Category Archives: Research

Baba Yaga, an Incarnation

VasilisaThe legend of Baba Yaga has fascinated me since I discovered the Russian fairytale of Vasilisa the Beautiful, many, many moons ago. Vasilisa’s story shares basic commonalities with the Western fairytale of Cinderella: both lost their mother at a young age, their fathers remarried women who already had two daughters of their own, and both heroines were forced to work as servants in their own home. At this point, the stories diverge, each having its own unique qualities.

Vasilisa’s stepmother, determined to rid herself of her husband’s offspring once and for all, destroys all the lamps in their home and forces the young woman to visit Baba Yaga to request a light, knowing that those who entered the witch’s home rarely left it. But with the help of a magical doll inherited from her mother, her own innate honesty, and a little hard work, Vasilisa survived her encounter with Baba Yaga, returning home with the gift of a burning skull, which consumed the evil stepmother and her daughters, sparing Vasilisa.

Since then, I’ve been fascinated with the mythos of Baba Yaga. When researching Slavic mythology several years ago for my medieval fantasy novel, Serpent on a Cross, I again encountered her. This time, I delved deeper into her legend.

Bilibin._Baba_Yaga_CroppedIn most tales, Baba Yaga is portrayed as a hag who flies in a mortar, using the pestle as a rudder, sweeping away her tracks with a broom made of silver birch. She lives in a log cabin that balances on one or two chicken legs, surrounded by a disturbing palisade made of bleached bones, skulls perched atop each pole, some with rubies gleaming in the eye sockets. She’s a merciless, powerful witch, and depending which legends you believe, she’s also a Guardian of the Waters of Life and Death. THAT legend scintillated my imagination, as did the one that suggested “Baba Yaga” was more than one woman.

Thus, one of my secondary characters in Serpent on a Cross – Miraum – evolved into a Baba Yaga. In the incarnation of Miraum, Baba Yaga is a powerful healer and witch, but a mostly benevolent one. Her home doesn’t stand on chicken legs and while she’s ruthless, she’s not merciless, and just the current in a long line of Baba Yagas who serve as Guardians of the Waters of Life and Death. She becomes the mentor of my protagonist, Dennah, a young Jewish healer who’s recently discovered the unsettling fact that she’s a Weather Witch.

Serpent on a Cross is forthcoming from Booktrope, in print and epub re-release. I’m currently working on the sequel, Veil of Menace, where Miraum as Baba Yaga has more surprises up her sleeve. Stay tuned! 🙂

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(Fantasy) Research – Part I

If you want people to read what you write, you have to make it believable. Even in fantasy, your story has to be plausible, even if only within the realms of your readers’ imaginations. If they can suspend their belief for the time it takes them to read about your wild magic, supernatural creatures, zombies or vampires, then you’ll be successful.

To that end, if your fantasy takes place in a specific time and place in history – as mine does – then research becomes a big part of your writing process. And fortunately for me, and my story, I LOVE research!

Though I’m writing a Jewish medieval fantasy (currently writing the second book in a series), the events take place in a world that actually existed – Eastern Europe – so research was necessary. My protagonist’s story starts out in the second half of the 11th century in Silesia, Poland. She and her companions travel to Kievan Rus (modern day Russia) via modern day Ukraine, which was at that time divided between Poland and Kievan Rus. Since Silesia doesn’t exist as such anymore, and Ukraine is now an independent country, I had to research period maps to be sure that where I chose to place my characters was an actual land mass within Poland or Kievan Rus.

I had the opportunity in the summer of 2010 to travel to Eastern Europe to follow this path. Even though it’s almost a millennium later, research of the medieval landscape in those areas led me to believe that it’s not extremely different today – at least not in the rural areas or the heritage sites. So while very few medieval settlements still exist as anything other than well-preserved ruins, I was able to “get a feel” for the people and their environments, simply by visiting the countries in their modern incarnation.

Since my protagonist is not only Jewish, but a healer and archer facing annihilation of her home, my research extended into medieval Judaic practices, mysticism, medieval medicine, Eastern European medieval clothing, and medieval warfare.

The most difficult of these to track down were the medieval Judaic practices and daily life as pertaining to women, and Eastern European daily costumes. Quite often, valuable information can be found in fiction, as well as historical/non-fiction references. Maggie Anton’s RASHI’S DAUGHTERS trilogy and Michelle Cameron’s THE FRUIT OF HER HANDS were especially helpful with regards to describing the daily lives of Jewish women, textiles and styles of the era, and providing other historical references.

My own research is extensive and almost fully half of it is from fictional sources. Should you be interested in seeing my bibliography, you can read the ever-growing list by clicking on the “Research” tab at the top of this blog.

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