Thursday, March 1, 2012

Writing DNA #9: Using Lore, Legends, and Superstitions

Photo by Jasmaine Mathews
It's March -- a month full of Blarney Stones, four-leaf clovers, leprechauns, the Luck of the Irish, and let's not forget, Beware the Ides of March! With a month so full of lore, legend, and superstition, we thought we'd talk a little about the part such things play -- or doesn't -- in our own writing.

Laura Ellen: Kids love  magic and curses and legends; they want to believe there are things that exist beyond what we can see and feel. Naturally, then, you find many a mystery shrouded in these very things. Superstitions, curses, and legends do make awesome springboards for mysteries. They add that extra element of intrigue and unknown that immediately draw readers into a mystery. But they can also be tricky because the author must decide if the story is going to be anchored in reality -- in which case the curse or magic will have to be explained away at some point -- or if the story will indeed have that element of magic -- in which case the author must build a world that is not our own and yet still makes sense. Of course, a story can have a little bit of both like many urban fantasies do, but the author still must walk that fine line between real and fantasy, deciding what to explain away and what to keep as magical. Myself, I love the unknown, the hint that there may be something out there beyond ourselves, but I am also a very contemporary writer, always keeping my plots and characters firmly footed in reality. So while I may use a legend or a superstition as a tool to amp the tension and fear,  the outcome of the plot won't rely on the existance of that legend or superstition. (Well, so far I haven't anyway; I suppose there is always a chance, right?)

Diana Renn: Like Laura's, my fiction is contemporary and grounded in reality, but I am drawn to the unknown. In very early drafts of Tokyo Heist, I had a ghostly figure -- OK, a ghost -- but eventually I had to accept that using the ghost would require all kinds of significant changes to support its mere existence. (Or non-existence, I suppose). He only had a cameo appearance, so it wasn't worth all that. Yet I let myself be haunted by this ghostly presence, rather than my character, and he whispered all kinds of good ideas in my ear. It was useful to think of an angry figure from the past and what he might want to see happen or not happen in the story. However, I did tiptoe into the realm of superstition and luck: I have a fortune that crops up in the novel, which the main character receives at a shrine. Its maddening ambiguity (does it foretell, in its broken English, good luck or bad?) led me to a fun plot twist, so I'm glad I had the good fortune to think of playing with a superstitious device. Even if you don't use real magic in your story, a character can wrestle with the concepts of superstition, curses, legends, and luck, and send your story in surprising directions.

W.H. Beck: I don't have a curse or a legend in my novel, MALCOLM AT MIDNIGHT, but I do have a couple of sayings that haunt the Midnight Academy (the secret society of classroom pets). However, I'm embarrassed to say how long it took me to come up with them! I Googled. I searched. I browsed quote books. But nothing I came across conveyed the feeling I was looking for about midnight. Then, all of the sudden, one day it hit me: I was writing fiction. Duh. I COULD MAKE IT UP. And so I did. :-)

L.R. Giles: I used to have dreams of being a horror writer because I grew up on all manor of ghosts, ghouls, and monsters. The more I read and researched things that go bump in the night, I discovered many stories were rooted in legends and superstitions dating back to, heck, the beginning of time. Looking into the legends/superstitions themselves, I found that they were often the result of ancient storytellers trying to make sense of a world they didn't understand. It was their (albeit faulty) way of solving life's mysteries. Now, in terms of my mysteries, I look at legends/superstitions as inspirational gold mines. The same way ancients used legends to explain the things around them, I can use them to explain the world my characters live in, give them some quirky motivations. I don't go to legends/superstitions every time, but I am working on something right now that is heavily driven by an old tale that goes like this: If you say "Rabbit, Rabbit" on the first day of a month--before you speak any other words--you'll have a month of good luck, but, if you don't say it, your luck goes the other way. When this blog posting goes live, it will be the first day of March. Hmmmm, Rabbit, Rabbit.

Elisa Ludwig: Like many writers I'm pretty superstitious about the conditions I need to be productive. It's never terribly outlandish but I do need a good seat, usually in a cafe, with strong coffee, and my screen facing away from where anyone else can see it. Some cafes are better than others but there's one that I prefer the most. With the particular piece of writing I'm working on now, I have also become addicted to a specific soundtrack of German minimalist music. And when I'm at home, I need my lucky metal pinecone on my desk—it was given to me by a writing teacher in college.

Kristen Kittscher: I didn’t weave any superstitions or curses into the plot of my middle-grade mystery/comedy THE WIG IN THE WINDOW. However, my white main character’s overenthusiastic appropriation of Chinese cultural traditions plays itself out in ways some might interpret as superstition. Much to the annoyance of her Chinese-American best friend and fellow sleuth, Sophie Young arranges her room in accordance to feng shui principles, consults the I Ching, and wishes her parents would let her place fu dogs at their front door to guard against evil chi. Though Sophie’s zeal provides comic relief and is a source of tension in the sleuths’ friendship, it’s also symptomatic of her desire for greater control over her circumstances. As I researched feng shui principles, I couldn’t help but soak them up: when a writing challenge stymied  me, you bet I’d make sure to face west and enhance the “creativity” sector of my room. In addition, when I am writing I also always keep nearby a tiny pewter medieval knight that my best friend gave me when I sold THE WIG IN THE WINDOW. Her late father, a writer and scholar I respected very much, always kept it with him on his desk as a reminder to charge ahead with his writing adventures. It’s now one of my dearest possessions.

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