This guest post from Clare B. Dunkle is part of the blog tour for the paperback release of her novel By These Ten Bones. I am also hosting a contest to win either By These Ten Bones or another book by Clare, The House of Dead Maids. You can enter here through March 8. Also to see photos of some of the locations from the story you can visit Clare's website. And now for the guest post!
My werewolf story, BY THESE TEN BONES, has just been released in paperback. It’s an old-fashioned girl-meets-monster love story set in medieval Scotland, and the werewolf in it follows classic folklore rules: he changes into a ruthless killing machine at each full moon. When I wrote the book back in 2004, I had just finished writing three other girl-meets-monster stories, The Hollow Kingdom Trilogy, and the heroines of those stories were classic folklore heroines. But for BY THESE TEN BONES, I wanted to write a different kind of female lead.
Picture the typical folklore-based fantasy heroine. What do you see? She’s missing at least one parent, if not two. The family she lives with mistreats her and may even try to kill her; if not, that’s a sign that they’re probably about to die. She’s homeless and in want or else living in the home of strangers, and if she’s working as a servant, it’s probably work beneath her social class. Also, we can lay pretty good odds that she’ll make a critical journey into unfamiliar surroundings before the story is through.
We writers of folklore-based fantasy have a very good reason for creating this kind of heroine: the folklore did it first. Think of a favorite folktale or two in which a female is the focus of the story, and you’ll find that they come pretty close to the heroine you pictured above. Cinderella is motherless, in want, and living as a servant. Cap o’Rushes, my favorite Cinderella-style heroine, is homeless because her father threw her out. Snow White has had to flee into the woods to escape a wicked stepmother, and she’s living with the strangest of little strangers. The bride of the Black Bull of Norroway has to wander far from home and serve a stranger for seven years, and the heroine of the Seven Swans story has the worst setup of them all: she’s motherless, saddled with an evil stepmother, estranged from her brothers, in want, living among strangers, and forced to be mute.
This formula works well both in folklore and in fiction because it’s when the traditional family unit breaks down that adventures can happen. No one would set out to find his or her fortune if everything were fine at home. But I wanted to do something different with Maddie, the heroine of BY THESE TEN BONES, so Maddie lives in a happy home, and both her parents manage to remain alive, loving, and supportive throughout the story. She isn’t in want, either; she considers herself well off. She’s comfortable in her surroundings and her society and knows the laws of both; the locals know her, like her, and accept her. And as for the journey, Maddie doesn’t go further than an hour’s walk from home during the entire course of the book.
Even more unusual for the fantasy genre is Maddie’s personality. She has no great dreams, she has no astounding talents, and she isn’t full of angst or bitterness. I’ll be the first to admit that angry protagonists are easier and more enjoyable to write because they seem to have more depth and come to life more vividly. But I reveled in Maddie’s sheer normality when I wrote her: she doesn’t have an enemy in the world and sees no reason to make one. Her peaceful relationship with her parents was actually rather tricky to write because good relationships don’t provide an author with exciting episodes to record, and the characters involved can easily come off as saccharine. But again, I enjoyed the chance to create good parents for one of my heroines. We fantasy writers don’t always get to do that.
It’s the male in my story who has all the bad luck. Paul, the young woodcarver Maddie falls in love with, comes into the story on one of those long, unhappy journeys that fantasy characters so often take. He’s the one who’s friendless and in want. Maddie is the character who’s holding all the cards and gets the opportunity to determine the story’s outcome.
I have to admit that this book is a favorite of mine because of Maddie’s cheerful, optimistic nature. Maybe she lacks the sheer drama of a haunted, hunted princess on the run, but in her own way, she’s even more remarkable. Maddie is a normal girl from a normal home, with a set of normal parents. In this genre, that’s the most unusual thing a heroine can be.