Storytelling Tradition


“When you’re writing, do you ever feel that you’re participating in a long storytelling tradition?”

This very interesting question came last week from one of the frequent commenters on my WW.  My reaction was “Yes, and then again, No,” and so I decided to answer here.

So, here’s the “Yes.”  Yes, of course I do.  Remember, I have a PhD in English Literature (specializations in Medieval, Renaissance, and Modern).  I cannot be unaware of the massive numbers of works that have come before my own.

Even within my own chosen area (SF/F), I am aware of trends, tropes, and traditions.  Long before I started writing professionally, I read backwards to older works, as well as liberally sampling newer works.  Sometimes I’m startled to see a reviewer talking about a work being “fresh and new,” when I can place it squarely within an established tradition.  This doesn’t mean I lose respect for the author, but I usually lose some for the reviewer.

Here’s an example.  I really enjoyed T.J. Klune’s House in the Cerulean Sea, even though I could call just about every plot point in advance.  This didn’t matter, because the characters were lively, and I honestly cared about what happened to each and every one of them.  So, well-written, yes.  Fresh and new?  Not really.

“No” comes in when I actually start writing.  Then the dynamic is between me and my story.  I’ll admit—and accept that some of you will want to argue with me—that I’m rather disturbed by the number of new releases, many from quite well-established authors, that rely heavily upon a previous work, sometimes print, sometimes film.

To me that’s less inspiration than taking the easy route, especially when the new work is then marketed with a strong reference to the root work.  I’m much less likely to pick up the work if it’s presented that way.  And, yes, I feel that way about fairytale retellings, as well.  They need to bring something fresh to the original tale, not just change the time period or gender swap or some other gimmick.

So how do I balance the “yes” of my awareness of trends, tropes, and traditions, and my desire to tell a tale that’s all my own?

When I was writing the Firekeeper Saga (first book, Though Wolf’s Eyes), I was perfectly aware that I was a latecomer to the “feral child raised by wolves” tradition.  In fact, Kipling’s The Jungle Books have been favorites of mine since I was a child.  However, I felt I had my own tale to tell, chose plotlines that would not echo any of the Mowgli tales, and immersed myself in a world of my own creating.  Firekeeper is her own person, not a gender swapped Mowgli.

My most recently published novels, Library of the Sapphire Wind and Aurora Borealis Bridge, definitely are within the tradition of portal fantasy—the type of story where people from our world end up somewhere else, usually because their help is needed.  Moreover, my novels were written because of my frustration with the fact that in many of those works, the people going through the portal are quite young, often not even out of their tweens.  It has always seemed unfair to me that the fate of a culture, a kingdom, even an entire world rests on the narrow shoulders of a kid.

Yes.  There are portal fantasies (as well as a sub-section of time travel fiction) where the ones going through the portal are adults.  However, these are often a sub-set of military fiction, where the knowledge and skills of those stepping elsewhere will be used for war.  I wanted to do something different, more whimsical, but with lots of heart, but not sentimentality.

Once I started writing, I let my characters reference works of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but I made certain the world they were entering was not a copy of any previously written work or even of any culture on this Earth, past or present. 

So, back to the original question, and why I’d answer both yes and no.  Yes, I am very aware of my works being part of a tradition going all the way back to the days when storytellers told tales to eager listeners who knew story fed some mysterious part of themselves that they could hardly name.  But, no, I’m not going to ever be one of those authors who will take advantage of someone else’s work entering public domain to pounce on it, wrestle it into my vision, and ride it to my own benefit.

Inspiration is one thing.  Derivativeness is another.

Next question?


2 Responses to “Storytelling Tradition”

  1. James Mendur Says:

    Trying a second time because I’m not sure my first comment went through:

    Thank you for a thoughtful response to the question. Unlike gardening, in which you seemed to indicate a continuation of tradition, your approach to storytelling seems equivalent to “here are all the varities of beans I know have grown here; let’s try this other variety and see what happens.”

    You raised an interesting point about adult characters in portal fantasy. Going all the way back to John Carter of Mars, they are often military men. I tried to think of non-military adult portal fantasy and came up with only two from my own readings.
    One is the comedy series “Spellsinger” by Alan Dean Foster in which a wizard wants an engineer and grabs a stoner/musician/college student who is a janitor, a sanitation engineer. The other I read so long ago I can barely remember the plot: Barbara Hambly’s “The Time of the Dark,” which I remember buying because the cover had a high fantasy wizard sitting at a kitchen table with potato chips and beer. (Yes, covers do sell books when they’re good covers.) I’m sure I could think of more if I looked over my library but the point stands: there aren’t a lot of them.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I remember liking Spellsinger. Thanks for the reminder. I don’t think I’ve read the other. I agree… A good cover can make me pick up a book, but a bad blurb or opening will make me put it down! Beans… Funny choice, as we’ve been shifting those we grow to deal with increasingly hot summers. Very apt!

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