Blog: Writing Inspiration from Folklore and Myth

This was initially written for and published by Pen to Print here for share a story month.

Folklore and mythology can offer vibrant inspiration for creative writing. In particular, because these stories often having a close connection to place, they can tell us a lot about our local history, politics, culture, or even the natural environment. Looking at folklore in Scotland, for instance, the number of stories that centre around water and the sea can give us an insight into the history of seafaring, treacherous weather and environmental conditions, and creatures or phenomenon that may have once been mistaken for mythological beasts. Exploring folklore in creative practice can, therefore, offer rich worlds to draw from while providing an opportunity to celebrate and connect with our own culture and history.

A few years ago, I started delving more deeply into Scottish folklore, using it as inspiration for a young adult fantasy novel. Initially, I wanted to write a story based around the well-known Greek myth of Persephone and Demeter, but then learned of a similar story in Scotland which had an interesting crossover: the tale of Bride and Cailleach Bheur, both central characters to Scotland’s seasonal legends, representing spring and winter, respectively. It was while doing research on this area of folklore that I came across the work of 20th Century folklorist Donald Alexander Mackenzie. In his version of the story, Bride was kept captive under Ben Nevis by the Cailleach. When free, the seasons changed. Exploring these stories altered both the course of my novel and inspired me to write my debut audio drama, Daughter of Fire and Water, which was released with the Alternative Stories and Fake Realities Podcast. While writing, I engaged with the folklore and story archetypes, but then subverted them a little to include modern themes; I wanted to explore climate change, so drawing on seasonal folklore felt like a natural link.

Through working on these two projects, I became hooked on researching folklore further to use in my writing. I took an excellent course run by author Sandra Ireland and, then, actively started following #FolkloreThursday on Twitter. The popular account provides weekly themes and prompts, and fellow folklore enthusiasts can share stories from folklore, fairy tales, myths and legends. It has quickly become a highlight of my Twitter writing community week, and I love sharing snippets of stories (mostly from Scottish folklore) while reading about other tales from around the world.

It has been by delving more deeply into folklore that I came to appreciate that it really wasn’t new to me. I’ve been absorbing folklore my whole life: in popular books and stories, from The Hobbit to Narnia; in movies, from Star Wars to Disney animations; and even in other popular media, like music or video games. Growing up, I was also always hearing Scottish tales centred around magic — one of my earliest writing memories, for instance, was leaving letters and stories out for the fairies. As I got older, I became familiar with tales of the Loch Ness Monster, Selkies and Kelpies. Then, creatures like werewolves and vampires, which are rooted in folklore from around the world, became mainstays in my young adult life in books, TV shows and films. Now, in my writing, I love to learn the origins of these popular myths, as well as explore lesser-known ones.

Over the past few years, folklore and myth have been central to enriching my writing and providing inspiration for new ideas. So, here I share some top tips for writing inspired by folklore and myth:

  1. Do your research – even if you’re planning to interpret the story differently, research will help you think about how or why you might subvert the idea, or how you might incorporate contemporary themes into your work.
  2. Think local –  learn about your local area and its folklore. Even better, try to get out and about to the locations in the stories, or find and speak to local experts.
  3. Don’t panic if you see other retellings of a story you want to explore. So many of the same stories have been written from different angles. Just look at the number of retellings of Greek and Roman mythology! Or even the number of fairy-tale-inspired stories with very different interpretations. The main thing to think about here is what can you offer that’s new? It could be subverting the point of view, changing who the important character is, or looking at the story through a modern lens.
  4. Read, read, read folklore and myth-inspired work! Folklore, myths and fairy tales often follow certain archetypes and/or have a three-act structure, so reading retellings can be a great way to enhance the writing craft.
  5. Experiment with genre – when thinking about retelling and subverting stories, you can add a twist simply by bringing in genre elements to the story. What about a favourite fairy tale set in space, or a creature from folklore that solves murder mysteries?
  6. Finally, enjoy the process – and if you can, connect with other writers or readers of folklore and myth. I’ve found the online community of folklore writers and academics hugely welcoming and friendly in particular. Below I share some of my favourite resources of podcasts and blogs.

Podcasts:

  • Alternative Stories and Fake Realities
  • Myth, Legend & Lore Podcast
  • History and Folklore Podcast
  • The Folklore Podcast
  • Let’s Talk About Myths, Baby!
  • Fabulous Folklore with Icy
  • Folklore, Food and Fairy tales

Here’s a Folklore Edition podcast that I joined with the Alternative Stories and Fake Realities Podcast, which includes other guests such as Dee Dee Chainey, Terri Windling, Bella Hardy and Signe Maene.

Websites and blogs:

What about books, you ask? There are just far too many to name here, but I often look at the great lists compiled on the Folklore Thursday website here as a good place to start.

Feature image of Corryvreckan Whirlpool, CC Licence 2.0 available here. Find more info on the folklore of Corryvreckan here.

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