From myths, legends and fairy tales to folklore: again and again, these old tales reappear in modern fiction. But how do you use them in your novel?\r\n\r\nAt the 2015 Brisbane Writer\u2019s Festival,\u00a0three authors got together to talk about just that. Kelly Link, Holly Black and\u00a0Sj\u00f3n\u00a0sparked off a great conversation about using old stories, and finding the balance between new and old material.\r\n\r\nLet's explore some old tales and how they can be used in new fiction... Image credit: barefootliam-stock via Deviantart\r\nWhy reuse tales?\r\nOld tales aren\u2019t copyrighted; what you can do with them is only bound by your own imagination. Not only are they a great source of inspiration, but they can add another layer of story for your reader to engage with.\r\n\r\nEven their original form is still alive and well today. There is something fundamentally human in the sense of something dangerous about the woods, something magical and unexplainable just around the corner.\r\nMyths are not just for dry, dusty old anthropology professors to muse over in their ivory towers \u2013 they\u2019re living stories which we continually reinvent for the times we live in.\u201d \u2014Lucy Coats\r\nWhat has been the impact of these time-defying stories? Holly Black believes the stories have become central to our being, residing in our subconscious and defining how we see the world.\r\n\r\nDo we even stop to think about the ridiculousness of the \u2018kiss of life\u2019, prevalent nowadays even in action movies? Fairy tales will forever be a part of who we are.\r\n\r\nFor Sj\u00f3n, myths remind him of how small humans are. Poseidon, for example, could wipe us out with a tsunami whenever he wants. The less \u2018happily-ever-after\u2019 stories remind us of our mortality to protect and prolong life.\r\n\r\nWhether thousands of years ago or in the twenty-first century, death is the ultimate enemy of humans and life is to be protected.\r\n\r\nSj\u00f3n\u2019s homeland of Iceland has many fascinating old tales of its own. Stories that particularly fascinate him are those where metamorphosis occurs: people turn into flowers, rivers or animals.\r\n\r\nWhat is stunning is humanity\u2019s obsession with the idea, leading us to the modern age of genetic experiments.\r\n\r\nOld stories, such as myths, legends and fairy tales, can be an inexhaustible source of inspiration for new work. Image via Wikimedia Commons\r\n4 simple steps to go from tale to novel\r\nWith a fairy tale or two in mind, plus a little King Arthur to spice it up, how far do you go from the original story?\r\n\r\nSome believe sticking as close as possible to the most original form creates a true, pure story untainted by ulterior motives.\r\n\r\nBut while seeking the original tale for inspiration can give a lot of insight into the core of the story, there\u2019s a lot more to be done.\r\n1. Know your audience\r\nAre you writing for children, young adults or adults? Are you writing a literary piece, or a genre one? Identifying your audience leads you to what parts of the old tale are relevant and interesting to them.\r\n\r\nDo they want a modernised retelling, or a whole new story with aspects spliced in from old tale(s)? Would anything in the tale be unacceptable or confusing when read in a modern setting?\r\nAll right, I am corny, you know? But I think there are just about 140 million people in this country who are just as corny as I am, you know? I'm not a politician, I do it because I like it." \u2014Walt Disney\r\nKelly Link tries to imagine a world where Disney didn't create the cartoons that changed fairy tales and how we view them. Would the original, written form be less or more popular than it is now?\r\n\r\nWhile Disney altered several fairy tales, it was done to appeal to the audience and convey the desired message.\r\n\r\nThis is no different from what any more recent rehashing of fairy tales does, and no different from the task in front of any writer picking up some old tales for their craft.\r\n\r\nKeep in mind the audience for whom you're writing as you adapt old stories into new ones. Image via Kaboompics\r\n2. Fill in the gaps\r\nOld tales aren\u2019t a complete novel in themselves; some are only a few pages long. Have a look at what is missing in the old story that modern fiction requires.\r\n\r\nIn Holly Black\u2019s experiences, fairy tales and other old stories typically have plain, simple characters. Developing characters with backstory and motivations naturally sparks off a whole new side of the story.\r\n\r\nAnother common gap in old tales is setting. Some have a vague indication, such as a castle or \u2018deep in the woods\u2019, but little indication of the surrounding culture.\r\n\r\nBuilding the setting can feed directly into and off your character\u2019s motives. For example, you might examine the political system in detail; what if wolves were the oppressed minority?\r\n\r\nExplore your own story to discover its depths. Image credit: Bonnybbx via Pixabay\r\n3.\u00a0Do your research\r\nSome old tales have different versions across cultures and time. Searching for these can give great ideas of story elements you can move around and still be \u2018true\u2019 to some form of the original.\r\n\r\nIt\u2019s also intriguing to discover which myths traverse countries, and how fairy tales adopt different nuances as they travel the globe.\r\nI did a lot of research, then chose the elements which were most vivid and which worked best in my voice. So I hope I\u2019ve retold a story which you will recognise, but which will also surprise you.\u201d \u2014Lari Don\r\nIt\u2019s also good to have a look at what is currently popular with fiction using old tales. In recent years, many retellings show the other side of a familiar story.\r\n\r\nAnother trend is to look into the history of the story itself: how it came about, who created it and who recorded it. Kate Forsyth\u2019s novel The Wild Girl, for example, was inspired by the forbidden love of one the Grimm brothers.\r\n\r\nThere\u2019s no end to the inspiration held by these old tales!\r\n\r\nBe sure to fill in the gaps with your own original ideas... Image via Kaboompics\r\n4. Select which elements to focus on\r\nAre you using a single story, or a collection of myths? This question is particularly relevant if you\u2019re focusing on a mythological being, such as a vampire.