After a crazy summer caused by my own determination to spiff up the entire Legends of the Five Directions series as it came to an end, things have calmed down at last. Well, almost. I’ve recorded three podcast interviews in about six weeks, which meant reading three books and drawing up three sets of draft questions, as well as checking three audio files after the fact—the interview is the easy part. But that’s more or less done, too, and since I have the next book read and the date not yet scheduled, there’s a bit of free time to think about my new series.
For reasons I won’t go into, the first of my Songs of Steppe & Forest, Song of the Siren, has been substantially done since last spring. It’s out now with my favorite historical consultant, and once I get her comments, I’ll make any needed changes and it will be finished. Songs 2, Song of the Shaman, is still at that very preliminary fun stage where anything seems possible. I have a rough list of story events and a goal, motivation, and conflict chart for the leads, but those structural elements are just to keep me honest, by which I mean that when I go roaming off into the wilds of story, they act as a crude form of compass to remind me where home is so I can wend my way back.
The reason I can’t move quickly just yet is because I have at best a rudimentary sense of how it would feel to become a shaman, or even of what shamans do. It doesn’t help that shamanism itself, at least in the areas I cover, got whomped by the Bolsheviks along with every other form of religious expression. Today it’s undergoing a revival, which is an improvement over its being treated like a banned substance but nonetheless raises another, different sort of barrier between the contemporary experience and that of my characters five hundred years ago.
That brings me to the main topic of today’s post. When I mentioned the title to my friend Gabrielle Mathieu, who herself has a series of historical fantasy novels involving psychotropic drugs, she immediately asked, “So did they use psychedelic mushrooms?” I said I didn’t think so, because the research I’d done up to that point suggested trances were induced solely by drumming and chanting. She then quoted me title and page of a book suggesting that Siberian shamans did. So I poked around a little more, including in the book she mentioned, and discovered that she was right. Many shamans did, including those on the Eurasian steppe. Not all, by any means, but a lot.
Better yet, from a fictional point of view, the psychedelic mushrooms in use in Central Asia, the steppe, and Siberia, although not themselves deadly, have relatives that can send you to the other world permanently if you make a mistake or fall victim to a con artist or just misjudge your dose. Most of them don’t have antidotes even today. But they do have identifiable symptoms and consequences, and thanks to Gabrielle’s wonderfully illustrated book, I now know what they look like.
I also decided my heroine must have a reason not to employ the mushrooms herself. Without chemicals to facilitate the trance state, she naturally struggles to live up to her mentor’s and her own expectations. That makes it easier for her to doubt her own powers, but it also adds to the triumph if she can succeed in the end. And as the stakes rise in the story, her inner conflict intensifies: should she give in to temptation, risking her life, or stick firm to her resistance, even if it means risking the lives of others?
I’m still trawling YouTube for chants, drum sounds, interiors, philosophies, and anything else I can find that will flesh out my characters’ spiritual world. And of course, I’m reading everything I can find to cull sensory details and modes of thought, the more esoteric those details the better.
But at least I have the magic mushrooms to fall back on—not to take myself, of course, but to feed to my characters!
Image: Amanita muscaria (fly agaric), the preferred trance agent of Eurasian shamans; © 2006 Onderwijsgek, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.