Last week, I wrote about the origins of my novel Harvesting the Sky. How my own emotional journey found its way into my protagonist, how I developed a protagonist who was a composite of plant people I knew, and why I decided to set the story in Paris. While I had all of that worked out, I hadn’t decided what my protagonist botany professor / plant explorer would be seeking or discover.
A Fascination With a Fruit I Can’t Eat
As an adult, I’ve never been able to eat apples. While I know they’re good for me and certain cultivars like ‘Honeycrisp’ and ‘Red Delicious’ are tasty as heck, I can’t digest them. Not even a few slices. I instantly get an upset stomach. My abdomen feels like it’s been tied in a knot. I’ve tried to overcome this by eating apples with cheese, eating apples after a protein-based dinner, etc. but always I end up in sharp pain.
It may be that apples have too much raw fiber for my body, I’m not sure. Regardless, because of this sad strange reality, I’ve always been fascinated by people who can grab an apple and happily munch away. The idea that this portable, hardy fruit keeps a long time on a counter until you’re ready for it seems so pure and beautiful. It’s a gift from nature. Some say God gave us this gift. Therefore, apples have always been an appetizing yet painful yet poetic symbol in my life.
The History of Apples
The history of apples is long and interesting as well. Grown mostly for cider in the 19th Century, most varieties of apples weren’t sweet. They weren’t appealing to eat until breeders started grafting and growing cultivars specifically for culinary pleasure. That’s when they exploded in popularity. Michael Pollan wrote a great chapter on this in his book, The Botany of Desire.
What’s even more interesting is the earliest apples grew in Kazakhstan. I won’t go into details, but scientists genetically mapped out various cultivars and traced the earliest trees to the Alatau Mountains in Kazakhstan. In fact, the only forest of apple trees in the world grows there. A professor named Aimak Dzangaliev mapped and recorded many of the trees. And unfortunately, development has destroyed much of the forest. Still, there are a few groups working to protect this amazing area of the world.
Because there are hundreds of varieties of apples in this Kazakh forest, I started thinking about plant mutations. Plants naturally cross-pollinate to form new plants all the time. And in the Kazakh forests, it’s happened in spades. So because I was thinking about how I can’t eat apples and how apples are incredibly healthy for you, I began wondering what would happen if a naturally mutated tree occurred that could seriously boost the immune system. What would happen? A plant explorer, maybe local, would discover it, and consequently Western botanists would discover it. And so, I found the plant I wanted my protagonist Andre to discover, a medicinal apple.
Plant lovers are always in search of that “special” plant. They crave the unknown plant, the rare plant few others have, the plant that only grows under certain conditions. It’s a disease, this quest to attain the unusual. I’ve had it myself (though I’ve pulled back). We plant geeks are fascinated by all the mutations, natural and bred. We want the blueberry that actually produces pink berries (Vaccinium ‘Pink Lemonade’). We want the hydrangea with purple leaves (Hydrangea aspera ‘Plum Passion’). I could easily name a hundred even rarer examples. And so, it also occurred to me this medicinal apple would be extra valuable and extra interesting if it were an unusual color. And as far as I know, no one has discovered a truly white apple yet.
Where to Begin
So because I wanted Andre’s life to change because of a white, medicinal apple tree, I knew the story had to begin at the point when the apple came into his life or he came into its. Of course, that had to be in Kazakhstan. Also, I decided that rather than sending him solely as a representative of his university, he’d have to have some pressure to cause conflict about attaining it. And so, I decided he’d be beholden to a pharmaceutical company in Paris. Because I knew he’d need even more conflict than a corporation breathing down his neck, I created a villain who’s against his botanical work. These ideas launched the first chapter and story arc. You can read the novel’s pitch summary here.
Next week, I’ll post an excerpt from Chapter 1 of Harvesting the Sky. I was shocked and proud when it placed as a semi-finalist in a novel contest a few years ago.
If you’d like to share the origins of a story or poem you’re working on, please share in the comments below.