When you borrow from folklore and myth, you have to do a lot of research and reading. You don’t want to make assumptions and get attacked by angry readers more knowledgeable than you about your own creatures and mythic story elements. If you were writing a story with werewolves in it, you can’t trust to the slim store of knowledge about werewolves imparted from watching a few movies. It’s not enough to “know” that werewolves change during a full moon. Do you want your werewolves to be just like those in every other werewolf story?
I would think not.
If you want to do better, you have to dig deeper, perhaps even going as far as becoming an amateur expert on your subject. But then you have to decide how to apply that knowledge to your story.
What to Keep and Discard
When you go researching folklore, you may find a lot of conflicting stories. Different cultures will have different takes on a creature or story. For me, this became highlighted while working on my first novel, The Shifter Chronicles, Book I: A Broken Princess. The story concerns fairies in the modern world. In my research on fairies, I discovered so much various and conflicting information that I really had trouble deciding what to keep and what to ignore, starting with the spelling of word itself: fairy? faerie? feyrie? fay? fey?
Fairy traditions come from many different cultures and each one has their own spin on what fairies are and how they work. Not only that, but over time, the way fairies have been depicted has evolved, by turns more or less evil, helpful, and influenced by Christianity or other religions.
I had all kinds of crazy ideas to work with and pick from. How to spell the words, what the creatures should look like, where they lived, how their magic worked, and what their weaknesses were. What most people know about fairies if they know anything beyond Tinkerbell comes to us from Irish and Scottish folklore, but there is fairy folklore from French and Jewish sources, too, among others. A lot of what people think they know about fairies doesn’t come from old folklore at all, but from stories or “factual accounts” written over the years in prose and poetry. One hoax, The Cottingley Fairies, charmed a lot of people and completely suckered in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, making a fool of him. The famed author of Sherlock Holmes wanted badly to believe fairies were real.
One difficulty I found was deciding to keep or discard aspects of the lore based on how it would affect my story. For example, one common mechanic of fairy land vs. “real life” is that time passes at different rates in each realm. A night in fairy land may be seven years in our world. Very rarely, a tale reverses this so that it’s as if no time passed at all in the real world even though a hapless human may have spent days or even years in fairy land.
I could’ve chosen to ignore this mechanic altogether for the sake of a convenient story. It could simply just be too much to have thirty years pass because my protagonist spends several nights in Faerie (that’s how I’m spelling it for my story). But I’m thinking I might want to work with it. This could be an opportunity to have some real gut-wrenching consequences in my story. It might mean changing the story so that it begins many years ago, so that after these characters spend time in Faerie, they return to world the reader still recognizes.
The Twist That Makes It Yours
If you’re writing, say, a werewolf story, you want to find a twist for your werewolves that’s uniquely yours. You can’t do that unless you have a good awareness of other werewolf stories, both from folklore and from your fellow fantasy authors. Maybe your werewolves are not wolves at all, but bears. Werebears would be pretty cool. Or your version of lycanthrope is progressive and chronic, leading to irreversible transformation. In John Crowley’s Ægypt Cycle, werewolves and witches warred against each other during the turning of each of the great Ages of the world.
Think about vampires for a moment. There is much folklore about them, and there are a great many vampire stories written through the years, making it a challenge to put your own twist on them. When Anne Rice decided to write about vampires, she did so knowing full well there was much that came before her. Yet she found a way to make them her own, chiefly by giving them some unique powers, and even focusing on their very origins.
Authors have done similar with dragons, sorcerers, elves, dwarves, or any staple of fantasy literature. Within the city of fantasy literature, the same can be done within its various boroughs and ghettos. Each genre and sub-genre has its norms and its expectations, and if you conform too tightly to them, you’re boring. What twist will you put on your story?
A lot of what makes the fairies of my story unique comes from the way I spin some of the classic elements of known fairy lore and apply them to history. For example, Scottish folkore gives us the notion of the Seelie and Unseelie courts, but how I implement that idea in my story is something that makes it mine. Most fairy stories in the past have concerned themselves with people crossing fairies the wrong way or seeking their help, but not with the details of how they govern themselves, or how things would have changed after the discovery of the New World and colonization.
There are many accounts but not much detail about the Fairy realm, so here I also have the freedom to make it mine. The folklore gives me some clues: fairy land is like another plane of existence and may be entered by those who are not fairies only at certain places and during certain times. But fairies (the Fae, in my case) can come and go as they please, by shifting deeper into Faerie. This is how my novel got its name. It was originally to be called Shifters, but in fleshing out the plot and characters, it trisected into a trilogy.
A further twist I’ve put on this is that there is not just Faerie, but many layers of Faerie, like Dante’s levels of Hell, and the deeper you go, the more bizarre and “Faerie-ish” it gets, and quite possibly the slower time passes compared to the outside world. I haven’t decided yet, for sure, about the time difference, but I’m leaning in this direction, just because it’s so juicy with consequence. Imagine come back to the known world and discovering your ex-wife has cancer and is near death, your daughter is fully grown and hates your guts, and you’ve lost everything because the Fae put a Stock in to replace you (a Stock is an ugly chunk of wood with a glamour on it so that people think it’s you; its purpose is get sick and die to cover for your disappearance from the normal world). That is some seriously fucked up shit, yes?
Researching Widely Makes All the Difference
If I had been lazy and just gone with what everyone knows about fairies, my story would be shallow and boring and have no emotional power to it. But because I sniffed around enough, I discovered priceless lore I can adopt and use.
I confess, though, I wasn’t this smart at first. At first, I just started banging out words, happy as any ignoramus can be. “I’m writing a novel! Yay!” But because I began prematurely, I’m now faced with the necessity of scrapping what I’ve already written. Based on new knowledge, I can make the story much better, but now I have to start over from word one.
I’m a bit exasperated at that, but I’m not mad, because it means the story is going to be so much better than it was. In fact I’ve put a moratorium on writing any of the actual story until I’ve read a little more widely, because I would prefer not to start over again. In my case this is not an excuse to not write, because it’s excruciating for me. When I’m doing research, I get all excited and I want to stop right there, say, “To Hell with it!” and just start pounding keys.
What about You?
What’s your experience with research and folklore like? What pitfalls have you hit? How has it changed your stories? What’s your twist? How has research made your life miserable or triumphant or both? Let it out, spew forth in the comments below.