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THE BEAST'S GARDEN: How a book can change your life

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Sometimes a book can change your life.

The Diary of Anne Frank was that kind of book for me. 

I read it when I was twelve years old.  I can still remember the awful shock of reaching the end, and finding out that Anne did not escape her attic, that she died in Bergen-Belsen when she was only a few years older than I was. 

I had never read a book like it before. It felt like I had been punched hard in the solar plexus. I could not breathe, I could not cry. My very heart felt bruised.

Anne Frank

I began to write my own diary a few days later. Anne Frank had written hers as a series of letters addressed to an imaginary friend named Kitty. I did the same, but addressed mine to “Carrie”. The first entry was written on 15/8/1978 and began ‘Dear Diary, your name is now Carrie. You’ll be my confidant and my port in which to lay my head and my poor worn-out hopes, thoughts and ambitions …’ 

I have written in my diary nearly every day since. That is thirty-seven years of consecutive diary writing, much more than the two years so tragically given to Anne Frank.

Her diary also sparked in me a lifelong fascination with Hitler, and those few brave people who tried their best to resist Nazism. I began to collect a library of books to do with the Second World War, many of them first-hand accounts and memoirs. I was particularly interested in stories of ordinary people who found within themselves extraordinary courage and strength. I knew that one day I would try and write a novel about someone like Anne Frank. 

The years passed, and I wrote a great many books. More than thirty-five at last count. My books range from picture books to poetry, and from heroic fantasy for children to historical novels for adults. I have written books set in Renaissance Venice and at the court of the Sun King in Versailles, in the English Civil War and in the perilous reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, in the Napoleonic Wars, and in worlds of my own imagining. Yet the Second World War never loosened its hold on my imagination. I continued to read as many books as I could find set at that period, and to continue to think about writing one of my own. 

Fairy tales are another long-held passion of mine. I have just completed a doctorate in the subject, and many of my novels have fairy tale motifs and metaphors entwined through their stories. 

The Wild Girl tells the story of the forbidden romance between Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told him many of the world’s most beloved ‘wonder tales’. She told him stories like ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, ‘The Frog King’, ‘Six Swans’, ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’, and ‘The Singing, Springing Lark,’ a beautiful variant on the tale we know as ‘The Beauty and the Beast’. 

Arthur Rackham's illustration for 'The Singing, Springing Lark' 

In this story, the father catches a lark, rather than stealing a rose, and the beast of the tale is a lion by day and a man by night (an arrangement which I always thought might have its compensations). The greatest difference, however, is the ending. In Dortchen Wild’s tale, the heroine must follow a trail of blood and white feathers her lover leaves behind him, and then outwit the enchantress who first cast the curse upon him. The heroine is given three gifts to help her: a dress as golden as the sun, another as silver as the moon, and a griffin on which to escape. 

Writing a novel always throws up many unexpected ideas as well as unforeseen problems, and The Wild Girl was no exception.  Taking place over twenty years, and told from the point of view of a young woman forgotten by history, The Wild Girl was very research-intensive indeed. And, for a long while, I did not have a strong sense of the narrative structure. I knew I wanted to retell one of Dortchen’s stories in some way; I did not yet know how. 

While researching the Grimm Brothers, I was distressed to learn their tales had been banned in Germany after the Second World War, as part of the Allies’ Denazification program. Hitler had loved the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales and had recommended all German households have a copy on their shelves. I went to bed that night troubled and upset. I loved the Grimm tales too. In times of darkness and fear, they had given me light and comfort. Yet I had always hated the Nazis and all they stood for, including their burning of books. 

I could not get to sleep that night, my mind in turmoil.  Eventually I got up and found myself a novel to read. I chose an old World War II thriller, about the Danish resistance to the Nazis. I read the whole book through, finally going to sleep long after midnight. Just before I fell asleep, I thought again about the novel I was struggling to write and about the beautiful tales Dortchen Wild had told Wilhelm Grimm. I said to myself: “Trust in the universe. The answer will come.” 

