Let me tell you a story.
There once was a princess, known for her beauty. She had eyes like cut onyx, hair glittering with rubies and garnets and the darkest stars from the midnight sky. She desired nothing other than to be left alone.
Her father arranged three suitors to vie for her hand: a rich nobleman with three children, already grown, and a thriving jewelry business; a handsome foreigner from a respected family, studying at the foremost university; and the third, an old but kind man who’d earned the king’s regard for his labor in his younger days, but was known for little else.
Except, she cared not to marry at all.
The princess took the three suitors out to the well in full darkness and lined them up along the edge. “I will marry the first man to bring me the moon,” she declared. “And if none of you succeed, I shan’t marry at all.”
The men set off, barely thinking of anything other than the challenge set before them. The rich nobleman rode off to find the jewels of his first wife. He returned with creamy, shining opals and set them before the princess before the others had returned.
“Fair try,” the princess said, “but you have failed.”
The second man went to his university, where he’d spent hours studying all manner of astronomical wonders. He found a book describing all the features of the moon and triumphantly presented it to the princess.
“Lovely,” she said, “but you have failed.”
The old man, who had no much need for a wife anyways, went home to his farm. He found his had spent the day shaping a fine cheese, milk white and round, perfect. The man wrapped the cheese in a cloth and took it back to the princess.
She smiled at him and kissed both of his cheeks, because he was such a kind old man, but she said, “I’m sorry. You have failed too.”
The first man, humiliated by his failure, declared, “You have set us a false task. If we can’t present you with the moon, then no one can.”
The princess smiled her cunning smile, all teeth, and motioned for the men to join her at the well. She drew the bucket up, up, up, and tilted it just so, so they could all see the moon contained inside.
“There you have it,” she said to them. “I don’t need to be married. Anything I need, I can get for myself.”
Thanks for indulging me. Somewhat cute, right? I hope so, considering I made the whole thing up at 3 AM specifically for this post. If we’re being academic, this falls into a realm of folktales about capturing the moon, tests for suitors, and arranged marriages. COOL. Let’s talk about folklore.
Breaking down the categories
When we think of folklore, there are a few major distinctions: folktales, myths, legends, and urban legends. Most are previously based on oral tradition, which was then recorded. Defined by the good ol’ MW dictionary, folktales are “characteristically anonymous, timeless, and placeless tales circulated orally among people.” These stories are passed person to person through generations, and there are usually a lot of versions. They are not meant to be believed, but the listener is meant to learn from them. Think of the Grimm fairy tales, or anything Hans Christian Andersen has ever touched, or Aesop’s fables (because fables fit under this category too).
Myths are traditional stories of “historical events that serve to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon.” There is deep symbolic meaning, and these convey a truth rather than actually talking about a true event. Think creation myths, or flood myths, or god-like beings, or any of those things that different cultures have.
Legends differ in that they are somewhere between the truth and a myth. Think of it as a dramatized version of events but there is some factual basis. One example is Dracula, aka Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad Dracul’s son, aka Vlad the Impaler. I don’t know if this was just a fever dream, but I strongly remember the Discovery Channel having a Dracula week every year where it was like Shark Week for vampires. Our friend Vlad stuck very large stakes through the nether regions of his enemies and mounted them in his front yard (hence “the Impaler”) and was a real historical figure who inspired the Dracula legends. Interestingly enough, though Vlad was known for his cruelty, Bram Stoker is the one who made the connection between him and vampirism. Dracula the character is more inspired by Romanian folklore than Vlad himself, though the two are now unchangeably tied together by the literary canon.
Urban legends are modern versions of these dramatized events. An example of a legend from where I grew up (good ol’ Beaver Falls, PA) is about a girl in the 1800’s who was decapitated while her parents were in town, buying chickens. They found her body under the floorboards and never found her head, and it’s said that her ghost still roams the forest in search of her head. Another more recent well-known urban legend from my area is about the Green Man. I’m pretty sure his name is Charlie, but he was somehow electrocuted in the early-to-mid 1900’s, which disfigured him. He was a really kind gentleman, apparently, but he was reported walking down the street late at night, shining green from electricity (sounds fake). If you’re one of the millions of kids traumatized by Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, or you’ve heard any of those stories around campfires (like the murderer who licks the girl’s hand or the escaped convict who hangs the boyfriend by the lake), you’ve heard an urban legend in some form.
So why does all of this matter to our writing?
All of those ghost stories, those tales you heard growing up, are sewn into the rich fabric that is your own cultural heritage. As a fully-fledged teenager (or preteen, or adult) your character probably had a similar fabric that contributed to who they are. By building that fabric into the story, you can better form the experiences that made your character who they are.
