When I was little, I spent a lot of time reading the books my mother had kept from her childhood. One of them was an abridged version of Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book illustrated by Grace Dallas Clarke.
The book was illustrated in a colorful 1950s style (I don’t have a copy now, but you can see some illustrations here.) I read the book multiple times, but my favorite stories in it were “Felicia and the Pot of Pinks,” “The Princess on the Glass Hill,” and “Diamonds and Toads.”
For some reason I have a strong memory of reading this book on an airplane, though I would have been young and I’m not sure where we would have been going. Anyway, I had lots of time to pore over the illustrations. “Diamonds and Toads” particularly stuck with me. I can see the glitter of the falling diamonds from one sister’s mouth, the other sister’s sassy expression, her hands on her hips. Later, cursed for her rudeness, she looks bewildered and ashamed, turning away defensively as snakes and toads fall from her mouth.
“Diamonds and Toads” is a “good sister/bad sister” story, a motif so common in world literature that you could fill a decent-sized book just with versions of Cinderella. Lately I’m starting to think more about the bad sisters in these stories than the good ones. Some of them are cruel, but their cardinal sins are usually greed, laziness, rudeness, and pride. In return, they’re often maimed or killed. Cinderellas’ stepsisters lose their eyes in some versions of the story, and “The Two Caskets” ends with the stepsister (along with her mother) being burned alive. Sure, she was rude and lazy, but isn’t that a bit harsh?
“Diamonds and Toads” is a classic example of this story. There are two sisters–one pretty and good, one ugly and bad–and their mother, who is also ugly and bad and thus favors the girl who resembles her. She and her daughter are cruel to the pretty sister, making her do all the work and fetch the water every day at the well. (I made the sister a little more sympathetic in my story, but I hope I still captured the spirit of the original.) At the well, the good girl meets and is nice to a fairy, and is rewarded with a shower of diamonds and flowers falling from her mouth whenever she speaks. The bad sister is rude to the fairy, so she’s punished: for the rest of her life, toads and snakes will fall from her mouth whenever she speaks. Eventually “even the widow was sickened by her older daughter, and drove her out, and she died alone and miserable in the woods.”
When my friend Sonya Lano told me that Fiction-Atlas Press was calling for submissions for an anthology about fairy-tale villains getting their own happily-ever-after, my mind immediately went to “Diamonds and Toads.” I can get a bit gloomy, but I’m not a dark fantasy writer: I wasn’t sure I could write a romance about a child-murdering witch or any other serious villain. But everyone’s said something they regretted, and something about this story has always spoken to me. Plus, snakes are cool. So I decided to try it out.
Next, I needed to find a romance for my protagonist. My first idea was to have her meet up with the girl from “The Two Caskets”–terribly scarred from the fire, but still alive–and have them hit it off. But that seemed a bit too complicated for a short story or novelette, so I needed something simpler. Fortunately, Sonya suggested another possibility that was right up my alley, and I got really interested in the project. But in order for this fairy tale to work, I’d need to get my heroine on a more equal footing with her love interest, and that’s what this story is about.
“Serpents” is a novelette of about 10,700 words that follows Fan’s adventures after she’s kicked out of her family home. (The original character’s name is Fanchon, short for Francoise, so Fanny would be a more natural translation, but for obvious reasons I decided not to go with that. Frannie is my partner’s name, which would have been weird, and Fancy and Frances didn’t seem quite the vibe, so Fan it was.) Once I had the idea straight in my mind, the writing process was pretty straightforward because I was happy with the story and how it played out. I’m still happy with it, and I had a lot of fun with it, so I hope you’ll feel the same
Once Upon a Wicked Heart is a collaborative anthology from Fiction-Atlas Press. There are twelve total stories in the book, most quite a bit darker than mine from what I’ve heard but a few with happy endings. Sonya has a story there, too–a dark (less dark? haha) retelling of “The Juniper Tree”–and all the others look really interesting. There’s a universal buy page here where you can check it out, or you can look us up on Goodreads. We’re doing a pre-release sale price of 99 cents (the full price will be $2.99), so it’s a good idea to preorder if you’re interested. You can also visit us online at the anthology release party on November 19 (that’s this Saturday) on the group’s Facebook page. Sonya and I will be posting from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. EST that day, so drop by and see us.
There are lots of other fairy tales I’d like to explore in more depth, so I hope to do more projects like this later. Is there any story that really stuck with you?
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