Category Archives: Writer’s Life

Who Wants a Modern Fairy Tale?

UpTreeI’ve been on a fairy-tale kick lately. It started when I was thinking about the backstory of a character in my second Merlin novel. It led me to think about the character’s maternal grandparents. I’d already established the character as being Slovakian, and the character himself was based around a mythical being common in Slavic folk tales.

Quick disclaimer here: so far as I know, I have no Slavic blood. I’m a quarter Danish and the rest is a mélange of Western European nationalities.

This character’s sister was introduced in my first Merlin novel, and she told me when I was working on that book then that she was Slovakian, so what could I do? Well, that’s an easy question to answer: research. That’s how I discovered her brother.

Back to the fairy-tale kick. I had the idea to tell his back-story in the form of a modern fairy tale. I suppose some people would call it magical realism, but let me stick with fairy tale. I wrote a story about a girl who gets lost in the forest while being chased by a couple of nasty two-legged beasts (men) until she is saved by a (mystical) woodsman. I like the two main characters, but there was a minor character in this fairy tale—Babka—who insisted that I should tell her story.

I’ve had an on and off fascination with myths and fairy tales. Back when I was in grad school, I audited an anthropology class for fun. The name of the class was something like “Myth, Symbol and Ritual.” I wish I still had the class notes for that. It was a lot of fun, and a definite diversion from physics. I don’t think it was part of the class, but that was about the time that I read Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment. But then life happened and I spent several decades doing science and technology. My shelf of folk and fairy tale books mostly sat unread.

One of those volumes was The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories by Hans Christian Andersen. I’ve already written about the little gems I found there when I recently read that book cover to cover. It struck me that he seldom used the “once upon a time” formulation, and also how often he set the tales in (his) contemporary time. So, I wasn’t doing anything new by writing using a contemporary voice to tell a fairy tale.


I really only liked about one tale out of eight from H. C. Andersen’s stories. But I noticed that the ones that I did like had a magical feel to the writing. I decided, if I’m following in the footsteps of my distant not-relative, I should shoot for that quality.The story that old
Babka wanted me to tell is episodic, starting with her birth. Then, there are two vignettes of her as a girl, and the fourth occurs on the cusp of her adulthood, which also sets the stage for her role in the original girl-lost-in-the-woods story, where she’s an old lady. My intent is for each fairy tale to stand alone, but if you read them all together, they entwine. I’ve concentrated on making them feel magical.

I’m not sure that I’ve told her whole story yet. She might whisper something to me one day. But for now, I’ve got five tales.

I like the characters and what is happening to them. What I don’t know is whether contemporary readers want to read fairy tales. Would people buy a short book of newly made up folk and fairy tales? What do you think?

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