Tuesday, July 6, 2010

“What if?” Folklore as a Source

“What if?” Folklore as Source

One of the questions every writer hears regularly is “where do you get your ideas?” Answers to this one range from quips to “everything” to very specific “this story came from ___.” All of these are true answers (or, they can be. . . writers being writers, there are inevitably truth-bendings going on sometime. Frex, a friend & I concocted a “how did you meet story” that involved broken hearts & an octopus, but that’s another topic).
Every story I have started begins with a “what if” or a “what next.” Moreover, every one of those is connected to folklore or/and fairy tales in some way.
Lore & life in my texts

My first novel, Wicked Lovely, utilizes a few fairy tale tropes--in part for the purpose of defying them. There's a curse that can only be broken by finding the "fated love" . . . of course, the fated love doesn't quite want to be found, and the cursed faery is already in love with someone he hoped was his fated love, but wasn't . . . sorta, maybe. I had good fun playing with questions of volition and power here, the idea of what happily-ever-after means, and other fairy tale tidbits like a "woken with a kiss" scene wherein being "woken" is an awakening (i.e. epiphany rather than literally awakening). That novel is also very rooted in a folklore, specifically tales of Cailleach Bheur and of the King of Summer.

I used some of the same lore and fairy tale tropes in a short story in Cricket in 2007. It derives, in part, from my on-going love of Cailleach Bheur, but in it the protag is a girl who carries "Winter's Kiss" and feels it a burden rather than a joy. I added this to a world in which global warming is a problem, and threw in my childhood dream of traveling with an ice-bear (polar bear) that is a result of a fairy tale, & well, it became a story about a girl who carries winter and boy who is also a bear.
The second novel (Ink Exchange) was playing with the Unseelie Court, my fondness for tattoos (I have a lot of ink tucked away under my clothes), & my own experience of being a rape survivor.
. . . and so forth and so on.
Fragile Eternity plays with the “don’t eat the food of Faerie” (which is also in the Hades/Persephone tale). Radiant Shadows is a result of my interest in the Wild Hunt. Similarly, my short stories have played with drug dealing and Haitian zombie powder (“Two Lines” in Unbound) inversion of the selchies entrapping men trope (“Love Struck” in Love is Hell), vampires and the power of crossroads (“Transitions” in Teeth).
My forthcoming adult novel (Graveminder ) sparked from a bit of lore on “minding the dead” and a family tradition of visiting cemeteries a lot.
Why write from folklore?

I didn’t intend to write these things. In many ways, writing is a bit of an accident for me. I grew up with these sorts of stories, the supernatural wasn’t just the stuff in my books, it was/is real in my family. I’ve been told not to go places because of the various creatures lurking out there; I’ve also been sent out to “catch” a faery that was lurking around the woodpile. I’m passing that tradition on to my children as best I can.
When my son was a preschooler, we read about trolls. (Spouse is of Scandinavian descent, so I had to incorporate that body of lore and myth into my Irish & Scottish.) Son developed a fixation on “catching” trolls, so he explained the problem to my mother—who promptly went to her neighbor and asked to build a troll trap. We ran into only one snag:
Mum: Suze can build a trap, but she needs to know how big the trolls you have are. We might have a different species here than you do in California.
Me: Hmm. I’ll ask.
Son: Cat sized, maybe rabbit sized.
It didn’t occur to any of us that there was much odd about the question. Trolls do come in various sizes. Faeries do too. Wales has Ellylon, tiny little fey things, but Scotland has some mortal and some monstrous sized fey. Scandinavia has skogsra (women with hollow backs). Luckily, we had the answer we needed, so Suze built a sturdy wooden troll trap (with a good leather hinge) and shipped it to California.
How do I learn this stuff?

It’s really a case of write what I know. After a folklore saturated childhood, I grew up and became a lit major and after that a lit teacher at university. My focus areas were Romantic, Victorians, & the American South. Mmmm. Ghosts, Byronic heroes, Frankenstein, Dracula, the “Mortal Immortal,” Southern Gothic! Oh yes, literature is riddled with some weird stuff. Delicious, macabre, and addictive. Stir the lit into the lore, and I was on my way to being where I am now.
Somewhere in there, I also discovered scholarly journals . . . FOLKLORE and THE LION AND THE UNICORN and MARVELS AND TALES (among others). I still curl up with these. In my stack as I write are, "The Trouble with Ghost-Seeing: Vision, Ideology, and Genre in the Victorian Ghost Story” (Smijac), “Bedding the Nightmare” (Blecourt), and “Purity and Danger: Dracula, the Urban Gothic, and the Late Victorian Degeneracy Crisis” (Spencer) . . and get this—all of this fun reading is justified because it’s work.


