Story notes for “The Root Cellar”

First of all,

(Content warning for child abuse, dark magic, body parts, and death (of sorts).)

It’s often difficult after the fact to tease out all the things that inspired me to write a certain story. There’s seldom just one thing that leads me straight to writing something. Stuff percolates in your head, gets mixed up with other things, ferments, twists, and through some strange alchemy, a story idea pops out eventually.

A root cellar.

While writing The Root Cellar, I was braiding together several different inspiration-strands. I like root cellars. I have fond memories of my grandparents’ root cellar in Sweden. The earthy, damp smell of it, the cool air beneath the hill, the darkness, the dusty root vegetables in their wooden boxes… My grandparents used to grow potatoes, enough to last them through the year, and in the fall, we helped pick the potatoes and they were hauled into the root cellar just down the road from my grandparents’ house. (Some of that is touched on in my essay, “My grandfather’s horses“.) All winter, a few times every month, we went to the root cellar to get some potatoes (people in Sweden eat a lot of potatoes, and I believe potatoes were even more of a staple back in the 70s when I grew up).

That memory, of the rickety old door beneath the hill, and of stooping low to get inside have stuck with me ever since.

(Above – barrows for comparison.)

A couple of years ago, I was wondering how hard it would be to build a root cellar, and while googling the subject, it struck me how similar in construction root cellar and barrows (for burial) are. That thought, of two places – the barrow and the cellar – used to keep things underground, also stuck with me.

There’s a lot of fairytale in The Root Cellar too. Mainly, to me at least, Hansel and Gretel. That influence was more apparent in earlier drafts of the story, but it’s still there. A father, a dead mother, children lost in the woods, a witch’s house that seems benign but isn’t.


Around the time when I started writing this story, the papers were reporting about a terrible case in Canada where a child was essentially starved to death by his parents. I could barely read the news reports, but once again, I was reminded of how children are so often abused and killed, not by strangers, but by people they know, people who are supposed to care for them. The old, original versions of the fairytales often seem brutal and cruel (far beyond the bounds of Disney), but in many ways they are closer to real life. There is brutality and cruelty, death and pain, as well as hope and rebirth, treasure and true love. Those thoughts, of cruelty in fairytales and in the real world, flowed into this story, too.

I knew even as I wrote it that this would be a very dark and very strange tale. Not an easy sell. (Is any story ever an easy sell?) I am eternally grateful to Scott H. Andrews at Beneath Ceaseless Skies for seeing something good in this story, and I am also eternally grateful for his thoughtful and thorough edits. So much of this story relies on the voice of the narrator coming out right, and Scott helped me hone that voice. He really is an amazing editor, and it’s such a joy to work with someone who likes and understands your story, and helps you make it even better.

Another thing that stood out for me while I wrote this story, was that it had a very strong rhythm. That rhythm, the melody of the text, really shaped the prose – some words fit, others didn’t, some things were easier to say, and some took longer to shape. Every story has a rhythm as I write it, but sometimes that “song” is especially insistent, as it was in this case. I had to weigh even minor changes to words and grammar because I didn’t want to break that “flow”.

I’m an avid reader of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and being published there is a dream come true for me as a writer. Recently, BCS also picked up a story of mine called It’s Easy To Shoot A Dog, and I can’t wait to share that eventually!


And hey, if you want to support Beneath Ceaseless Skies, head over to Weightless Books and pick up a subscription!

Images: VIEW OF WEST-ORIENTED ROOT CELLAR DOOR – Hans Ehlers Farm, Root Cellar, F Street, Papillon 18 Damsite, Millard, Douglas County, NE / barrows /  vectorized silhouettes of Hansel & Gretel 


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