When I wrote last week’s post featuring highlights from DragonCon 2017, I omitted one of my favorite panels, for the simple reason that I felt like it deserved a post of its own. The panel, a Young Adult Track offering called “YA Myths and Fairy-tale Retellings,” attracted my attention partly because I would have given my left eye to be on it myself, considering the extent of the inspiration I take from fairy tales. Nearly every short story, novel, and radio play I’ve worked on has a fairy-tale element somewhere in its bones, and whenever I’m stuck for an idea I go to the well of my fairy-tale/folktale collections. I would have had so much to say.
In the end, however, I felt I benefited as much from being in the audience and listening to the panelists — Carole E. Barrowman (the Hollow Earth series), Zoraida Cordova (the Vicious Deep trilogy, Labyrinth Lost), Clay and Susan Griffith (the Vampire Empire series), E.K. Johnston (Ahkosa, A Thousand Nights), and Mari Mancusi (Scorched, Gamer Girl) — share about the myths and stories that have sparked their imaginations and the ways that inspiration has worked, and how it might work for other aspiring writers. Much of what they told us, I already knew, at least on some level. But we should never underestimate the value of hearing our own thoughts spoken aloud and validated by others who have found success doing what we love to do. Certain pieces of wisdom stood out to me, because they seemed to speak so clearly to what I’ve been striving for in my own writing.
From Carole E. Barrowman: “The best stories that use formulas are the ones that stretch them.” From Zoraida Cordova: “You have to make the story yours.”
The malleability of the bare-bones mythic or fairy-tale narrative lures writers, inviting so many opportunities for stretching. Such stories excite me, I think, less for what they are in themselves than for what I might change. If I like “The Tsaritsa Harpist,” the story of a queen whose husband has been captured in a foreign land and who disguises herself as a male musician and sets out to liberate him, but I don’t like the idea that only as a man could she travel and perform music, how can I change that? Disguise is essential to the story; what disguise might I employ other than gender? What if, in a certain steampunk world, all music were played by clockwork androids? What if a young woman who has learned the art of music in secret must pretend to be a clockwork minstrel to set free the fiance she has never met? From this came Sarabande for a Condemned Man, one of my favorites among my plays for the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company, a story that I intend, at a point down the road, to shape into a novel.
From Susan Griffith: “Whatever bothers you, that’s an itch you should start scratching.” Similarly, E.J. Johnston tells us we should “find those moments that make us angry.”
One of they key motivating factors in my writing has always been dissatisfaction, the sense that no matter how many wonderful stories I take in and how many intriguing characters I get to know, there is still something I’m not seeing, or at least not seeing often enough. My favorite example to cite is still the lack of female rats in Pixar’s Ratatouille, which pushed me to create the were- rat heroine of Atterwald, my first published novel. (I suppose I owe Brad Bird a thank-you.) Yet this is just one instance of a narrative in which I’ve found male characters occupy the most unique and most compelling places in the narrative. Whenever I’m reading, watching, or listening to a story in which a male character strikes a (non-sexual) cord of fascination in me, I consider what might be different, and what the same, if the character were female; my end goal is to shape this thought into a female character who has the same uniqueness, the same freedom of individuality, that made me admire the male one. Meliroc, the eight-foot-tall heroine of my second novel Nightmare Lullaby, is an outgrowth of my enthusiasm for misunderstood “gentle giant” characters, who are nearly always male.
From Mari Mancusi: “Create an ‘Id list.'” Consider what myths and tales we love, and how and why they manage to hit that undefinable mark in us that so many other narratives miss.
This piece of advice is perhaps the most challenging, yet also the most fun. My own Id list would be made up more of characters and character types than specific stories, but the question behind the list would remain the same: why do these things resonate with me, and how can I use that resonance to create something new? My list is where the monsters live, not evil but feared for their power and their difference, longing to reach across the gulf to find connection and community. There are dragons here, and giants, and shapeshifters, and gryphons, and goblins. They have tales to tell, and I’m only just getting started.
I left the panel wishing it could have been a little longer, as is always the case with the best DragonCon panels. But the seeds are still with me, and I look forward to seeing just what they’ll grow into.