Writing Wednesdays: Modern Mythology

Looking back, I’m amazed to see how my first novel, Fall, has changed and grown. As I’ve said before, I started with a rudimentary premise: I wanted to write a queer supernatural romance, a fairy tale in which people at least a little like me were not only represented but celebrated. I joke about “Twilight for lesbians,” but in truth, that’s not far off my original intent. Though I also wanted to incorporate some ideas from an Irish folktale that had fired my imagination, my original focus was almost entirely on the star-crossed lovers at the center of my tale. Though that folktale is still key to my tale, and the central characters remain, under new and different names – Bree was, I think, originally Siobhan; her sister Kira was originally Aisling; their mother, Queen Deirdre, went through half a dozen names; I’ve quite forgotten what I originally called Maddie – these elements are now the seeds from which a great big plot has grown. My story now is about a fading people clinging to the past, and what happens when that past strikes them full in the face and forces them to change their ways. It’s a murder mystery, to an extent, and a story of conspiracy and deceit, and should I be given the opportunity to write the intended sequels, the beginning of a grand quest. It is still a tale of love, of course: the love between Bree and Maddie, the bonds of friendship they form with others, the sometimes misguided love of family. But if it all comes off as I hope it will, Fall will have a taste of the epic. In the best tradition of urban fantasy, it will offer up a modern mythology.

To create that mythology, of course, I’ve delved deeply into the past. I’ve wrestled with Celtic mythology and European folklore and worldwide fairy lore. I’ve made countless lists, filled a notebook or two with mad scratchings, stayed up late in a fever trying to figure out what must be included and what should be dismissed. I have cut and sculpted and pounded pieces into place, slowly building a coherent myth, a coherent world. You can drive yourself mad with research, and I might have come close once or twice. And you can drive yourself mad trying to make sense of the senseless.

I am reminded vividly of something I heard in an Irish folklore class, many years ago. We were discussing chants and charms against the Good Folk, and my professor cited one particular chant that really caught my fancy. I forget how it goes exactly, and have been unable to find it since, but it went something like this: “Today is Monday, tomorrow is Tuesday, the day after Wednesday. You folk who live in the hill over there, stay in the hill and leave me be.” There is a recurring theme in folklore that fairies somehow disrupt the natural order – sometimes deliberately, sometimes just by existing. Time flows strangely around them. Things fall apart. And so it makes sense that such chaotic creatures could be neutralized through cold, relentless logic, by the ritual recitation of the order of things. Today is Monday. Tomorrow is Tuesday. The day after Wednesday.

When I was first thinking of writing of fairies, and in the urban fantasy genre to boot, I had the amusing notion that one of my characters might recite the stops on the Red Line to hold their enemies at bay: Davis, Porter, Harvard, Central, Kendall, Charles, Park Street and so on. Alas, that is not the story I’m writing, and I don’t know now if my characters will even be going into Boston, though the book is set in Massachusetts. An idea for another tale, perhaps. (Truth be told, anyone who’s had to live with the vagaries of the T, as I have, know that it’s hardly a paragon of order to begin with.)

I’ve wandered away from my point, which is this: you think fairies are chaotic? Try researching fairy lore. You’ll find a dozen names for the same thing. You’ll find creatures that just don’t make any damn sense. You’ll find ridiculous degrees of specificity in one area and horrifying vagueness in another. Modern fairy stories are so very versatile because you can twist the folklore into just about any shape you like. It’s as delightful as it is frustrating.

Case in point: the cold iron conundrum. You would not believe the time I have spent on this one problem. In the world of Fall, iron neutralizes fairy magic, and fairies find it generally unpleasant. Without going into details, this simple fact is the key to a number of vital plot developments. Now here’s the problem: iron is everywhere. It’s in our food. Our water. The air we breathe. Most of the metals we use. It makes up a third of our planet.

