Archive for the ‘folklore’ Category

It’s today! I will be doing my on-air segment with KPBX-FM that showcases many of the Folk Festival performers. My time will be around 11:30 am PST and I will be announced as Lucy D. Ford, my pen name for children’s work. If you want to hear me read one of my short stories, you click here to go to the radio station web site, and then click on their live stream.

You also can go the Folk Festival’s web site and click on a link there. At this time, I do not know whether there will be any archived forms of the broadcast.

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Why are people so fascinated with royalty? And how does this relate to the bedrock of modern fantasy? These are the questions I put forth last Saturday. Today I’ll start spinning a few theories.

My first thought is going to seem obvious: Tradition. Fantasy is just the latest chapter in a long tradition of storytelling that begins with religious mythology, flows into more general folk stories, and has persisted into the age of professional publishing. If you think about it, some of the most enduring characters from around the world were all royalty.

Half the cast of the Iliad and Odyssey were Greek rulers. King Arthur was royalty. Even Sun Wukong, from Chinese legend, began his career as King of the Monkeys. So it’s traditional for the main characters in many stories to be kings or princes (more rarely queens or princesses). Sometimes the ruler is more of a background character who delegates tasks to other protagonists, but in an awful lot of tales, the king goes out having adventures personally.

Perhaps this is part of humanity’s ancient legacy. Descended from social apes who were led by an “alpha,” we may have a predisposition to look for such leaders in the real world, and in stories. We watch what they do, admire their actions, and share their victories. As humans have granted rulers ever more ceremony and finery, there’s the additional lure of riches and glamor that comes with being royalty.

After centuries of adulation, the concept of royalty has built up a mythic quality. We often see legends like that of King Arthur, where a king is prophesied to begin an era of peace and justice. Fantasy is full of chosen ones, lost heirs, and other characters that embody the mystique of royalty.

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After all my talk about No-Write Lists, it might seem like I have no intention of actually writing much of anything. So let me assure you that, just as there are some things I don’t want to ever write about, there are some things I will always write about, given the right circumstances.

Witches/Wizards/Mages/Etc. I love magic and all the fun, dramatic stuff it can do. The world’s folk stories are full of different ideas about how magic can be made. I just can’t say no to witches.

Dragons. Like mages, the world’s folklore is full of dragons. There are so many fascinating concepts about what abilities dragons have and what their purpose is. Almost every time I start writing a story, I ask myself, “How long has it been since I wrote a dragon story?”

Prehistoric Ruins. Stone circles, ruined castles, lonely towers, cliff dwellings… You name it! There’s such an evocation of history in a good ruin. Who build this place, what was its purpose, how was it abandoned… All of these add layers of complexity to any story, and I’ll work them in whenever I can.

Libraries and Museums. I’m a life-long reader. No surprise, right? There have been a lot of great books recently that feature libraries, and I’ve enjoyed them all. But, I almost put them on my No-Write List because there are so many. Still, what’s better than a collection of old books or other objects? What mysterious or malign artifacts might be gathered into the collection?

Questioning the Status Quo. This is more vague, but I love to delve into the common tropes and make people think twice about them. That can mean literally swapping all the characters’ genders, or just taking the person who is assumed to be evil and making them… not. Basically, I can’t pass up a chance to flip a stereotype.

There you have it: a few of my favorite things, literarily speaking!

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“Hag” is the short story I’m currently working on. I’ve mentioned that, but it’s possible not everyone knows what I mean by saying that my main character is a hag.

Probably the most familiar usage of “hag” is as a synonym for a witch. It can also be used to insult a woman by implying she is ill-tempered and/or appears old and wrinkly. In folklore from the British Isles, a hag was a kind of evil fairy. Peg Powler and Jenny Greenteeth are two well known hags from folk stories.

Night Hags were believed to fly around at night. They would sit on people’s chests and cause them to have terrible nightmares. When they woke up, they couldn’t move. Sleep paralysis is a real thing, and it’s thought that stories about Night Hags was an attempt to explain it.

River Hags were cannibals who lived in lakes and rivers. They were said to lurk near the shore and snatch up children who strayed too close to the bank. These folk tales are clearly cautionary, intended to warn children away from the danger of drowning.

