Why I Choose to Write Fantasy/Fairy Tale Retellings

I can’t remember the very first story I ever read or that was read to me. But I’m 99.9% sure it was a fairy tale.

My current collection of fairy tales

My current collection of fairy tales

I remember various collections of Grimm fairy tales and those of Hans Christian Andersen on bookshelves at home.

Grimms’s Fairy Tales
Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales

The author who featured greatly in my growing-up years was Enid Blyton. Whatever the controversy surrounding her actual life, as a child, all I cared about was the fun stories she told. My favourite has to be ‘The Enchanted Wood’ series. Climbing to the very top of the Faraway Tree always revealed a new land to be discovered, but I especially liked the folk who inhabited the tree.

I’m pretty sure I read most, if not all, the books in the ‘Famous Five’ series. And the books set in the boarding school, ‘Malory Towers’, made me yearn to go to boarding school, which seemed to be more about having adventures than actual studying!

Apart from Western fairy tales and stories, I also read comic-book versions of Hindu mythological tales. I’d amassed a hefty collection of comic books, all to do with my favourite deities and tales, which I’d brought with me to England when I came here to study. I made the mistake of lending them to a friend over the summer holidays one year back in the 1980s, and never saw her or my comics again. By then, the comics weren’t that easy to find, and I’ve never been able to rebuild that collection. That’s one of the reasons I’m so fussy about who I lend my favourite books to now.

So, moving past my Enid Blyton years, I gravitated towards books in the Fantasy genre. It seemed a natural progression from fairy tales.

Books I’ve read and a couple I’ve yet to read

Books I’ve read and a couple I’ve yet to read

Also, my imaginary playtime growing up (and beyond) has always included some fantastical element even if it was set in the real world.

When I started to toy with the idea of writing my own story, it was purely as a way to alleviate the mind-numbing boredom of being stuck behind the till in a quiet part of the shop I was working in at the time. Honestly, sometimes more than an hour would pass before I’d see a customer wander past.

Another reason I started to write was I wanted to read a story that either finished in one book or was no longer than a trilogy. Back then, any fantasy book I picked up was at least a trilogy, each book the size of a weighty doorstop, or longer. So, I thought I’d write the story I wanted to read.

I don’t remember making a conscious decision about writing fantasy, but that’s the story that started to take shape.

Thinking back on the early versions of what would eventually become ‘The Cursed Gift’, I cringe. It was so unbelievably bad, full of cliché and embarrassingly turgid. It morphed into a trilogy with a plot that resembled a tentacled monster. Basically, I’d thrown in all my favourite ideas, but failed to cohesively bind them together.

At the time, I didn’t think I had another story in me, so kept going back to it. I lost count of the number of drafts I wrote and rewrote. The first version was written in 1990 and I eventually self-published the first edition in 2006; my main reason for doing so – to show my mum before she passed.

I was proud of that version. Until I re-read it sometime later after I’d gained more writing knowledge. Oh, my gawd!! I was horrified. I wanted nothing more than to pull the book from Amazon, but it couldn’t be done.

By this time, I was working on my next story. What a delight, to realise I had another story in me! But I kept revisiting ‘The Cursed Gift’, I couldn’t help myself. Anyway, long story short – pardon the pun – I rewrote it, tightened it up, jettisoned as much cliché as possible and republished the second edition with a better cover. Overall, it was now something I was happy and satisfied with.

Reworking ‘The Cursed Gift’

Reworking ‘The Cursed Gift’

My second book, ‘The Moon Goddess’, is another fantasy story. I was thinking of making it into a series but couldn’t think where to take it so left it as a standalone. Having said that, since then, I’ve come up with some story ideas involving a couple of the characters, so may yet make it into a series. But I want each book to be a stand-alone.

Well, that was a bit of a digress! Back to the topic…

As I wondered what to write next, I turned to fairy tales. Certain aspects of certain fairy tales had always left me thinking – Sleeping Beauty being awakened by ‘true love’s kiss’ and then happily marrying the prince even though he was a complete stranger; why the giant was punished in ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ when all he was doing was protecting his property from the thief, Jack…

By now, I’d realised there was such a thing as ‘fairy tale retelling’. So, I thought I’d explore those things that bothered me, and tackled the Sleeping Beauty story first, which became my third book, ‘The Spellbound Spindle’.

