Something New From the Old

By Megan Hart

I have heard it said that there are no new tales, only new ways of telling. With very few exceptions, I believe this to be true. So what does this mean for us as writers? We hear all the time that editors are looking for fresh voices, fresh stories, fresh plots...it makes us sound as though we're in the produce section of the grocery store. If there are no new tales, how can we hope to present something new, something fresh, something that will catch an editor's eye? And more importantly, how can we embrace the old to create something new?

We all know inspiration can come from many sources, but for simplicity today I'm going to divide my suggestions into three categories: Books, Music and Movies.

BOOKS:

Think about your favorite book. Can you pick just one? What about a childhood favorite you read over and over, or the first romance you ever picked up? What stayed with you about that story? Was it the characters, the plot, the author's voice? Now think about what you liked best about that book, and why you'd say it was your favorite. Then, think about what you would change. Don't pretend you wouldn't change a thing: we're writers! Even if you absolutely love a book or an author, there's bound to be one or two things about the story YOU would have done differently. Maybe you would have paid more attention to the steamy love scenes. Maybe you would have killed the villain off in some gory, horrible way, instead of leaving him alive. Maybe you would have had the hero and heroine reconcile before she died without telling him she loved him.

I'm not suggesting you plagiarize. What I'm suggesting is that you take the things you loved about the book, and the things you didn't, and meld them into something new. Change the setting, change the ending, change the time period. Take your favorite love scene from one book, put your own twist on it, and stick it in the middle of the suspense of another of your favorites. It's all about mixing and matching.

Another way to create something new from the old is to look at the story from a different viewpoint. How did the dwarves really feel about Snow White invading their cottage? What did Dracula find so appealing about Mina? What if the Fairy Godmother wore boxers under her skirt and had to shave a five o'clock shadow?

Examples:

Wicked, the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, by Gregory Maguire Wicked is the Wicked Witch's story, set in a background of political intrigue and social unrest. In this version of the familiar story, we learn how the witch became so wicked, of her childhood and her love affair, and the reason why Dorothy is sent to destroy her. It's a completely different tale than the one L. Frank Baum penned, and a fascinating look inside the mind of one of the most well-hated witches in literary history.

Jenna Starborn by Shannon Shinn -- Point by point, the story is nearly identical to Jane Eyre, complete with a charming child, a serious and mysterious benefactor and a mad wife hidden away from sight. The book's twist? It takes place in the future, on distant planets and features space travel, nuclear energy and computers instead of English gardens and corsets.

Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund -- The story of Una, who became Ahab's wife, and how she ended up married to the mad sea captain. I read this book before I read Moby Dick, and I enjoyed it so much I decided to try and read Moby Dick in order to compare the stories. That was about three years ago. I'm still trying to get through Moby Dick. Just goes to prove that sometimes the work created by the inspiration is better than the original!

Fairy tales: so many examples I couldn't possibly name them all. One extreme example is the erotica series by Anne Rice writing as A.N. Roquelare, The Sleeping Beauty series. While it certainly isn't to everyone's tastes, the books take the classic story of Sleeping Beauty, puts a unique twist on it and delivers something entirely new. Another example is Red as Blood by Tanith Lee. This collection of short stories takes such classics as Sleeping Beauty and turns it into a vampire story about resurrection. Beauty and the Beast becomes a futuristic tale. Little Red Riding Hood meets a man in wolf's clothing who is a werewolf.

Vampires are a very popular genre right now. Two authors in particular have series based along the same premise, that vampires have become recognized citizens in the world. Same basic idea, but the books are completely different. Laurell K Hamilton's Anita Blake series is much darker, kinkier and grittier than the lighter, sweeter but still erotic Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris. Both feature elements of mystery, horror and romance, but they're totally different. So don't think that just because it's being done now that you can't find your own voice -- and just because Laurel K Hamilton is doing it and making tons of money at it, doesn't mean you have to wrack your brain to come up with a fresh way to present vampires, either. The point is to take inspiration when it comes, not force it into being.