Those of you who know something of fairy lore may be wondering why I don’t limit myself specifically to cold iron. Though some stories and role-playing games (I’m looking at you, Changeling: The Dreaming) have claimed that cold iron refers to some specific method of manufacture, such as beating iron into shape over a mild heat source, the truth is that cold iron is nothing more than a poetic turn of phrase. It’s like saying “hot lead” when you’re talking about bullets, or “cold steel” when you’re talking about a sword. This was simply understood in the original tales, and it feels cheap to try and narrow the definition now. Your next question might be this: why not pure iron? Because there’s no such thing. Iron ore pretty much always includes impurities that can’t simply be removed. Even steel is basically iron with a bit of carbon added in, and there is iron out there tainted with enough carbon that it might well qualify as steel already. So if ANY iron is ANY good at all against fairies, then impure iron must necessarily count. All iron is cold iron; all iron is pure enough to affect the fairies.

Every author who writes about fairies must find their own way to deal with this problem. In Holly Black‘s Modern Faerie Tales, iron irritates and even hurts fairies – even the iron in, say, an average car – but their magics can offer them some protection. In Seanan McGuire‘s October Daye novels, iron is never really defined to any specific degree. In Charlaine Harris‘s Sookie Stackhouse books, fairies actually wear some kind of protective skin covering to shield them from the iron in the world around them. And some authors simply drop the iron thing altogether, but for various reasons, that was not an option for me.

I probably spent far more time on this than I should have. For a while, I thought perhaps that only iron directly touched by humans would pose a problem – hand-forged weapons, or items made of iron or iron alloys that saw frequent use by mortals. That worked in some ways and posed even more plot problems in others. In a period of utter desperation, I considered replacements for iron – silver, various woods, various herbs – but none of them quite offered what I wanted. In the end, I fell back on the central theme of my story: change or die. And that answered a hell of a lot of questions.

How would creatures totally vulnerable to iron survive in a world filled with it? They wouldn’t. Not without adapting. I soon decided that some fairies were invulnerable to iron – though they had other vulnerabilities to make up for it – and, further, they possessed certain magics that could make iron and iron alloys safe for the others to use. Further, they had been able to lay enchantments upon various factories, ensuring that mass produced items made of iron or iron alloys would also be safe. At the same time, the other fairies had built up a certain resistance to the iron in the world around them, in their food, in their water, and so forth. I had already decided that their powers had diminished somewhat over the centuries, and it made sense that the iron all around them might be the cause. Their resistance could be overcome, of course, but it would take more than trace amounts of iron to do it. I’m not sure it’s a perfect solution, but for now, it works for the story I’m trying to tell.

That core concept, change or die, also helped me cut through the confusing mass of fairies found throughout European folklore and determine which specific fairies would have a place in my story. I realized that each distinct type of fairy would have adapted to the world in different ways. There were fairies who hid themselves beneath the waves or in the depths of the forests. There were fairies who learned to resist and even manipulate iron, though at a steep price. There were fairies who looked like humans and fairies who could look like almost anything at all. If I could find a niche for them, they were in. And if there were other similar creatures out there with completely different names, well, it was bound to happen. (I also ended up limiting myself primarily to the lore of Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, and the various surrounding islands. That narrowed things down considerably.)

So I’ve put a lot of thought into this, and hopefully it’ll lead to a richer, more compelling world. That said, there’s a cautionary tale here. Research is great. You want your story to feel authentic. If you’re setting your tale in a real place, or using real people or things, you certainly don’t want to get any major details wrong. And if you’re drawing on existing mythology, you definitely want to tell a story that could fit vaguely in with your sources. But don’t get carried away. There comes a time when you have to put down the books, stop writing notes, and take the reins once more. The fact of the matter is that you can get away with taking creative licenses. This is your story we’re talking about. Your world. Don’t be afraid to put the books down and make a stand.

The truth is that I’m a bibliophile by nature, and more than a little obsessive at times, and research was shaping up into a pretty major pitfall. I needed to take some time to figure out the finer details of my world, but honestly? I could have spent a lot of that time writing Fall. So, while all those old, dusty books are still waiting for me on my shelf, or by my bed, or at my local library, and I’ll doubtless consult them again, I’ve set them aside for now. I have my notes, I have my story, and I have my world. I’ve spent quite enough time with the folklore and mythology of ages past. It’s time to get back to writing my own.

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2 thoughts on “Writing Wednesdays: Modern Mythology

  1. An impressive amount of work! I’m sure it’ll show. And I love that not just the novel but the whole world-building came together nicely around such a great theme.

  2. Pingback: Writing Wednesdays: Orphans | Diary of a Random Fangirl

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