The next morning, as I drifted in that hypnopompic state between sleeping and waking, an image rose up in my mind’s eye. I saw a beautiful young woman, wearing a dress as golden as the sun, singing in a vast dark hall. Her audience were German soldiers in black SS uniforms. I knew instinctively that she was some kind of spy, or resistance fighter, and also that she was German herself. 

I wrote in my diary that day, Monday 3rd October 2011: ‘I couldn’t sleep last night for worrying about Wild Girl … I need something new, strange, unexpected, surprising … I woke this morning and lay in that dim borderland between awake and asleep, that place of creative dreaming, and the idea came to me – why not have the secondary tale set in WWII … perhaps she has to flee and live wild in the woods – or joins the German Resistance - & she carries everywhere a copy of the Grimm fairy tales, as a kind of talisman … it feels good, it feels right, it feels hard and scary – but absolutely seems it have some kind of power to it …’  

My unconscious mind had put together two very different desires – wanting to write a novel about resistance to the Nazis and wanting to retell one of Dortchen Wild’s fairy tales – and come up with something quite unexpected. 

That was the beginning of my novel The Beast’s Garden, a retelling of the Grimms’ version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’, set in the German underground resistance to Hitler.

That vision, that not-quite-a-dream, was the beginning of an extraordinary journey of discovery for me. At first, I thought that this story of courage and resistance would be the second narrative strand in The Wild Girl. Slowly I came to realise it was a novel in its own right. I had to put the idea aside as I wrote The Wild Girl and finished my doctorate in fairy tale studies. The idea would not leave me alone, however. I began to read as much as I could about the German Resistance. 

I discovered, rather to my surprise, that many Germans abhorred the Nazis and risked their lives to stand against Hitler. I read about the Swing Kids who played jazz and danced swing in basements and cellars, despite the threat of arrest. The White Rose group of students in Munich printed leaflets calling the German people to rise up against the Third Reich. The Edelweiss Pirates in Cologne did battle with the Hitler Youth and hid deserters from the army. The Baum group in Berlin blew up one of Goebbels’ exhibitions. Other resisters smuggled Jews out of Germany, or hid them in their houses and gardens. Most of them paid for their defiance with their lives.

One of the most successful groups of resisters was based in Berlin. The Gestapo called them the Red Orchestra. They called themselves the Zirkel, which simply means circle. Their members were writers, actors, journalists, musicians and sculptors. Their leaders were a Luftwaffe officer called Harro Schulze-Boysen, his young aristocratic wife Libertas, and their friends Arvid and Mildred Harnack. Mildred would earn the terrible distinction of being the only American woman to be executed by the Third Reich.

Harro & Libertas Schulze-Boysen, who were both executed for their resistance to the Third Reich

I imagined a young German woman (the Beauty of the tale) who marries a Nazi officer (the Beast) in order to save her father. But secretly Ava helps her Jewish friends whever she can. One day she meets Libertas, and is drawn into the dangerous world of the underground resistance. Living a double life, she must spy on her husband Leo in order to help save whom she can. Gradually she comes to suspect her husband is himself involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. When the plot fails, Ava must risk everything to try and save her husband from a cruel traitor’s death. 

The Beast’s Garden was in many ways the most difficult book I have ever written. I found the research utterly harrowing. For months, every day was spent reading about Hitler, about the Gestapo, about the Holocaust. I wrote the first draft entirely in first person, as if it was a diary or a memoir. But then I found it was too limiting, trying to tell such a big story from just one person’s point of view. I rewrote the entire book, in just six weeks, from a number of different points of view, including that of a Jewish girl in hiding. 

On Thursday 12 February 2015, I wrote in my diary: ‘I finished the novel last night, at 1am … and could not sleep afterwards … very tired now, but oh so happy …’

The Beast’s Garden is my paean to all those ordinary people who found such extraordinary courage and strength of spirit within them during the dark days of the Third Reich, including, of course, Anne Frank and the people who hid her and her family. 