In other cases, hags were believed to control the weather. They were blamed for causing bad storms in winter. Some others are thought to be diminished forms of ancient Celtic goddesses, who would sometimes disguise themselves as old women.

As for my story, the hags of Dolarus Swamp are River Hags. Long ago, they banded together with human wizards to defeat a demonic empire. The demons are still imprisoned beneath the waters of the swamp, and the hags are responsible for keeping them there. Like the goddesses of old, they have shape-changing powers and can impersonate any creature that lives in the swamp.

I also worked in the child-snatching thing, in a different way. Some of the humans who live near the swamp would abandon unwanted children there. They believed the hags would eat the children. Instead, the hags adopted the kids and performed a series of rituals that transformed them into new hags. So even though they did not have children, the race of hags could go on defending the Dolarus Swamp.

Working with folklore is lots of fun. When editors eventually see this story, and remember the legend of cannibal hags, I hope they will be surprised by how I used the material.

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You will be reading this on the Christian holiday of Christmas. I’m not a believer, myself, but I respect that many of you are. Others may be recognizing Hannukah, Kwanzaa, or any other midwinter-related celebrations. So I’ll spare you my fantastic ramblings for today.

I wish you a peaceful holiday, or just a nice day off, and will visit with you again on Saturday.

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As planned, I read my short story, “Transformation,” at Fall Folk Festival, along with a couple of selections from Aunt Ursula’s Atlas. The crowd was tiny, but we had a great discussion about “Transformation.”

When I began work on this story, I was riffing on the idea that a witch’s spells would start randomly coming apart. But as it developed, there was a really interesting dynamic between the witch, Madame Cariyu, and the village of Yoreville.

You have that sort of traditional hostility from the village priest, while at the same time it seemed that many of the residents were turning to Cariyu for help on a regular basis. It might seem like they exploited her magic, threatening to expose her “evil ways,” yet Cariyu may have been threatening them, as well. She did the favors they asked of her, knowing that she had a long list of clients she could expose as having consorted with a witch.

How important was the witch to her village? For one thing, her name is pronounced like “carry you.” That might be a hint. Plus, there’s that demon statue up on the hill. In any case, I hope you all enjoyed the story.

Coming up, I have a sort of blog tour in support of Dancer in the Grove of Ghosts. It starts Saturday, November 16, on the blog of David Lee Summers. Then on Wednesday, November 20th, I’m visiting Charles Yallowitz on his blog, Legends of Windemere. Next up is the Loveshade Family Blog on Saturday, November 23rd. I’m also planning a stint on C. S. Boyack’s Lisa Burton Radio, but that one isn’t scheduled yet.

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Today I’m reading at Fall Folk Festival, but for those who live across the country (which is all of you) I thought I’d share a sample of what I’ll be reading there. Enjoy!

Transformation, by Lucy D. Ford

When the old witch Cariyu got sick, the things she had transformed began to change back.

At first, it was just a few oddments here and there. Melliar laughed along with everyone else when Mayor Torlig’s prized roses became butterflies and flew away. He was so proud of them, and always chased the village children out of his yard. The loss seemed almost fair.

But when Old Man Mixom’s walking stick turned into a snake and bit him, it wasn’t so funny. Luckily, it wasn’t a poisonous snake. Then the ever-playing harp in the Happy Lark Tavern broke a string. The beloved instrument burst with a discordant clang. Nothing was left but a broken cherry branch, hanging over the fireplace.

Papa laughed when Melliar’s younger brother, Detrick, brought the news home. “Maybe now we’ll be able to hear ourselves think in there.”

“Papa,” Melliar ventured, “these are all Cariyu’s spellcraft. Maybe someone should look in on her.” It was what her mother would have said, if she had still been with them.

“A young thing like you needn’t trouble yourself with the likes of her,” Papa scoffed.

Detrick, who always did exactly what Papa did, added his scorn. “That old hag? She can give you a look that shrivels your soul, but when has she ever done anything useful?”

Melliar had only seen Cariyu a few times, going about the village with her shopping. She hadn’t seemed like such a hag.

Papa frowned when Melliar didn’t agree with them. “Put your book away, girl, and bring me an ale.”

“Me too, Mellie,” Detrick added. “And hurry up with it.”

