Writing Tip — Holiday Folklore as Writing Inspiration

christmas-w3797415_1280If you want to combine Christmas or New Year’s Day with speculative fiction, or to give any story a touch of magic or wonder, researching the folklore surrounding the holidays may provide the spark you need to ignite a story.

Many, many superstitions are attached to these holidays at the end of the year. This is probably because Europeans held on to some pagan beliefs as they converted on Christianity. In Celtic lands, the winter solstice was a time to be on guard against evil spirits, who were said to roam the long nights. Ancient Celts lit bonfires and made noise to scare them away. (Side note: Celts also believed evil spirits were out and about during the fall celebration of Samhain, the holiday from which Halloween derives its origin. I get the impression that it was no picnic to be ancient Celt.)

This fear of evil spirits may have led to the English tradition of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve. I believe that may have influence Charles Dicken’s decision to use ghosts to haunt Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.

The Christmas Encyclopedia by William D. Crump (the link is to a newer edition than I have) lists many superstitions from various countries. Here are a few.

“A child born a Christmas Eve or Christmas Day will have good fortune.”

“A child born during the twelve nights of Christmas may become a werewolf. (Germany and Poland)”

“From cockcrow until dawn on Christmas Day, trolls roam the land. (Sweden)”

“A windy Christmas Day brings good luck.” Our Christmas Eve was foggy from dawn until Christmas morning. I have not idea what that means.

In my YA mystery, “A Rose from the Ashes”, I refer to the Christmas legend. Early Christmas morning, under an almost full moon in the clear, frozen dark, Rae Riley confronts the three men who are the only candidates to be her father and her mother’s attacker. The moon gilds everything, giving the land and everyone under it a magical appearance. Rae says she believes animals could speak on a night like this.

I couldn’t find a country of origin for the legend, but it states that because the animals in the stable were kind of Jesus at his birth, he granted them the ability to speak at midnight on every Christmas Day since them. I use the legend to underline the wonder Rae feels when she solves the mystery of her mother’s attack and her father’s identity.

A lot of superstitions deal with performing rituals to predict the future.

“On Christmas Eve, if an unmarried woman peels an apple, making sure it remains as a single ribbon, and if she throws it on the floor from above her head, the pattern of the peeling on the floor will disclose her future husband’s initials.”

What if a young woman performs this ritual and doesn’t like the initials she sees because she knows to whom they belong? Or what if such rituals are accurate but can only be performed by trained fortune tellers? In this world, the best fortune tellers run businesses and customers scramble to make appointments with them for New Year’s Eve and Day.

Another way to insure good luck for the coming year was to get the right person to enter the home after midnight on New Year’s Eve. This custom, called first-footing, was popular in Scotland and northern England. A powerful man with dark hair brought the best luck. Agatha Christie uses this superstition to help solve a ten-year-old death in the short story, “The Coming of Mr. Quin” in the book The Mysterious Mr. Quin.

Do you know of any holiday folklore in your community?

Monday Sparks — Writing Prompts: What’s the Christmas Story?

romancew-596094_1280Although Christmas is over, I have one more prompt for the holiday. Romance is the one genre I find the most difficult to get interested in. So if you are inspired by this photo to write a scene for a Christmas romance, especially if you are a seasoned Hallmark Christmas movie fan, please share below.

I can stand romance better if it’s part of another genre, like mystery or scifi. Or how about all three?

The woman in the photo is an alien disguised as a human to conduct Earth research for her doctoral thesis. She’s fallen in love with the man, who has recently discovered during the holiday season that his girlfriend is literally out of this world.

The woman’s professor comes to Earth to oversee her research and is found dead. The aliens send detectives to solve the case, and the woman is the prime suspect.

Merry Christmas!

city-w3891508_1280Here’s the annual posting of my Christmas Eve poem. I won’t be posting again until Monday, Dec. 30. I hope you and your loved ones have a wonderful Christmas and holiday season!

