Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Folk Tales as Inspiration

When I haven't been reading novels lately, I've primarily been tucked up with several large books of folk tales and fairy stories, particularly ones from Russia and from the southern US. It's mostly for research purposes; I'm working on a series of steampunk short stories set in the Appalachian mountains which will probably lead into a full-length novel when I'm done with the Genevieve trilogy. Same thing with the Russian ones - I actually feel like those are stories that would take very well to steampunkification, an idea that's been nibbling at the back of my brain probably since I saw the chicken-legged circus cart in Girl Genius.

Reading folk tales always makes me think about storytelling and the various ways in which it's accomplished. After all, it honestly feels a bit odd to sit and read a collection like that. You're acutely aware (or at least, I am) the entire time that these are stories that were meant to be read aloud, not written down. Often, they don't really benefit from being written down, I find that I often stumble over strange constructions that are meant to work best when spoken aloud. There's more repetition, more stock phrases, and more interaction between the narrator and the audience than in most works that were written to be read. My favorite are the Russian stories that end with exclamations along the lines of "It's all true! I know it because I was there, and I drank mead, but it didn't go into my mouth." One assumes, I suppose, that a drunken narrator isn't to be trusted.

It's possible to turn folk tales into novels and do it really well. Neil Gaiman does it all the time. It's easy to dismiss them as trite, over-used, old, dried-up, anything you want to call them, really. The thing is, though, that they offer a great lesson when it comes to what people will always find interesting. Humans have loved these stories since the beginning of time, and in a way that's remarkably culture-spanning. Reading a translation of a 19th century Russian folktale collection, I found a story in it that's clearly an adaptation of the 17th century French version of Beauty and the Beast. These are stories that have stayed current for centuries, if not millennia, and have traveled across entire continents in their spread.

Writers are always concerned about what makes a good story. Boy meets girl, boy has gun, zombie apocalypse invasion, that kind of thing. And while your writing ability and style make a lot of difference, I feel like we all need to remember that story's the heart of the thing, it's why we do what we do. Folk tales and fairy tales, for all that they don't match modern literary sensibilities, remind us that story has always been the heart of the thing, and that humans have been making up stories about things pretty much since we learned to talk. Don't worry if your story has been told before. Chances are, in the course of 10,000 odd years, they all have. Focus on why you want to tell it again, what there is about it that you think is important for people to feel and understand. It's easy to write in a vacuum, but we write for people and about people, and in order to make people feel how we want them to feel. I don't ever want to write a story that I'd be ashamed to share around a campfire.

I'm an entertainer, and I'm proud of it. And while I may not be anywhere near as cool as John Hurt, I'm proud to be a Storyteller.

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