Incorporating folklore into your own work
Let’s go back to the opening story. There are a few themes tossed in: girl saves herself, outwits everyone, and gets what she wants. It’s a show of strength. It’s proof that, even when the system is working against her, she can have it all. The tropes are there, and it’s somewhat recognizable when held up against other folklore, but it’s totally made up. You, as the author, have the power to change the content, the structure, the meaning, and how it applies to your own work.
Folklore (we’re just using the general term as a blanket right now, huzzah, but y’all know the distinctions), can be used across all genres. I’m a big fan of examples, so here are some of my favorites.
“The Husband Stitch,” Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado: Urban legend in speculative fiction
Okay yeah, let’s be clear: this is not YA. BUT there is something super beautiful about this story that I want to point out to use as a jumping off point. I was reading at the same time as one of my British friends (lol wassup Michael) and we got into a discussion about the stories threaded into this piece. Like any god-fearing young American, I read Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Like any tea-drinking Brit (I say that not as a stereotype, but because when we do work together, Michael and I collectively drink about eight cups of tea), he had not. The main lore of “The Husband Stitch” features a ribbon tied around a woman’s neck, and when it is untied (SPOILER ALERT INCOMING), her head comes off. That’s not Scary Stories, right, but the other lore pulled into the piece undeniably is.
“There is a story I love about a pioneer husband and wife killed by wolves. Neighbours found their bodies torn open and strewn around their tiny cabin, but never located their infant daughter, alive or dead. People claimed they saw the girl running with a wolf pack, loping over the terrain as wild and feral as any of her companions.
“News of her would ripple through the local settlements. She menaced a hunter in a winter forest – though perhaps he was less menaced than startled at a tiny naked girl baring her teeth and howling. A young woman trying to take down a horse. People even saw her ripping open a chicken in an explosion of feathers.
“Many years later, she was said to be seen resting in the rushes along a riverbank, suckling two wolf cubs. I like to imagine that they came from her body, the lineage of wolves tainted human just the once. They certainly bloodied her breasts, but she did not mind because they were hers and only hers.”
Listen, y’all. That’s one story of… six? Machado pulls into the “The Husband Stitch.” In an interview, she said that the story was heavily influenced by the folklore she consumed growing up.
When I was reading that collection and came across stories that I was familiar with, that I had grown up knowing, it tied a deep personal connection between the woman in the story and me. This story was not some force of fiction; it was about a woman who’d grown up in the same time I had, who knew the same things I did. A girl like me.
This particular bit is an urban legend. It informs the reader how they are meant to feel about the narrator in this particular section. She tells the story of the wolf girl because she has a certain freedom, a certain sense of self, that the narrator wishes she also could possess. Through the lore, we get the emotions that the narrator is unable to tell us.
The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater: Mythology in contemporary fantasy
Maggie Stiefvater (and our next entry, but no peeking!!) is one of those authors who drenches her work in a tightly woven fabric of folklore. The characters have stories they’ve grown up with and deep-rooted truths. We’re not going to talk about Gansey, the love of my life, but the use of Welsh lore in The Raven Cycle is one example of how to bring mythology into work, even if it takes a little maneuvering to make the myth fit the book’s reality. What we are going to talk about is The Scorpio Races, a book about flesh-eating horse folklore.
“I scowl at the stained-glass window over the altar. There are thirteen red panes in the middle of it, and Mum or someone told me once that they were supposed to represent drops of Columba’s blood. He was martyred here. It was back before the natives knew that confession and priests and sin were good for them, so they stabbed Columba and threw him off one of the western cliffs. Then his body washed up with the capaill uisce one October and because it wasn’t disgusting, even after being in the ocean for so long, he was sainted. I think his jawbone is still kept there behind the altar.
“This reminds me, suddenly, of how Gabe had decided when he was fifteen that he was going to be a priest. He’d been absolutely no fun for about two weeks. It was Gabe who’d told me the story of Columba; I remember sitting in the pew with him then.”
There’s are a few specific things I want to point out with this example. First, it strongly roots us in the religion of the character and the world (YO WASSUP COOPER). For background, it’s grounded in the real world in some uncertain time, and the character is Catholic, living on an island split into Catholicism and the old religion of gods and horses and blood and seawater. This mythology fits into the vibes of the Catholic canon, but it’s invented. There is a real Saint Columba and let me tell you, feral horses had nothing to do with him. Either way, the story of Columba slides nicely in to give us a saint who fits into the world and religion, and ties our world with this one.
The other beautiful thing happening here is how Puck (the narrating character) is taking that mythology and relating it back to her own childhood. Do you see what we get from this scene? There’s the tie of Catholicism to the island and its history, but then there’s the nice little trail into her familial relations, specifically with her brother Gabe. You see how this lore has been a part of her childhood. It’s heavy, in a way; weighted with Puck’s history.
