This post first appeared on TheReaderTeacher.com along with a lovely five-star review of THE MISSING BARBEGAZI by Mr. E. aka Scott Evans.
When I first had the idea for THE MISSING BARBEGAZI, I had never heard of a barbegazi. The story I began to write was the story of an eleven-year-old girl, Tessa, who wanted to win a ski race. A story set entirely in the real world, dealing with real world problems. No magic. No mythical creatures.
We were living in Switzerland at the time, my two sons were part of a ski racing team, and we spent every winter weekend on skis. I knew how desperately my sons desired the gleaming trophies. And I loved how tightly the kids from the ski club banded together and supported each other on race days, despite their internal competition.
Perhaps the book where a ski race was the climax of the story would have turned out to be a good book, but it wasn’t one I could write. In fact, I had not written more than one chapter before Tessa met a strange furry creature in the snow. It was some kind of elf, it was friendly, and it was scared of Tessa. That was all I knew.
After some research, I discovered that the creature Tessa had encountered was a barbegazi. As mythical creatures go an almost completely unknown species, but every bit of the sparse information I found matched the elf in my story.
The details I discovered about the barbegazi sparked my imagination in curious ways. For example, the fact that barbegazi myths are from the high alps in France and Switzerland, meant that I had to make up a reason for my barbegazi’s presence in Austria, where the story takes place. And, as the name barbegazi comes from the French barbe glacée (frozen beard), I knew their beards were important, so I decided female and young barbegazi needed beards too, and I bestowed barbegazi beards with magical properties.
Consolidating folklore and invented barbegazi “facts”, I wrote part of a fictional non-fiction book, called: Habits and Habitats: A Historic Account of Alpine Elves, to use in my story about Tessa. But it still wasn’t enough. The barbegazi, Gawion, wasn’t satisfied with a minor role; he wanted to speak for himself and tell part of the story from his point of view.
Tessa’s voice came intuitively, but for Gawion’s chapters I had to set guidelines to ensure his voice was believable and consistent. Many of these came naturally from the barbegazi’s backstory: In 1752, when Gawion’s parents were young, they were captured near their Mont Blanc glacier home and gifted to the empress Maria Theresa in Vienna. Here, they were incarcerated in the imperial menagerie until they escaped in 1862, shortly before Gawion and his twin sister were born. Their fear of being captured again led the barbegazi to avoid all contact with humans in the next 154 years.
The direct implication of this backstory was that their language would be somewhat old-fashioned and that the barbegazi wouldn’t know the terms for anything invented after the middle of the nineteenth century. Imagining how Gawion would describe modern inventions like a snow groomer (a huge metal monster that growls like a thousand angry dogs) was fun. Getting the language sufficiently archaic without sacrificing readability or pace was more challenging.
The easiest measure was, of course, to write Gawion’s chapters without contractions. While writing early drafts, I experimented with words and sentence structure and listened to Austen and Dickens audiobooks to absorb their language and rhythms. I used thesaurus and etymology dictionaries to find words that were old-fashioned (but still recognisable for middle grade readers) and to ensure I didn’t use words that developed after the barbegazi had lost contact with humans. To create distance between barbegazi and humans and emphasise their view that humans are the odd creatures, I decided that barbegazi don’t distinguish between genders for humans and therefore refer to all humans with the pronoun: it. Furthermore, as Gawion had never experienced anywhere but the snow-covered mountains, all the imagery had to be linked to snow and things he might have seen in the wintery setting, e.g. Hope shrunk to something smaller than a blackberry at the bottom of a gorge.
Writing from the perspective of a barbegazi has been exciting, and, at school visits, it’s wonderful to hear the enthusiastic and inventive responses when I ask how Gawion would describe things like helicopters and mobile phones. The children love spotting and explaining archaic words, and they have been especially interested in learning about old expletives. So, let me end by apologising in advance if readers of THE MISSING BARBEGAZI completely stop using contemporary swear words and from now simply yell: POTZBLITZ!