Old Bones, New Flesh: Building a novel from a fairy tale concept

leafI blogged last month about myths, legends and fairy tales: the wisdom they contain and how they can be a wellspring for all kinds of storytelling. This month I’ll talk about building my new novel, Heart’s Blood, from the structural framework of my favourite fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast.

First up, I had no intention of re-telling a traditional story. I wanted to write a novel about acceptance: learning to see beyond a person’s exterior to their inner qualities; learning to accept yourself, flaws and all. My characters would go on a journey through which they would learn that lesson. Along the way they’d make mistakes, endure trials and come close to losing everything they cared about. With its theme of loving the apparently unlovable, Beauty and the Beast already held the kernel of that idea.

Writing a book begins, for me, with a fairly fluid ‘ideas’ phase, when there’s a lot of stuff swimming around in my mind: themes, settings, character development, and if there’s a fairy tale element, how I want to use it. After a lot of thinking, I start making notes and doing research.

Visitors to this blog will know that I am one of those writers who must have a framework in place before beginning to write the story. Once the plan’s in place, I start on page one and write sequentially to the end, editing a few chapters at a time as I go. For me there’s no such thing as a first draft. There’s one continuously evolving draft up till the time when I submit the manuscript.

My plan interwove Beauty and the Beast – a love story – with three other threads: a historical story, a ghost story and a dark family saga. Beauty and the Beast is wonderfully romantic, but its basic form would not satisfy today’s reader as the plot of a novel. I knew straightaway what would go into the Keep, Discard and Change baskets.

The fragile relationship between the two main characters
The isolated household with its odd retainers – creating them was one of the best parts!
The peril of miscommunication
The overarching theme of acceptance / self-acceptance
Magic mirrors: There are more of these in my story than there are in the fairy tale.

Beauty’s passivity: she’s often the victim of her family’s poor decisions. My character, Caitrin, is on a mission to be her own woman again after going through a traumatic experience.
Beauty’s goodness: Caitrin is a good and beautiful person, but she is no ministering angel. She’s a real, imperfect human woman, who comes with her own emotional baggage.
The ending: No click-your-fingers beautification for my Beast. I dislike stories where people are magically transformed into perfect specimens. How much more satisfying if the hero’s physical imperfection has, by the end of the story, simply become unimportant.

The reader will find plenty of fairy tale elements sprinkled through Heart’s Blood, starting with a forbidden garden, but all presented in my own way. As a reader, I feel a thrill of recognition when a writer uses a powerful traditional element in a new book. We’re sharing the brew from that ever-simmering cauldron of story.

The plan for Heart’s Blood ended up looking complicated. Along with the passage of time it showed the development of four story threads in parallel, and a ‘who knows what when’ indicator for its mystery element. Then there was the mode of storytelling. Most of the novel is in Caitrin’s first person narrative. This is interspersed with excerpts from the diaries, letters and records in Anluan’s disordered library, where Caitrin is employed as a scribe. There are also secret margin notes in a botanical notebook, the unreliable memories of the characters, and mirrors that can be windows into the past. It was challenging to fit all these elements together while retaining a good pace and keeping the story coherent.

As I’ve mentioned previously, Heart’s Blood was written in two stages. I had written as far as Chapter 4 when an editorial decision required me to set the manuscript aside and write a completely different novel, Heir to Sevenwaters. It was extremely hard to get back into Heart’s Blood after almost a year’s break – several times along the way I nearly lost my faith in the project. Anluan’s dark bouts of depression didn’t help my state of mind! Having that plan to follow was immensely helpful in keeping me going, as was the support of my writers’ group and family.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Heart’s Blood is out this week in the USA and Australia for readers to sample. I hope everyone enjoys it, whether it’s as pure entertainment or on a deeper level.

Photo credit: © Linda Bair | Dreamstime.com


About Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier has written nineteen novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world, and have won numerous awards. Juliet's new novel, Tower of Thorns, will be published in October/November 2015. Tower of Thorns is the second book in the Blackthorn & Grim series of historical fantasy/mysteries for adult readers. The first Blackthorn & Grim novel, Dreamer's Pool, is available from Roc US and Pan Macmillan Australia.


