Nancy: Borrowing From the Masters

In this terracotta relief circa 450 BC, Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, tries to make Penelope recognize him.

In this terracotta relief circa 450 BC, Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, tries to make Penelope recognize him.

There’s nothing new under the sun, or so say Ecclesiastes, Shakespeare, and conventional wisdom. When it comes to writing, there’s truth in that. You’re not going to be the first to write a love story, a murder mystery, or a journey into the depths of misery of the human soul. But, so continues the thought, that’s okay because you’ll bring something else to your story that no one else can – you.

Sometimes writers go even further and base a story on the structure and meaning of an existing work. In fact, they do it all the time, sometimes quite successfully (West Side Story, anyone?). Borrowing from existing works such as mythology, fairy tales, and Shakespeare allows us to learn from the masters as we write, and can give us guideposts for our own writing. And it’s not all bad for readers, either, as readers’ minds to attach to the familiar, even when it’s barely recognizable, and hopefully a story will bring enough new twists to surprise and reward along the way.

Among our own Eight Ladies, Jeanne’s story Devil’s Wager is retelling of the Biblical book of Job, and Michille’s Antigone Rising is based on Sophocles’ Antigone. But Jeanne’s story begins with a poker game and takes artistic license from there, and Michille’s story is set in modern-day Maryland (spoiler alert) is probably not going to have an ending quite as tragic as the one Sophocles wrote. In an excellent post I read a few weeks ago, Bruce Holsinger wrote about finding your mythic theme in your own writing over at the Writer Unboxed blog. Originally, I thought my story didn’t have any mythic underpinnings, but after reading Holsinger’s post and going back to analyze the first book in my Victorian-era series, I uncovered my own mythic theme in that book.

It turns out that book 1, tentatively titled One Kiss From Ruin, has underpinnings of the last books of Homer’s The Odyssey. It’s the story of a man returning to his homeland after years abroad, in this case, 5 years, not 20. At this point in the Greek story, Odysseus plans to reclaim his wife. In my story, hero Daniel never married his true love and thinks he’s gotten over losing her, but it’s a romance, so reclaim her he will. Penelope from The Odyssey and Emmeline from OKFR don’t seem to have much in common at first glance. While Penelope’s been stuck on her estate fighting off swarms of suitors, Emmeline’s been a shorter trip abroad of her own. But like Penelope, who has resolved never to marry another, Emmeline has resolved never to marry. That said, neither woman is a pushover, and the respective heroes have to prove themselves worthy of winning back ‘our girl’.

While Odysseus has to prove himself through feats of physical strength, Daniel has to prove himself through strength of character. Odysseus then kills Penelope’s disloyal suitors and servants. Less violently and with a twist, Daniel plays the part of a suitor to eligible young women, but when the moment is right, proves his real loyalty lies with Emmeline. Near the of The Odyssey, Odysseus proves his true identity to Penelope by telling her he built their marriage bed around the trunk of a tree. In the last act of OKFR, Daniel must not only reveal his true (deepest) identity, but also must show he understands Emmeline’s deepest identity. He has to show her he gets her (because, you know, a few thousand years of progress).

Revealing the mythic underpinnings of OKFR was more than just a fun exercise. Comparing the structure of my story to that of The Odyssey, I determined that I needed to make some of Daniel’s required ‘feats of strength’ bigger and harder. I also saw that the story could be stronger if Emmeline, like Penelope, feels more desperate, feels her problems closing in on her more and more each day, just as Penelope felt the suitors closing in on her. If you want your story to feel bigger, deeper, and more connected to the great tradition of human storytelling, take a look at Holsinger’s post, then stop back here and tell us what story from the masters might be lurking in your own WIP.

8 thoughts on “Nancy: Borrowing From the Masters

  1. This is another take on the monomyth. I really liked the process of creating a new story from an old one. I think I’ll probably use this method a lot in the future. I won’t say every time, but close to it.

    • Your process has been much more disciplined than mine, but I also have enjoyed it and have been thinking about which myths/universal stories might be analogous to other books in my series.

      One of the things I didn’t expect in doing this exercise was that at the end of it, I viewed the source material a bit differently. In the past, I’ve thought Odysseus was kind of a pompous ass, running off for 20 years and leaving Penelope to fend for herself, then returning and expecting her to live up to some ideal he’s created of her and to subjugate herself to him (MHO of Homer’s work). After looking at the situation through my own character’s eyes, I can see how torturous it was for these men to return to what were their respective homes and wondering if there still was still a place for them. I’m curious whether you view Antigone differently now, having spent so much time with your own retelling of it.

  2. V. interesting! My story is still too new (and I’ve got too many details floating around) to slot it into an old story quickly. I’m a little afraid to try at this stage, to tell the truth — I might glom onto the old story and shape the new story strangely. But I think it’s a great idea to strengthen the allusions near the end of the process. Also, I think it’s a fantastic idea to try and build a story from the plot up like Michille did — I want to try that at least once! Plotting is not my strong point

    (-: Built his marriage bed around a tree trunk, did he? Does that sound incredibly naughty just to me?

    I think it’d be fun to have a Lady Odysseus, actually, but I’ve heard it said that while men’s journeys tend to return home, women’s journeys keep going outward and onward.

    • Intersting take on the men’s journeys vs. women’s journey, Michaeline, especially given the general perception that men are the adenturers and women the homebodies.

    • Maybe because, traditionally speaking, men are supposed to go out into the world while women are supposed to create the home/stay there, storytelling tries to balance that by sending men home and women into the world? Just a thought.

      Also, agreed, looking at the myth or other type of ‘old story’ too early in the process would have skewed the book for me. It’s why I haven’t really gone there yet with the other books in the series (well, the ideas of the other books, as I’ve barely scratched the surface of book 2, let alone the other 3).

  3. Interesting post, Nancy–as was Holsinger’s. I definitely found it easier to take an existing story and go somewhere than to create something from scratch. I don’t know that, like Michille, I’ll keep doing that, but it was interesting exercise.

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