\r\n\r\nIs it the plot of one or a few tales that really captivates you, or is it the concept as a whole, built by several related but unconnected myths and legends? This will affect which elements you take from the old tales.\r\n\r\nYou\u2019ll want to handle old tales differently depending on how familiar they are to your audience.\r\n\r\nIf you\u2019re using a familiar one, it\u2019s good to use more creative license and encourage your readers to see the old tale in a new, exciting way.\r\n\r\nIf you\u2019re using a relatively unfamiliar old tale, its unknown has great potential to add richness to your novel if you stay close enough to the original.\r\n\r\nLook to old myths and fairy tales to inspire your own fiction... Image via Pixabay\r\nUsing the familiar\r\nGenerally speaking, familiar tales fall under Western mythology and old tales. Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, King Arthur, and Ancient Greek or Egyptian gods are just some of the stories you may play with in this way.\r\n\r\nIf you conduct a search for novels using familiar old tales, the first thing you\u2019ll come across is modern retellings with a twist.\r\n\r\nWhen people want simple nostalgia, they\u2019ll likely read the original or sit down to a Disney movie. In picking up a novel, they\u2019re looking for a little something more.\r\n\r\nEven when you\u2019re changing the old tale, its core woven through the story will resonate.\r\nThe fairy tale is a lie that expresses the deepest of human truths: those of the psyche through the imagination.\u201d \u2014Joslyn Robinson\r\nWhile it\u2019s good to put a new twist on a familiar tale, readers will notice every time you change something. To an extent, it\u2019s good to keep up their expectations.\r\n\r\nHolly Black recommends plot points from old tales as being the most rich and relevant to the original. Sticking to the original\u2019s plot points \u2013 metaphorically or literally \u2013 will help keep the magic and hint of nostalgia.\r\n\r\nDraw on the magic of familiar old tales, like 'Beauty and the Beast', to create new ones of your own. Image credit: Warwick Goble via Wikimedia Commons\r\n\r\nHolly Black\u2019s favourite old tale to use is the collection of myths surrounding fairies. While vampires and werewolves are also favourites of hers, they were once human and bring with them a personality that is just a little too familiar.\r\n\r\nThere is also an endless list of fairies, from pixies to brownies to trolls.\r\nFairies are truly alien; they cry at weddings and laugh at funerals.\u201d \u2014Holly Black\r\nAlternately, Kelly Link likes working with Greek gods and mythology because their characteristics are so human.\r\n\r\nThe tales are full of family squabbles, misuse of power, jealousy, revenge \u2013 drama that\u2019s much the same whether in the mortal or immortal world.\r\n\r\nWriter Holly Black works with a wealth of myths surrounding fairies and other such creatures. Image via Wikimedia Commons\r\nUsing the unfamiliar\r\nMaybe a sense of the familiar isn\u2019t what you want to go for. You may want to write a Snow White who lives with seven ghouls instead of dwarves, or something completely bizarre and unheard of.\r\n\r\nTypically this type of story comes from Eastern, Middle Eastern, African, South American and Slavic cultures.\r\n\r\nResearching different versions of old tales from other cultures, or completely unheard of ones, can help inspire an element of the bizarre in your novel.\r\n\r\nAnother advantage of using these lesser-known old tales is that it\u2019s less likely to be compared to other versions.\r\n\r\nYou can change what you like and not get pulled up on it; you can do a straight retelling and still be seen as presenting a fresh story.\r\nBut when they read my retellings of the untrustworthy Korean tiger or the Witch of Lochlann or Inanna tricking the god of wisdom, they might never see that story anywhere else. My version will be the only version they know. And that\u2019s a really heavy responsibility.\u201d \u2014Lari Don\r\nYou can use the whole story, or elements of it. But be careful that taking the old tale out of its original culture doesn\u2019t create a story that can\u2019t be understood.\r\n\r\nIt\u2019s important to research and understand the culture the story came from, but assume that your readers aren\u2019t as familiar with that culture.\r\n\r\nUsing elements from unfamiliar tales can add the flavour of foreign culture to your work. Image credit: Viktor M. Vasnetsov via Wikimedia Commons.\r\n\r\nKelly Link likes Japanese folklore, which she first came into contact with through Studio Ghibli films, directed by Hayao Miyazaki.\r\n\r\nMy Neighbour Totoro (1988), Princess Monoko (1997), Spirited Away (2001) and Ponyo (2008) are just some of his films inspired by various aspects of Japanese culture and mythology, particularly their land gods and spirits or demons.\r\n\r\nSj\u00f3n grew up with Icelandic mythology that, while familiar to him, is very unfamiliar to his Western audience. He shared a few bizarre Icelandic tales at the festival that are worth repeating.\r\n\r\nChildren are told tales of the J\u00f3lak\u00f6tturinn \u2013 the Yule or Christmas Cat \u2013 that eats children who don\u2019t receive a gift of clothing for Christmas.\r\n\r\nAnd there is the hulduf\u00f3lk \u2013 Hidden People or elves \u2013 whose existence has stopped several contraction plans to move or destroy the rocks they are believed to live in.\r\n\r\nAuthor Sj\u00f3n draws inspiration from the myth and magic of his home country, Iceland. Image credit: Kris Williams via Flickr Creative Commons\r\n***\r\nMyths, legends, fairy tales and folklore are a rich part of our storytelling culture and heritage. Bringing them into your modern work of fiction connects you to the fundamental truths that have survived the ages.\r\n\r\nWhether taking inspiration from a familiar or unfamiliar tale, you can add a spark of magic to your own work.\r\n\r\nFor more inspiration on writing these kinds of fantastical tales, check out our ultimate guides to\u00a0world-building, fantasy subgenres and the essential elements of fantasy fiction.