Yeah, I get to read what interests me, drown in it, and I know that somewhere along the line, I’ll get that moment where I say, “oooooh, what if . . .”
What about you? What interests do YOU have that you can tap for stories . . . or just because they're fun? Tell me something interesting--about anything at all--and one reader/responder to this blog wins a copy of UNBOUND (the adult anthology I did with some of my co-bloggers here: Jeaniene Frost, Vicki Patterrson, & Joce Drake) OR LOVE IS HELL (the YA Antho).*
Winner announced next month (on August 4th by Jeaniene bc I'll be leaving for Scotland August 2nd).


signed copy of RADIANT SHADOWS to a US resident: PROJECTANIME
signed copy of RADIANT SHADOWS to an international reader: MOUNTIE9
signed copy of WICKED LOVELY to a US resident: NYMFAUX
signed copy of WICKED LOVELY to an international reader: RENATA
signed copy of any of my books to a library collection (must be requested by a librarian!)*: SUSIE SHARP LIBRARIAN
second signed copy of any of my books to a library collection (must be requested by a librarian!)* BRELEMON

Winners, please email donna@melissa-marr.com with your user name, address, & to whom you want/if you want the book personalized.


Sharon S. said...

I love hearing how my favorite authors came up with ideas. What a great post. Lots of times I've thought "hey, that would make a great story" and since I don't write, I don't jot the idea down and then it is gone to that place forgotten ideas go...but, I love Martial Arts. I am working on my 2nd degree Black Belt in Taekwondo. I would pull from that. I love learning the weapons.

TS Tate said...

I love this post. I personally took those ghost stories, urban legends and the weird little Irish folktales my Grandda told us as kids and applied them to the papers/stories I wrote in grad school. Those past Southeastern Louisiana tales, many of them tall tales, coupled with Shelley, Dante, Austen and Shakespeare helped me cultivate a rich fabric of 'what ifs.'

It really is true: write what you know and if you don't know it, learn it.

Samantha Sherratt said...

It's so lovely to have a little insight to your favourite authors thinking, I really enjoy reading this blog

I guess for me it'd be food, my Mum's a Nutritionist and 2 out of 3 of my Gran's are cooks (my Grandad has a large belly) one of them makes roast potatoes to die for and the other makes meringues that are crunchy on the outside and chewy in the middle, she's told me how to do it but I still can't make them like hers. And my other Gran makes the most amazing wedding cakes...

So my family is a little food obsessed, I partly just love cooking and the sense of satisfaction you get when eating a meal you've created that tastes just as good as or better than you expected...

Or seeing the smile and satisfaction someone else has from eating your food

I'm just a little food obsessed.

Melissa said...

I really enjoy finding out what authors use in writing the books. I often think when reading," where did they come up with this or is this based on something?". In some cases, I have gone and read what the author has stated was the inspiration for the story. Thanks for the background on your writing.

nymfaux said...

YEA!!!!!!!!! I'M SO EXCITED!!!!!!!
I won a copy of Wicked Lovely from last month's post!!!!!!!
It's been on my "to read" list for awhile, now, but especially after reading today's post--and then I WON!!!!! Yea!!!!!!

As for today's post--I agree that I love hearing WHERE stories come from, I always feel like anything EXTRA that I know about the background adds a richness to a story. So when I really like or get into something, I start checking out the things that I read about--fairy tales/myths that were mentioned, etc...I have SO MANY companion books for Harry Potter...But it also led me to other authors and books that I hadn't read yet...or lets old books take on new meanings.

Speaking of which...Your post made me remember a book I read a couple years ago about an epic poem and a prophecy/curse/spell--It was called Tam Lin, by Pamela Dean...And I totally just had to do a few blind searches until I found it.

As for me, I write off and on, but ever since I was a kid, I've made up stories, even if they were only to tell myself. As an adult, I can see that most of my childhood was made up of creating and reenacting fan-fic based around Barbies and 80s cartoons, like Thundercats, Votron, She-Ra, and Punky Brewster.

Today, I pick out a lot of ideas I pick out from random day-to-day happenings, or just words that come together, and I think could make something interesting.

And my other story source is my dreams. Sometimes I dream something so VIVID, and so out of nowhere, that I just start writing it down to see where it goes.

Thank you so much for this great post!!!!!!--I can't wait to read Wicked Lovely!!!! And congrats to all the other winners from last month's contest!!!

And good luck to everyone in this month's contest!!! ;)

Starlit Rogue said...

I role play online. It's mostly with my fiance but when I rp my mind dances through ideas.

Dreams are also another thing I tap into.

The biggest thing is music. Not the words though. The way things are being sung and the music in the background. I have whole soundtracks to my writing.

Patricia Lynne said...

I love reading extras. When an author has deleted scenes and chapters they cut from the book but put up on their website for the fans. those little tidbits give you that much more of the universe and I'm always so grateful for those gifts.

cheesecake.thief59 said...

Great post! I just love reading and seeing what authors come up with. Then I go "What if..." But I also love reading about Greek Mythology.

tetewa said...

A very informative post today, I enjoyed it

Helen Lowe said...

I "got" the Celtic influence in your novels, Meliisa, but had not picked up on the Scandinavian: I will have to re-read more closely :-) I think Ursula Le Guin said/wrote (in Steering the Craft?) something about ideas being in the air and the writer just plucks them out. But I do feel that the stories you love yourself, as a writer, and areas in which you have read deeply will have an influence on what comes "out of the air." And sometimes it can be a single word, or image that provokes a cascade of first ideas that become the book. I also agree totally about the "what if" and "what next" as the wellspring of story--and thanks for the post. :-)

linaramz said...