As an obedient daughter, Melliar set aside the ledger, where she kept the family’s accounts, and fetched the ale. Later that night, she got out a different book. Her mother’s old journals held a lot of gossip about Yoreville’s history. She read until her eyes burned, and found nothing about the witch hurting anyone without a good reason.

The next day, after Papa and Detrick had gone to work at the mill, Melliar sped through her chores and walked down the dell. Cariyu lived in a stone cottage surrounded by a garden of vegetables and herbs, just like any house in the town. The witch was sitting in her rocking chair, breathing hard. From the height of the weeds in the garden, it had been some time since she had enough strength to manage them.

Melliar helped her inside. Cobwebs draped the rafters and dust dimmed the shelves full of bottles, crocks and jars.

“What can I do to help?” she asked.

The old woman pinned her with a keen gaze. “Did your father send you over?”

“No, Madame Cariyu,” Melliar confessed. She was afraid the old woman, so clearly ill, would send her home. But the look the witch gave her did not shrivel her soul.

“I believe I should like a posset,” said the witch. So Melliar made one with the things Cariyu named from her shelves.

For the next few weeks, Melliar worked extra hard. First her chores and cooking at home, then the same for Cariyu, and then reading late into the night. Once Cariyu felt a little stronger, she sent Melliar to a hilltop overlooking Yoreville. A stone statue of a great black demon stood poised as if to soar down on the village. She returned to the witch and assured her there were no cracks or other signs that the statue might have moved from its place.

“Then I can rest,” Cariyu sighed. Her chin fell forward so quickly that Melliar had to rescue the posset from spilling down her front.

Despite her care, the reverse transformations became more serious. For years, a stray cat had been hanging around the Widow Gabrieth’s house. She was always chasing it away with her broom. Great was the mirth and scandal when the animal suddenly turned back into her “dead” husband. The ensuing argument could be heard all down the street.

“A tomcat, indeed!” Detrick hooted during supper.

“But the poor man,” Melliar said. Something awful must have happened, for Cariyu to impose such a punishment.

“Don’t be a sourpuss,” Papa quipped. He and Detrick roared with laughter.

Not long after that, water from the town well was clotted with strands of slimy goo. Then the church’s bell tower turned from red bricks into blocks of cheese. It sagged a bit, but held firm, although the scent of cheese was nauseating on hot afternoons.

“This is a cruel jest,” sermonized the priest. “The witch’s evil has eaten her mind away.”

Papa agreed. “It will be a glad day for Yoreville when the old hag is gone.”

Based on her mother’s journals, Melliar wasn’t so sure.

What made the villagers take the problem seriously was when a fancy ring in the silversmith’s window turned into braided grass during the night. This set off a stampede of the wealthy and well connected, all desperate to know if their gems and gold had turned back into pebbles and leaves. Some had, some hadn’t, and nobody wanted to admit which had happened to them.

Looking at the rose-less bushes and smelling the stench of sour cheese in Yoreville made Melliar wonder about the town’s future. Surely they had the basics for prosperity — the river and the green fields it nourished. Still, how much of its stability was built on Cariyu’s waning power? What would be left if the witch never recovered?

She didn’t get to ask those questions. Cariyu’s house now saw a parade of pouting daughters, sent by their wealthy parents to gain the witch’s favor. They made small talk about parties and gowns, all while trying to make possets when they obviously hadn’t the first idea how. Melliar was crowded aside, and Cariyu kept getting weaker.

The witch knew she was there, though. One day, when she stayed behind to clean up the mess in the kitchen, Cariyu called to her.

“Well, girl, wouldn’t you like to turn those snobs into scarecrows?”

“No, Madame,” Melliar answered, slightly shocked. “They don’t deserve that. They’re foolish, but not wicked.”

The witch had a knowing gleam in her eye. “There’s no one you’d want to pay you back? No one at all?”

The words made her think of Detrick, badgering her for ale as if she was a servant rather than his older sister. But she wasn’t here because of him. Melliar had read up to the fourth volume of her mother’s journal. The big black statue on the hill was what had her worried.

“No, Madame Cariyu. But if you’re feeling well enough, I wouldn’t mind knowing more about how you transformed the demon Nimmikal into a statue.”

