8 Jul 2019

Guest Post / LF Robertson (Author of Next of Kin) - Everything New Is Old Again: Getting Inspired by Folk Tale


The third novel by L.F. Robertson, starring death row attorney Janet Moodie.

Janet Moodie, death-row attorney, is hired to work on the appeal of Sunny Ferrante, a glamorous woman who has been sentenced to death for arranging the murder of her wealthy husband. As Janet delves into the case, she becomes sure that that Sunny is innocent. But Sunny is hiding something. Who is she protecting--and is she really prepared to die to save them?

When I was a small child I had a set of books, called My Book House, a compilation of
children’s literature: poems, nursery rhymes, and fairy tales. The books were old even then;
judging by the illustrations, they must have dated from not long after the first World War. One
of my favorite fairy tales in them was Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” the story
of two children, Kay and Gerda. Kay, the boy, ties his sled to the Snow Queen’s sleigh (dumb
move, needless to say) and is spirited away by her and imprisoned under a spell in her palace of
ice; and Gerda sets out to find and rescue him. I believe the theme Andersen had in mind was
that of religious faith and love, but when I read the story as a child, I saw in it a hero’s journey
for girls. Gerda gradually conquers her fear and lack of confidence as she travels north searching
for the Snow Queen and Kay. She is helped and hindered along the way by strangers, human and
animal; my favorite among them was the robber girl, a budding highwaywoman as tough and
domineering as Gerda is timid and diffident. She gives Gerda her pet reindeer to carry her on her
journey, and after a long ride through the frozen arctic night, Gerda finds the Snow Queen’s ice
palace and releases Kay from her enchantment, solving a word puzzle he had been unable to

I’ve thought, over the years, that the work I chose, criminal defense, involves a lot of
rescuing, or attempting to rescue, flawed people from the worst consequences of their mistakes.
Death penalty cases, in particular, require journeys, figurative and literal, to trace the path of a
client’s past life through searches of old records and documents and meetings with family,
friends, and other witnesses. When I decided to write my first novel, Two Lost Boys, I wanted to
show people how that journey worked and how it feels, through the eyes of a defense attorney
trying to save the life of a condemned man: the random walk of investigating a case and not
knowing which paths will yield evidence and which will lead only to dead ends; finding out who
will talk to you, and what you’ll learn; the help and kindness you receive in unexpected places;
the wounds you inevitably reopen and the trauma you reawaken; the guilt you feel about it; and
the anxiety of knowing that everything you can do may not be enough to save your client’s life.
Some way into writing it, I noticed the resemblance between what was happening in the book
and Gerda’s adventures in Andersen’s story. For awhile, my working title for the book became
The Snow Queen. My second and third books, also about death penalty cases, have turned out to
echo that theme in different ways.

Many writers and film-makers say that there are only a certain number of stories, and
most story and movie plots are a riff on one of them. Several of Terry Pratchett’s wonderful
fantasy novels take a fairy tale or two and smush them together or turn them in unexpected
directions, as do some movies, for example Shrek and The Princess Bride. The hero’s journey is
a stock theme, both in literature and movies. So are variants of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty,
Rapunzel (sent up hilariously in Monty Python’s Holy Grail), the Frog Prince, Beauty and the
Beast, Cinderella, and even Rumpelstiltskin, as well as stories from the Bible and Greek and
Roman mythology. “The Snow Queen” itself was an inspiration for the movie Frozen.
Some people seem to be natural writers, never lacking for new ideas, clever plots
sprouting like lettuce seeds in their amazingly inventive minds. I’m not one of them. I’ve never
made the acquaintance of Shakespeare’s “muse of fire that would ascend/ The brightest heaven
of invention;” I imagine, in fact, that my muse is a lot like me, hesitant, unassertive, and afraid
of heights. I struggle to find ideas for stories and work out the details of plots. It was a surprise
to find that I had inadvertently borrowed my own novel’s plot from a fairy tale, and it made me
think about how fiction pays homage to other myths and legends that resonate in Western culture
and what a fertile field they are for writers in need of ideas, an archive of plots simply waiting to
be tweaked and twisted by any aspiring novelist.

I may never get beyond the heroine’s journey, and then again, I may one day look at one
of those other stories and think, possibly,“What if the queen did not guess Rumpelstiltskin’s
name, and he took her child and raised it as his own, and years later was found and charged with
kidnaping?” or consider following “Sleeping Beauty” past its end and exploring the comic
possibilities of marrying into a family who had wakened in the present after being asleep for a
hundred years. For that matter, I wonder what kind of life Gerda had after coming home to
Copenhagen; having learned how strong she was and what she was capable of doing, can she go
back to being the compliant girl of her childhood? There may be the basis of a book in any of
those ideas -- or not. But my anxious muse and I feel more creative for thinking of them and
grateful that the old tales and myths exist to inspire us.