What about Historical Fiction?

In the revious post, we explored two valuable sources of information: the ATU Index and D.L. Ashliman’s Folktexts. both of which help you find families of folktales. Understanding these families can help you find the bones of a story. Now we are going to look at how all this works in historical fiction. Of course, it’s not exactly the same.

Before we get started, and in keeping with my goal to have a story with every post, here is another folktale from 15 Pounds of Muscle and Bounce. We’ve been talking about Trolls, which are, as far as I can tell, an entirely Norwegian phenomenon. This story will introduce you to a less frightening supernatural critter, one from Iceland.

Kidhaus is one of the Huldufolk or “hidden people. Iceland still makes decisions on the basis of not disturbing or upsetting their rock-dwelling neighbors.

Now on to Historical Fiction

The relationship between details and bones in historical fiction is somewhat more complex than the one in folktales. As we have seen, the bones of the folktales are the structural element that make the story what it is. Details can be changed or added at will. Changing the bones changes the story.

There are bones in historical fiction. When I was a teenager devouring books about Tudor England, I would have said that the bones were the history – what actually happened. That is not quite the case. There undoubtedly was an actually happened involved, but we don’t have it. We have what people who saw, heard about, reported, shaped, re-shaped, and wrote left for us. And every one of these people had a definite stake in the outcome of these events. So we have bones but they are not entirely solid ones.

Let’s expand on this by looking at Henry VIII and one of his six wives. For some reason, I’ve always liked Ann of Cleves better than I’ve liked any of the other wives. (And pace Retha Warnicke whose Tudor History class I took at ASU all those years ago – I get that each and every one of the women who married Henry was doing exactly what her culture expected her to do – to marry to the advantage of her family. The bride’s opinions and feelings were irrelevant.)

The variety in the books came from the different sources the authors chose to use. This leaves us with two very different views Henry’s fourth wife, the second divorced one. Did she come to England to marry Henry, (after another princess had said she would be glad to do so, if only she had two necks) as a plain, even unattractive girl who was rather stupid – and had never learned to speak any of the languages Henry spoke? Was she not only uneducated, but neither clever or witty? Was she terrified when Henry, who was disgusted by her, sought to get rid of not only his wife, but the Protestant-leaning advisors who had arranged the marriage.

Or … was she actually quite pretty? The portrait the artist Hans Holbein painted before her marriage – the one Henry insisted on seeing before making his decision – shows a young woman who is rather solemn and stiff, but her face would certainly pass as attractive in this, the contemporary world. Some sources claim that Henry believed that Holbein omitted the small pox scars on her face. If this were true, it must be pointed out that small pox was exceedingly common at the time, and so were the scars.

The famous portrait -Anne doesn’t look too bad.

Was she perhaps intelligent, and clever enough to realize she could manage the failure of the marriage in such a way that she could avoid returning to her brother’s dull and stifling court? She was certainly smart enough to avoid death.

Again, what are details, and what are bones? I think the bones can be find where most contemporary chroniclers agree. In Anne’s case, we do know she came from a small and Protestant German Duchy. If we look at Anne through Retha Warnicke’s lens, we can assume that her marriage to the King of England would have been a professional triumph. Had the marriage been a success, Anne’s family would have greatly benefitted. But, as the chroniclers agree, Henry was disappointed if not downright disgusted with his bride from the very beginning.

Here the details vary. Henry is said to have made a surprise visit to his bride as soon as she landed in England. Since Ann spoke no English and was still recovering from a rough channel crossing, she did not impress him in the least. It is also said that he was already interested in the girl who became his fifth wife, so he was not the least likely to be impressed by anybody.

We can play the same game will all these details all the way through Ann’s life. When we look at the bones we find this: she outlived her marriage (no small thing, that). She stayed in England as the king’s “beloved sister” instead of returning to her brother’s Duchy. She outlived Henry and was friendly with all his children. Henry had called her a “Flanders Mare.” He was wrong.

