In the October issue of Writers’ Forum #248 Oct 22, I have interviewed Sophie Anderson for my Writing for Children double-page spread, about how Slavic folklore and fairy tales have influenced her novels.
Sophie told me her writing is massively influenced by folk and fairy tales, especially the Slavic ones her Prussian grandmother told her when she was young.
“They shaped my childhood and my life in many ways, and took root in my imagination.”Sophie Anderson
Sophie’s first published book was The House with Chicken Legs, which involved a reimagining of Baba Yaga – a fascinating and multi-layered character from Russian and Slavic folklore. She revealed she did so much research into folktales for this book, that much of what she didn’t use ended up inspiring her second book, The Girl who Speaks Bear, which contains several folktale-retellings woven into an overarching narrative.
Her third and fourth books, The Castle of Tangled Magic and The Thief who Sang Storms, were also inspired by Slavic folklore, as well as Russian poetry and folk poems.
“I think it is wonderful how so many modern writers are keeping old stories alive; retelling, reimagining and reworking ancient imagination and wisdom to appeal to audiences today. I tend to reimagine tales rather than retell them (although on occasion, like in The Girl Who Speaks Bear, I have retold stories). I aim to balance inspiration from the old with inspiration from the new.”Sophie Anderson
Sophie explained she takes inspiration from all the people, places and real-life stories around her. The House with Chicken Legs was inspired by Baba Yaga, the main character, Marinka, was inspired by her children, specifically their desire to ‘climb over fences’, be more independent, and carve their own futures.
At the heart of any good story there are universal themes we can relate to. The House with Chicken Legs explores death and grief along with making the most of life and taking control of your future. The Girl who Speaks Bear explores family, friendship, individuality and belonging. The Castle of Tangled Magic explores belief in magic, self-belief, and learning from mistakes. The Thief who Sang Storms, explores conflict, division, prejudice, propaganda, and the world-changing power of kindness and unity. The main underlying theme is one of unity.
“I think whilst it is wonderful to work with fantastic elements from old tales, such as houses with chicken legs, shapeshifting bears, house-spirits, and bird-people, stories will only appeal to readers if they can relate to the experiences, emotions and struggles of the characters themselves.”Sophie Anderson
She uses folklore and legends as a way of exploring and expressing these themes.
Sophie revealed her planning process is messy and very paper-based. She told me she fills up notebooks with ideas and stream-of-consciousness free writing and ring-binders with maps and plans, character studies, notes on settings, lists of key events and plot points, and thoughts about possible themes and messages. Once she starts writing the chapters she inevitably changes her plans so it is an organic process. .
Sophie said if a character feels vague and not fully-formed she will do some exercises, like write letters or a diary from that character’s point of view. Or might interview them, take them out for an imaginary coffee for a chat, or write a scene that doesn’t end up in the book, where they are having a day out with a friend.
Her writing tips to writers wanting to write a novel for children inspired by folklore and folktales is firstly, read lots!
“Reading is the most enjoyable way to learn how to craft a story. Read old dusty texts in antiquated language. Read modern retellings. Watch movies inspired by the old tales. Fill your imagination with these stories and fill your intellect with ideas for how to tell them.”Sophie Anderson
Then practice, in lots of different ways.
“Try writing a legend you love in verse, or try writing a letter from a god to a hero. Experiment with short and longer stories, with different points of view, with different characters at the fore, and with different subversions. Play, and have fun with your writing.”Sophie Anderson
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