Writing Tip — Christmas Traditions as Writing Inspiration

people-w2595724_1280There are probably a million published Christmas stories, both fiction and nonfiction, from short stories and novels to devotions and theological works. One way to make any piece of writing unique is to look at your own Christmas traditions. Mining your own experiences can lead to a one-of-a-kind Christmas story.

I could write an epic over my relationship with Christmas trees. As a child, we always cut a live tree. Some Christmases we hiked through a farm to find the perfect one. Other times we bought already cut trees at the Lutheran Church. One year, my sisters and I went late to the Lutheran Church and found the seller gone and a few lonely trees discarded at the edge of the parking lot. We had a free tree that year.

My husband grew up with fake trees. To him, real trees are dirty, difficult , and fire hazards. Our first Christmas in our new house saw us battling over which tradition our new family would observe. I came home from work one evening and found a tree stand in the living room. It’s one of my sweetest memories.

Now my kids and I tag a tree at a local tree farm on Thanksgiving weekend but don’t cut it until a week before Christmas, so the tree is fresh and less likely to spontaneously combust. This year, I wanted a big tree for our two-story living room. The only big one without a brown needles and large gaps was a towering Scotch pine. But it had a lot of bare trunk that I thought we’d cut off. I measured it with the homemade ruler the owner provided. It seemed as tall as the one we got last year.

But I couldn’t weigh the tree. It turned out to be the heaviest tree we’d ever got. Things started to go wrong when my husband told me to grab the tree as our youngest sawed the truck, and while I put on my gloves, it fell on him. My husband, kids, and I could barely drag it to the front of the farm. The tree was too big for the chute the owner used to tie the limbs down, so he had to tie it without mechanical help. It took my whole family and the owner to lift it into the bed of our truck.

We wrestled the tree through the front door. Then I decided we should call my dad to help stand the tree up. I have a weak shoulder and didn’t want the tree to fall on husband a second time.

This story can be used in many different way. As a humorous piece. As an illustration of the state of a marriage, such as couple who are quarreling draw closer as they engage in the tradition of selecting and decorating a tree.  As a family drama, such as a visit to a tree farm reveals problems in a family. Since this is a Christmas story, I would have those problems solved, or at least addressed, by the end of the story.

How can you use your Christmas traditions as writing inspiration?

Writing Tip — Christmas Music as Writing Inspiration

pianow-3775191_1280-2My kids and I have broken out our collection of Christmas music and listen to it whenever we are in the car in December. I have a firm rule that we don’t listen to Christmas music until after Thanksgiving and we quit after New Year’s Day. So we need to cram in a lot of music in five weeks.

My kids have very different tastes in music. My oldest likes instrumental pieces almost to the exclusion of songs. My youngest finds music without lyrics boring. They agree on a few musical items. Slow tempo = bad. Fast tempo = usually good. Both of them like songs that tell a story, and they both like instrumental pieces by the Trans Siberian Orchestra.

When I drive my oldest to school, and we listen to  orchestral arrangements, my imagination thinks of the music as a soundtrack and tries to create a scene that suits it. One of our favorites is the piece by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, “Christmas Eve/ Sarajevo 12/24“. I always imagine some kind of fight scene to go with it. Another favorite is a fast-paced version of “God Read Ye Merry Gentlemen” by Mannheim Steamroller.

Songs also ignite my creative fire. The short story, “Mary, Did You Know”in Christmas fiction off the beaten path reminded me of this. This song inspired author Patricia Meredith to write a story about Mary’s first years as a parent of Jesus. She isn’t the only writer to find inspirations in Christmas songs.

Flipping through The Christmas Encyclopedia by William D. Crump, I find movies or TV shows inspired by “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”, and “Good King Wenceslas”, which is a movie depicting a fictional version of the life of Vaclav the Good, who ruled Bohemia from 922-929.

I’ve always wanted to write a speculative fiction story, set in modern times, based on the verses of “Good King Wencelas”. I tried to write it as a flash fiction piece but couldn’t make it short enough and still produce a satisfying narrative. Maybe I should just write it out as long as I need to and then see if I can cut it down.

How does Christmas music as writing inspiration spark your imagination?