In this post we thought about how bones and details also matter when it comes to historical fiction. The details can be fun. The bones always matter. In the next post, we will dig into what we need to know use the details effectively. Hint – it’s called research.In this post we thought about how bones and details also matter when it comes to historical fiction. The details can be fun. The bones always matter.

In this post we thought about how bones and details also matter when it comes to historical fiction. The details can be fun. The bones always matter. In the next post, we will dig into what we need to know use the details effectively. Hint – it’s called research.

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Late Breaking News

Do you know what happens when the cat eats all the porridge?

While we’re at it, why shouldn’t you eat the Nisse’s Christmas porridge?

But it isn’t just the porridge!

When Thor went fishing, what did he catch?

How do you win the heart of a princess when all you have is a kitten and some big dreams?

All this and more (including C.S. Fritz’s awesome graphic-style illustrations) in my new book:

Fifteen Pounds of Muscle and Bounce

I have created this book especially for those “big kids” (ages 10 and up) w Iho prefer trolls to princessess, who enjoy the weird, more than the sweet, and who want something different than happily ever after in the stories they read.

If you know a kid like that (or you like stories like this yourself), Fifteen Pounds of Muscle and Bounce from my publisher!

Small Tooth Dog Publishing Group

(Plus all the usual book-selling websites)

Details? Or bones?

In the previous post, Trolls and Goats, we compared the traditional Norwegian folktale, Three Billy Goats Gruff, with a children’s opera that claimed to be based on the original story. The story analysis tool we learned to use in an earlier post helped us see that the two versions of the goats-meet-troll story bore very little resemblance to each other. The creators of the opera had changed the bones of the story so much that the point of their story was completely different than the point of the original folktale. Change the bones, change the story.

This post will explore the fine line between bones and details. During our exploration of that line, you will learn a bit about the ATU folktale classification system as well as become familiar with one of the best internet folktale resources around.

Let’s start by taking one more look at “The Three Billy Goats Gruff.” Story crafters are often encouraged to change the details of a folktale to make it “their own.” But how do we tell bones from details? Some of it is simply common sense. In almost every version of the Billy Goat Gruff, the goats are in search of nice green grass, but the location of that grass varies. And it really does not matter if the grass is high on a mountain or in a meadow on the other side of the river. The story remains the same. So, the location of the grass is definitely a detail.

But that the goats are looking for something to eat. They are hungry. That might be one of the bones of the story. Now let’s consider the fate of the troll. In the Dasent version, the troll is “crushed to bits, body, and bones. In other versions, he simply suffers the indignity of being thrown in the river. Detail? Or Bone? I’d argue that ending up in the river is a bone, but the precise fate (death by crushing, death by drowning or merely a unexpected swim) is a detail.

Aarne, Thompson and Uther

Sometimes we need help identifying the bones of a story. This is where the Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) Tale Type Index comes in.

Antti Aarne was a Finnish folkorist who published the earliest version of this folktale classification system in 1910. His analysis and classification focused primarily on European folktales. (In spite of the fact that he was Finnish, he published in the German language.)

In 1928, Stith Thompson, an American, expanded the scope of Aarne’s system. He also translated it from German into English. The resulting Aarne-Thompson Tale Type system was used for many years and you can still find references to AT Tale Type numbers. It was not until 2004 that Hans-Jorg Uther updated and expanded the system once again. These updates included the removal of some of the more sexist assumptions in some of the tale type titles.

Here is the index to the The Aarne-Thompson-Uther classification of Folktales. The system makes sense, although actually navigating the details tended to drive my Multicultural Folktale students nuts.

If we look at “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” we find that it is ATU Tale Type 122E “Wait for the Fat Goat.” Ok. What does that mean?

Here’s another fantastic folktale resource: D. L. Ashliman Folktexts.

