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Researching My Novel, Secrets of the Trees: A Soul Journey to Latvia

by Alissa Lukara

Plenty of authors have written successful, inspired novels without visiting the places they wrote about to research their books, because they preferred to allow imagination and research done locally to infuse their books — or because they could not afford the travel. But I am grateful, thanks to a trip I won from vacation packager Go-Today, that I had the opportunity to travel to Latvia, the key setting for my novel, Secrets of the Trees. That trip allowed me to experience and do research in the country from a writer’s perspective.

Here are four main ways I did research for my novel while visiting Latvia. That my own ancestry is Latvian and that I speak, read and write Latvian definitely helped:

Libraries. My novel is set in the summer of 2003, thirteen years after Latvia’s declaration of Independence from the former U.S.S.R. The backdrop is that year’s Latvian Song and Dance Festival in Riga, a massive cultural event that includes a choir of more than 15000 singers, 15000 dancers and 10,000 members of a wind orchestra. The festival, held every five years, is on the UNESCO list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

I wanted to do research on that specific year and event, so I got temporary library cards to work in the main library in Riga and the National Library of Latvia. The card gave me access to read and photocopy books, newspapers and magazines about the year 2003, the history of the song festival and opinion pieces of the times. I looked at images of the city and its people then.

One surprise: I found a fun little book written in English about the song festival. It explored aspects of it like the energetic impact of song on a person’s wellbeing and talked about how even if you were a young “punk,” dressing up in traditional folk costume to participate in the festival was still considered “cool.”

What added to the experience was the locale of the National Library itself – climbing the wide marble stairs with thick wood railings of the periodicals building, using the old reading room with its heavy wood and glass door, the musty smells of the archives, listening to the sounds of folk music coming from free live performances throughout the day at the nearby Dome Plaza.

Bookstores. I perused the Valters un Rapa bookstore, Latvia’s largest, for books on Latvia’s history, dance and dancers in Latvia (One of my two main characters and her Latvian birth father are both dancers).

That July 2013 also happened to be the year the 25th Song and 15th Dance Festival was held, many events of which I attended. The day after my visit to the bookstore, we had tickets to the dress rehearsal of the main song concert event. During a break, I visited booths, one of which was selling books that seemed unusual to have at a song festival event. They were on gardening, plants and cooking. My companion, a friend of my mother’s, drew my attention to another book of historic items she thought might be helpful to my novel. I then purchased calendars of Latvian power symbols with their meanings and one with images and a history of the Song and Dance Festivals, thinking both might prove useful to the novel.

Studying the remaining books more closely, I couldn’t believe it. There stood a beautiful four-color book about the 100 greatest and most sacred trees in Latvia, with photos and writings about each one. With the title of my novel being Secrets of the Trees, the Latvian forest, its symbolism, spiritual elements, and the part it plays in Latvia’s history, play a key aspect of the novel.

More serendipity. I never even thought to look for such a book at the bookstore or library, let alone a choir concert.

At another booth, I bought a CD of music from past song festivals.

Interviews. I had visited Latvia twice before, both life-changing trips with my mother, once during the song festival in 2003. During those trips, I met everyone from one of the leading choir directors in Latvia to the head of the most famous drone singing group in Latvia to some 20 family members I had never met before. My mother had not only maintained connections with family there since the 80s when she started to travel there, but she had made numerous contacts/friends involved in music, the arts and folklore of Latvia and more.

On this visit, we deepened and renewed those connections, including staying at several family members homes in towns outside Riga, and we made new ones. A Latvian friend from Oregon traveled with us, so I got to experience Latvia through her perceptions as well.

We also connected with people who grew up in the U.S., but have chosen to move to Latvia, the home of their ancestors.

But even without these direct Latvian connections, traveling to Latvia with my mother was already like having a personal guide. She had great knowledge of the history and traditions gained from years of study and travel there. I had already interviewed my mother about family history – she and her parents escaped from Latvia in 1944 during WWII, when she was 13 – but more emerged during this trip.

After we returned, I also explored more about the changes my mother witnessed traveling to Latvia regularly since the 80’s, while Latvia was still under Soviet rule, and afterwards.

More surprises: One of the biggest surprises on this trip came in my discovery that there had been at least two sets of twins in my family. I had never known there were any twins in our family.

My main characters are fraternal twins, one a dancer and the other her brother/manager, who ends up in a coma at one point in the novel. The twins journey to Latvia in search of their Latvian birth father and the key to unravel the secrets and ancestral and cultural patterns that have unconsciously directed their lives. I made the decision to make them twins before I ever knew about the family connection.

While in Latvia, I discovered that one of my great grandmothers (all my known relatives are Latvian) not only had twin brothers, but had born twins. Those twins both died of an illness as young children.

Sensory details, including food, place, weather. Nothing beats visiting the place you want to write about to capture bits and pieces of sensory detail. I gained so much by:

  • walking the streets (watching the young women navigate the uneven surfaces in heels!) and other towns and cities;

  • viewing the various toned stone, brick and wood buildings, refurbished and not, from as much as 800 years ago, where so much history took place,

  • eating and savoring Latvian cuisine, the aroma of the smoked fish, sausage, fresh rye bread, pancakes, finely cut salads and dill; drinking the rich beer, strawberry juice, birch water and strong coffees and teas;

  • wearing the amber and silver jewelry etched with Latvian symbols so common in Latvia (where much amber is found),

  • listening to music, to the Latvian songs reverberating from all the open plazas, the buzz of people’s voices from all over the world there to participate and celebrate at the festival;

  • watching and interacting with people ;

  • visiting Latvians and family members in their homes throughout the country, admiring their gardens;

  • witnessing the variety of traditional Latvian dress that both the women and men festival participants wore, including the various head coverings from crowns to flower and oak leaf garlands;

  • experiencing the emotion, the tears, the feeling of oneness and connection, the gratitude while attending the Latvian song festival events – the choir and dance and orchestral events.

These events reminded us all of the spirit of song, music, dance that infused Latvians with strength and courage and hope during the Soviet rule and continues to nourish their hearts and souls today;driving the narrow, not well-maintained roads through the birch and pine forests and lush green farmlands, walking on the fine sand beaches of the Bay of Riga and the Baltic Sea. Nature is woven into so much of life, art and music in Latvia.

Witnessing those details, noting bits and pieces of what captured my attention in a journal and on video, brought another layer of texture, mood, and inspiration to integrate into my novel.

Wherever your creative journeys take you, whether you physically travel to the locales you write about or travel there in your imagination, may they also be filled with the inspired insights of the heart and soul.

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