“Oh, you’ve heard that story?” The witch cackled, but then she started coughing so hard that Melliar rushed to fix her posset. “Now then,” she croaked, and coughed some more. “Now then, girl, listen to me. I hear that you like to read.”

“Yes, Madame?”

Cariyu told Melliar how to open a hidden shelf behind the bin of firewood. A case of oiled leather held a very different book.

“That is an account of all my spellcraft. Take it,” the witch said faintly. “Lines with dull ink are dead, as I soon will be. You need not worry about them. But if the ink shines, even a little, you must visit and make certain nothing I bound has broken free. The task is yours, along with all I have gathered here.”

Melliar didn’t really hear at first. Her eyes were on the grimoire, which was not large, but felt heavier than it should. There were straps around it with a lock, but she knew where they key was. She had found it while cleaning behind one of the crocks on the upper shelf.

Now she pulled it down and set it into the lock. As she turned the key, a kind of breeze trembled through the cottage. She turned to look and was sad, but not surprised, to see the old witch Cariyu slumped in her rocking chair, dead.

Melliar kept a vigil in the witch’s cottage that night, guarding her body. She used the time to read through the grimoire. First, she looked for the paragraph about the demon Nimmikal. The ink was dull and dark. It was a relief to know that terrifying creature would never menace Yoreville again.

There were many other things to learn. She studied a few charms that would be useful if any would-be thieves arrived to plunder the witch’s cottage. It would take her weeks, months, years to absorb the rest. She had plenty of time for that.

There were other matters to settle, however. The stuffy priest in Yoreville would never permit a witch to have a church funeral. Melliar laid her in the ground, a little farther down the dell. Then she returned to her father’s house.

“Where were you all night?” Papa demanded. And Detrick complained, “We were hungry.”

Not worried about her, Melliar noted. Thinking only of themselves. “Cariyu is dead,” she explained.

“So what?” Detrick groused.

Papa was quicker to understand. “You’ve been studying with that witch?” he bellowed. “Get out of my house!”

Melliar was through being an obedient daughter. “I’m glad I have your blessing, Papa.”

Detrick stood with his mouth open while she collected a few belongings, most especially their mother’s journals. He didn’t offer to help her carry anything over to her new home in the dell.

Later, Melliar walked back to the church. The priest must have heard rumors. He blocked her way before she could enter the church yard.

“Away with you, vessel of evil!”

Melliar smiled pleasantly, though it infuriated him. “Shall I restore your bell tower, or do you prefer it remain a cheese?”

He sputtered, “What wicked foolishness! Who would build a tower with blocks of cheese?”

“Maybe they were in a hurry. I meant to ask Madame Cariyu, but I never got the chance.” When he didn’t move aside, she added, “I’ll let you decide what you want.”

As she walked through the town, pondering whether to deal with the polluted well or the weeds in her garden, a familiar voice called out.

“Mellie! Mellie, wait!”

She did not wait, but continued at her normal pace. Still, Detrick caught up with her.

“So you’re the witch now,” he spoke slyly. “I was thinking that you could change a bit of gold for me. It’s all well and good for Papa to work in the mill, but I thought I’d open my own shop.”

Melliar turned to her brother, who ignored her unless he wanted something. The church tower and well weren’t the only things in Yoreville that needed a transformation.

“Please call me Madame Melliar.” And she gave him a look fit to shrivel his soul.

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I’ve talked about prophecies that are a Fake-Out — that is, a prophecy is given and does come true but in an unexpected way. But let’s not pretend, there can also be stories where the prediction is just outright False.

Maybe the “seer” is a con-artist, issuing prophecies that get clients to give them money somehow. Maybe the “oracle” is more interested in pleasures of the flesh, and will tell a succession of lovers that they are “destined” for each other.

False Prophets, unfortunately, have lots of usefulness for governments and institutions. A regime facing unrest might receive a “prophecy” of war if the Beloved Leader is questioned. Or a televangelist might proclaim that “God will take him home” unless a certain amount of donations are received. Someone might even (shudder) foretell that the world is ending and persuade their followers to drink poison.

