Sunday, 30 January 2011

MYTHS AND LEGEND: Lucy Coats' Guide to Using Myths and Legend in Children's Fiction.

* Hi Lucy, and welcome to tall tales and short stories. Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?

The first and most important thing about me is that I am a total book addict. I read everything and anything from kidlit to esoteric works on shamanism plus all the genres in between. I’m pretty sure that’s what led me into being first an editor at Heinemann and Orchard Books and then, later on (and much more satisfyingly), a writer of children’s books. Books are my life and my passion, and I can’t imagine being without them (I have over 10,000 piled in and around all the rooms in my house!). I can’t imagine not writing them, either, and get very cross and grumpy if my Muse is thwarted by mundane things like hoovering or bill paying.

Secondly, I am a manic mythologist. I’ve loved myths ever since I can remember—I was introduced to them at a very early age by my grandmother, and have been a student of them ever since. Myths in some form or other appear in almost all my books.

Other than that, I am married, with two amazingly lovely teenage children, and spend most of my days writing, blogging, tweeting and avoiding housework in a tiny office overlooking green fields with sheep in them.

Since I am this mad mythology-obsessed maven kind of person, I thought I’d try and do a kind of ‘useful guide’ for those of you who might be interested in this area of fiction, but weren’t quite sure how or where to begin. So, first I’ll ask the obvious question!

*  What use are myths and legends to a fiction writer? Why should I use them as a starting point for my stories?

Myths and legends—and fairytales and folklore too—are a fantastic resource for the writer, a huge treasure chest of goodies to spark the creative imagination. Just look at what’s out there for you to plunder!

There’s the Greeks (all those fallible and rather human gods and goddesses, as well as a whole clutch of butch heroes and scary monsters); there’s the Celts (more muscle-bound heroes, plus the original elves or fairies in their many manifestations): there’s the Norse lot (warrior gods and ice giants and brave maidens with breastplates); there’s the Eastern Europeans (witches, vampires, werewolves); there’s the Far East (here be wise and intelligent dragons); there’s the Aboriginal Australians (bunyips, songlines, animal Ancestors); there’s the Americas North and South (thunderbirds, tricksters, hidden cities of gold).

Are you excited yet? Because I am, just writing down a fraction of what’s out there for you. Go forth and raid your local library at once! Devour the mythology section bit by bit, and read it all. If you don’t get some kind of idea for your book after that, I’ll be willing to consider eating my hat. With ketchup.

* What if I want to do retellings? How much should I remain faithful to existing texts?

I’m not going to lie. Retellings can be tricky, especially if you’re going to be doing them for children. I should know—I’ve done over 150 of them, both Greek and Celtic, the latest of which are my Greek Beasts and Heroes series (Orion Children’s Books).

It’s important -
a)  to know your original source material, and
b)  to know what to skate over/ignore/discard.

As you can imagine, the Greek myths have lots of incest, murder, rape and all that. People always ask me how I ‘get round it’. My answer is that since kids don’t know it was there in the first place, they won’t know it’s missing—and if they get hooked on myths through my stories, they can always go and look at the originals for themselves later on. The most important thing is to make the story exciting and accessible in language terms. I’ve never had a kid ask a tricky question about why Zeus has children with his sisters, by the way, nor about his dodgy habit of turning into animals or birds to seduce young and pretty maidens.

*  How much research should I do?

I have a whole bookshelf devoted to myths and legends—both the original tales themselves, and research relating to them, which I refer to all the time. Even though most of them are in my head already, there are always details I need to check up on. And if there’s a relevant book that I need and I haven’t got, or that is out of print, I hunt it down, either in my local library or via secondhand bookshops on the internet (Abe Books is always a good place to start).

Research is never wasted—but my Top Tip is to be sure and keep notes on page numbers of where you find useful stuff. It can be maddening and time-consuming to comb your books for that vital fact you remember seeing somewhere and need right now! I’ve made that mistake FAR too often!

*  How do I tackle the job of incorporating existing myths into my work of original fiction? How much creative licence am I allowed?