Ashliman is a former professor who has turned to providing links to as many folktales as possible in his retirement. As you may notice, this site offers either the name of the most common folktale of a given type, or the name of the type itself in the index. Thus the website starts with “Abducted by Aliens” and moves on to “The Three Billy Goats Gruff.” This is not the most common tale type around – he offers only three tales; the Norwegian, German, and Polish versions. But these three tales share what we might call plot points that help us identify the bones. And here they are:

  • It’s always goats
  • There is always a dangerous predator
  • The first two goats always advise the predator to wait for the third goat
  • The third, final, largest, fastest goat always destroys the predator.

And, to move us beyond The Three Billy Goats Gruff, here’s a Norwegian folktale that does not include a troll! It does feature a hero who is often called Boots in English.And, to move us beyond The Three Billy Goats Gruff, here’s a Norwegian folktale that does not include a troll! It does feature a hero who is often called Boots in English.And, to move us beyond The Three Billy Goats Gruff, here’s a Norwegian folktale that does not include a troll!

The character of Boots tends to take on one of two possible forms. The first is the Boots we see in this story – the only son of a widow. As an only son, he is a dreamer and an independent and impractical thinker, which means his mother worries about him. A lot. But she knows he’s a good boy and that he will turn out all right I the end. In other stories, Boots is the youngest of three boys and it is his job to clean the family’s boots. Given the conditions of a pre-industrial Norwegian farm (mud, animal waste, etc), the job was a disgusting one, fit only for the family fool. The Norwegian version of the hero’s name translates as “Ash Lad,” because Boots’ two older brothers consider him a lazy idiot who never leaves the fireplace (i.e., his mother’s side). Interestingly, there is an Appalachian story “Jack and the North West Wind,” that is almost exactly like the Boots story. This is because Boots and Jack are the same figure. Jack, by the way, is the same Jack as the one who killed the giant, is connected with Jack o’ Lanterns AND went up the hill with Jill! Both the Norwegian and the Appalachian versions are examples of ATU Tale Type 563, The Three Magic Gifts.

In this post you explored two valuable sources of information for story crafters, especially those who work in the oral tradition. The ATU Index helps you find families of folktales (and families can be assumed to share bones). D.L. Ashliman’s site helps you find examples of stories within the families. And comparing those examples makes it easier to find the bones. But what about Historical Fiction? Does it have bones? We’ll look at that in the next post.

Goats and Trolls

In my previous post you learned and used the story analysis tool called The Hand. Now we will compare several versions of a well-known Norwegian folktale with the same analysis tool.

That well-known folktale happens to be “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” which was my favorite story when I was a kid. My brother and I heard this story so many times he became convinced that a troll lurked under Otowi Bridge, near where we lived.

Photo of Otowi Bridge courtesey of Ira Catron

Crossing Otowi bridge involved a certain amount of drama on his part until my father decreed thatn New Mexican trolls ate “French Fried Pajama-Mordems” (spelling and exact definition uncertain) instead of kids — especially human kids.

As much as I loved The Three BIlly Goats Gruff,” I spent years avoidiing actually telling the story. I wanted to tell long complicated folktales like “Fifteen Pounds of Muscle and Bounce,” rather than stories I figured everybody knew.

As a matter of fact, here is “Fifteen Pounds of Muscle and Bounce,” the title story of my book which was recently released by the Small Tooth Dog Publishing Group.

I was not all that wrong about “Three Billy Goats Gruff.” If you google the story you will find hit after hit: children’s books, videos of people reading the story out loud, cartoons, cartoons with people reading out loud, people telling the story.

If you read this version of the Three Billy Goats Gruff you will get a pretty good idea of the shape of the story as it is generally told. This is not to say that this is the “original” version. There is no absolute original version. This is the version that the Norwegian collectors Asbjornsen and Moe chose to publish in their Norske Folkeeventyr. And what we read was the way the English scholar and diplomat George Webbe Dasent translated the Norwegian into English in his book Popular Tales of the Norse.

Just for fun, here’s the way I tell the story. The video was an experiment in telling a story outdoors, during a spring snowstorm. (I mean, why not?)

This is not all that much different than most of the versions you can find on Google — the details vary but the story is the same.

But what about this version? Is it even the same story?

