Updating Traditional Motifs to Create Fresh Fiction

I want to do something a bit different today. My new book The Boggle Hunters, a fantasy adventure novel for kids aged 8-12 has just come out this month in Australia (Scholastic Press Australia) and I want to talk about the sheer magic of creating this book and the fun I’ve had creating a new updated form of such traditional motifs as fairies, the granting of three wishes, supernatural beasties, and the like. I’ve always had a great love of traditional fairy and folk stories and have been steeped in them since my earliest childhood, and I always recommend them to writing groups and individual beginner writers as a wonderful source of ideas. But I’m also a great fan of refreshing and updating those traditional motifs, and I thought describing a little  my experience with this book may be a helpful, concrete way to demonstrate how you can do it.

The Boggle Hunters began with one of those truly magical moments when all of a sudden something comes to you out of the blue, and you just know it’s something you want to follow! I was in Sydney, walking down a street near the big central railway station, in an area that’s rather shabby, when I saw a little shop that had been closed for some time—the window was very dusty, there were dead flies in the corners of it, it looked very unpromising, down at heel, even a bit seedy.  At that moment just as I was passing a stray ray of sunlight hit the window and there were all these glittery little motes of dust dancing in the air and suddenly, I saw it as a Fay hang-out—in fact, those were the exact words that came to my mind, this is a Fay hang-out, even though I didn’t know what the Fays were yet, exactly, I knew they’d be magical beings. But as I walked up the road, there they were taking shape in my mind like forms appearing out of the mist. And there too were the Grays, their enemies (it’s an update in a way of the ‘seelie’ and ‘unseelie’ fairy courts of Scottish folklore) and I thought, yes, there’s a kind of secret war going on, always has been, these rival magical tribes battling it out in the human world over hordes of supernatural pests, the boggles (the name’s taken from folklore, but I’ve greatly expanded their nature and forms). And there too were the boggle hunters, human allies of the Fays who are kept very busy tracking down and capturing the hordes of boggles bred by the Grays and released into our world.  And opposing them are the sneaks, who work for the Grays and try to frustrate the efforts of the boggle hunters..

It was so weird, like the idea had just been waiting for me to pass that shabby shop-front and for the ray of sunlight to hit, and suddenly, like a magic wand had been waved, there it was, a whole world unfolding in front of my eyes! (I might add that caught in the grip of this exciting idea, I walked blocks and blocks past my actual destination and had to retrace my steps!)

Very shortly after arrived my main characters, cousins Sam and Jenny,who’ve never had much to do with each other as cousins, living at opposite ends of the world as they do (Jenny in Britain, Sam in Australia.) Jenny knows all about boggle-hunting, she goes out boggle-hunting with her parents, but because Sam’s dad turned his back on boggle-hunting (he now works as a biologist), Sam knows nothing about the family business. He is however a very very skilled player of computer games and he’s mortified because he’s been sent to stay with his cousin’s family and know they don’t even have a computer! What sort of people are these? Well, he’s about to find out as in the plane on the way over to London, he finds himself lured into a most extraordinary computer game. I wrote the chapters alternating between Sam’s and Jenny’s point of view, which worked really well, having the different strengths and weaknesses of the characters playing off each other. It’s also a really good way of telling a story as not only can you jump to a different point of view but also you can advance the plot in a really exciting way, because neither character knows what the other’s doing!

Another thing I much enjoyed was creating the Fay technology which is an update of fairies’ traditional powers. One of  my favourites is an item called an ‘Iwish card’ which is basically a modern version of the three wishes idea. It too came to me in a flash–I wanted there to be three wishes involved, and like a gift voucher but more fun, and I thought of all those things like Ipods and Iphones and such and so the whole thing combined beautifully. The IWish is a card that comes in three varities—silver, gold, platinum—depending on the quality of the wishes involved, and exactly how the Fays want to reward people. In look, it’s something like a credit card but with an interactive menu, with wishes encoded into the card itself. (There’s a selection, but all carefully controlled.) There’s a fun chapter when Jenny tries to use her silver IWish to get what she wants, but has to think laterally too. And then there’s the glammer, which is the Fay tool of surveillance, communication, ‘cleaning up’ of problem areas etc, like a kind of super-efficient smartphone with a lot more features than any smartphone ever will have (I suppose!). There’s others too, such as the wallflys, Fay ‘bugs’ used in surveillance.

