Today’s guest post is from K F Baugh — why yes, we are related, by marriage — on her new book Valley of the Broken. As I also write from traditional folklore and various cultures, I really like her take on traditional folkloric representations of the humanity we still are now, and what that means for us.
Who can say what will spark the idea for new book?
In my case, it was a monster.
Let me back up.
Vampires, mermaids, werewolves, shapeshifters… there’s been an explosion of supernatural characters in speculative fiction since J.K. Rowling penned Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and it awakened the literary scene like the shot heard ‘round the world.
I observed this development with a skeptical eye. Not because I was a judgmental ass (well, not all the time anyway), but because I felt like some of the authors weren’t taking their supernatural characters seriously enough. I’d lived in Eastern Europe for five years and saw some pretty scary stuff: vampires are not like the angsty teens in the Twilight series; magic is not easily wielded and rarely benign; and naiads are not beguiling, harmless water spirits.
My main issue with the “rebranding” efforts of these authors was that they took something that a culture had traditionally used to embody evil and danger and revamped it as sexy and interesting. Admittedly, I was touchy about the subject; I’d lived in a place that had recently suffered through war and a genocide. There was nothing sexy about that sort of wickedness.
It didn’t take me too long to get off my high horse and realize that if I didn’t like the supernatural characters in literature, I’d better shut up or create my own. Around this time I also began to research the religious and cultural beliefs of the people of the American Southwest.
Right off the bat, I admired these American Indian Nations that had faced their own genocides and, against all odds, many had survived. Their histories were inspiring and heartbreaking, especially when I compared their modern existence to the mighty nations they had been before war, disease, and displacement decimated their tribes.
Their religious and mythological characters also echoed deep in my heart. Who could not be caught in an afternoon thunderstorm in the Rockies and envision the mighty Thunderbird? Or watch a pack of sneaking coyotes try to lure a weak prey away from the safety of the herd and not think of a cosmic trickster?
But the Navajo character of the Skinwalker really caught my attention. A witch/shapeshifter hybrid, it was so dangerous that most Navajo still refuse to talk about it. As I thought about the depths of evil that would need to be plumbed in order to attempt the mass extinction of entire people groups, the Skinwalker seemed to embody that type of malevolence. As I further researched the Skinwalker, it came as no surprise that this character began to regularly appear in Navajo consciousness during their own Trail of Tears which is called The Long Walk.
Since Navajo spiritual practices are based on the idea of balance and mirrored concepts, I knew there had to be forces that were the Skinwalker’s equal and could counteract its darkness. I found this in the concept of hózhó, a word with no direct translation but roughly meaning the search for balance and harmony to restore beauty and order. The Navajo believe that we humans straddle the border between balance and chaos, good and evil, happiness and sadness.
When I began writing Valley of the Broken, I wanted to tell a good story, but even more, I wanted to create a realistic portrayal of the dark forces that often shape human history. I needed to find a villain that forced the dichotomy between good and evil to center stage. Then my characters, when faced with the ramifications of these two potential realities, would have to decide which camp to jump into.
So in the end, the monster that inspired me wasn’t a physical monster at all. Instead, it was the dark side of humanity, the one that chooses greed, evil, and selfishness.
But there’s a flipside to that coin as well: the antidote of this evil is also humanity. Heroes are the normal human beings who don’t kick the can down the road. Instead, they take a stand, whether by momentous or seemingly insignificant choices of kindness, patience, beauty and goodness.
These normal characters, when faced with the very worst kind of monsters, have the ability to start the avalanche of right choices. Even in their flawed, broken humanness they can do great things. Just like you and I.
Find K F Baugh at her website The West Now and Then, with cool posts about Western history.