Alexander Zick’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’

Alexander Zick’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’

The book I’m working on now, ‘The Raven and Other Tales’, is a collection of fairy tale/folk tale retellings and a couple of original tales, still with a fantastical bent.

The stories that I have waiting to be written are either fantasy or fairy tale retellings. I find them ‘easy’ to write, they seem to flow naturally once I come up with ideas/plot details.

Notes from one of the stories in ‘The Raven and Other Tales’

Notes from one of the stories in ‘The Raven and Other Tales’

Having said that, I’d like to try my hand at historical fiction as I love history. Every time I read a historical fiction novel, I’m itching to write something based on history.

So, why haven’t I? Well, first, I’d probably get so lost in the research, they’ll have to send an expedition to retrieve me.

But it’s the second point, which stops me every time. In historical fiction, at some point, the fictional characters are going to interact with actual people who lived back in the day. Or, the characters around which the story revolves could, themselves, be based on actual people. And therein lies my problem. To imagine or reimagine actual people’s lives scares me as I worry if I’ll do them justice. I guess I don’t have the confidence to believe I’m skilled enough to do it well.

Never say never, as they say; who knows what might transpire in the future? For now, though, I’ll carry on with fantasy/fairy tale retellings as I have enough stories waiting to be written.

Midweek Writer-Rummage: An Original Story - 'When She Looked Up'

I’m planning a series of posts about my next book, ‘Moon Goddess’, and also sharing more of my writing, as and when I feel the stories are ready.  This one, like most of my short stories, started as a writing exercise, inspired by my book of writing prompts, ‘A Writer's Book of Days’ by Judy Reeves.

When She Looked Up

When she looked up, Elise saw thick mist rolling towards her, its sudden appearance unnerving.  Gradually eclipsing the sun, the wall of ashen grey crawled closer.  Before she could fully grasp what was happening, it had completely enveloped her.  She knew she was not alone; she knew there were people around her, yet she shivered, for it seemed as if the fog had leeched all sound from the world.

In the rolling silence, her voice sounded small.  “Malcolm?”  No answer.  “John?” Hugging herself, her voice retreated into a whisper.  “Anne?”  Elise flung her arms out as if to push the fog away, half-expecting it to be a solid thing.  But it was fog and it floated from her.  Stumbling forward, she managed to catch herself.

“What is happening?  Where are you?  Anne!  Where are you?” Her voice caught as a sob escaped her.  Clasping her dirt-grimed hands together, she pressed them against her mouth.  “Robert …” she said softly, wanting … needing her husband.  His strength, his protection.  But that was beyond her reach for he was dead.  Killed in a war that had nothing to do with them, betrayed by his loyalty to a king whose only desire was to fight wars.

“Elise.”

Crying out, she spun around.  Her eyes widened; her hands fell away from her mouth.  “Robert?” Squeezing her eyes shut, she shook her head against conflicting hope and dread; hope that he really was here, dread that she was going mad.  Slowly, she opened her eyes.

He was still there.  Still standing before her, tall and handsome in his tunic and tabard, his cloak on his shoulders.  But he was pale … so pale.

“I am dreaming,” said Elise.  “Or I am going mad.  This cannot be real … can it?”

Squinting slightly, Robert nodded, the movement slow as if the effort pained him.  “If that is your desire.” His voice seemed to come from a distance, giving the impression that his voice was further away than he was.  It sounded hollow, lacking the richness Elise remembered.

She remained fixed to the ground, staring at the husband she’d believed lost.  He remained where he was, seemingly fatigued.

With a sob, Elise rushed forward and flung her arms around him.  “Oh, Robert, my Robert … I have missed you.  So many years, waiting for you to return only to be told you had been killed.” She buried her face in his tabard, weeping so hard, her body shook.  “I-I thought … I thought my heart would break …”

When she finally managed to control her tears, she pulled away enough to look up at him; he continued to stare straight ahead.  “Why did they say you were dead?  Were you captured, lost?  Why did you not send word?” She chose to ignore the small voice in her head that wondered at the iciness that spread from his body.

“The dead cannot.”

Silence followed his words.  Elise fought to convince herself that she had misheard him.  She wanted him to look at her, yet was afraid to look into his eyes, his beautiful grey eyes.  In that moment, she realised he had not returned her embrace; he stood as if made of wood.  Carefully, Elise released her hold and stepped back.  “Why did you say that?  How can you be here if you are …?” She could not bear to say the word.

