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Filching Folklore for Fiction Writing

In my previous blog post, I discussed the purpose of folklore, the truths we can find in it, and ultimately what folklore does: communicating and adapting in-group knowledge for future generations in a way that defies mere instruction (formal or otherwise).

Now that you know what folklore is, I’m sure you want to get your greedy little mitts all over some, don’t you? Don’t lie to me, I know you. You’re a writer, which means inherently, deep in your heart, you are a thief. There is no need to be ashamed of it; it is our way. We steal images we see, mannerisms of people, ideas we get from the evening news, emotions that others’ art invokes. It’s in our very nature to steal the veritable cornucopia of interesting artifacts and stimuli that exist in the wider world and spin them into our own preferred medium: story.

Therefore, it is perfectly natural for you to want to filch some folklore for your own fiction-writing purposes. Many an author has done so, many an author will continue to do. But today I’m going to talk about the don’ts of filching folklore for the purpose of fiction writing so later we can focus on the do’s.

Because there is a way to filch folklore correctly, respectfully, and there’s a way to butcher someone’s folklore like using grandma’s prized quilt to mop up a spill of cheap boxed wine.

Let's talk about a few things:

As I mentioned in my previous post, the true folklorist neither seeks to debunk nor to corroborate the folklore she encounters. The true folklorist tries to imagine and understand why the folk group deems it good that such folklore exists and endures.

Each piece of folklore, whether architecture, clothing, religious ritual, story, rite of passage, proverb is inextricable from worldview. That’s what makes it folklore.

Appropriation, however, is when a folklorist takes cultural property that belongs to someone else without also taking into account the worldview and the associated obligation that comes with it.

There’s a reason certain mascots and Halloween costumes have fallen out of vogue. Using others’ culture is sticky business. There’s a fine line between appropriation and appreciation, and I want to walk it with you today.

Now, like any good fantasy writer, I’ve read up to my eyeballs in urban legends, folktales, fairy tales, and mythologies. And like any good fantasy writer, that’s my bread and butter when it comes to inventing cool shit.

Using others’ stories as inspiration for world-building, cryptids, magic systems, and lore is a time-honored tradition amongst fiction writers, and I shan’t deny anyone that.

But, the more closely we dig into these stories, the more ingrained we get in the minutiae, the accuracy, the nuance, the beat-for-beat reproductions, the more obligations we take on. If we’re really trying to pass this off as authentic folklore belonging to a particular folk group— we have to do our due diligence to try our best to understand why that folklore exists in the first place and what it’s trying to communicate about the culture and world-view of its origin. We can’t deliberately chisel such gems out of our neighbor’s heirlooms without first knowing why such gems were selected in the first place.

An example: if you’re going to give a character ceremonial garb that looks and feels like a replica of another culture’s ceremonial garb, understand the significance, meaning, and weight of such garb before foisting it upon your character. Don’t crudely jam someone else’s ceremonial headdress into your world, while ignoring its real-world significance. And if the real-world significance of such a headdress doesn’t jive with your story—then make up your own garb, you can use theirs as a jumping-off point for inspiration, but don’t replicate it exactly if you don’t bring along the significance with it. However, if you’re showing such garb respectfully and with the appropriate weight and significance attached: go for it. Let that research shine.

That being said, some areas of folklore bear a different weight than others. For some cultures, the folktales of our past are now looked upon with amusement, some fondness, but with no real possessiveness or deep stakes in their representation.

There are many folktales that are so ubiquitous that they have slipped into a kind of “public domain,” as it were. If it comes from Brothers Grimm or Anderson, has been Disneyfied, or appears in common mythology anthologies—chances are, it’s fair game. Our national identities or sense of self are no longer tied to or dependent upon these stories’ accurate reproduction.

But with other bits of folklore— the kinds of rituals, religious practices, traditions, and language that are the beating heart of a people, a culture— you have to earn your right to filch those, or at least be cautious in how you do.

There is folklore alive and well in every culture today and many pieces of lore don’t yet exist in “the public domain” and they can’t reasonably belong to or be utilized by people outside of that folk group. These are bits of folklore that are still the lynch-pin of a folk-group’s identity (for instance, the Exodus story for the Jewish people). Or lore that is still widely believed, accepted, perpetuated, and has a living vitality about it inside of the folk group in question (many religious rituals or birth/death customs that are still widely practiced). These bits of lore are good to research for the sake of inspiration. They can help us examine why and how bits of lore fit into a culture and can be an excellent way to help us brainstorm our lore that plays similar roles in our alternative worlds. But, if we try to recreate them in our fiction by forcefully extricating them from the culture they’re embedded in, we’re going to have clumsy world-building at best, and some cringeworthy and damning appropriation at worst.

Certain genres of fiction have more of an obligation toward cultural sensitivity and accuracy, obviously. Historical fiction and contemporary fiction hold a different weight than a high fantasy that takes place in an entirely different world. Our fantasy worlds have to have some basis in our earth— we cannot make bricks without straw—and thus we often borrow details we like from some cultures and ditch other details that are inconvenient to our plots. For the most part, this is fairly innocuous in a fantasy setting, but once again, the deeper we go, the lighter we must step.

