Myths are great. We all know them, yet we’re constantly re-interpreting and re-imagining them in the fiction we create. Writers should steal from the best, so why not take inspiration from the stories that have survived for centuries?
Look in any bookshop (especially the YA section) and you’ll find plenty of fairy tale retellings, and with good reason. Readers enjoy seeing familiar stories reimagined, and writers can work with an existing story and no one will sue them! (Unless they make their boss into an ugly stepsister. So don’t do that.)
The Big Care Write-Up has just released its fourth anthology, Telling Tales, featuring 14 stories that reimagine myths, legends and fairy tales. All donations go to LOROS, and whatever you choose to donate will earn you a copy of the e-book (for as little as 7p per story, seriously go have a look). I’ve enjoyed seeing how other writers have interpreted their myths: King Midas is a gambler, Rumpelstiltskin is an internet troll, a princess is a beauty vlogger… Two of my stories are included in it, and whilst writing them I found that adapting an existing story can be difficult but enjoyable. They each tackled their source material differently.
Waiting For God Knows What is about an elderly lady named Ethel. She lives in a care home and her Alzheimer’s means she has a lot of memory problems. She wakes up one morning convinced that she’s lost something very important – but she doesn’t know what. Here’s a snippet:
As soon as she woke up, Ethel knew that something was missing.
She tried to tell the nice girls who came to help her get dressed, but they only made sympathetic noises when she couldn’t tell them what it was. Not knowing what is lost makes it very difficult to look for, she thought. Her memory wasn’t what it used to be. Some mornings she woke up thinking she was at home in her armchair by the fire, even though she’d been at Bonnington Care Home for some years now.
‘My glasses!’ she said as they helped her into the wheelchair. ‘Can’t see without the bloody things!’ Perhaps that was what she had forgotten.
The girl with brown hair – Nicky – found them in the bedside cabinet and passed them to her. The other girl with brown hair – Vicky? – wheeled her over to the shoes lined up by the door. ‘Which ones do you fancy?’
‘The blue ones.’ Her fluffy blue bunny slippers, the ones closest to the door. She didn’t care how many pairs of “sensible shoes” she owned, they were the comfiest.
Any ideas what the story is based on? A protagonist with slippers, two girls who look similar – sisters, maybe? It’s a Cinderella retelling, but I kept the elements subtle. The central story has little to do with the original – Ethel searching for what she’s forgotten – but if you look closely there are enough clues to tell you what it is. There are pumpkins growing in the garden, and the home’s oldest resident is celebrating her ninety-eighth birthday party which everyone is invited to. There may even be a prince in there somewhere… but I didn’t want anything too obvious. I used the elements to flavour the existing story rather than as a framework to build on.
My second story, Chicken Legs, is based on the Russian myth of Baba Yaga, a witch who lives in a house that walks on chicken legs. Specifically, it’s the myth of Vasilisa, who lives with her wicked stepfamily and asks the witch for a candle when their house goes dark. Adapting this was trickier, as I wanted to keep the original story but give it a real-life, modern reimagining. Lisa doesn’t get on with her stepsister, but when there’s a powercut she goes out in the middle of the night to help a lost cat. I had fun modernising all the elements, but the original story is pretty complicated: Baba Yaga refuses to give Vasilisa fire, giving her a load of fiddly tasks like separating poppy seeds from soil. I had to decide what to simplify and what to keep, and the tasks were replaced by… eating sandwiches in the kitchen. Chicken sandwiches. The witch’s three scary horses became cats. Because for some reason all of my BCWU stories seem to feature animals. Moths, chickens, cats, weresquids…
A bungalow crouched on an overgrown front lawn, framed by a peeling, bone-white fence. Everything about it screamed “go away”, but Lisa wasn’t going to abandon the animal. She knew how it felt to be alone in the storm.
So she marched up to the front door, rang the doorbell and waited.
Lightning flashed. Four elephants, five elephants… thunder rolled. The storm was five miles away and getting closer.
The door opened on a chain and a wrinkled face peered through. ‘I don’t want to buy anything,’ she barked in a thick Russian accent. ‘Who sent you? Where are you from?’
Lisa shrank back. ‘I found a cat, is it yours?’
She looked down at it, then slammed the door. Locks clinked on the other side, then it opened fully. A tall, broad elderly woman in a dressing gown stood on the other side, with scowling eyebrows and thinning silver hair. ‘That’s my Dawn, did you steal her?’
‘Of course not!’ she protested. ‘She was out in the storm all on her own, she’s petrified. You should have kept an eye on her.’ She bit her lip, her throat suddenly tight.
Her thick eyebrows raised, then she turned away. ‘Come in.’
I found the elements I like and kept them, and changed others to suit me better. This was more of a challenge than Cinderella as there was more to work with (and a 3000-word limit!) but I’m equally happy with both stories. Even if you’ve never heard of the original tales, they still stand up on their own. Please do donate via the JustGiving page (the link will be in the thank you email after you donate), or by texting Tell77 £3 to 70070 (or £1, £2, £4, £5 or £10). Message me or the BCWU page with a screenshot of your donation and we’ll send you the PDF so you can start readin’!
In summary, when adapting an existing story for your short story/novel/interpretive dance:
- Choose a good story. Do you want a story that’s very detailed, with lots of elements for you to re-interpret? Or would you prefer something vague about a monster which leaves you more room for imagination? Pick a story you like.
- Decide whether you need to simplify or elaborate. Do you want to investigate more into the evil stepmother’s motivations and flesh out some back story? You might want a sprawling novel about Hansel and Gretel’s troubled parents… or you might have a book-length epic poem and a tight 1500 word story to write. Make elements fit or chuck them out.
- Give it a twist! I don’t like the evil stepmother trope in fairy tales, so I made Lisa’s family more loving. Have you heard of an elderly Cinderella? What about Rapunzel as a hair stylist? Don’t be confined by your source material, and feel free to change as much as you want.
- Further ideas… What about mixing two legends together? Myths don’t have to become modern-day; they could be made into sci-fi, horror, historical… erotica… you can be as overt as Percy Jackson or go super subtle with your inspirations. A Drop in the Ocean, my story in Life’s Great Journey, is loosely based on the Little Mermaid.
Whatever you end up with, write a story that you enjoy and readers will enjoy it too. Don’t feel like you have to keep every detail! Looser interpretations may yield more unexpected results, but you can also play with stories readers find familiar. We all think we know how Red Riding Hood ends… until she turns into a werewolf and eats the woodcutter. Surprise your readers! Just don’t surprise your children if you’re reading a bedtime story. They don’t like it.