Within my love for stories is embedded several, more specific affinities. One is for echoes, writers’ allusions to each other’s owork across the ages in archetypes, allusions, and retellings. I love tracing certain ideas across literature: for example, the fact that Cyrano de Bergerac’s large nose alludes to the classical poet Ovid’s physiognomy, or that Huckleberry Finn’s adventures fit into the genre of Bildungsroman.
Sitting in my British Literature Survey class, the first freshman English course at my school (where they weeded out all but the most passionate literature-lovers), I listened to my professor describing the land of Beowulf. She outlined the social structure of the mead hall, the king and the warriors, the scop’s entertainment during the nightly feasting in the communal sleeping hall, and though I had never read Beowulf before, I was thrilled by my own recognition. I had seen it before, as Tolkien’s Rohan.
The best writers are (usually) excellent readers, like rivers fed by the tributaries of their predecessors. They soak in wisdom and knowledge, images and patterns from their favorite works and then recreate them in the freshness of their own experience.
As a growing writer myself, I struggle to create stories that are wholly my own, while still following the traditions I love. For years, I longed to echo the stories I loved, with all their beauty and wonder – and created a rehash of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Lloyd Alexander, Madeleine L’Engle, Martha Finley, Roald Dahl, Elizabeth Bishop, L.M. Montgomery, George Macdonald, Elizabeth Winthrop, Betty Brock, Betty MacDonald, and Lynne Reid Banks that brought nothing new to the genre.
Around ten years old, I gave up. I finished Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader and felt the depths of joy and longing at its end fill my soul. I realized that I didn’t have the maturity to write something that rich – so I decided to stop trying.
I grew, and wrote, and started many stories that I never finished. I yearned to write about crumbling castles and mysterious mansions, faraway mountains and fantastic adventures, but scorned my own attempts as pathetically derivative.
My last semester of college, I took a Creative Writing course in which the professor had us read two short stories a week and write a reflection of what we wanted to “steal” (artistically imitate) from them.
I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story, “Ile Forest,” in the anthology I bought for the class. The richness of its gloomy atmosphere and wild setting, its old secrets and new passions, captivated me. I found myself questioning my self-imposed creed: Le Guin wrote a story brimming with tropes – the mysterious old house in the ancient forest, the enigmatic hero, the beautiful young woman, love and longing, in 1976 – years ago now, but long after those elements had been invented and reused by all those who came before. Were they trite, or classic?
I read Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Velvet Room and had a second shock: she, too, wrote yet another story about a mysterious old house – but I loved her book. She made it her own mysterious old house. So did Megan Frazer Blakemore in The Water Castle, and Jacqueline West in the Elsewhere series, and Daphne du Maurier in Rebecca, and Maryrose Wood in The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place. I just finished Elizabeth Goudge’s bewitching, exquisite book, The Bird in the Tree, which is full of “tropes” – the mysterious old house, the place-of-refuge, the little village by the sea, and the drama of family.
Write what you know. I think that’s true; no one is going to be very impressed by my tale of an archeological mystery in Egypt unless I do a lot of research first, and even then, knowledge is often a pale imitation of experience. Yet the rule that is new to me (though others have discovered it first) is write what you love.
What settings, characters, plot structures, and genres inspire you? What sets your heart on fire, and lifts the weight of exhaustion and boredom from your shoulders when you think about it? What stories heal and comfort you? And what do they all have in common?
Choose a few ideas, settings, situations, etc. that could be considered tropes, and then think about how you could make them your own. I listed some of mine below.
|Trope||Making it Mine|
|The child who is swept away from a dull/painful life to a magical country||– Recasting the main character as an adult|
– Making the real world better/happier than the magical country
– Creating an especially imaginative magical country; for example, as fascinating as The Rainbow Prison in Bruce Coville’s Luster series
– Playing with the obligatory lesson that the child learns; not the usual one of learning to “be brave” or “how to make friends,” but something less common like “doing justice” or “creating beauty”
|The ancient, mysterious forest||– Make the forest echo a real, earthly region its gorgeous intricacy: temperate, boreal, a bayou, a rainforest – use the beauty of a real ecosystem to make the fantasy more powerful|
– Create a magical system that rules the forest with specific laws (ex. a certain species of tree becomes a gateway to other worlds at night)
|Life of a poor but happy family||– Pour my own experiences into each character; create tension through anger, jealousy, misunderstandings, loneliness, and frustrations that I know personally|
– Give the family, or specific members, some creative or magical ability that makes up for their poverty
Send the family on an adventure
Like Roald Dahl’s BFG mixing dreams, I can “steal” (not plagiarize) the qualities of the stories I treasure and stir them into my own tales. My dreams, and my joy, could resonate as continuing echoes in the tradition of world-makers.