A mistaken oracle doesn’t have to be wicked, though. The “seer” might mean well and believe that they are foretelling truly (whether by a vision or some method of divination) but there’s no actual magic there. Meanwhile, in the comedic fantasy movie Willow, a village priest declares he must consult the Bones, but then whispers “the Bones tell me nothing” and asks the title character what he wants to do. Once the character decides, he proclaims, “The Bones have spoken!”

As writers, we have rich ground to explore with a False Prophet. The evil seer who predicts the death of a rival — and then hires assassins. The wealthy merchant who always receives the best prophecies money can buy. Or the person of good heart who fudges their prediction in order to help someone out.

My prediction: fantasy authors will continue to write about Destiny and those who tell it for many years to come!

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It’s all well and good to debate the chances that a particular oracle’s words will come true or not, but I suspect the real unknown is not the relative skill of the prophet. It’s in the one who receives the prophecy.

In many legends, the prophecy only begins to come true when somebody believes it, and acts upon it. In my novel, Too Many Princes, King Unferth of Crutham receives a prophecy that if he doesn’t have more than 20 sons, no son of his will succeed him on the throne. Everything about Unferth’s life changes as he scrambles to have children with as many women as possible — and much to the disgust of his queen.

Merlyn receives a vision of a great king uniting Britain in an era of peace. He then begins manipulating the events that lead to King Arthur’s conception, his training in secret, and his eventual coronation.

Gandalf knows of a prophecy that the sword Narsil will one day be re-forged and re-named Anduril. Then the lost heir of Gondor will be restored to his throne. Gandalf makes it a point to befriend Aragorn and make sure he follows the steps necessary to claim his destiny.

In perhaps the greatest prophecy tale from Greek legend, King Acrisius of Argo receives a prophecy that his daughter’s son will one day kill him and seize his throne. He decides to lock Danae up in a tower, but she is still impregnated by the god Zeus. So Acrisius shuts mother and son up in a chest and throws it into the sea. The chest comes to land, and the boy grows up to, indeed, overthrow his grandfather.

The Perseus story, in particular, shows how acting on the prophecy can create its own outcome. After all, most kings hope to have an heir of their own bloodline. Like, say, a grandson. What if, instead of trying to slay Danae and her child, Acrisius had welcomed Perseus as his future heir? Perseus would still have followed Acrisius to the throne, but without the necessity of killing him first.

I predict: There will be one more post to this thread!

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Prophecies and those who deliver them are a time-honored tradition in mythology, and hence in our modern fantasy genre. From the Oracle at Delphi to Merlyn the Magician to Dream Girl (Legion of Superheroes comic book), characters are shown to predict the future.

Naturally people are tantalized by the possibility of knowing their future. Some hope to spot a red thread and find their future spouse. Some want to know if their car is about to break down or will keep running a little longer. All of us wish that we had some control over what comes next in our lives.

As writers, we can draw on this longing. But when using prophecy (and its near-twin, time travel) there is a key decision to make: is the future Fixed, Flexible, or Fractured?

If the future is Fixed, then it is possible to make predictions with 100% accuracy. In this setting, prophets would enjoy great prestige. People would pay great sums to find out if their merchant ship will reach port with a cargo that makes them rich — or sink, leaving them penniless. On the other hand, unscrupulous individuals and governments would make every effort to control a reliable oracle. In Aditi Khorana’s novel The Library of Fates, a young girl with prophetic powers is enslaved by a cruel despot.

If the future is Flexible, then what is foreseen may or may not come true. No prophet would be able to establish a record as 100% accurate, even with the best intentions. Oracles might be respected, but people would rely as much on other sources of information to make decisions about their lives. For storytellers, this is a great way to create tension. Neither the reader nor the other characters can know if the oracle is correct about what is to come.

In many stories, the future can be Fractured by important decisions. One great example is Bradbury’s famous short story, The Sound of Thunder, where a time-traveling hunter steps on a butterfly and returns to find reality altered. If something so small can change the future, then prophets would have enormous difficulty making accurate predictions. Or, the prophecy they make can be true for a while, but have an “expiration date” when some other event fractures the future again. In such a setting, it would not be likely for oracles to have any respect at all. Foretellings might have greater urgency, however, since they must be acted on quickly before something changes.

What do you think? How do you use prophecies in your storytelling?

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