You can read more about my liminal dreaming here and more about my research books for THE BEAST'S GARDEN here


SPOTLIGHT: Dortchen Wild, fairy tale teller

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

To celebrate International Women's Day, I thought I would spotlight the real (and unjustly forgotten) historical women whose lives I have drawn upon in my fiction.

Today I am re-posting a blog about Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told the Grimm brothers many of their most famous tales and - after a long and difficult courtship - married Wilhelm Grimm. I drew upon the true events of their forbidden romance to write my novel The Wild Girl


Sometimes an idea hits you like a sizzling bolt of lightning, and you know that you have to write it.

That’s how the first idea for my novel THE WILD GIRL came to me.

I was reading a scholarly book about the Grimm Brothers’ when I discovered that one of the primary oral sources for their fairy tales was a young woman who had grown up next door to the Grimm family. Her name was Dortchen Wild, and she was only eighteen when she began to tell Wilhelm some of the world’s most beloved stories. 

I was fascinated by this, having always imagined the sources of the tales being hunchbacked old peasant women. Then I discovered that Dortchen and Wilhelm had fallen in love and - many years later – married. I knew at once that I had to tell her story! It was absolutely electrifying. I could hardly sleep that night for excitement.

Discovering Dortchen’s story was not at all easy. Very little of her life was known – only her birth, marriage and death dates (and people even argued about those). Of her own writing, there remained only a few letters and a brief autobiographical sketch that she dictated to her daughter on her death-bed. All I had to give me a sense of her inner life was the stories she told – and when she told them. 

Dortchen grew up next door to the Grimm brothers in the small kingdom of Hessen-Kassel. When she was in her teens and Wilhelm was twenty, Napoleon Bonaparte’s army invaded and the Hessian people were forced to live under French occupation for many years. Hessen-Kassel was mashed together with a number of other small countries to become the Kingdom of Westphalia. Napoleon put his dissolute young brother, Jerome, on the throne. He was only 22, and marked his ascension to the throne by playing leapfrog through the empty palace in his underwear. 

It was a dark and difficult time. Unable to find work, the two eldest boys in the Grimm family decided to collect and study the old wonder tales they had always loved so much. They were too poor to travel about and so asked friends and neighbours to tell them any old stories they knew. That was when they discovered - right next door - an absolute treasure-house of tales, all stuffed inside one young woman’s head.

Dortchen told Wilhelm almost one-quarter of all the stories in the first edition of the Grimm brothers’ ‘Children’s and Household Tales’, published in 1812. She told him ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘The Frog King’, ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’, and ‘Rumpelstiltskin’. 

On one extraordinary day – 10 January 1812 – she told Wilhelm three stories back-to-back, while huddling about the stove in her sister’s summerhouse so her father would not know.

On 9 October 1812 – the day before the fairy tale collection was sent to the printers – Dortchen told Wilhelm another two tales.  The first was about a good sister who is given the gift of spitting gold coins, while her evil sister who is cursed to spit out snakes and toads. The second was ‘All-Kinds-of-Fur’, a dark and haunting tale about a king who falls in love with his own daughter. 

Dortchen’s own father disapproved mightily of Wilhelm Grimm, and prohibited them from seeing each other. She had to tell Wilhelm her tales in secret. Kept apart by war, poverty, and patriarchal domination, the story of their forbidden romance is as full of drama, heartbreak and triumph as any fairy tale she told. 

I do hope that you will all find her story as fascinating as I did. 

Please leave a comment - I love to know what you think.

SPOTLIGHT - How grim were the Grimms' fairy tales?

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Just how grim are the Grimm tales?

* In the 1812 version of the Grimm’s tale ‘Little Snow-White’, it is the heroine’s own jealous mother that wants her dead. She tells the huntsman to bring back her daughter’s lungs and liver, for her to eat. Wilhelm Grimm later changed the mother to a step-mother.