Another suggestion: think about what happens after. Maybe Prince Charming was previously married, and poor Cinderella finds herself in the position of Wicked Stepmother. Set it in contemporary times instead of fantasy, and see what happens. Think about the lone survivor of the serial killer from the Silence of the Lambs. Yes, she survived, but how would that have affected her, and her relationships with men? What actions would she take to protect her children from harm, should she have any? I'm always interested in what happens after. So many times in books and film, the ends are tied up to provide a happy or perhaps not so happy but at least satisfying ending. I want to know what the people do after. How do they pick up the pieces and move on? Do happy endings stay that way? What happens to the great love affair when Prince Charming starts leaving dirty socks all over the place? There's more to life than that final kiss beneath the stars. Use that to create something new from the old.

MUSIC:

Songs can be great sources of story inspiration. There are story songs, like Leader of the Pack. Bad boy meets good girl, parents disapprove, boy dies distraught at not being given the chance to prove himself worthy of the girl's love. Come to think of it, that's sort of the story of Rebel Without A Cause, too, isn't it? And I'm sure you can think of some more. Yet the bubble gum lyrics of Leader of the Pack are very different than the darker Rebel Without A Cause, helped along by James Dean's brooding portrayal of the bad boy. Copacabana by Barry Manilow is a great story song. They even made a musical out of the story. There's so much good stuff in there! Love, passion, murder, madness. What if it were Lola who died that night, and Rico who now sits at the bar mourning for the woman he never had the chance to love? What if Tony and Rico, bonded by losing their beloved Lola, became roommates and best friends? The possibilities are endless. Dan Fogelberg's song Same Auld Lang Syne tells of old lovers meeting in a grocery story on Christmas Eve. You can feel the melancholy throughout the whole song, especially at the end when he leaves with nothing more than a kiss from her. What if he'd spent the night, instead? What if the woman realized through the rekindling of their affair that she really does love her husband,after all, and in the end must tell her former lover good bye again? Hazard by Richard Marx tells the story of a young man who never fit in. When a woman he's been keeping company with is discovered dead by the river, he's accused of her death. That's the song's story, but what can you do to make it your own? How did he meet the woman, and what sort of relationship did they have? If he didn't kill her, who did, and why would they try to make it seem like he did it? Maybe he did kill her....figure out why.

Think of the songs that you listen to over and over. Perhaps they don't tell a story, exactly, but evoke emotion. Maybe listening to late 80's music always makes you feel nostalgic for that last high school dance with the first boy who broke your heart. Maybe big band music makes you wish you could go back to the days when stockings had seams and life seemed simpler. Hmmm. What if a young woman was at a high school dance in the late 1980's and she became so upset by a young man's behavior that she threw her shoe at the mirror in the girl's room. For some reason, this sends her back in time to the late 1930's....this could be a romance, or a comedy (think Back to the Future) or a mystery, or a horror story. But it was inspired by playing What if? with music you enjoy.

Even music you hate can be source of inspiration. I'm not a heavy metal kind of person, but some of the lyrics to those songs could certainly inspire a horror novel. I don't like Michael Bolton too much, either, but I have to admit he can sing a good love song.

MOVIES:

And finally, movies. You can take inspiration from movies the same way you do from music and books. What movies do you watch over and over? Why? What movies would you rather never see again, and also, why? Think about what you liked and what you didn't, and how you'd make the story better.

Movies, for me, also provide much inspiration because they're so visual. If you, like I do, have a favorite actor or actress, what roles would you like to put them in? How different would a story be if Mel Gibson were replaced with Christopher Walken? Well, first of all, I think if it was a romance it would suddenly become a horror movie. Christopher Walken makes a great wacky villain, and I confess to having written a villain with him in mind for just that reason. I couldn't possibly let this section go without giving mention to my personal favorite, Keanu Reeves. He's not every hero I've ever written, but he sure is a lot of them. Let me take the butt-kicking cassock wearing Neo from the Matrix and put him in a medieval fantasy about a wizard fighting to win the love of the imprisoned princess....or how about the creepy serial killer from The Watcher as a villain in a suspense story about a young mother stranded in a lake cabin all alone with her young children? The key is to take characters or images you like and use them in your own work.

In closing, let me say this: inspiration comes from many places. If there truly is nothing new under the sun, make the most out of what you can find. Use the sources you enjoy and make them your own. They might not truly be new, but what's more important is that they moved you enough to create something new from them.

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