When I started writing my YA paranormal romance Angelbound, I knew I wanted a strong heroine. I searched around for inspiration. That took a while. As some of you may know, YA paranormal isn’t exactly famous in this area.
Here’s my #writingtip: don’t be afraid to look for inspiration in odd places. In the case of Angelbound, I eventually found it in the original version of Cinderella, what the Brothers Grimm called Ash Maiden.
How did this happen? Time to hit the way-back machine.
When I was nine years old, I got my hands on a copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales from the 1890’s. It had a pretty red embossed cover; it had lovely woodcut illustrations; it had gruesome stories that were freaking terrifying. I loved it instantly.
Thanks to this wonderfully nasty book, I got to know the original fairy tales in all their pre-Disney horror. Few of the stories had happy endings. Snow White, for example, was a dumbass who kept taking obviously-dangerous gifts from her stepmother until a pair of shoes danced her to death. The moral? Use your brain, twirp. There won’t always be a huntsman around to save your pretty face.
Ash Maiden was one of the few tales that ended well, but for one simple reason: Ash Maiden (what was later Disney-fied into Cinderella) worked her tuchus off…And not in the ‘sweeping the floors with happy rodents’ way that we think about today. Yeah, you read that right. Ash Maiden’s main challenge in life was NOT boring chores, her mean step-mother, or ugly step-sisters. Bizarre, huh?
Here’s the shocker (to me anyway): in the original story, Ash Maiden’s big problem was that she lost her mother and had grief work to do. And no, I am not kidding.
Don’t get me wrong; our lovely lady worked hard. She was forced to sleep in the ashes and given a not-so-clever nickname. But Ash Maiden didn’t weep every day because she had chores to finish or teasing to endure. She cried because she missed her Mom. It was mourning that drove Ash Maiden to plant a seed in her mother’s memory. Every day, she’d find time to be alone and cry, her teardrops falling on the tiny seed until, bit by bit, it grew into a massive tree.
SIDE NOTE: This is something I love about the original Grimm’s fairy tales. No easy answers. People had to empty lakes with thimbles, stay trapped in animal-form for centuries, or cry on a seed until it grew into a huge goddamn tree. Got problems? Shut up and grab a thimble, bitch.
Back to the story. For those of you who’ve lost a loved one, you know what Ash Maiden was going through at this point: the valley of the shadow of death, one tear at a time. And Ash Maiden’s ball gown? Fell out of that freaking tree, along with her famous shoes. In that tree perched a bird that led her to her Prince. There was no fairy godmother, no quick fix. It was this young girl’s unflinching bravery in facing her sorrow that brought about positive change in her life…and that thought inspired me.
In the end, I decided that Angelbound would include action, adventure, and romance. However, I wanted all of that to be secondary to the central story of someone coming to terms with their relationship with their mother. In this case, a mother who was in some ways ‘dead’ (I can’t say more without spoilers).
From a storytelling standpoint, this was a huge shift for me as a writer. Many YA stories are about the heroine realizing they have some kind of power they never expected or earned, like the immunity to paranormal mind-reading, magical abilities and so on. To me, that’s symbolic of one kind core YA experience: that of changing from a child into a woman. The idea is that suddenly (and without any effort on your part) you have sexual power. This is something you may never have seen coming, and it can be a trial to deal with it. That is very different from heading out on a quest to come to terms with something, like what Ash Maiden did. The latter kind of story captured my imagination, and I was off and running on Angelbound.