How I Wrote This Story, or What Was I Thinking?

by Bernie Mojzes, author of “From the Horse’s Mouth”

(appearing in Gaslight and Grimm: Steampunk Faerie Tales funding now:

I think it was Philcon, 2012. Danielle Ackley-McPhail, the editor who bought my first ever published story, comes walking up to me with this Scheiße-Essen grin on her face.

“Gaslight & Grimm,” she says.

Okay, that’s interesting. Steampunk fairie tales? I would read that. I’d write that, too.

Problem was, I was a kid a million years ago, and I never was in the position to raise a small child and get to revisit those old tales. In the intervening years, the Disney versions had pretty much bullied most of the others out of my brain what with the dancing bluebirds and whatnot. And really, I wasn’t interested in working with a story that was so much a part of the collective unconscious that any interpretation I made would have to fight through a lot of preconceived ideas about the story. So I decided to do Research. I picked up a copy of The Brothers Grimm 101 Fairy Tales — one of the many editions in which the translations maintain the cadence and style of the originals.

Here’s what I learned: Reading these stories is like reading the bible. It’s morality tales, in which characters who display one of the 7 deadlies come to a grimm ™ end, and characters who display virtue (for some definition of virtue that might include killing your spouse or some poor old lady in the woods) live happily ever after. There’s no nuance, no character arc; often actions seem disconnected from motivations.

There are formulas to the stories: things happen in threes. Three pigs. Three quests. A “once upon a time” or other well-known opening (in Slavic tales, it’s often “In a kingdom not very far from here”). A closing that’s either the moral to the story (just in case you missed it, yes, Jurgen, I’m talking to you), or a declaration of authenticity (“and the man who told me this still breathes,” or “and if they are not dead, they are alive still”). (The declaration of authenticity survives in modern urban legends — “this happened to someone my cousin’s ex-girlfriend’s uncle knew.”)

Mostly, the stories as they’re laid out are boring. It’s like reading  sheet music — you can imagine the song, but you can’t hear it. The Grimm fairy tales are a codification of oral storytelling, in which each storyteller brings something to the story. The storyteller fleshes it out, adds the drama, the motivation, the characterization. My mother was brilliant at this. She’d be telling the story of Hansel and Gretel, and when Gretel breaks off a piece of the witch’s house, she’d interject: “Jao, đubre jedna!” — which translates slightly differently in different circumstances, but basically my mom was calling Gretel a trashy child. People were telling stories they’d heard over and over again, and different tellings would be different. I can see the old storyteller with the children gathered around her, telling these stories, and the precocious kid either in the very front or the very back saying: “That’s not how it goes.” And the story spinning on from there.

I decided on The Goose Girl for my retelling precisely because the story as it’s told can’t be right. Something is being left out. History told by the victor, and a victor who maybe isn’t the good guy. The steampunk element was easy: magical talking horse becomes mechanical talking horse. Princess becomes inventor. The trickier bit was figuring out the politics. Why would a princess be riding all alone through the woods with sacks of gold on her way to meet her Prince Charming? Why would she let her maid bully her and boss her around? Who benefits from the story being told this way?

The trickiest bit was weaving in the oral storytelling aspect of the tale, the give and take of the storyteller and the audience, the existence of different versions of the same tale at the same time. The version meant for everyone, and the other one, the dangerous one, the one that only a lucky handful get to hear.

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