To give a bit of background on the whole world, I also created extra things, such as a newspaper article at the beginning, warning of a ‘coming boggle crisis’ and an extract from ‘Dr Rosie Rowan’s Encyclopedia of Boggles,’ which I made all up but with  bits and pieces of ideas from traditional folklore—black dogs, for instance are often found as supernatural beasts, and words like ‘skriker’ come from folklore. I have a wonderful book called A Dictionary of Fairies by Katharine Briggs and that has just hundreds and hundreds of weird and wonderful magical beasts and people in it, so plenty of inspiration to create your own.

For those interested, I have a trailer up for Boggle Hunters on my You Tube channel.

Have you updated any traditional motifs in your fiction? Please share your thoughts in comments!

Image by inharmony88.

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About Sophie Masson

Sophie Masson has published more than fifty novels internationally since 1990, mainly for children and young adults. A bilingual French and English speaker, raised mostly in Australia, she has a master’s degree in French and English literature. Sophie's new e-book on authorship, By the Book: Tips of the Trade for Writers, is available at Australian Society of Authors.

Comments

  1. Melanie Bernard says

    The Boggle Hunters sounds like something my 10 year old, a reluctant reader of fiction, would love! Do you know if and when it will be available in the US? Thanks!

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  2. says

    Sophie,
    Thanks for sharing your experience in creating this story. It’s amazing how one nugget of an idea leads to another and then another…and then you start asking those, “what if” questions and soon you have the elements of a story. Your experience also shows that ideas can come from anywhere and when you least expect them. Thanks again.

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  3. says

    I love those moments when an idea so quickly expands into a whole world within seconds. Little ideas are easy to come by, but that kind of holistic, instantaneous world-building is elusive and rare, and all the more satisfying when it does happen.

    I wrote a short story once that updated some traditional fantasy motifs, particularly in regard to use of magic, but for the most part I’ve never intentionally done so otherwise. Oh wait, no–there was another short story I wrote about Of course there are elements to all stories that borrow from previous tales, so I don’t think there’s a way anyone could say no with 100% honesty to your question. Though I think it’s become a bit passé by now, I’d love to write an updated fairy tale someday!

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  4. says

    And Kristin, don’t worry about updated fairy tales being passe, they’re not! I’ve just finished one myself and the puyblisher loves it. (It is a fairytale novel not short story.)

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  5. says

    I had a brain flash unloading the dishwasher. I know, not as romantic as walking by a decrepit shop, but I could see the story unfolding in my head. I wonder if we unlock some storytelling door when we stumble upon touchstones like this.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Sophie.

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  6. says

    I love the idea of the IWish, Sophie. Love your enthusiasm, too.

    Fairy tale retellings are very popular right now. Your timing would seem impeccable.

    I’m working on a modern-day Sleeping Beauty, though I probably fracture it enough it won’t be recognizable to anyone else.

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  7. says

    I like that concept. Looking forward to reading your book – in my library here in Canada soon I hope.
    I’ve been playing with Grimm fairy tales – did a flash fiction challenge of Once Upon a Time and took different view. Liked the idea so much I’ve been using the characters in other stories, from their point of view as actors. Sort of a Jasper Fford approach.

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  8. says

    Thanks for sharing this, Sophie. You’ve given valuable insights and advice on how to update motifs. Good luck with the sales! The book sounds fascinating.

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  9. Leslie says

    This book sounds like so much fun! It’s really interesting to read how you came up with it. I love things that use traditional fairy tale, folklore or mythology and put modern twists on it.

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