On Researching The Missing Barbegazi

This post first appeared as a guest blog post on Luna’s Little Library.

THE MISSING BARBEGAZI takes place in the real world with fantastical elements. In this type of fantasy, so-called low fantasy, where characters in a realistic setting have encounters with mythical creatures and the other-worldly, it’s important that no one can find faults with the real or historical elements, as that makes the fantasy parts less believable. So I researched diligently.

Before I begin any writing project, in addition to understanding the main characters and their motivations, I need a good sense of the setting. While writing the first draft, I either look things up immediately (with a high risk of getting distracted) or make a note of what must be investigated further. Then I research these gaps before writing the second draft. But new gaps continue to pop up, and for THE MISSING BARBEGAZI the last details fell into place prompted by queries in the line-editing round.

For this story, I already knew the location very well. St. Anton am Arlberg, the ski resort where the book is set, is my favourite place on earth, and I feel more at home there than anywhere else. For more than ten years, we spent every weekend from December to May skiing in the Arlberg region, and, like Tessa, the story’s eleven-year-old protagonist, my sons trained with the local ski-racing team.

But, shortly after I had the idea for the book, we relocated to Singapore. Living in the tropics complicated both research and the actual writing. Luckily, I have thousands of photos from the area. And closing the curtains and setting the air con on the lowest temperature made it easier to imagine being in the snow. 

Skiing in Schöngraben

Initially, I drew on earlier experiences from the mountains, and consulted detailed hiking maps of Schöngraben, a deep gorge with terrifyingly steep mountain sides, where much of the story takes place. Then I checked and even re-enacted certain scenes when we travelled to Europe on holiday. I have hiked in Schöngraben in summer and skied off-piste through the gorge in winter, along the same route Tessa recklessly skis on her own. I haven’t skied through the gully where Tessa’s grandfather was caught in an avalanche, and I never will. While researching, I found several reports of fatal avalanche accidents in that particular place. Tessa also goes snow-shoe hiking in the gorge at night, so one night I wandered up into the darkness, all alone with only the light from my headlamp, to capture sensory details.

Hiking in St. Anton, Austria

Other extraordinary activities that helped me write the book included: sleeping in an igloo (worst part was getting up in the morning), taking an avalanche course and starting each ski season revising and testing avalanche transceivers.

Desk research can also be immensely rewarding. A few times, I’ve stumbled on a small nugget of information that turned into a virtual gold mine of inspiration.

The first time was when I discovered the barbegazi, and you can read more about that in my guest blog at TheReaderTeacher.com.

Another time, while researching the barbegazi family’s backstory, I uncovered several details that inspired and influenced the story. I had planned that Vienna Zoo—Tiergarten Schönbrunn—would feature in the story, because it’s the world’s oldest zoo (and barbegazi are extremely long-lived), but I was delighted when I found out that the zoo originally began as The Imperial Menagerie of Empress Maria Theresa. This link to the imperial family influenced the barbegazi’s mannerisms.

An image in my head of the barbegazi escaping atop a train in a blizzard led me to read about the history of Austrian railroads. That there were no trains going westward from Vienna until the middle of the nineteenth century, determined part of the backstory’s timeline, and it made me change the age of Gawion, the 154-year-old barbegazi narrator, several decades.

At a late stage in editing, a simple line-edit question of, “How do they know when to meet?” meant that I learned how you can tell time from the position of the great bear constellation in relation to the moon. After describing the moon’s position above a specific mountain, I discovered that the mountain is called Eisenspitze—Iron Peak. It gave me goose pimples, because barbegazi have iron intolerance, and the fact that there used to be iron mines in the region strengthened a strand of the backstory.

Other interesting research areas included: archaic swear words, medieval torture instruments, properties of polar bear fur, and the retreat of alpine glaciers in the last century.

I love learning and experiencing new things in the name of research. My only regret is that I couldn’t try surfing on an avalanche—that part of the story is unfortunately entirely imagined.

Check out these posts to read more about my writing process for this book and how I wrote from a barbegazi perspective.

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