New Project: The Folklore Historian, Volume 29

My most recently completed editorial project isn’t technically a Looseleaf project—I’m the temporary managing editor for this one, not a freelancer, exactly—but I wanted to share it anyway. The last project was a novel, but this one was a scholarly journal focusing historical approaches to folklore (or folklore in a historical perspective). I present volume 29 of The Folklore Historian, a member of the American Folklore Society’s family of publications.

Cover of The Folklore Historian, volume 29

I didn’t do all the work on this issue. I took over at the beginning of the semester, so I proofread the final text, managed final revisions with the authors, laid the journal out in InDesign, designed the cover, and took the files to and checked the proofs from the press.

From This Reader’s Shelf

Today I’m going to take a timeout from being a Serious Editing Professional and let you in on a secret: most every editing professional is a hopeless, passionate book lover. Don’t let them fool you with their comma-tinkering, fierce plot critiques, or official-sounding titles. Many of them are astute, professionally trained, and incredibly skilled, but underneath those things, they’re enthusiastic readers. I’m no different.

To give you a peek at my reader-life, today I’m going to share a look at my bookshelf. This is a special bookshelf: it’s transient. I’m in the middle of a months-long visit to an Air Force base, but since it’s only months long instead of a year or more, my husband and I left most of our books in my parents’ shed in Utah (thank heaven for their free space; we stole plenty of it). Here are all our books, minus books of scripture, those in foreign languages, and those I’m currently reading.

Kristy G. Stewart's Bookshelf

The Breakdown

Some of these books are titles Mr. Stewart and I have acquired since arriving here: you’ll see both Thief’s Covenant and The Rook, books that have only come out since the start of the year. There are also some necessary work-related books: the two most recent versions of The Chicago Manual of Style (or as I like to call it, BOB, for Bright Orange Bible); Eats, Shoots & Leaves; Editors and Editing; and Rewriting (which is the most useful book I’ve ever found about academic writing). Not shown is the APA publication manual.

Seven of the books directly draw on folklore or collect folktales. Yes, I read both the tales and the commentary included in The Classic Fairy Tales (edited by Maria Tatar). That’s the black book between Eats, Shoots & Leaves and Best-Loved Folktales of the World.

There’s only one book of poetry (prose is more my speed). Unless you count my Poe collection, which has both poetry and prose.

Yes, I have a complete collection of Poe covered with creepy red decor. I also have a less-complete collection packed in my parents’ shed.

Genre-wise, there’s biography, YA, dark fantasy, satirical fantasy, science fiction, horror, war fiction, nonfiction, and instructional books on screenwriting and typography. There is also a whole host of classics, but they’re contained in that sneaky little eReader on the bottom left, hidden beneath Billy Collins. (I don’t love my eReader, but I love that it carries my classic library for me.)

The books that are horizontal on the bottom of the shelf are books I brought because I am frequently set upon by sudden impulses to re-read them, so I couldn’t bear to leave them. Included in that list is Night Watch by Terry Pratchett, one of my favorites in his repertoire, which is also hidden in the eReader. If I had a hard copy, I would have brought it.

I haven’t read four books on this shelf: John Adams (I just haven’t been able to sit down to a page commitment that big since we got here), the Dean Koontz books on the right (recent acquisitions from my father-in-law), and The Hundred Dresses on the top left (a recent acquisition from my mom).

Kristy G. Stewart's "Currently Reading" Stack

In addition to that abused shelf, I have three books that I’m currently reading or am about to read. They migrate through the house with me, from kitchen to couch to bedroom and back. One of them (The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland) just arrived today, and it’s hard to make myself wait to open its covers. I probably won’t hold out much longer.

If you could only bring one shelf’s worth of your books with you on a months-long expedition, which ones couldn’t you do without? Do you ever read more than one book at a time?

(Rules: Saying “I’d get an e-version of everything and just take my Kindle” doesn’t count unless you really do have your entire library on your ereader. In which case, if you only had a shelf’s worth of memory on your ereader, which files would you keep?)

Foil Narratives & Fairy Tales

Ivan Bilibin's illustration of "Vasilisa the Beautiful"

Fairy tales and folktales get handed down, repurposed, and woven into new contexts and patterns every day. We see them in ads and single-panel cartoons, in similes, short stories, and novels. And yet when you ask Western people to tell you the story of, say, Little Red Riding Hood, they’ll probably come up with a lot of the same basic stuff. Some people wonder why stories so well known can continuously find new life; others bemoan the loss of variety folk traditions used to have before they became standardized by the Brothers Grimm and Disney.

But for writers, the fact that there’s a “standard” version of most popular fairy tales is a boon.

The Power of Foil Narratives

When you retell a fairy tale, or when you use a fairytale motif in a scene, chapter, or sentence, you draw on a shared cultural background with your reader. Whatever you say with your fairy tale contrasts with whatever they already know. Initially, that sounds a bit unappealing (if you retell “Beauty and the Beast,” your story gets thrown up next to a golden ball gown and a singing teapot, whether you like it or not). But it really is an immensely powerful tool.

You’ve heard of foil characters, yes? Two characters who share certain things and throw their differences into relief? Using foil characters is a good way to strengthen your characterization and drive interest. With fairy tales, you get an entire foil narrative. Even if your story or scene shares very little with an “original” fairy tale (original is such a messy word when speaking of folklore), if you have a character wearing a red hood, you can evoke an entire parallel plot line that can throw your narrative into relief. Each choice you make gains force and momentum because it contrasts with the story your reader already has in his or her head.

