How Writers Can Capitalize on Popular Tales from the Past

Guest Post by Irene Watson

Old but popular stories that still capture people’s imaginations offer an opportunity for writers to capitalize on those stories while creating new twists. Whether the stories are classic novels, fairy tales, myths, legends, or historical events, authors can recreate old stories by offering a new vision that will appeal to readers.

If you take a look at Hollywood movies today, a lot of them are remakes of old films or based on books that have long been well-known. The same is true in the publishing industry. It’s much easier to sell a book that is a sequel to “Pride and Prejudice” to the multitude of Jane Austen fans than it is to sell a new romance novel, and even though most of the vampire novels today are not sequels to “Dracula,” they capitalize on the popularity of the vampire figure.

A writer in search of a “novel” topic might consider taking a look at popular stories, myths, legends, or events in history and creating a new story or version of the story based on them; such a re-vision of an old story can be a profitable and easier way to gain a reading audience. Once you write a book that tells what happened after Camelot fell or after Cinderella married the prince, provided you have told the story well, you will have created a reading audience. Then you will likely have an audience who will largely follow you when you write your completely original novel set in a world with characters you solely created without the aid of another author.

Before you dismiss the idea of rewriting an old story in a new way, take some time to think about the stories that have captured your imagination over the years, and think about how you might have wished they ended differently—what if you retold the story the way you wish it had been told or with the ending you would have preferred? Here are just a few examples of old stories that have been reinvented in recent years for new audiences that might give you some ideas:

King Arthur: There is no absence to the number of novels coming out to retell the story of King Arthur and Camelot. Among the best have been Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “The Mists of Avalon” (1982) which retells the story from the women’s point of view. This novel inspired countless others that retold the Arthurian legend, including Jack Whyte’s Camulod Chronicles that told the story of before Camelot, to numerous books about what happened after Camelot, and even stories of King Arthur set in Outer Space. There are plenty of readers out there who will buy just about any book with a King Arthur connection.

Ancient Myths: Marion Zimmer Bradley also capitalized on the Trojan War by retelling that story from the women’s point of view in her novel, “The Firebrand.” In addition, numerous books and films have freely adapted the Greek myths, from “Clash of the Titans” to “Immortals.” The Norse, Egyptian, and Celtic gods are equally popular and capable of inspiring some great new novels.

Popular Archetypes or Characters: Vampire novels are very popular. Basic elements exist to all vampire stories, and “Dracula” is the seminal work most build off, although writers reinvent the story by making it their own within the guidelines of the key elements such as the vampire being a bloodsucker, not being able to move about in the daylight, not being able to face a crucifix, its reflection not being seen in mirrors, and its being able to turn into a bat. Other archetypal figures to consider include mummies, mermaids, and a wide range of fairy tale characters.

Classics: As long as the copyright of a book has expired, you are free to do with it what you will. Numerous authors have capitalized on classics. Some of the more popular in recent years have been “Mr. Darcy, Vampyre” and “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” both revisions of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” while mixing it with popular archetypal or mythical characters. Gregory Maguire’s “Wicked” re-envisioned the story of the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz,” leading to a series of novels and a hit Broadway musical. Numerous more “The Wizard of Oz” revisionist movies and books are currently in the works.

Historical Events: History can be dry—just facts and dates—but when you think about who those people really were, what motivated them, their love affairs, dreams, and goals, you can create some great fiction. The popularity of books like Ken Follett’s “The Pillars of the Earth” and numerous films and television series like “The Tudors” have made people from centuries ago real and interesting to twenty-first century readers. Is there something about Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, Columbus, Napoleon, or Hitler’s story that still speaks to us today? Of course; they were human like us; what motivated them, frustrated them, turned them toward doing good or evil, made them dream and succeed and fail? How can you capitalize upon their humanity to make an interesting story today?

How to Write the Story Anew

The key to creating a successful story based on one already well-known is to introduce a new twist to it. Here are a few tips or questions to ask yourself in creating that new version of an old story.

