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The Art and Craft of Retelling Traditional Tales

photo by steveczajka

A while back, I wrote on Writer Unboxed about ‘re-versioning’ traditional fairytales to use as the basis for novels [2]. 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 [3] 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 [4], which shares with Cricket the top spot in terms of markets for retellings.

scarlet pic [5]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 [6], 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:

photo by CrazyFast

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?

About Sophie Masson [8]

Sophie Masson [9] 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 [10].