By Tracy Barrett, W & M Contributor
I love poking through library shelves, stumbling on books whose existence had never occurred to me; finding, next to the book I’m looking for, an even more interesting one; marveling at titles (a recent favorite: The Thirteenth: Greatest of Centuries—take that, people who call the Middle Ages barbaric!); feeling somehow proud that the book I’m clutching was last checked out during the Second World War.
Now I do most of my research by typing keywords into little boxes on a screen. But it’s occurred to me that the way one on-line hit leads to another that leads to another is the same process, and can take you to—well, not to entire books extolling the brilliance of the 1200’s in Europe, but to a fact that will make a scene or a character gain that little bit of depth that will bring it to life.
Case in point: the copy editor on my young-adult novel Dark of the Moon pounced on a passage where I said that Theseus’ stepfather grated cheese over a bowl of lentil soup. “Did the ancient Greeks have cheese graters?” she asked.
Well, of course they had some way of consuming hard cheese—they wouldn’t throw it out. But that got me wondering about how exactly they made it edible, so I set out to look for an answer.
Here’s what I learned:
- Not only did the ancient Greeks have cheese graters, they looked remarkably like the ones we use today.
- The Greek word for “cheese grater” is κνήστις (knestris, in the Latin alphabet) or τυρόκνηστις.
- When the women in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata go on a sex strike to force their husbands to quit fighting, they renounce a sexual position called “the lioness on the cheese grater.”
- The spot on your back that you can’t reach to scratch is called the “aknestris.”
How many of these facts did I wind up using in Dark of the Moon? Only the first, and it all it did was confirm that what I had already figured out must be accurate. But the search gave me a lovely wander through the virtual stacks.
Tracy Barrett is the author of numerous books for young readers, most recently two young-adult novels set in ancient Greece, King of Ithaka and Dark of the Moon. She lives in Nashville, TN, where she teaches at Vanderbilt University.