How Snippets came to beA few years ago I set myself a 500-words-a-day writing challenge. 500 words a day is a pretty easy challenge most of the time. It’s about half an hour’s writing time for me. The trouble is, sometimes you’ve got to a point in your work-in-progress where you don’t want to be adding 500 words a day to it. And sometimes the day gets away from you and it’s ten thirty at night and you still haven’t written your 500 words. I started doing writing exercises from books but they weren’t exactly what I wanted. So instead I wrote down a whole lot of things I thought I would like to practise writing – jealousy or tension or fear or the antagonist’s point of view. Every time I was stuck for what to write for my 500 words I picked something from the list and I picked a fairy tale character and I started to write. Soon I found I wasn’t looking at the list at all. And I was writing the stories every day. Often a new idea would come to me as I was waking up and I’d grab my laptop and sit up in bed typing.
My first encounters with fairy talesI have always loved fairy tales. When I was growing up I didn’t own a lot of books. My mother is a library-goer, so we went to the library every week and had the glory of choosing four books from the library shelves. We moved around quite a bit, but whatever new library we went to, there was a shelf of fairy tales and myths and legends right next to the children’s section. I know now that fairy tales are next to children’s books in the Dewey Decimal System, but at the time what it meant to me was that the fairy tales were special. On each visit I would take three novels and a book of fairy tales. Library-lovers of my age would recognise those fairy tale books: Ruth Manning Sanders Books of Princesses and Trolls and Wizards, illustrated by Robin Jacques, and the ones called ‘Favourite Fairy Tales told in …[some country]. There seemed to be an endless supply. At home, I had a collection of Ladybird fairy tales, sadly long since sold to a second-hand bookshop to feed my appetite for new stories. I had an LP of a dramatised Cinderella to play on our radiogram – it was something like a pantomime with Buttons and comedy Ugly Sisters and some very cheesy songs. I also had a 45 with a fabulous version of Sleeping Beauty, with music from the ballet and a terrifying wicked fairy, Carabosse, with a ‘retinue of rats’!
Why fairy tales appeal to me as a writerThere’s a world of fascinating, erudite study of fairy tales that I’ve scarcely scratched the surface of. For me, fairy tales are the essence of story. You may have seen some of Jan Pienkowski fairy tale illustrations about the place since his recent death (if not, go and look him up). These black silhouettes of characters moving across coloured backgrounds are, for me, what fairy tales are like. Fairy tale characters are puppets, who either have no names at all or else have generic names like Jack or Ivan or Gretel that appear again and again, or symbolic names like Cinderella or Little Red Riding Hood or Beauty. Fairy tale plots may be full of incident, but the essential through-line of the plot is straightforward – they’re about seeking your fortune, coming up against an enemy, finding a husband or a wife. The teller can do anything with these stories, that’s the point. That’s why they endure and why they reappear again and again in different forms. They’re different from myths and legends because those are anchored to real places or specific characters like King Arthur or Cucullin. I’ve always considered them different from authored fairy tales like Hans Andersen’s or Oscar Wilde’s because there’s no room in those stories for anything beyond what the author has told you (unless you change the ending totally and make a weird uncomfortable mess like Disney’s Little Mermaid). Having said that, I’ve read that even some of those I think of as authorless aren’t really. No matter, for me fairy tales are made for retelling, they’re made for the teller to make them their own, to act out the parts, to do the voices for the three bears or threaten the pigs “I’ll huff and I’ll puff.” They’re made for storytellers to pick apart and weave into new stories that have a satisfying familiarity about them. They’re made for me to sew my own tales into.
You can read a Snippets story that's not in the book here.
You can get a copy of Snippets on Amazon http://authl.it/c5p?d