It was only then that he lowered his gaze to meet hers.  And it was then that she could no longer deny the truth.  His eyes, once so full of joyful life and love, were now colourless.  Yet, there was sadness in them.

“You are keeping me here, Elise.”

Shaking her head slightly, she whispered, “How?”

“Your yearning for me keeps me trapped here.  So long as you refuse to loosen the bonds between us, I remain chained to this world.  I cannot go to my rest.”

Tears filled her eyes once more as her lip trembled.  “But I miss you.”

“I am weary, Elise.  All this wandering, so much wandering … I yearn for rest.”

“Robert … I love you–”

“Then let me rest.  Please.”

Blinking back her tears, she looked at him.  Truly looked at him.  It slowly came to her that, not only was he pale and cold, not only were his eyes without colour, everything about him was without colour.  He was without life, little more than a shadow, a copy of the man she had loved and shared a few short years with.  It was harsh, yes, and unfair, but his time with the living was done.  And he had not left her alone; she still had a part of him.  She had their daughter, their little Anne.

To her surprise, the pain in her heart loosened its grip, the spell of grief she’d been under fractured by the admittance of that truth.  When she spoke, her voice was that bit stronger.  “I love you, Robert, but I never meant to hold you here, for you to be trapped.  I never meant to deny you your rest.  But I have been given the chance to bid you farewell.  For that blessing, I will forever be grateful.”

He closed his eyes and let out a long sigh as if a burden had slipped from him.  Elise shivered as the world around her seemed to breathe again.  Managing to smile through her tears, she pressed her fingers to her lips then held her hand out towards him.

Robert smiled; a small smile but a smile nonetheless.  Lifting his hand in acknowledgement, he then placed it on his heart.  Turning, he walked from her.  And the fog rolled away with him.

“Mama?”

Blinking rapidly, Elise looked down to see her daughter frowning up at her.

“What are you doing?”

Glancing around, Elise realised her farm hands were also staring at her.  “Nothing, my love.  Nothing.” She wondered why no one appeared to be unnerved.  “Is … um, is anything amiss?”

Still frowning, Anne shook her head, her dark curls bouncing.  “Only you, Mama.  Why are you weeping?”

Elise quickly wiped her wet cheeks with the backs of her hands.  “It’s nothing, nothing.  I seem to have got some dirt in my eyes, that is all.” She pasted a smile on her face.  “Come.  Let us continue with the planting.”  Without warning, she grabbed her daughter and lifted her up.

Anne’s surprised exclamation turned into a laugh and she hugged her mother.  Unable to resist her child’s infectious laughter, Elise too laughed.  For the first time in a long time, she truly laughed.

Midweek Writer-Rummage - Foreshadowing

Following on from last week’s stab into the past, this week we peek into the future.  Foreshadowing is used when you want to plant information in the reader’s mind, the kind of information that seems insignificant but which will prove to be vital later in the story.  If done well, these clues will establish credibility for even the most bizarre event.  Most times, the clues are understated, and it’s only when the reader re-reads the book, does he fully understand them.

Foreshadowing serves a couple of purposes.  It flags up your story’s main events, and it creates suspense.  Together, these two encourage the reader to keep on reading, knowing that something noteworthy is definitely going to happen.  Remember, though, to keep the reader guessing – don’t make the mistake of giving too much away.  And if you spelt something out, make sure you deliver.  If you don’t, you’re betraying your reader’s trust.

A few ways to incorporate foreshadowing:

  • Through descriptive detail, like having the weather mirror a grim event.
  • Through mood; for example, having a character react unnaturally to an innocuous event.  This could be a mother preparing dinner, but she’s tense, sweating and keeps staring at the telephone.
  • Through a prophetic saying.  One of the best examples must surely be Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ – ‘Beware the Ides of March.'
  • Through dialogue.  Like this from one of my all-time favourite novels, ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’.  

Here, Atticus Finch is explaining to his son, Jem, the brave choice an old woman had taken in her final days:

I wanted you to see something about her – I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.  It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.  You rarely win, but sometimes you do.  [She] won ...  According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody.  She was the bravest person I ever knew.

By stating that courage comes from striving to do what you believe in even when the odds are against you, the story foreshadows Atticus’ efforts to defend Tom Robinson in court although he knows that the case is hopeless.  He takes on the case because he believes it is the right thing to do.