  1. What made the villain a villain? Is there a villain backstory to be told? In “Wicked,” the Wicked Witch was made sympathetic as we came to understand her motivation for behaving the way she did.
  2. Was the story told from the conqueror’s point of view? In “The Wizard of Oz” Dorothy just takes Glinda and the Wizard’s word for it that the Wicked Witch is wicked. What if the Wizard and Glinda just didn’t like the witch and lied about who she really was? What if you retold the story from the perspective of the conquered, or someone caught in the middle but not on either side? How would “Alice in Wonderland” be different if the Queen of Hearts or the Mad Hatter told the story? What if “Treasure Island” were retold from Long John Silver’s point of view?
  3. What if the climactic event had turned out differently? Recently, Stephen King published a time travel novel in which someone goes back in time to try to stop the assassination of President Kennedy. What if a key event had not happened or had happened differently? Kim Newman’s “Anno Dracula” is based on the supposition that Dracula was not defeated—and the result is that he has conquered England and even married Queen Victoria. Think of all the “what if” possibilities. What if the Trojans rather than the Greeks had won the war? What if the South rather than the North had won the Civil War? What if Abraham Lincoln had not been assassinated? What if Napoleon had succeeded in conquering the world?
  4. How can you explain something magical or mythical? In “Wicked,” the winged monkeys are actually the witch’s experiment where she sews on their wings. What if Merlin doesn’t have magic powers but is just a good scientist who knows how to trick people into thinking he has magical powers? What if the Greek gods were really humans who used trickery to gain control over people? What if St. George pulled a stunt to make it look like he killed a dragon? What would any of these situations suggest about the main character or the world that these people lived in? Think for example of the Wizard of Oz who holds everyone in awe of him, only to turn out to be a humbug. Who else in literature, myth, or history might have been a humbug?
  5. What if the bad guy were really the good guy? Everyone knows Mordred slew King Arthur, but some authors are now depicting Arthur as the bad guy while Mordred was only trying to protect his country. What if the stepmother wasn’t mean but Cinderella was just a spoiled little girl who was mad that her father remarried? What if the evil wizard was really a great teacher trying to help the hero by playing devil’s advocate?
  6. What if the storyteller is a liar—the unreliable narrator syndrome? Could the person who tells the story be lying to us? David Copperfield might be an unreliable narrator, a hoodlum even, while Uriah Heep really is a humble hero wrongfully accused of stealing Aunt Betsy’s money when in truth she was just a spendthrift. What about Injun Joe—isn’t it possible Tom Sawyer and his community were simply racists?

Many possibilities exist for retelling a classic story and making people rethink it and see it anew. Make sure the work you choose to rewrite does not have a copyright attached to it. Anything published before 1900 should be safe.

Often, rewriting a story with a new spin or twist on it can be an excellent writing exercise that takes an already effective plot and characters and allows for the possibility of seeing it anew while teaching a writer about pacing, plot, and character development. While I’m always an advocate for authors to be original, retelling a story in an original way like Marion Zimmer Bradley did in “The Mists of Avalon” or Gregory Maguire did in “Wicked” can do more than create a great novel. It can make people rethink history, see gray areas of meaning, and stretch their imaginations in new and inspiring ways.

Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find  reviews  of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity  and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.

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Posted on July 8, 2012, in Publicity & Writing, Writing & Publishing. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Anyone who believes that there is only "one" Arthurian legend would do well to consult Tyler R. Tichelaar's literary critique <A HREF="http://www.amazon.com/King-Arthurs-Children-Reflections-ebook/dp/B004HKIMB8/">King Arthur's Children: A Study In Fiction And Tradition</A>. This book was a real eye-opener for me. Many writers have completely redone the family tree and parentage of such characters as Mordred and the relationship between Arthur and Guinevere is anything but straightforward. If your main source of Arthuriana is the musical "Camelot" or the John Boorman movie "Excalibur", you're in for some interesting surprises.

  2. As usual, Irene, your post is filled with valuable advice. I love your suggestions on how the old stories could be told from a different point of view. I'd go further and say every author is rewriting a story or stories told before. Creating a new Iliad would seem the ultimate folly, but that hasn't stopped me. In any event, the only thing that counts is how well the revisions read for those the writer seeks to reach.

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