We can use the 5P’s to compare the Ashliman version of the story with the Opera version:

5 P’sAshlimanOpera
PeopleLittlest Billy Goat Gruff Middle Billy Goat Gruff Biggest Billy Goat Gruff A TrollLucy, a young girl Ernesto, a boy (but is sung by a girl) Dandini, a boy Osmin, a big bully (All characters are presented as humans wearing hats with goat horns.
PlaceBridge – only route to a meadow of green grassBridge children want to cross on their way home from playing together
ProblemTroll intends to eat the goatsOsmin, the bully blocks the bridge and steals Lucy’s toy goat.
ProgressThe Littlest Billy Goat Gruff tells Troll to wait for the Middle Billy Goat Gruff, who would make a better meal. The Middle Billy Goat Gruff tells the Troll to wait for the Biggest one. The Biggest kills the troll and throws the smashed body into the river.The boys decide to take a longer route home. Lucy returns to the bridge to get her toy back. She accidentally pushes the Osmin into the water. He is very upset but she is nice to him which makes him decide to stop being a bully.
PointBigger brothers need to protect smaller ones from danger. It helps to work as a team. If you can’t smash a troll, fool him.Bullies feel badly about themselves. If you are nice to one, he will stop being a bully.

I would be inclined to argue that the two stories do not share much more than a title and a bridge. In the case of the folktale, the people are a set of three brothers who are goats, and a troll. The opera people are four unrelated children, all wearing goat-horn hats. There is a substantial difference between brothers and unrelated friends and there is also a substantial difference between bullies and trolls. The troll, for instance, wanted to gobble up the goats. The bully snatched a toy goat.

Even the function of the bridge is different. In the folktale, the goats must cross the bridge if they are to eat. The opera children want to cross the bridge but there is another way home. The Progress in the folktale is simple. The first two goats tell the troll to wait for their bigger brother. The biggest goat destroys the troll. Progress in the opera is much more complex, and the damage done to the bully is both inadvertent, minor and healed by a simple apology. The points are also very different.

All this leads me to the conclusion that the opera story is only distantly related to the folktale. Where the other versions changed the details, the opera version changes the bones. And if the bones change the story is changed.

Even the function of the bridge is different. In the folktale, the goats must cross the bridge if they are to eat. The opera children want to cross the bridge but there is another way home. The Progress in the folktale is simple. The first two goats tell the troll to wait for their bigger brother. The biggest goat destroys the troll. Progress in the opera is much more complex, and the damage done to the bully is both inadvertent, minor and healed by a simple apology. The points are also very different.

In this post you used the Hand to compare two versions of the same story. You observed that one of these is quite different than the other because the bones of the story have been changed. In the next post you will learn how to tell the difference between details and bones and why those differences matter.

A simple folktale analysis

Wait! Before we start analyzing any stories!

What will all this information about the oral tradition and story analysis going to do for you, the story-crafter? We already know what we really want out of our creative efforts – people who will listen to/read our stories. And yes, we probably want to make some money.

I can’t promise to make that happen. I couldn’t even do that for myself. My long-ago flirtation with Columcille brought me nothing but a truly epic stack of “good-but” rejections, the kind that say “This is really good, but …” The experience turned me to oral storytelling, although I must admit that the producers of major (or even minor) storytelling festivals haven’t been exactly appearing on my doorstep with any kind of offers.

Here’s what I can promise. If you are a story-crafter you are going to craft stories no matter what. And if these stories are folktales rooted in the oral tradition or fiction rooted in history, I can help you make them the best stories they can be. This is something that can give you a great deal of satisfaction. And excellence can’t hurt your chances of getting more than applause!

The story is in your hand

In my previous post, you had the opportunity to watch a video of one of my favorite folktales — one that will appear in my upcoming book, Fifteen Pounds of Muscle and Bounce.

In this post you will learn to use a simple analysis technique that will help you better understand the structure of a folktale.

