It’s time for another post for fairy tale month! I already posted about why I write fairy tale retellings…now it’s time for a post on how.
1: The Idea
This is the most nebulous, indefinable aspect of writing a fairy tale retelling. Each one I’ve done has a different story behind it.
January Snow was actually the first retelling idea I ever came up with. My brother mentioned how much he hated Snow White, and of course my first thought was, “how can I force him to like it?” The answer seemed obvious: add mobsters. And what better way to add organized crime to a “Snow White” tale than a 1920s American setting?
The Wulver’s Rose was much different because it was created for the Five Enchanted Roses contest. I’ve gone into detail about my process before, but I didn’t choose which fairy tale to tackle; the contest did it for me. But I did choose to set it in Scotland because I wanted the beast to be an actual mythological creature; during research, the wulver checked all my boxes and became the inspiration for the rest of the story.
I’ve always loved the story of “Rapunzel;” there’s something about the idea of a young woman trapped in a tower that’s always been an appealing plot to me. It seemed so cozy! Thus, my brain started wondering…what if she didn’t want to leave? The setting of With Blossoms Gold was taken directly from Paul O. Zelinsky’s picture book. Somehow, I couldn’t get rid of that vision of Rapunzel in a Renaissance gown.
There are a lot of reasons why an author may choose a particular fairy tale to retell; sometimes it’s because they dislike the original and wish to “fix” it (which is generally not my favorite tactic) or because they love the original so much they want to elaborate on it. Either way: make sure it’s a fairy tale you’re willing to travel with for the long haul, because you’re going to be knee-deep in it for a long time.
2: The Reading
Reading, you say?
Yes. The Reading. After getting down my initial ideas and plans for the story, I reread the original fairy tale.
And then I read it again, this time with notes. I check through all of the major plot points, and all of the smaller bits of the story I know I’d like to incorporate. I also research other versions of the tale. Which version of “Rapunzel” do I want? Do I want to take inspiration for other similar tales of folklore? What are the similar legends, myths, and folktales of the region I’m setting the story in that can be utilized in in my own retelling?
I also avoid reading retellings of the same tale during this time.
One thing about reading fairy tale retellings is that they can run together and at times be frustratingly alike. That’s not surprising; they’re based on the same source material after all! But one thing that’s very important to me is not to be influenced by plot points of other retellings or the Disney versions. Of course, as someone who reads a lot of fairy-tale inspired fiction, I do generally already have a pretty good idea of what’s out there to begin with. (If you’ve never read a fairy tale retelling before but want to write one…you should probably familiarize yourself a bit with the genre!) One of my favorite things to do is pull in the more obscure elements of popular fairy tales and shine the spotlight on them in a retelling. Sometimes, the things we think are elements in a fairy tale are really just something invented by Disney or popular retellings. (The beast getting cursed because he was a jerk or did something wrong? Yeah, that’s not in Madame de Villeneuve’s original story!)
But that’s not the only reading that gets done. Because I write historically-set stories, I also have that research to do. It’s during this time that I usually have a notebook that helps me collect ideas when my two realms of research collide. (Spiritualists and mediums in the 1920s usually had a special object that they thought the spirits communicated with them through? Make a note of that because the evil queen’s object is sure as heck gonna be a mirror!)
3: The Writing
And now it’s time for the work. There’s not too much to say about this other than the fact that I do have my book of fairy tales beside my computer as I write that first draft. I’ll occasionally glance back through it if I need to. But –generally– the writing and revision process is not much different than my other books. Except….
4: The Revisions and Edits
I read the fairy tale. Again. (And yes, as much as I love my fairy tales, I’m usually pretty sick of it at this point!) Do I think I’ve written a good interpretation of the story? Have included all of the events and motifs from the original that I wanted to?
This is also the point when I start reading other retellings of the same fairy tale, just to see what others have done and make sure that what I have isn’t too similar to books that have already been published. I usually already have a good idea if this is true or not, but I want to double-check.
And that’s about the size of it. Every book is different, but these are some ways that fairy tale retellings differ from my other works of fiction. But the how of writing retellings also depends a lot on each author’s goal. I love being true to the fairy tale and bringing in forgotten elements of what we often call the “original” while still turning one or two plot points on their head. (Rapunzel doesn’t want to leave; Snow White isn’t “innocent,” etc.) If you have different goals, then your process may look very different! However, one thing I think is essential is becoming ridiculously familiar with your source material. Feel free to alter it as you like, but it’s difficult to to give it your own spin when you don’t even know what you’re spinning in the first place!
Fellow writers, have you penned any fairy tale retellings? What are some tricks and tips you have to share? Do you enjoy fairy tale retellings that stick close to their sources, or ones that are only loose interpretations?