I can’t help but think of our dear Amish brethren whenever I think of the matter of appropriation. I can’t help but cringe every time I pass a section of “Amish romance” (which, surprisingly is a real subgenre) in a bookstore. While I can’t intuit the intention, nor do I have access to the research such writers put into their work, the genre, in broad-strokes, has the odor of appropriation. While some of the most popular Amish romance writers claim to have ties to the Amish, when it comes down to it, the authors themselves are not Amish. They are often Evangelical Christians who are writing books for other Evangelicals about a folk-group in a way that is inaccessible to that folk group. And as such they are super-imposing their Evangelical world-view, morals, and cultural sensitivities, atop the Amish aesthetic and passing it off as Amish. If such books were set in a fantasy world where a certain group of people chose to eschew many of the conveniences of the current era on account of religious principles, it would be different. But to write such books set in our world, using our Amish brethren’s names and cultural artifacts and claiming for it to be a representation of real Amish people— that’s an issue.

Such a culture doesn’t just exist simply for us to exploit because we really love a good romance that happens on a farm, is chaste, and bears a particular aesthetic.

As a Catholic I see this a lot. Now, don’t get me wrong, when a fantasy world creates its own religion that feels a bit like Catholicism, I love a good hat-tip. When a fantasy world creates a religion that feels old, liturgical, communal, doctrinal, with traditions that mirror asceticism or monasticism (all of the beautiful things I love about the Church)—I eat that stuff up. What gets under my skin, though, is when other writers take their interpretation of our Catholic aesthetic, our lore, our practices, our dogma, and try pass it off as the real thing—or worse, an evil thing—without first seeking to understand why such things exist in the first place (and in many cases without even bothering to get the facts right).

I’ve rage-quit many a book where the Catholic Church (or the poorly disguised fictional Catholic Church) is grossly misconstrued. (Because let’s be real, if you’re borrowing verbatim terms from our doctrine, sacramentals, and liturgies, even if you claim this isn’t the Church, your use of our language says otherwise). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve whispered to myself while reading “that’s not why we do that”. I can’t explain to you how many times I’ve shouted at a movie or a book “THAT’S NOT HOW SACRAMENTS WORK!” When such writers use the lore that comes from my faith so flippantly– as mere plot devices or aesthetic qualities, it says to me that they don’t care that this lore is beloved and safe-guarded by real, living people. It says that my real beliefs, traditions, and culture can be just as easily manipulated as a made-up language or a fictional universe. It says to me that not only was your research terrible, but that your attitude was pompous. As if me and my lore isn’t worth being respected so long as you benefited.

Because herein lies the real problem: if you’re going to use highly specific living lore that belongs to a folk group, to benefit your aesthetic— but the core values that created such lore are discarded or inverted, then you’re misusing the lore and your creative license.

An example, a Catholic one, for it’s what I know best. Let’s say you’ve created a world-religion that bears a striking resemblance to Catholicism (or are even writing a contemporary novel in which Catholicism makes an appearance) and you want to depict the Catholic funerary rites in detail. It may seem to an outsider that Catholic funeral rites contain far too many pieces of elaborate show. It’s silly, isn’t it, to have this much kerfuffle over a dead body? Why not just dump the poor sap into the grave faster and get it over with? Funerals are for the living, aren’t they? Wouldn’t it be better if we all got closure over a nice drink in the parish hall instead of spending an hour, sitting, standing, kneeling, and murmuring prayers? Perhaps. But in Catholicism, funerals aren’t just for the living— they’re for the dead, and the passage of their soul. It's for the living, sure, to remember their own mortality, get closure, but also to remember the same faith they too have been initiated into. If the funeral rite is passed off as elaborate showmanship for the sake of pomp and circumstance, one has clearly missed the mark. Not that your characters necessarily need to know why certain folk practices exist, but it needs to be clear that you as the author do— and handle it appropriately.

So if you’re going to filch some folklore (which, I know you are. After all, I can practically feel your little thieving heart quivering with untapped potential), I invite you to beware. While folklore that is not our own can be appreciated, used as inspiration, or often altered to fit our needs, it comes with strings attached.

To appreciate folklore is to handle it delicately, knowing full well that real people threaded the stitches into the tapestry we see. While we can use the patterns we observe as a point of inspiration, if we try too hard to tug a strand or two out of the overall picture, we’ll unravel the whole thing.

You see, all of us are entitled to be stage magicians creating scenarios, cultures, and worlds that feel authentic because they have a basis in reality.

But we cannot pretend that the rabbits we’re pulling out of our hats are actually real.

And if we try to pass them off as such, or insist on their authentic pedigree, then we deserve to get boo-ed off the stage.

That was a lot of thou-shalt-nots, wasn’t it? Forgive me, I wasn’t trying to be solely negative, but now that we’ve gotten talk of appropriation out of the way, I want to dwell on the appreciation piece.

Next in my folktale series, I’ll be discussing the different phenomena that occur when lore has been living in a society for generations, and how you can correctly use these benchmarks to create your own folklore as well as appropriately borrow and incorporate lore from others.

What folk-groups are you a part of and what folklore has influenced your writing? Let us know in the comments.

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