Behind My Story: The Bard of Kolomyia

Where do writers’ ideas come from?

Maybe a better question: What’s dirt made out of?

For some people, dirt’s made out of dirt and that’s how it arrived. For others, it’s made out of trees, rocks, flowers, sand, clay, and a million other things, all coming together to form one thing: dirt.

That’s how my ideas form, I guess. A couple stray words I heard a teacher say once. Maybe an advertisement on the side of a bus. Hearing my dad tell a story I’ve never heard before about how he met Bob Seger at a bar in Florida while we’re out fishing in a rickety boat. They may not be blinking lights yet, but they’ll come out of the dark like things loosened from the bottom of a lake and float to the surface at the right time.

As someone who enjoys writing horror most of all, I’ve always wanted to write a story inspired by the painting, “The Nightmare”, by Henry Fuseli. It’s the one with the strange, demonic creature seated on an unconscious woman’s stomach while a creepy horse looks on. Eventually I learned Mary Shelley had already beaten me to it two-hundred years ago (and so had Poe), so I needed a new angle on the idea of an incubus sucking out someone’s breath while they slept.

Like most writers I admire, I opened up a rabbit hole and went in willingly. I broadened my scope to the “Mare” entity itself, which describes all sorts of creatures that ride people’s chest while they sleep, delivering upon them “night-mares”. I found there were dozens of countries that had their own folklore about the Mare, and it was Poland’s history with the creature that stuck out to me most.

In early 17th century Poland, many lower and middle class people believed growing their hair into “plaits”, or long mats of hair, formed amulets that drew sickness away from their body. They also believed the plaits could draw actual demons away, which some peasants thought brought the illness along in the first place. Even growing a plait at all was thought to require a magical spell—that’s how deep these people were in it.

By the 19th century, the advance of medicine brought along a desire for officials in Poland to do some “ethnic cleansing”. In many cases, this meant the forceful shearing of hair from the peasantry’s head. Not only did the believers have to live with the shame after the fact, but they also feared for their souls.

Around this same time, Poland was known for its “Bards”, a common name for a national poet of Polish Romantic literature. They worked in exile while Poland went through much turmoil and fed off an uprising of the Polish people against Russian rule in 1830. The Bards were given power beyond that of writing, being seen as the “moral leaders” of a nation that had none, with some citizens believing they even had the power to foresee the future.

Eventually, all these ideas came together like the various rocks and organic matter found in dirt. I had my young polish girl, Danuta, being visited upon at night by a Mare-like character, the Freddy Krueger-like Zygmunt Zmora—the “Bard of Kolomyia”. It was important to me to make Danuta bald in the beginning to tie together her feelings of shame among her classmates and family with the fear she felt of being exposed to danger. It was a lot to bring together, and I hope I pulled it all off well enough.

This was the first story that I might have spent more time researching than any other, and I learned how fun and valuable (and distracting) the process can be. Wikipedia is especially notorious for all its interlinking between pages, bringing together what seem like separate concepts into a functioning whole (the Mare entity, Polish plaits, the Three Bards, 19-century social uprisings).

It seems to me all that makes up a writer’s importance is their ability to do the heavy lifting once they’ve got all the pieces and put together a story without any separation in the seams; otherwise, to make something like dirt, with all its separate and composite parts, a fertile place to grow a story.

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