Monday Sparks — Writing Prompts: What’s the Christmas Story?

sisterw-553520_1280Here’s a typical Christmas scene, relatives or friends baking. How would you use this in a Christmas mystery? Share below!

“Did you put in the vanilla?” Aunt Delia asked.

“Yes.” I stirred the thick batter. “I’ve made this a hundred times.”

“Doesn’t hurt to double check.”

I stopped stirring. “Do you think it’s dumb or brave to have a cookie exchange after after what happened last year?”

Aunt Delia rested her hands on the counter, staring out the back door. “I don’t know.”

Writing Tip — Favorite Books: One Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith

winterw-1998359_1280Did you know One Hundred and One Dalmatians was a middle grade novel before it was a movie? And did you know it was a Christmas story?

I’d forgotten all this when my youngest, the Fishing Fanatic, watched a bunch of classic Disney movies on a long drive this summer. We recently watched it again, and I remembered how much I loved the novel as a kid. I’m reading it to my kids now, and they love it, too.

The movie is a very good abridgment of the novel. So if you liked the characters and the fantasy world of the dogs, you’ll love the book, which gives much greater details than the movie.

If you aren’t familiar with the story, it’s about a young couple, the Dearlys, who live in London with their Dalmatians, Pongo and Missus. Their neighbor is Cruella de Vil. She lives for furs. She only married her husband because he is a furrier. Missus gives birth to fifteen puppies, who are stolen. Pongo figures out that Cruella has taken them because she wants to make a Dalmatian coat.

When Scotland Yard says it is “Frankly Baffled”, Pongo and Missus decide it’s up to them to find and rescue their puppies. They use the Twilight Barking. A dog barks a message, and the next dog to hear it barks it on. They spread the news all over England.

A week before Christmas, Pongo and Missus receive word that their puppies are being held out in the country at the ancestral home of the de Vils. They set out, relying on the dog network to provide food, shelter and information, while trying to avoid all people because their “pets”, as they call the Dearlys, have advertised that they have gone missing, too.

The details of the dog network are wonderfully imagined. Once Pongo and Missus bark that they are leaving, the dogs swing into action, working out a route, that will get them to the home. Other animals help out, as if they are an underground network of resistance in enemy territory, as author Danny Peary points out in his book Guide for the Film Fanatic.

Cruella is one of the great villains of fiction, and in the book, we learn more about her. She puts pepper on all her food, and when one of the pups nips at her ear, it tastes like pepper. We also get some of the history of the de Vil family and how their country home came to be called Hell Hall.

The main reason this story has stayed with me all these years is because it has one of the best descriptions of evil that I’ve come across.

At the end of the book, Cruella’s cat comes to live with the Dearlys and Pongo and Missus. She tells them the de Vils are financially ruined. Missus says she feels sorry for Mr. de Vil. He seems so meek, and Cruella dominates him so much that she made him take her last name.

But the cat says not to bother. “He’s as bad as Cruella. The only different is she’s strong and bad and he’s weak and bad.”

When I read that at as a tween, I knew it had great insight. Even now when I create bad guys, I often think about whether he or she is strong and bad or weak and bad. And like the cat said, both kinds of personalities are equally evil.

What books from your childhood have always stayed with you?

 

Writing Tip — Just for Fun

forestw-4574803_1280On Friday, I posted on my Facebook and Instagram pages that when I took my morning walk last week, the gloomy weather and the shortening days inspired a poem. I had to do some work on it, but some parts seemed to write themselves. It sums up my feelings for December.

And the way through the woods was dark.

The way through the woods was cold.

But I followed the path. I had to

Although it was faint and old.

 

The way through the woods grew darker.

The way through the woods grew colder.

But I trudged on. I had to

Though the cold weighed like a boulder.

 

The way through the woods went black.

The way through the woods disappeared.

And I stopped and stared. I had to

As my heart thudded with fear.

 

Then a light through the woods flamed on.

A light through the woods shone warm.

And I gazed at the light. I had to.

My only hope to find home.

 

The way through the woods was still dark.

The way through the woods was still cold.

But I walked on. I had to.

That light was better than gold.

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