Stories That Rely on Foils

You can use fairy tales as foil narratives in all sorts of ways, and as I said before, you don’t have to write a story that is solely a retold fairy tale to do it. Permit me a few examples.

  • Disney’s Enchanted is only really funny because viewers have a background in Disney fairy tales. Without them, the humor is much weaker.
  • Ditto with Shrek, only it’s much funnier because it contrasts with an entire tradition of animal bridegroom stories (“Beauty and the Beast,” “The Frog Prince,” etc.).
  • Roger Zelazny and Robert Sheckley embedded “Sleeping Beauty” into their novel Bring Me the Head of Prince Charming. The portion of the book that is a retold tale follows the standard exactly—prince fights his way through briars, kisses the sleeping princess into wakefulness, marries her, and resolves to live happily ever after—but the frame story of a demon playing puppet master lets the standard make a statement about free will.

Using Foils in Your Stories

You can employ a foil fairytale narrative by retelling a tale or merely evoking the idea of it—your reader already has the story in his or her head, so you don’t necessarily need to lay it out explicitly for them. Whether you’re embedding an abbreviated version of a tale in a scene or chapter, retelling the whole thing, or simply setting up a pleasant metaphor, you need give only the basic motifs because the standard fairy tale can do the rest of the work for you (you can give more, of course, but it isn’t necessary).

Some more examples.

  • To evoke “Little Red Riding Hood” use motifs like a waiting wolf, a journey through the woods, a basket of goodies, a red hood, or an ugly grandmother.
  • To evoke “Cinderella” use a glass slipper, a pumpkin coach, a stroke-of-midnight time limit, or a fairy godmother.
  • To evoke “Jack and the Beanstalk” use magic beans, a giant in the sky, or a singing harp.

I’m sure you can come up with more motifs you could use to evoke a foil narrative in your writing, so share them in the comments. Also share your favorite retold tales, or even your favorite “original” versions (I’m partial to bloody animal bride/bridegroom stories, myself).

Leaflet Review: The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe

The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe

No one knows where the Tufa came from, or how they ended up in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee, yet when the first Europeans arrived, they were already there. Dark-haired, enigmatic, and suspicious of outsiders, the Tufa live quiet lives in the hills and valleys of Cloud County. While their origins may be lost to history, there are clues in their music—hints of their true nature buried in in the songs they have passed down for generations.

Private Bronwyn Hyatt returns from Iraq wounded in body and in spirit, only to face the very things that drove her away in the first place: her family, her obligations to the Tufa, and her dangerous ex-boyfriend. But more trouble lurks in the mountains and hollows of her childhood home. Cryptic omens warn of impending tragedy, and a restless “haint” lurks nearby, waiting to reveal Bronwyn’s darkest secrets. Worst of all, Bronwyn has lost touch with the music that was once a vital part of her identity.

With death stalking her family, Bronwyn will need to summon the strength to take her place among the true Tufa and once again fly on the night winds. …

The Hum and the Shiver had me excited: it has an interesting premise, an interesting context, a killer title, and a visually appealing cover (can you believe it’s just straight-up photo-manipulation?). My little brother sent it to me for Christmas, because he is an awesome brother, and I read it in about two days.

Delicious Tidbits

The book has plenty of things going for it: an interesting take on contemporary fantasy (it’s definitely not urban, and none of the characters are cliche); the main character grows into a unique type of inner strength; the worldbuilding elements are delightfully fresh (music-based magic in rural Tennessee!). The elements of mystery surrounding the Tufa draw you through the book, and the cast of characters is very dynamic.

One of my favorite characters in the book was Craig Chess, the Methodist minister who has recently moved to Cloud County to work among the notoriously nonreligious Tufa. He’s awesome. He is a man who acts on his faith, who suffers fits of temper and temptation but always finds a way to deal with it, and who, although he earnestly wishes others to find the truth he holds dear, doesn’t need you to be in his congregation for him to wish you the best. He stands in stark contrast to the likes of Dwayne Gitterman, Bronwyn’s ex-boyfriend, who really doesn’t wish anyone well but himself.


So I enjoyed the book. But I couldn’t wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone. The book’s charm very much hangs on its milieu—the unique setup, context, worldbuilding, and small-town characters. In my opinion, the plot was not particularly masterful. Some of the conflicts, like Bronwyn’s inability to play music when she first returns home, are solved with surprising ease. The viewpoint is almost confusingly omniscient (to be fair, I haven’t read an omniscient POV since I read Dune, so my distaste for this technique could just be because I’m out of practice reading it). Plot-driven readers may take issue with a character or two who have more page time than their plot purpose warrants.

After reading the last page, I put down the book and said, “Really? Really that’s how you end it?” The ending didn’t resonate with me in a meaningful way. For a book that has so much heart, it felt surprisingly hollow.

Even so …

I still enjoyed it. Knowing what I know now, I’d still have read it. It’s a rich and textured novel with plenty in its pages that will please. Its heroine has a very interesting growth trajectory that I found satisfying. Alex Bledsoe recently announced that there will be a second book in the same world called Wisp of a Thing, and I’ll likely read that book as well. It’s not a perfect piece, but like I said, it has a lot of heart, and I’m glad I had a weekend to spend on it. If only for Bledsoe’s beautifully imagined Tufa culture and folklore and they way he put magic into the mundane, I’d gladly read the book again.

Content warnings: Language, sex, discussions about sex, mature themes, some violence (but not much).