How did the Idea for My Novel (Vodnik) Originate?

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation

My editor’s sent me a ginormous questionnaire that my publisher has its authors fill out in order to help them market the book. Since I’m back in writing limbo (not really enough time–I think–to work on a different project, but no current work to be done on Vodnik), I’ve been using my writing time to answer their questions. There are a few answers that I think would interest my faithful blog readers, so I thought I’d take the time to post my response to one of them today. I might post more responses in the future, depending on if I think you’d like to see them. Anyway–the prompt for this questions is “How did the idea for this story originate? What interested you about the material? What inspired you?” My answer turned out to be a tad long–sort of like asking for the time and getting the history of the clock. I’d say I like to hear myself speak, but that doesn’t quite work for the written word. Here you go:

I know that typically it’s really hard for authors to say where they got the ideas for their books, but that isn’t the case for me and this novel. I can pinpoint many of the exact dates and places where the ideas came to me. For example, it all started November 2, 2000. 

I actually ended up writing this book because my first choice for a date had to cancel on me. I had tickets to a concert in Salt Lake for November 4, and a few days before, my date had something come up. So I was scrambling at the last minute to find someone else to go with me, but everyone I asked already had plans. On a lark, I asked a girl who sat near me in my German phonetics class: Denisa Križanová. I’d been in a couple of study groups with her, but I didn’t know her that well. Only that she was from Slovakia, which sounded wonderfully foreign.

Six months later, we got married.

It was always very important to me that we travel to Slovakia so I could get to know her family and see where she grew up. The first time I saw Trenčín Castle, I was blown away by it. I had just started writing books in earnest, and it seemed like a wonderful setting that I could use at some point in the future. I’d lived for two years in former East Germany, and I’d also been fascinated by the way formerly-Communist countries were handling the transition to the next phase in their histories. Slovakia was in the same boat.

One of the places in the town that stood out to me the most that first trip was also one of the most unassuming: a fountain in the shape of a small man perched in a well, water spouting out of his mouth in an endless stream. I asked Denisa what it was supposed to be, and she told me about vodníks for the first time. The basics are simple: according to legend, vodníks are little green men (green skin, green hair, green suits) that live in the water. They fill their days by waiting to trick villagers into getting drowned, then the vodníks steal their souls and keep them in lidded teacups.

So many aspects of the creature seemed strange: teacups, dripping water, green hair? Then again, when you think about it, our own creatures from folklore are just as strange. Why silver bullets for werewolves? And why garlic for vampires? What was most strange was that they had a fountain dedicated to a soul-stealing creature right in the middle of the town, and children came to play in it. (Though again, we have Count Count on Sesame Street, so maybe it isn’t so strange, after all.) Even stranger, Denisa insisted that vodníks weren’t really all that sinister. They were mischievous, but they weren’t evil in the same way vampires are evil. Creatures in Slovak folktales aren’t “evil” or “good”—they just are. It’s the humans who can be evil or good. Vodníks do what they do not from some innate desire to be wicked or mean—that’s just who they are. In any case, the creature’s mythology crept into my head then and made itself comfortable. I couldn’t forget it.

My second novel took place in Slovakia in the 1600s. There was a countess who lived not far from Trenčín: Countess Bathory. She’s now regarded as one of the worst serial killers in history, having purportedly killed hundreds of girls in her area, then bathing in their blood so she could stay young forever. A real winner, and one of the historical figures that served as the models for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but a person who really wasn’t that notorious in America. I decided to make her the main villain of the book, and I have her a sidekick vodník, sinister and evil. The main character was a minor noble, a teenager named Katarina—Katka for short. That book never quite worked for me: the tone was too dark for my typical style, and I found I did better when my main characters could be contemporary, so I set it aside and went on to other projects, hoping to find a way to use some of it at some point in the future.

When it came time for my eighth book (in 2006), I initially wanted to write a book about a haunted house. However, as I brainstormed what sort of house it could be, I found myself gravitating toward making it a haunted castle, instead. I mean—why have a house when you could have a castle? And then as I worked with the castle idea, it all suddenly clicked: this shouldn’t just be some castle, it should be Trenčín Castle. I turned back to my old Bathory book and looked at it for some ideas. (Never miss a chance to steal ideas from yourself.) Like I said, the medieval setting hadn’t worked for me before, so I decided to set it in the modern day this time around. The original plan was to have the main character live at the castle, with the main conflict focused on freeing a girl who was trapped inside a tree at the castle. The girl’s name was Lesana (les is the Slovak word for forest, hence the choice of name).

To get an overview of various folktales I wanted to use in the book, Denisa and I called up her brother, Miloš, who knows pretty much every Slovak folktale known to man. Through that conversation and further research, I started drifting away from the haunted tree idea (thank goodness—it hadn’t been working, anyway) and toward a book which drew heavily on Slovak mythology and folktales.
Anyway—that’s where the core idea for Vodník came from. The actual writing of it proved to be a much more difficult journey than any of my other books had been, but that’s a story for another day.

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