I have huge fun with the retellings, but they can seem a little constricting. I found writing my own first novel incredibly liberating in that respect, because I wasn’t hemmed in by having to stick to a script. So, in your case, let’s say something mythological takes your fancy. You want to write a novel about, for example, a modern-day American boy who finds out he’s the son of Poseidon...oh wait—Rick Riordan already did that with Percy Jackson! There’s a long and honourable line of authors who have taken elements of myth and done whatever the heck they wanted with them. There’s the greatest myth-plunderer of all, JRR Tolkien, there’s Neil Gaiman (American Gods etc), Joanne Harris (Runemarks), Kevin Crossley-Holland (The Arthur trilogy)—and then there’s me.


My YA novel, Hootcat Hill, has elements of Celtic and Norse myth, plus a smidgin of Arthurian legend thrown into the mix. I took a lot of liberties and I found it made me want to go ‘wheeeee!’ with a slightly naughty sense of excitement every time I did so. This was my story, and who had the right to inform me it ‘didn’t happen that way because Ovid (or whoever) tells it differently’? No one, that’s who! I think as long as you have a passion for and know your original sources well, it’s ok to treat them with a little ‘loving disrespect’. In my case, I made the Norse Völundr (Weland) into a modern blacksmith in red leathers, who rides a fast motorbike and has a bad line in jokes.

Myths are not just for dry, dusty old anthropology professors to muse over in their ivory towers—they’re living stories which we continually reinvent for the times we live in. And it’s up to us as writers and tellers of tales to make sure they never die or are forgotten.

So have fun exploring loads of different myths and thinking ‘What If’? You never know what might happen!

Thanks so much for having me, Tracy. I’ve loved being your guest on Tall Tales and Short Stories.



(Shortlisted for the Author Blog Awards 2010)

Lucy occasionally blogs at



Nicky Schmidt (Absolute Vanilla) said...

Great interview, you two - thanks! Lucy is so right, mythology, fairytales, folklore are great "grazing grounds" for hungry writers - and I suspect many nibble there even if they aren't entirely conscious of it.
Just one ahem - and what, dear Lucy, about the Mamlambo, Anansi the Spider God, Grandfather Baboon, the Lord of the Leopards and the Sacred Calabash, from Africa....?

Tina Lemon said...

Thanks for this! It's so applicable to what I'm doing!

Gillian Philip said...

What a wonderful post - and I was talking about myths as sources just yesterday at a workshop! Lucy, you are so right, and your love of myths is SO inspiring. Thank you!

Beth Kemp said...

Most useful and encouraging post, thank you. Lucy's Atticus and Coll Myths books have helped me to introduce my kids to mythology and it - or fairytale or folklore - is present in so much that I read for myself.

Using these strands adds a depth to new stories, even contemporary-set ones, as it resonates wit us on such a deep level. said...

Great blog Tracy! I'll be following! Nice to read other people's experiences of the literary world. I shall be a first time author come April 7th (my book Flick is to be published by Beautiful Books of London) and find myself googling a lot of things my publishers talk about - quite apart from writing the book, the business of selling and promoting a novel is complex and totally new to me! Good to read your blog and hear about the experiences of others authors. Good luck with your writing!

Tracy said...

Thanks for the comments, folks. I hope you'll enter the competition to win Lucy's books when it goes live in a few days.

Thanks Abigail - glad you like the blog and good luck with your debut book!

Lucy Coats said...

Nicky--mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. How COULD I have left out Anansi et al? As you so rightly say, yet another fantastic myth treasurehouse to plunder.

Tina & G--I may be blushing!

Beth--am so delighted that you've found Coll and Atticus useful--and you're right, myths do resonate with all of us at the very deepest level. I am a firm believer in the idea of a shared 'ancestral memory' hardwired into our DNA.

Abigail--good luck with your book. The promoting and selling is indeed complex, but it's all part of an author's job, and it can be fun. There's helpful stuff on my blog under the Writing 101 label if you need it!

Looking forward to all the competition entries, Tracy. And they'll be SIGNED copies :-)

Candy Gourlay said...

loved this post - and can i say, i love your greek retellings!

Maureen said...

I have been a myth lover since I was eleven and we had 'choosing' on a Friday afternoon. Our teacher had a pile of Look and Learns (showing age!) and there was a myth on the back page of each magazine. I couldn't believe what I was reading - and I still remember the thrill of each new story. Don't remember any raping an pillaging but as you say at that age you just let what you don't understand go over your head.

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