To become a storytelling writer, you need, first, to read lots of stories. Perhaps you do this already: you read genre fiction, which is usually story-based, or children’s books. But if you need to deepen your experience of story, you may want to turn to tales from traditional cultures, re-tellings of those tales, or stories by writers working within the story-telling tradition.
You do not need to “study” these stories; rather, just let yourself enjoy them—let them become part of you. As these lessons continue, you’ll discover many ways to make use of them. For now, though, it’s enough to read for pleasure.
To get you started, here are some lists of books you might like:
1. Tales from the Oral World
There are many books of folk and fairy tales from all over the globe. One good place to start is with an anthology of tales from different places. Two I like are Jane Yolen’s Favorite Folktales from around the World and Stith Thompson’s One Hundred Favorite Folktales. Both provide sources for the tales. The Yolen book is one of many excellent collections in the Pantheon Fairy Tale & Folklore Library; this series includes Russian Fairy Tales, French Folktales, Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales, American Indian Myths and Legends, Folktales from India, Arab Folktales, Legends and Tales of the American West, Japanese Tales, and The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales. In this series I’m especially fond of Katherine Briggs’s British Folktales—a number of the tales are in dialect, just as they were told to collectors.
Faber & Faber have also published many fine collections of folktales and legends, including Kathleen Lines’s The Faber Book of Magical Tales, and Kevin Crossley-Holland’s The Faber Book of Northern Folktales, and The Faber Book of Northern Legends.
If you’re interested in tales from more far-flung areas, the International Folk Tales Series, published by Interlink, includes Alexander McCall Smith’s Children of Wax: African Folk Tales, James Riordan’s Siberian Tales, and much more. And there exist many other collections of tales from a particular geographical area; for instance, W. B. Yeats’s collection, Irish Folk Stories and Fairy Tales and Gustav Schwab’s Gods and Heroes: myths and epics of ancient Greece.
Native American tales have also been gathered into many different collections. American Indian Myths and Legends can give you a good starting place; so can Ella Clark’s Voices of the Wind: Native American Legends. Joseph Bruchac has put together many wonderful books of Native American (particularly Algonquian) tales.
If you prefer, you can find collections of folk tales and myths organized by theme, rather than place of origin. Idries Shah’s World Tales: the extraordinary coincidence of stories told in all times, in all places is one such collection. Others I know of are: Kathleen Raglan’s Fearless Girls, Wise Women & Beloved Sisters: heroines in folktales from around the world; Naomi Baltuck’s Apples from Heaven: multicultural folk tales about stories and storytellers; James Riordan’s, The Woman in the Moon and other tales of forgotten heroines; and J. F. Bierlein’s Parallel Myths.
Epics and legends come in many different editions. Epics in poetry, like Beowulf and Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, can be read in modern versions in poetry or prose. If you’d like to range farther afield, there’s the Finnish epic, Kalevala, the Mabinogian from Wales, and the Ramayana from India. King Arthur legends can be found in translations of the medieval originals or in more modern versions.
I’ve found (so far) two books that give a sense of what storytelling is like in oral cultures: David Thomson’s The People of the Sea: a journey in search of the seal legend (OP) and Peig Sayers’s An Old Woman’s Reflections: the life of a Blasket Island storyteller.
2. Retellings of oral tales
Many of the tales in the collections above were retold—perhaps unconsciously— by the collector; in this section, I direct your attention to deliberate retellings of traditional stories.
Aesop. The Complete Fables.
Boccaccio. The Decameron
Angela Carter. The Old Wives’ Fairy Tale Book.
Chaucer. The Canterbury Tales
Kevin Crossley-Holland. British Folktales.
The Arthur Trilogy
The Norse Myths
Robert Graves. The Greek Myths.
Nathaniel Hawthorne. A Wonder Book for Boys and Girls (Greek mythology)
Washington Irving. “Rip Van Winkle”; “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
Andrew Lang. The Red Fairy Book (and the Pink, Yellow, Blue, etc. ones)
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Hiawatha”
Alison Lurie. Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folktales
Walter de la Mare. Tales Told Again.
Charles Perrault. Fairy Tales
Arthur Ransome. Old Peter’s Russian Tales.
John Steinbeck. The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights.
J.R.R. Tolkien. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Jack Zipes. The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: from Straparoloa and Basile to the Brothers Grimm
As the genre of fantasy gained in popularity in the late 20th century, many writers decided to re-tell traditional tales, usually in a nontraditional way. Some examples:
Margaret Atwood. The Penelopiad (Odysseus’s wife’s side of the story)
Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, ed. Black Thorn, White Rose.
Chitra Banarjee Divakaruni.The Palace of Illusion (retelling of the Mahabharata from a female point of view)
Robin McKinley. Beauty: a retelling of the story of beauty and the beast
Gregory Maguire. Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (“Cinderella”)
Donna Jo Napoli. Beast
Jane Yolen. Briar Rose (“Sleeping Beauty”)
3. Stories inspired by oral tradition
Joan Aiken. A Small Pinch of Weather.
Hans Christian Andersen. The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories.
L. Frank Baum. The Wizard of Oz.
Paul Coelho. The Alchemist.
Isak Dineson. Winter Tales.
Eleanor Farjeon. The Old Nurse’s Stocking Basket; The Little Bookroom.
John Gould. The Fastest Hound Dog in the East.
Kenneth Grahame. The Wind in the Willows.
Michael Patrick Hearn, ed. The Victorian Fairy Book.
E.T.A. Hoffman. Nutcracker and Mouse King;The Tale of the Nutcracker.
Rudyard Kipling. The Jungle Books.
Ursula LeGuin. Buffalo Gals and other stories
C.S. Lewis. The Chronicles of Narnia.
Alison Lurie, ed. The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales.
Robin McKinley. The Door in the Hedge.
George Macdonald. The Complete Fairy Tales.
N. Scott Momaday. The Way to Rainy Mountain.
Barbara Leonie Picard. The Faun and the Woodcutter’s Daughter.
J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter series
Salmon Rushdie. Haroun and the Sea of Stories.
Leslie Marmon Silko. Storyteller.
Frank Stockton. The Lady and the Tiger and other tales
J.R.R. Tolkien. The Hobbit; Lord of the Rings
Oscar Wilde. Complete Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde.
4. Some Modern Tale-tellers
Ray Bradbury. Dandelion Wine.
*George Mackay Brown, Beside the Ocean of Time.
Agatha Christie. Lord Edgeware Dies. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
Charles Dickens. The Pickwick Papers. Bleak House.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The Complete Sherlock Holmes (2 vols.).
W. Somerset Maugham. Collected Short Stories (4 vols.).
*Guy de Maupassant. A Day in the Country and other stories.
James Moffat, ed. Points of View: an anthology of short stories.
Sean O’Faolain, ed. Short Stories: a study in pleasure.
Edgar Allen Poe
Robert Louis Stevenson
PRACTICE: FINDING STORIES
Look through these lists and select some books you think you’d enjoy. Add to the list any books from your favorite storytellers you want to read or re-read. Collect the books, look through them, and make a tentative reading plan for spending them with them. What do you hope to learn from these stories. Reflect on that question on paper, and then, after you’ve read a story, take some time to reflect: what did you notice about this story? what does it do that you might want to learn how to do?