More examples of foreshadowing:

Apart from using flashbacks in ‘Of Mice and Men’, John Steinbeck also peppered it with copious amounts of foreshadowing.  It was only as I got to the end of the book, did I realise the number of signposts he’d laid out, all pointing to the outcome.  In the first few pages, when we’re introduced to George and Lennie, it’s obvious that George is the one who looks after both of them.  And, no matter how hard he tries, Lennie inadvertently gets himself, and George, into trouble.  George’s outburst unwittingly hints at things to come:

… I got you! You can’t keep a job and you lose me ever’ job I get.  Jus’ keep me shovin’ all over the country all the time.  An’ that ain’t the worst.  You get in trouble.  You do bad things and I got to get you out.”  His voice rose nearly to a shout.  “You crazy son-of-a-bitch.  You keep me in hot water all the time … ‘Jus’ wanted to feel that girls’ dress – jus’ wanted to pet it like it was a mouse …’ Well, how the hell did she know you jus’ wanted to feel her dress?  She jerks back and you hold on like it was a mouse.  She yells and we got to hide in a irrigation ditch all day with guys lookin’ for us, and we got to sneak out in the dark and get outta the country.  All the time somethin’ like that – all the time.

In ‘The Hobbit’, when Bilbo and the dwarves are with Beorn, he warns them to take care in Mirkwood …

… your way through Mirkwood is dark, dangerous and difficult … There is one stream there, I know, black and strong which crosses the path.  That you should neither drink of, nor bathe in; for I have heard that it carries enchantment and a great drowsiness and forgetfulness.  And in the dim shadows of that place I don’t think you will shoot anything, wholesome or unwholesome, without straying from the path.  That you MUST NOT do, for any reason …

And that is one huge marker that there is something very bad indeed that lives in Mirkwood.  The moment the travellers set foot in Mirkwood, you’re waiting for something to happen that will lead them off the path.

This next book, one I’ve only recently read, is filled with foreshadowing, which starts almost from the beginning of the story.  It started interestingly enough, I was drawn in and looked forward, each day, to continuing with the story.  But then, not even halfway in, I started to get annoyed.  There were a few reasons, including very little character development.  But the one I want to mention here is the foreshadowing.  There was too much.  And there was nothing subtle about it.  I’m talking about ‘ The Book Thief’.  Yes, I know the book is immensely popular, and I’m going out on a limb here by saying that I did not enjoy it.  In the spirit of fairness, I shall give an example of the foreshadowing that piqued my interest, fairly early on, in the first chapter:

When she came to write her story, she would wonder exactly when the books and the words started not just to mean something, but everything.  Was it when she first set eyes on the room with shelves and shelves of them?  Or when Max Vandenburg arrived on Himmel Street carrying handfuls of suffering and Hitler’s Mein Kamp?  Was it reading in the shelters?  The last parade to Dachau?  Was it The Word Shake?  Perhaps there would never be a precise answer as to when and where it occurred.  In any case, that’s getting ahead of myself.  Before we make it to any of that, we first need to tour Liesel Meminger’s beginnings on Himmel Street …

For me, the foreshadowing took a downward turn with this – I won’t mention names so as not to give anything away:

A small announcement about … He didn’t deserve to die the way he did … he was not deserving of the fate that met him a little under two years later …

And that’s not even halfway through the book.  Knowing the named character was going to die made reading the rest of the book nothing more than an exercise in going through the motions so I could say, ‘I read the book’.  The author’s explanation, via the narrator, is not good enough:

Of course, I’m being rude.  I’m spoiling the ending, not only of the entire book, but of this particular piece of it.  I have given you two events in advance, because I don’t have much interest in building mystery.  Mystery bores me.  It chores me.  I know what happens and so do you.  It’s the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest and astound me.

There are many things to think of.

There is much story.

If the narrator/author does not have much interest in building mystery, what then is the point of a story that fails to keep the reader guessing?  I don’t care that the narrator knows what happens.  The reader does not, and this reader enjoys the mystery of only finding out what happens at the end, when I’m supposed to; not to be told beforehand, only to wait for the inevitable.  It leeches much out of the story.  For me, this is a case of overuse of foreshadowing.

And that is the reason I firmly believe when it comes to incorporating foreshadowing in your story, the key thing to remember – maintain suspense.

