Folklore, Fables and Fairy Tales: enrich your fiction with Zoe Gilbert

We had a brilliant salon last week with guest writer Zoe Gilbert at the helm interrogating the mystery and allure of folklore, fables and fairytales and discussing ways into writing new fiction.

Zoe is an award winning author whose first novel, Folk, was published this year. Her short stories have been published in anthologies in the UK and internationally. In 2014 she won the Costa Short Story award for her story, ‘Fishskin, Hareskin’. She teaches and mentors writers at the London Lit Lab, The British Library and also The Arvon Foundation and is currently completing a PhD in creative writing at the Uni of Chichester.

Zoe Gilbert at Words Away

Zoe Gilbert at Words Away

What can fairy tales offer a writer? The most interesting thing about fairy tales, said Zoe, is that they defy meaning and categorisation. They break all the writing rules, especially “telling not showing”. The characters are nameless, flat and template-like, yet they really stick. Nature often features in these stories as do patterns and cycles. Fairytales are heavily symbolic, rich in metaphor and ambiguity. We instinctively know that these stories are loaded with meaning but no one tells us what to think. Zoe as reader, finds the idea of doing some of the work exciting. Initially she mistakenly thought these tales are for children but they resonate for adults too. Emma quoted A S Byatt who suggested that we can’t explain how fairy tales work - they defy our storytelling logic. Perhaps this is part of their appeal.There’s something glorious and attractive about all of this for the writer. There are so many ways to use and abuse the form to create contemporary feeling fiction! Writing short stories is a useful starting place. Like the fairytale, everything in a short story counts.

Zoe often starts with an idea for a character or a situation. She set out to write Folk, by deliberately creating a place that exists inside a fairy tale. She refused to use real locations; rare is the fairy tale that refers to an actual place. Folk is set in a pre-industrial world, with careful thought given to detail like occupations and living conditions. Although the world is limited by its own constraints, the characters within needed to be plausible. Contemporary novels such as Sarah Perry’s, The Essex Serpent and Imogen Hermes Gowar’s, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, pay attention to historical realism but introduce a fantastical element as a plot driver. Zoe’s fiction, like a fairy tale, tends to resist explanation and leaves meaning open to the reader’s imagination. It’s a way to explore universal themes like grief and loss without being heavy handed. While Folk began as a series of related stories (think of Elizabeth Strout’s novel of linked parts, Olive Kitteridge), Zoe consciously expanded each story to give each its own heart. She worked hard to tie the the stories together as a novel, working on one chapter at a time. She used a Timeline Software to work out detailed biographies for her characters.

L-R: With Emma Darwin & Zoe Gilbert

L-R: With Emma Darwin & Zoe Gilbert

We moved on to language and style. Zoe encouraged us to think about the kind of vocabulary we might wish to use and the effect it might have on the reader. She favoured using Anglo Saxon written English - concrete earthy words like home, love, hate, hearth - versus the Latinate and Romance languages of academia and business. Using the former has the effect of bringing your reader in close and the latter pulls the reader away. Comb your language and pluck out longer flowery words in favour of concrete nouns and verbs. Remember that fairy & folk tales originate from an oral tradition. Read your work out loud. The sound and the rhythm of the words is important. Pay attention to the names of your characters. Try making names out of verbs (as in the Gormenghast books by Mervyn Peake).

Zoe set out to write  Folk , by deliberately creating a place that exists inside a fairy tale.

Zoe set out to write Folk, by deliberately creating a place that exists inside a fairy tale.

We discussed the term ‘magical realism’ in fiction and the work of Angela Carter. I confess my notes let me down here but according to Wiki - magical realism is defined as “a style of fiction that paints a realistic view of the modern world while also adding magical elements. It is sometimes called fabulism, in reference to the conventions of fables, myths, and allegory.” We also talked about Zoe’s research into the concepts of enchantment and disenchantment. Zoe suggested that there’s a difference between stories where everything is a metaphor or symbolic, and stories where there’s just one magical thing that has a function. She suggested when writing a story to place your characters in a contemporary setting and choose one magical ‘what if’ ( read the stories of Lucy Wood who draws on Cornish folklore in such a way).