  1. says

    One of the things I enjoy most about this site is the way authors explain the method of their craft. There is always so much to learn and such a lot with which I can identify. I am buying the book this week, Juliet, but already I can ‘see’ the notes in the botanical journal and smell the vellum. And I look forward to the emotional expose of the two main characters.

    Thank you for sharing your technique.

  2. says

    Pen, it should be available in New Zealand bookshops now, though you may have to ask. Sometimes the release there does lag behind Australia by a month or so, but it’s supposed to be released on the same day in Australia and NZ.

  3. Holly T. says

    Can’t wait to read it–I think fairy tales are sooooo fascinating.

    For other fairy tale folks out there: There are some amazing and little known fairy tales ripe for the rewriting. I just did a piece on the “Best 5 Books: Academic Studies of Fairy Tales”–any of the titles there would be great place to start for some brainstorming plot lines.

    (Was really bummed that the Little Red Riding Hood description was cut on the website: it’s a gorgeous book.)

    See also:

  4. says

    I also love books based on fairy tales. In fact, the two WIPs that I kick around are both inspired by stories, although the one I am focused on is based on a Biblical story. The structure of a fairy tale/story gives my stories a natural structure.
    .-= Maya´s last blog ..A creepy piece of history =-.

  5. britnie says

    I can’t wait to read this book! I really love books based on fairy tales, and you always do an amazing job of writing stories that capture me!

  6. says

    “One of the things I enjoy most about this site is the way authors explain the method of their craft.”

    I agree completely. Especially since there are so many authors and each works in his/her own unique way.
    .-= Kristan´s last blog ..Overwhelmed, underfocused =-.

  7. says

    (Oops, hit enter too soon!)

    I really like this “keep/discard” idea — I think it could be helpful for me even in going from 1st draft to 2nd.

    I’m also curious to know more about how you “nearly lost my faith in the project” and how you managed to revive that faith/passion. I know you touched on it a bit (the plan, the writing group) but it’s something I worry about a lot with my stories (whether I have reason to or not).
    .-= Kristan´s last blog ..Overwhelmed, underfocused =-.

  8. says

    The great thing about fairy tales is they are a perfect example of the correct way to structure a story. I’ve been learning a lot about story structure lately (via the blog http://www.storyfix.com) and it’s amazing to see that pretty much all books follow this formula.

    Thanks for this creative breakdown of how to adapt a fairy tale for use in a modern novel!
    .-= Elle Riley´s last blog ..In Life, Attitude is EVERYTHING! =-.

  9. says

    Thanks. Great post. Very interesting. Having a plan definitely helps me, even if it’s just a plan for the next few chapters, but a plan for the whole book is better.

    Good luck with Heart’s Blood. It sounds awesome. I love fairy tale-type stories.

  10. Emma says

    I finished Heart’s Blood last night and thought it was excellent, especially the way the fairy tale elements contributed to the story–enough of them to be fun and keep the reader guessing, not enough to dominate or spoil the story. For instance, I was expecting the climax to involve Cillian leading a mob of Whistling Tor villagers up the hill to get rid of Anluan, (a la Gaston in the Disney movie)… but the actual climactic moments were so much better. And I really appreciated the lack of magical beautification: “say ‘I love you’ to an ugly guy and he will *poof* transform into a gorgeous hunk” works much better for Disney than in a novel for adults.

  11. Marilee Rose says

    I just finished reading Hearts Blood last night. It was wonderful. Truly magical in every aspect. I wish I could say more without giving anything away for other readers, but I will say that this book has to be one of my favorite Juliet Marillier books. Juliet, I must say your books always have me on the edge of my seat until the very end. Thank you for another great story. I look forward to being enchanted once again when your works in progress are completed.

  12. says

    It is just possible my US editor was correct when she pushed me in the direction of fantasy-romance. A lot of my longterm readers are telling me they especially liked this book.