Midweek Writer-Rummage - Genesis of Story and Character

When I started writing 'The Cursed Gift', it was because I wanted to read a fantasy story that didn’t require the commitment of a trilogy, or more.  I wanted to read about “ordinary people deal[ing] with extraordinary situations” (quoting Stephen King again).  I wanted to read a ‘sword and sorcery’ story that featured gods and demons, loving families, good friends …

It didn’t take me long to decide my story would be about a young woman who was too aware of her responsibilities to avoid them, when all she really wanted was a private life, free to make her own choices.  I went for the ‘obvious’ and made Leah, the protagonist, royalty, and added the element of her wanting to be the same as everyone else, and not to be treated differently.  Outwardly, she played the role expected of her, that of dutiful princess; but inside, she could not ignore her real feelings that manifested in her wishing she could be different, and quietly railing against the ‘unfairness’ of life.

I suppose I have my Malaysian-Hindu upbringing to thank, with its wealth of stories and myth, which has inspired me to write, not just about magic, but also deities who take an overt interest in the lives of mortals … much like Greek mythology.  What always interested me in Hindu mythology is that the gods are bound to grant wishes to anyone, even ‘villains’, so long as the worship is done in such a way as to prove the person’s devotion, no matter how questionable that devotion might be.

I wanted the deities to have obvious roles in the story, not merely hinted at in the background.  Using the ‘careful-what-you-wish-for’ scenario, I decided to focus on the demon-god granting Leah’s oft-repeated wish of wanting to be different.  But his motives are totally selfish, and what appears to be a gift comes with a heavy price.  Will she succumb to being nothing more than the demon-god’s puppet, which is what he had envisaged, or will she fight to remain true to herself?

I didn’t want the ‘love story’ element to be an obvious one.  I wanted to show love in its many forms – love between parent and child, sibling love, love for friends, romantic love.  The ‘love’ that I wanted to focus on was Leah’s love for her brother, which colours many of her decisions, and his love for her, as close to unconditional as I could make it.

That sounds quite straightforward and organised, doesn’t it?  Well … in the first draft, I chucked everything in, like tossing in umpteen ingredients in a giant stewpot.  And when I say everything, I mean every single thing I liked in the kinds of stories I’ve read.  When I finally stepped away, I had a bloated, heaving … trilogy.  Talk about mortifying!!  I shall spare you the details; just know that it sat turgidly on the plate, an unappetising dish of clashing tastes – third-rate ‘sword and sorcery’+Hindi movie+western.  Yes, people, it was as cringeworthy as it sounds.  And enough of the food metaphors.

I can wholeheartedly agree with the advice of putting each draft to one side for a few weeks, taking a breather doing other stuff, then going back to it.  Each time I hauled the work-in-progress out, I trimmed it mercilessly.  The version that’s now on the blog bears very little resemblance to the first draft, but still holds true to the ‘pitch’ – ‘Cursed by a demon lord’s gift of magic, and forced to do his bidding, a king’s daughter fights to remain true to herself.’  How many rewrites of that particular story did I do over 20-odd years?  I lost count.

As for how I decided on my characters … Being a woman, I thought the easiest would be to make the protagonist female.  She would be outwardly strong and confident, but secretly riddled with doubts and insecurities.  I gave her a brother as I don’t have one; it would be a challenge writing that relationship. 

To begin with, I had Leah’s parents be strong and solid in their love, then thought it would be more interesting if they appeared to be that way publicly, while hiding the cracks in their relationship.  I wanted them to be present in the story, and contributing to it.  Most parents and adults in young adult stories are either absent or seem to serve no other purpose than to ‘make trouble’ for the protagonist.

I based Leah’s female friends very loosely on the friends I had at school.  The men were a bit trickier as I had no real guy friends, so based them on my cousins, again very loosely.

As for the gods and demons, they would not be infallible; they would have feelings, and they would act on those feelings.

With all the characters, I did not want them to be ‘black and white’ because life, and people, aren’t like that.  Everyone has the capacity to be good, to do good; also to do ‘bad’ things.  Those who are branded ‘evil’, surely even they have redeeming qualities … there must be a reason why they do what they do.  Even if there is no reason, portraying a 'baddie' as simply that and nothing more means you usually end up with a two-dimensional, cardboard cut-out who doesn't pose much of a challenge to the protagonist.  And where's the fun in that?