This final of 3 segments looks at how to search effectively, especially for half-remembered stories and more recent stories published after Stith Thompson's Motif Index. (Remember blogs are published with the most recent articles first, so be sure to read Part 1 and 2 before this.)
3) Jane remembers a story from childhood about four sisters becoming spring, summer, fall and winter. She turns to the creation section of the motif index.
Seasons are not mentioned at all. This could be good or bad news. It probably means Thompson did not research this area of story collections, which probably means that no such stories had been collected in the 1930s, when the index was compiled. This could either mean the story is not from folklore, or that it is folkloric but rare. With the explosion of storytelling interest in the 1980s and 1990s, if it is a folktale, it is likely to have been collected somewhere.
But how does Jane find it?
She uses a little ingenuity. The creation motif is useless, but the sisters became seasons through making quilts with magic needles. Section D of the motif index deals with magic. D900-1299 deals with magic objects. It is the matter of a moment to discover that magic needles (D1181) are most prominent in Germanic and Slavic stories; more than half the listings following D1181 are German or based on a Germanic language. While the tales indexed here are not what Jane is looking for, she can now turn to geographic collections of German and Eastern European tales for a more productive search. And, by remembering that Grimms' fairy tales were collected and well-known in the 1930s, she can exempt them from her search.
This does not guarantee that Jane will find exactly what she wants. Too often storytellers miss versions or variants because they are focused on a particular element. One motif alike does not make the entire tale type alike.
But finding the magic needle in other folktale motifs will help Jane feel more confident about whether she remembers the tale from a literary source or in the oral tradition.
These three scenarios certainly do not cover the plethora of experiences possible to the story researcher. Frustration, euphoria, confusion, despair, and the flush of success through persistence are well-known to the sincere source seeker. Nothing comes from nothing; good things come to those who show a little integrity, employ a little ingenuity, and log a lot of library time.
TIPS FOR EFFECTIVE SEARCHES:
Think Loosely. Don't get bogged down in tiny elements, and remember, the way you think is not necessarily the way Thompson thought when he put that story into a category.
Stay focused. Don't think so widely that any story, through mental gymnastics, can become the one you are looking for. A giraffe that heals animals through magic leaves is not a physician who gets his power from a magic dragon elixir.
Employ common sense. Knowledge you already have can help narrow your search categories. Knowing that "gypsy" is a common (if misguided) term for Hungarian peoples, or that African stories often focus on gourds and yams, can save you a lot of time. They can also help you pick out the elements of the story most important for indexing.
Use your friends wisely. Other people reading other books will cut your search time exponentially. Let it be known what you are looking for.
On that final note of seeking help from others, I want yet again to thank Wendy for her permission to reprint this article AND to note that it came from her posting it on the international email list, Storytell. I printed it out back in 1999. Unfortunately the list went through various changes -- originally it was hosted by Texas Woman's University, with various software changes; when they stopped hosting it the National Storytelling Network added it to their site. Archiving for old resources was lost unless saved by list members. We are a community and often help in such searches.