I’d forgotten how chaotic it feels in the midst of the research process. I look back at the path that brought me from an initial idea to a completed, printed copy of The Door on Half-Bald Hill and everything falls into sequence. The journey has a beautiful logic to it, as though I always knew where it would end and what it would become.
But as I work through the process of building a new world for a new story, I’m reminded that what will later seem purposeful feels in the moment like groping around, wasting time. In these early stages, you don’t know what’s significant and what isn’t, so you gather everything that sparks your interest. At some point, I think, the writer begins to vibrate to a kind of frequency—the frequency of the story—and then things come more quickly. They jump out because they resonate. As the story becomes clearer and purer, everything that doesn’t match the frequency falls away.
I don’t know how many times I passed a certain hill on I-24, remarking at the distinct line down the center, before I began to think of it as Half-Bald Hill. It must have been dozens. That’s all it was for some years—a hill beside the interstate. Then one day as I passed, I saw a girl forging an iron chain at the edge of the woods. I saw her in my mind, of course, but that was the beginning of the story. It wasn’t exactly right, but the image resonated. It had a certain energy to it that caused it to stick around.
On another unremarkable day, I found a copy of James Stephens’ Irish Fairy Tales at McKay’s Used Books. I’d never heard of Stephens, but the collection was illustrated by Arthur Rackham, and his name I knew. Thinking it might be connected to the girl on the hill, I bought the book, took it home, and read it. It was utterly captivating. I’d never encountered anyone who used language the way Stephens did. His tales were so full of passion and vigor that I thought the characters might crawl out of the book and take over the house. The stories were absurdly violent, full of exaggeration, yet beneath them lay a deep current of joy. These people loved to be alive. And here was the first place I heard of an ancient salmon who ate the hazelnuts that fell into the river and grew as wise as the world.
I wondered what sort of people sought knowledge from fish and nuts. What did they value? What did they fear? What had they lost? That’s when the serious note-taking began. I made lists of insults and compliments. How can you not love a people who insult a man by calling him a “lean-hearted, muddle-headed, little-winded, lazy-boned clump”? How can you fail to fall in love with someone who calls you the “pulse of his heart”? This one sentence from James Stephens was enough to send me into raptures: “She thought that crowned only with his curls Crimthann mac Ae was more nobly diademed than are the masters of the world, and she told him so.” (Those last five words!)
I read Carmel McCaffrey and Leo Eaton’s In Search of Ancient Ireland and Jean Markale’s The Epics of Celtic Ireland. I started jotting down words like “ogham” and “Fir Bolg” and “Tir na n-Og”. I learned about the Shí and the Many-Colored Land, which are a real part of Irish/Celtic mythology. I read about men who, while harvesting peat in 1984, found a body as well preserved as a mummy. I learned about creeping bogs (they’re real, too) and golden torques and drinking horns and honey mead and the migrations of people groups. I read up on hill forts and ring forts and the Celtic warriors who fought the Romans. I read about druids and about the role of bards in cultures with no written language.
You may notice that I began with fairy tales and moved into history, and both were so appealing that I couldn’t let them go. The Door on Half-Bald Hill is overflowing with real historical details that I had no part in creating. But they resonated. They wouldn’t fall away any more than the ancient stories. They seemed bound together. And this is interesting, because it was the same with the people of ancient Ireland. When Christian monks attempted to chronicle Irish history, they found themselves befuddled by the seamless blending of history and mythology. The Irish people saw no problem with blurring the lines between life and death, between fact and myth. “If they can do it,” I thought, “why can’t I?”
At this point in the research process, I had the chance to travel to Ireland. I went to the west coast, to a region called The Burren. I hiked with friends along the Cliffs of Moher and took a ferry to some of the islands off the coast. The islands were mazes of drystone walls, and on Inishmore there was a ring fort that backed up to a cliff. It was marvelous. On this wild edge of the Atlantic, I felt something I had never felt before. It was a sense that the land was speaking, telling its stories. I was almost certain that if I sat by a brook and listened long enough, the water would tell me everything I longed to know. I’ve never been to a place so saturated with its own history or so clear in its sense of itself.
We visited a portal tomb (a dolmen). It’s nothing more than three enormous flat rocks in the shape of a table, but I challenge you to stand beside one and not believe there are doors between worlds. I took pictures of the dolmen and made sketches of drystone walls and flew back to Tennessee with my mind abuzz.
Maybe the world of The Door on Half-Bald Hill is not just a world I loved but one I came to know, though I hope you won’t quiz me on details unless my notebooks are nearby. Perhaps there is no great distinction between knowing and loving, and that’s what the research process is about.Helena Sorensen
I read about the hag who drops stones from her apron as she flies, and the fallen stones are hills. I read about the belief that the fairy folk “cannot pass cold iron,” and the ways people used iron to deter creatures from other worlds. I stumbled on the word “ollamh,” and then I couldn’t help myself. I’d seen this before and I had to know more about the roles of bard, ovate, and druid. I spent ages on druidry.org. I discovered the druidic year, the eight-fold wheel, and all of a sudden my story had an outline (a circular one!). I marked the eight celebrations on a huge sheet of blank paper and filled in the details. I learned that Halloween is based on the ancient celebration of Samhain, the most important feast of the Celtic year, when the doors between worlds are open.
(Can you see it? Can you hear it? It’s coming together, ringing more true every minute. The story has a framework, a setting, a people. It has its lead characters. It’s becoming itself.)
In Padraic O’Farrell’s Irish Fairy Tales, I discovered the banshee, hungry grass, and the puka. I began to name characters, and I love this part of the process because I always build characters out of the meanings of names. “Barra,” for example, means “spear.” “Engl” means “light.” “Brennan” means “sorrow.” Idris means “prophet.” His is the only Arabic name in the story.
I decided the narrator should be the bard. Who better than the bard to tell a story?! But I could not forget the young woman in chains. And then I thought about those fairy folk who cannot pass through cold iron. (Can you see it?! It’s close now!)
Because these people’s lives were so connected to the land, I needed to know the land. I studied trees and tree lore, herbs and herb lore, lunar charts, and the process of making clothes and food and weapons from the resources that might have been available. I learned that hazel branches were used for wands, that holly repels lightning, that the oldest known yew tree has been standing for 3,000 years. I made lists of flowers. I learned the many uses of gorse. I considered the ways Zinerva might be able to hurt someone without being caught. I stumbled on the metonic cycle, a 19-year cycle that unites the solar and lunar years (because 19 is a multiple for both).
I built a history for the Antae (Those Who Remain), attempting to blend history and mythology and evoke the same feelings I’d experienced when I read James Stephens’ collection. I worked hard to shape the people—the beautiful, suffering people who have run out of ideas, who see their doom hurrying to meet them and yet refuse to give up. It’s for love of them that I fight through draft after draft. Once I’ve seen their faces, I can’t abandon them. We have to journey together to some good end.
Last year I visited one of Jonathan Rogers’ creative writing classes and gave a talk to the students. I discussed that most famous piece of writing advice: “Write what you know.” “Fantasy writers can’t write what they know,” I said. “We have to write what we love.” But when Jonathan heard me talk about the notebooks full of information, the page upon page of lists and history and sketches, he said, “I think you’re writing what you know.”
Maybe he’s right. Maybe the world of The Door on Half-Bald Hill is not just a world I loved but one I came to know, though I hope you won’t quiz me on details unless my notebooks are nearby. Perhaps there is no great distinction between knowing and loving, and that’s what the research process is about. It’s a wonderful contradiction! In doing the difficult, sustained work of preparing to write a novel, I am following a path of delight.