it will come in handy.

  6. This is great. I couldn't agree more about the research and I enjoyed your reference to 'The Gods must be Crazy'. One of our better exports. :)
    Hope your book is a sellout!

  7. Even in DISTORTION when I was writing about Houston where I lived for 25 years, I had to research little tidbits. The problem with culture is that it comes out in a word here or a phrase there. To make the reader feel it, those little tidbits have to be dead-on perfect. I'm researching Morocco for a scene in my 2nd book just now.

  8. It is gratifying to find an author who does the proper research for a work. I am always amazed and disgusted by those who don't. There are authors in the hardboiled detective genre whose works have been made into movies, who know nothing about guns. You would think that these guys would have researched their bread and butter topic. When I find evidence of such ignorance, I don't just slam the book shut; I slam it shut and throw it across the room.

  9. We have had power outages all day on and off, on and off, on and off. Apparently, since we have not had rain in so long and we had fog today the combo made arcs that shorted out transformers. (so need to use that in a novel!)

    In Medicine Man I, it starts out in Fond du Lac WI. A reader commented I've been in that park. It was just like that.

    Even the smallest reference can bring the reader into the story and keep them, where a poor reference can lose the reader for good.

    Thank you for stopping by, I hope you enjoy the book!