Folktale analysis probably did/does not exist in worlds where stories like this were/are part of a living oral tradition. One simply learned what one heard, probably in a wide variety of contexts – in formal storytelling sessions, around work tables, while underfoot in the kitchen. Since most of us do not have storytelling relatives, we usually need to find a written version of the story we want to tell. Learning a story from a written text does not mean memorizing the words on the page. Instead, we need to make the story our own so we can use our own words. That requires some analysis and crafting.

The Hand

I first “met” the physical mnemonic affectionately known as The Hand while I was a student at the South Mountain Community College Storytelling Institute. Later, as an instructor, I introduced a large number of beginning students to that same Hand. (The original idea behind The Hand belongs to that splendid storyteller, and teacher of storytelling, Donald Davis.)

This is how the hand works:

The Hand is useful both in analyzing and in learning stories – especially folktales. If you can identify the 5P’s of a story, you will better understand the story. And if you can understand the story you can learn and tell it. The Hand can also help you create stories, oral and written. If you have the 5P’s, you have a story. Now let’s look at Up The Dovrefjell. Here it is again.

Remember, the thumb represents the “people” in the story – and in folktales, people do not have to be human. So, who are the people in this story? When you are using the 5P’s to learn a folktale, you don’t just list the “people,” you think about what each “person” looks like. For instance, when you heard the story, what color was the hen? Was the duck a plain white barnyard duck, or something more interesting?

The index finger represents the “place”– some stories have only one place, some move from one place to another. What were the places in this story?

The middle finger represents the “problem” in the story – that should be relatively easy to remember. (All stories have problems, if there isn’t a problem there isn’t a story.) What is the main problem in “Up the Dovrefjell”?

The ring finger represents the “progress” made in the story. Was there progress in the story? Right, the hen got up the mountain. And, if you enjoy a more twisted approach to storytelling, well the fox got himself a nice breakfast!

The little finger represents the point. The most obvious of these points can be expressed as something like “persistence pays off.” There’s always “watch out for foxes.” These are what can be called universal points. They make as much sense in our contemporary lives as they made in pre-industrial Norway. But are we missing anything? Was there anything special about the hen saving the world or was it all a big joke? We can’t answer those question unless we learn more about the world in which the story was told.

In this post you have learned how to use the story analysis technique called the Hand to identify the 5P;s of story: People, Place Problem, Progress, Point. Now you are ready to compare two versions of the same story. We’ll do that in the next post.

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Talking about the Oral Tradition

In my previous post I told you something about my experiences as a teller, a teacher, and a writer. Now we are going to talk about the oral tradition. After defining myth, legend, and folktale, you can watch a video of one of my favorite folktales. (Not fairy tales – you’ll learn the difference.)

The oral tradition (defined as stories that originally spread from one storyteller to another), consists of three broad genres, myth, legend, and folktale. The term “myth” refers to stories that are considered sacred in that they contain the religious truths of the culture that tells (or told) them. Legends are stories about individuals (or groups of individuals) whose existence can be verified in history, even though the strict “truth” (in the contemporary sense) of the events in the story is questionable.

Saint Columba converting the Picts, William Hole, via Wikimedia Commons

My old friend Columba of Iona is known to have been born in Ireland in 521. He travelled to Scotland in order to evangelize the Picts in 563, and died in Iona, the abbey he founded, in 597. This his history. The reason he left Ireland veers into legend. It is said that Columba asked to make a copy of a Psalter that belonged to another Irish Abbot. When that Abbot refused, Columba snuck into the scriptorium and copied the entire Psalter in the course of a singe dark night. His work, according to his biographer, was illuminated by his fingers, which “shone like the moon.”

Whatever the strict truth of that part of the story, the quarrel that arose between Columba and the other Abbot led to the King of Ireland issuing the first ruling on the matter of copyright: “As to every cow belongs its calf, to every manuscript belongs its copy.” Columba’s reaction to this ruling led to a small but intense Irish war and he is said to have gone to Scotland vowing to bring as many Picts to Christ as there were men who lost their lives in that war.