Ooooh great post, Melissa!

I'm not an author or anything but I love to write. Sometimes I get ideas from my dreams, or I'd just be daydreaming/spacing out and BAM! something pops into my head and I think "huh, that would be interesting," and so I'll write it down. I think it's so cool to see how authors come up with their ideas and what twists they put on mythology.

Sweet Rachel! said...

I love this post! What grabs my attention most is stories that relate historically. Such as your novels. I absolutely love it when the background is historical. Especially when it clicks for me. Learning that little bit of history with a wonderful fiction story is incredible.

Jessica @ a GREAT read said...

I like the weird, so basically my mind is always reeling with ideas. Mostly paranormal/supernatural ideas. I've always been a supernatural kind of gal.

Weirdest thing that I love to see and have a story idea for that I need to write once I finish my current WIP is one that involves the woods. I don't know why, but I am absolutely fascinated by the woods and I am so not an outdoors kind of gal. Don't understand it, but I am drawn to them for some reason, as an observer of course.

shannonB. said...

Great post! My senior year in high school I took a semester long mythology class and I've been hooked ever since. Right now I have a book on Norse myths and a book on Celtic myths on my desk. I also really like Egyptian mythology. And I love good ole ghost stories, urban legends, etc. There is a library in a city not too far from where I live that is haunted by a former owners daughter. They even have webcams so you can watch the library and try to see her.

Crystal @ RBtWBC said...

Wow, what a fantastic post Melissa! It was great to read about where your ideas come from and peep a little bit into the life of Melissa Marr.
And I loved the little story about your son and the troll trap.
I have always loved anything with faeries and have passed that on to my daughter, her whole room is done in faeries. Your story reminded me of the little faery door I had made for her a few years ago so the faeries could come visit her. They get the blame for a lot of missing or out of place things now. =)
Hope everyone has a great week!

Rachel498 said...

Awesome post. It's cool to see how some authors thinks and how and why they choose certian ideas.

I like really unique ideas and coming up with stuff that's totally different than what's already out there. It's difficult because there is such a wide variety now in the supernatural genre, but even if someone puts their own twist on something that's already been written, for exp. vampires/faeries/shifters, etc, I still enjoy it. I love reading stories that are unique. Something I can look at and be like "This is different than the other stuff I've read."

Rachel498 said...
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Rachel498 said...
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Nicole Murphy said...

How wonderful, to live a life where the supernatural was considered natural - I love it :)

The main thing that I really want to write about is Australia. This is such a mystical, magical land and with it's incredibly long history of settlement, rich in story. However, it's not a story that belongs to me, to I'm still working through how to write about my mysterious, wide brown land in a manner that's not disrespectful to the Indigenous peoples. One day, I will. One day.

In the meantime, a secret magical race seems to be suiting me just fine :)

JenM said...

I love to travel so I'm always interested in the setting of a book, especially if it's worked into the story as opposed to just being in the background. I love to either recognize places I've been, or read about new places I'd like to go to.

Kimberly B. said...

Great topic! I must admit, I've never understood the "where do you get your ideas?" question so many writers get, mostly because I get more ideas than I know what to do with! I am an ancient historian, and longtime lover of Greek myth, so many of my story ideas come from that. Although so far I have little interest in writing straight-up historical fiction; I'd probably dump out so many details from my research I'd forget to develop my plot!

Sharon S. said...

I just thought of something! I spent like 10 years around dog shows. Mostly agility and obedience, but I would go to some conformation. And OMG, there is so much that could be done with that setting . Those people were crazy, Bless their hearts .

throuthehaze said...

I'm not a writer, but often music sparks my imagination.
throuthehaze at gmail dot com

1337 said...

Hey Melissa,

I just started writing not long ago as i got to a mindset where i figured i have no place to go but up, i have always been obsessed with the paranormal since being probably about 2 years old, i remember seeing a film on the t.v that scared the .... well it scared me lol. and that's like the only memory i have from that age, when i was three i remember meeting one of the teenage mutant ninja turtles and got sooo excited i wet myself but that's another story.. Most of my ideas for writing comes from my warped chemical mess of a brain, just like you with the "what ifs" mine is like similar, as well as why would. a book my mom often tried to push on me was the golden bough and bulfinch's mythology, with it the route of all religion and folklore, it all fascinated me. I always loved being read to as a child and now i am fortunate enough to have kids of my own i love reading to them as well, and so now i figured why not write to them too! any way enough ranting i am off to pick up my kid! hope you are well.


Unknown said...

Since I'm a mythology and legend buff I always get a thrill when I encounter or discover a mythological reference or motive in modern novels. I love it also when authors bend these old legendary details and make them either unique with an extraortdinary interpretation or if they outright go against them (e.g. some vampires can go out in the sunlight, werewolves not only shift at full moon, etc.)

Thanks, it was interesting reading about what inspired you :-)

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