A while back, I wrote on Writer Unboxed about ‘re-versioning’ traditional fairytales to use as the basis for novels . Re-versioning is very much about transforming the tale to make it your own, using it only as a framework, letting your imagination roam wild, whilst keeping true to the tale’s spirit. This works really well with novels. But in this post, I want to write about retelling traditional tales, which is not about transforming them into something else, but about keeping close to both framework and spirit whilst adding little touches of your own, making something you love shine like a jewel, and gifting it to a new generation of readers. It’s something I’ve done many times myself, retelling traditional tales—folk tales, fairy tales, legends, myths– in my own way. I’ve always found it intensely satisfying as a creative experience: for despite–or perhaps because of—the discipline, retelling offers you as a writer great freedom and pleasure. And as a genre of short fiction it’s something, what’s more, that is relatively easy to sell to magazines, anthologies and the like.
Retelling has a long and honoured history. In fact you can say that most of the stories we now think of as classic versions of traditional tales were in fact retellings, usually from oral sources: think of the Grimm Brothers, Perrault, Andersen and the like.
As to me, I’ve always been a keen reader of traditional tales, and have big collections at home of stories from across the globe, as well as having a large fund of stories in my head, some of which were told to me by parents and grandparents, some of which I read as a child, some of which I’ve discovered as an adult. Usually what I do when choosing a story to retell, is to pick one which I love and feel close to but which is not too well-known (this is unlike what I tend to do with my fairytale novels). It will be much easier to interest an editor in a retold tale if it’s not been done a thousand times before. But unusual versions of well-known tales can work very well—for instance, I sold The Snow Maiden, a beautiful traditional Arabic Cinderella story, to Cricket  children’s magazine (which incidentally is one of the best markets worldwide for retellings of traditional tales, at least those suitable for children. )Though the framework was familiar—the neglected child, the stepmother, etc—the details and setting are very different, giving a lovely piquant exotic flavour to something we think we know well. Mostly, though, I search for and retell little-known stories, like the lovely Breton folk tale, The Boy with No Name, or the Southern French fairytale, The Green Prince, which carries echoes of The Frog Prince and Beauty of the Beast but is quite different to both, or the English tale, The Pedlar of Swaffham, or the Russian folk tale The Rooster With the Golden Crest. Each of those have found a ready sale in the magazine market—including with the wonderful Australian children’s magazine, The School Magazine , which shares with Cricket the top spot in terms of markets for retellings.
And in some cases the stories have provided the seed for other things: The Green Prince eventually morphed into a novel (and later play) of the same name; as to The Rooster with the Golden Crest, with its Russian folktale sister, Masha and the Bear, it has become a beautiful picture book. More even than that, it is the launch title for Christmas Press , a small publisher I founded in 2013 with two fellow creator friends, David Allan and Fiona McDonald. And what does Christmas Press specialise in? Why, retelling of traditional tales from around the world, retold by well-known authors and gorgeously illustrated in classic styles reminiscent of the countries the stories come from.This is an enterprise which fills me with such delight—coming directly as it does from the fact that the three of us share a love of traditional tales, well retold and illustrated, and a keen desire to open up a whole new generation of readers to the beauties of these gorgeous stories that have come down through the ages to us, but which until recently seemed to have been neglected by publishing houses. We’ve found that other authors share our love and delight, with our list of beautiful retellings full till 2016!
So for me that love of retellings has opened all kinds of doors and provided all sorts of opportunities. But it can do that for many writers—at the very least provide some great material to send to magazine editors and anthology compilers. And I thought I’d pass on some of the things I’ve learned over the years of writing and selling retellings, which I hope might prove useful:
- Read widely, as widely as possible, across the range of traditional tales.
- Only retell stories you really have a feeling for. What I mean by that, is don’t try to second-guess the market by going for something you think might be fashionable but which you have no real feeling for.
- Conversely, don’t be afraid to try new things. Don’t stay stuck in a rut—there is a whole world of stories to discover! Be guided by your curiosity and your instinct though as to what stories might work for you.
- Feel your way into the heart of the story and keep your style appropriate—but especially in terms of retellings for children, don’t go in for quainticisms or too many exotic flourishes which detract from the central, strong story.
- Read your retelling aloud to yourself or others—though it will be on the page, and will be read in silence by some readers, retellings are often read out to children, and there should be a natural and pleasing rhythm to the words, so it’s a nice experience to read aloud and listen to.
- Respect the original story. Its creators might often be anonymous but as a fellow writer you owe them the respect of not screwing up their tale in your retelling. Don’t change the point of the story—if you don’t ‘approve’ of the theme or message, then just don’t retell it, find something else! I can’t abide bowdlerisations or watering down of traditional tales to suit modern sensitivities. The stories become weak and mushy, and nobody enjoys them, least of all children who know at once when they’re being patronised by goody-two-shoes messages.
- You can however angle retellings so that certain things are expanded or highlighted or even change settings—nothing wrong with that, as long as you respect the story, and your changes enrich it, not detract from it.
- And finally, retellings aren’t just for children—just look at what Angela Carter did with the traditional(and mainly French) fairytales in The Bloody Chamber and other stories, stretching retelling to its limits and beyond. I’m having a go myself at one of these adult retellings right now, for an anthology of love stories. It’s a lush and erotic retelling of one of my favourite Russian fairytales, Fenist the Falcon, which is itself is a kind of retelling, richly embroidered and Russified, of the classical myth of Psyche and Eros.
Over to you: What are your favourite retellings? And if you’ve retold traditional tales yourself, what’s it been like? Do you have any suggestions or advice?