Finally we come to folktales. Folktales are fiction, stories that were probably created by a single (unknown) individual, probably a talented storyteller. As the story spread, other individual tellers created their own versions of the story. Folktales, as well as being fiction, are set in no particular time or place – that’s what “once upon a time” signals. When the characters are animals, the animals are representing human behavior. Fairy tales are considered a sub-genre of folktales. They are defined, quite simply, as stories that include the supernatural beings known in English as “fairies.” The lines between folk and fairy tales is blurry so I’ll leave it here: all fairy tales are folk tales but not all folk tales are fairy tales.

Here’s a folktale I like so much that I’m including it in my upcoming book, Fifteen Pounds of Muscle and Bounce” released by The Small Tooth Dog Publishing Group (Click on the link to order your own copy).

Now that you know the difference between myths, legends, folktales (and fairytales), you are ready to learn a simple story analysis technique. We’ll do that in my next post.

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Welcome to my blog, “Creating the World of a Story.” In this post, I am going to talk about a pair of activities which are often referred to by the same term, “storyteller.” I will define what I mean when I replace the term “storyteller” with “story-crafter,” and I will explore the qualities of an effective story-crafter. In addition, I will tell you something about myself, as a storyteller, a writer, and a story-crafter.

“Storyteller” has become something of a vague and widely used term. Movie makers, advertisers, journalists, speechmakers, all call themselves storytellers. Sometimes the word is associated with the performative act of speaking a story, using whatever words happen to emerge from the teller’s understanding of the story at the moment. I call myself a storyteller because I do this:

The creators of oral and written narratives share the same goal, which can best be expressed in this way: “I have a picture in my head and I want you to see it as clearly as I do.” This sharing of a set of mental images happens most effectively if the descriptions of those images are well crafted. Since crafting descriptions lies at the heart of both writing and telling stories, I shall save myself from innumerable instances of “and/or” by referring to us all as “story-crafters.”

A craft is something that can be learned and improved. I have created this blog to help story-crafters become more effective. An effective story-crafter:

  • goes beyond simply learning and retelling their source material
  • works to understand the world in which that source material was created
  • using that understanding to connect their audience to the wisdom inherent in the story

Who am I to have all these opinions?

I am a teller, a teacher, and a writer of stories.

As a teller, a storyteller, I started by learning folktales out of books. I soon realized that I needed to know something about the worlds in which these stories were actually told. What, for example, was a troll? (We’ll be spending a lot of time with trolls, real Norwegian trolls, in this blog.) As I grew as a storyteller, I began to realize that my listeners connect so much better with the wisdom in the folktales I love if I really understand the stories. My storytelling repertoire includes folktales (especially those of the Scandinavian countries), sacred stories, legends and personal stories.

As a teacher, I integrate art into subject matter in a way that helps students “create and demonstrate their understanding through art.” (See the  Kennedy Center Arts Integration website for more information.) I work with story tellers and listeners of all ages and in settings that range from formal classrooms to roadside workshops.

As a writer, I spent a number of years as a /editor of a small-town weekly paper. I also spent long hours trying to craft an epic historical novel about the life of Saint Columba of Iona. My Master’s thesis (my degree is in Humanities with a focus on Storytelling) explored the multitude of worlds in which the stories in the Germanic epic recorded in the Icelandic material titled Saga of the Volsungs were created.


And I am an author. My first book, Fifteen Pounds of Muscle and Bounce, is scheduled to be released by my publisher, The Small-Tooth Dog Publishing Group, at the end of this month. I have created this collection of uncomfortable and slightly-odd Norse folktales for – as my publisher puts it – “big kids.” I’m looking at 10 years old and up – readers who want more than rescued princesses in their folktales.

Now that you know that you are a story-crafter as well as a storyteller and/or a writer and that you can become a more effective story-crafter, You also know something about my experience with story-crafting in these areas.

In my next post I will talk both about the similarities between crafting folktales and fiction that is rooted in historical events. I will also talk about the oral tradition (which is also rooted in history).

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