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black: Urban legend in contemporary fantasy
Still with me? Yes? COOL. Let’s talk about vampires, yo (again). Coldest Girl is an underrated masterpiece and I will die on this hill. Onto the excerpt:
“Tana shuddered and looked back toward the window and her car with longing. The Thorn of Istra? She’d once seen a late-night special called Piercing the Veil: Vampire Secrets from Before the World Went Cold. On-screen, two guys in tweed jackets talked about their research into how vampires had stayed hidden for so long. Apparently, in the old days, a few ancient vampires held sway over big swaths of territory, like creepy warlords, with more vampires who were basically their servants…
“The Thorn of Istra had, apparently, been driven mad by it. The special showed a grainy video of a meeting beneath the Pere-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. And while elegantly dressed vampires conducted business around him, the Thorn had been in a locked cage, his face and body streaked with blood, laughing. He’d laughed even harder when they found the videographer and dragged him up to the cage, howling wildly just before he bit out the man’s throat. She’d seen the expressions on the pale faces of the other vampires. He’d frightened even them.”
So here we have the interesting part of an urban legend: the actual, real-life (in the book, at least) root. This is the truth, captured on video. As the story progresses and we get more of the Thorn of Istra, we learn what the people have made him up to be: mad, bloodthirsty, ruthless. The worst of the very worst. Something terrifying and insane. The urban legend of the Thorn of Istra has snowballed over the years to the point where the story begins. Tana knows the worst version of the story, provided by TV and whispers over the years. This urban legend doesn’t come out of anywhere: it has depth and time behind it, which in the story means that it has weight. It’s believable because we all have legends like that, too. And interestingly, the early familiarity with the Thorn of Istra in the story and the knowledge of his awfulness and deeds gives ample time for the reader to doubt the Thorn, and then for his actions to be explained and the legend subverted.
The Grishaverse (legit, all of it) by Leigh Bardugo: A whomping trifecta (quadrefecta?) of everything in high fantasy
Okay I honestly can’t even go into detail on this because every time I pick up any of the books my brain short-circuits with examples. So let’s name a few: The Black Heretic in Shadow and Bone and the lore that surrounds him; the entire system of saints throughout and ESPECIALLY in King of Scars; the story of the princess and the barbarian in Crooked Kingdom; Inej’s story about people who had wings and lost them over time. I could go on and on and on but we’re already going long on this post and I’m just going to say this: Bardugo knows a thing or two about how to create lore and integrate it. Reading these books is like a masterclass in how to do this, and I strongly recommend reading the Grishaverse if you’re one of the like four people who haven’t.
How to use this to inform your own work
HA. If you’ve learned anything from this, I hope it’s that lore is important to fleshing out your character. Lore is uniquely able to both give your character history and depth and flesh out some deeper part of the story, considering most folktales have some hidden meaning.
Go big with it. Go deep. Make everything matter; make everything hurt.
I will leave you with some resources to aid you. The best collection of folklore I’ve found is this: https://www.pitt.edu/~dash/folktexts.html Basically, they’re short, sweet, and to the point. I use this as a starting point whenever I’m writing lore or starting a retelling. There’s a paper book collection but it might only be available to Pitt Students.
Irish folklore collection: https://www.ucd.ie/irishfolklore/en/duchas/
Some stories by my boy, Hans: http://hca.gilead.org.il/
Grimm Brothers: https://www.grimmstories.com/en/grimm_fairy-tales/index
These are just to begin with. Please use care with folklore in general. Just as you are familiar with the fabric of your own childhood, folktales from every culture are precious to those whom they belong to. This is a gentle way of saying to use discretion. It’s best, when in doubt, to use the stories you’re familiar with as a backbone.
Go back to some of your own favorite books. Do they integrate folklore, and how? Bonus points if the lore is written specifically for the novel! How does the lore impact plot, characterization, and other development? I’d love to hear about what you find – feel free to share on Twitter.
Go through the #FolkloreThursday tag and contribute a story or finding, if you feel so inclined. There’s some great, little known stuff on there.
I task you with writing:
- a creation myth
- a heroic legend
- a spooky urban legend
- a general folktale of your choosing
Once you have these, find some way to integrate one or more of them into your work. For the purpose of the exercise, the work itself should not be a retelling, but just a regular ol’ story with some lore sewn in.
Tori Bovalino writes young adult contemporary, contemporary fantasy, and a weird smattering of short fiction. She is currently working on her MA in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London. She likes cats, moody oceans, and gratuitous international travel; is a connoisseur of garish sweaters; and can usually be found running ten minutes late for something. You can find her online @toribov