I asked Zoe for a favourite writing exercise. She recommended, “new leaves on an old tree”: take a folk or fairy tale, reduce it down to one or two sentences to make an elevator pitch length story. Leave it to ferment. Then come back to it and expand to create a different story.

Another idea to generate new writing is to think about ‘place’ as a character. Find its personality. While landscape has a function in the real world - see it also as a projection of what’s inside your character’s heads. Think about changes in the same landscape over time and throughout out history. Place is all these things.

If you’re having trouble with a story and not sure where to go next, Zoe suggested to take your glimpse (or idea) and place it in the opening line of your story. Then take that same thing and place it at the midpoint. Finally take it and imagine it at the end. This gives you potentially three different stories.

Is there a something about the uncertainty of the world today that lends itself to reinterpreting myth? Think of the publication of recent books like Madeline Miller’s, Circe and The Song of Achilles and Homer’s, The Odyssey as translated by Emily Wilson. Fiction is a safe way of looking at the dark side. Within that frame we can go somewhere much darker. Scale-wise Zoe likes exploring the Germanic folk world - preferring claustrophobic domestic sized stories versus myth which has an epic quality. As a writer you can be transgressive without having to rationalise. All of these ancient stories give a shape to our lives. We repeat and revise fairy tales over and over again down through the generations. The stories are a touchstone - a way for us to explore the human condition in all its complexity and contradictions.

With thanks to Zoe for sharing her amazing knowledge and insight on a fascinating subject! We’re taking a break now until the new year when we have a whole new program of salons, masterclasses and fab guests arranged for you. Emma and I will be back at The Teahouse on Monday 14th January to talk, How Agents and Writers Work Together, with guest literary agent Jenny Savill. I’ll also be running two new Craft masterclasses led by Andrew Wille at the London Bridge Hive on Saturday 26th of Jan and Saturday 30th March. Places are limited - please check out the website for more information and to book.

In the meantime here’s wishing you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


PS A big thank you too to last week’s audience who generously bought a raffle ticket in support of Zoe and her writing partner Lilly Dunn’s project with St Mungo’s and Unbound, A Wild and Precious Life, helping writers in recovery get into print. We raised £109!

Chatting before the salon

Chatting before the salon

References & suggested reading:

Zoe Gilbert

London Lit Lab

Folk by Zoe Gilbert

Grimms' Fairy Tales

Gabriel García Márquez

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen by Hermez Gower

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Olive Kittererdge by Elizabeth Strout

The Stone Book Quartet by Alan Garner

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane, Jackie Morris (Illustrator)

Lucy Wood: author of short stories based on Cornish folklore

Angela Carter

The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales by Bruno Bettelheim

Don't Try This at Home by Angela Readman ( “I cut my boyfriend in half, it’s what we both wanted…”)

The Gormenghast Novels by Mervyn Peake

Thomas Hardy

Margo Lanagan: read Singing My Sister Down a short story

On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays by A.S. Byatt

Magic Realism

The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner

The Odyssey translated by Emily Wilson

Madeline Miller: Circe, The Song of Achilles

Vladimir Propp

Joseph Campbell: The Hero’s Journey

The Heroine’s Journey by Maureen Murdock

The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm by Jacob Grimm, Wilhelm Grimm, Jack David Zipes & Andrea Dezso: Zoe suggested reading this edition translated from the original German - the stories haven’t been tidied up!

Twitter: #FolkloreThursday

Sarah Deco Storyteller

Not for kids … an illustration  from the new edition of Grimms’ fairytales . Illustration: © Andrea Dezsö

Not for kids … an illustration from the new edition of Grimms’ fairytales. Illustration: © Andrea Dezsö