* The jealous queen was punished by Little Snow-White and her prince by being forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes till she died. 

* In the original (1812) version of ‘The Frog King’, the princess does not kiss the frog to change him into a prince. Instead, she throws him as hard as she can against a wall. 

* In ‘Aschenputtel’, the Grimm’s version of ‘Cinderella’, one wicked stepsister cuts off her toes to try and make the slipper fit and the other cuts off her heel. In the end, they have their eyes pecked out by pigeons.

* In a later edition (1857) of ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, the dwarf tears himself in two when the queen guesses his true name. This detail was added in by Wilhelm, quite possibly because he thought it was funny 

* in one Grimm tale, ‘The Maiden Without Hands,’ a girl’s hands are chopped off by her own father

* The villain of ‘Fitcher’s Bird’ is a sorcerer that travels about the countryside, kidnapping girls and hacking them to pieces in a hidden room. 

* In ‘All-Kinds-of-Fur’, a girl disguises herself in a coat made from the fur flayed from a thousand animals in order to escape the incestuous desires of her father

* in many cases, Wilhelm made the stories more violent – particularly the punishments for witches and evil step-mothers

Nonetheless, nearly all of the tales end happily, with the hero or heroine triumphing because of their courage, goodness, and wit.

My novel THE WILD GIRL tells the astonishing untold story of how the Grimm brothers came to collect their world-famous tales - and the young woman who was their most important source. Its a story of love, war and the redemptive power of storytelling. 



SEVEN FASCINATING THINGS about the Grimm Brothers

Thursday, February 11, 2016

To celebrate THE WILD GIRL being released in the US, I'm going to share some vintage Wild Girl posts this week - I hope you enjoy!

Seven Fascinating Facts about the Grimms & their Fairy Tales

1. the last witch executed in Europe died only three years before Jakob Grimm was born 

2. Although the Brothers Grimm are famous for their collection of old tales, it was actually the younger brother, Wilhelm, who did most of the work, particularly after the first edition was published in 1812. 

3. The brothers transcribed all their stories with a quill dipped in ink. Paper was scarce during the Napoleonic Wars, and so they wrote on both sides of the paper and then turned it sideways to write crossways across the page.

4. In 1810, they sent a copy of their manuscript to a poet friend, Clemens Brentano, who had promised to help them find a publisher. Brentano lost the manuscript, which was not found until the early 1920s. Wilhelm had to rewrite the whole collection by hand.

5. Their youngest brother Ludwig was a talented artist who illustrated the first Children’s Edition of their tales, published in 1825. It was this book which became an international bestseller.

6. The Grimm brothers published many other books apart from fairy tales, including writings on linguistics, folklore, and the beginning of the first detailed German dictionary. This was not finished until 120 years after their deaths.

7. the Grimm brothers were rebels who were eventually fired from their jobs at the University of Gottingen for protesting the abolition of the constitution by the King of Hanover.

The story of how the Grimm brothers came to discover their world-famous fairy tales - and the beautiful young woman who told them many of the tales - inspired my novel THE WILD GIRL.


Please leave a comment - I love to know what you think!

INTERVIEW: Kate Forsyth author of THE WILD GIRL

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

To celebrate THE WILD GIRL being RELEASED IN THE US, I'm going to share some vintage posts this week - I hope you enjoy!

This interview was originally published by SUNDAY LIFE Magazine in April 2013

SL: Explain your fascination with fairy tales

Kate: I first began to read fairy tales as a little girl in hospital, after suffering a savage dog attack when I was little more than a baby. As a result of my injuries, I was in and out of hospital for most of my childhood. Everyone who visited me knew that they had to bring me books - they were my only shield against fear and pain and loneliness. My mother gave me a beautiful, red-leather edition of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales when I was about seven. I read that book to absolute rags. The stories in it both bewitched and troubled me. They were so full of beauty and mystery and danger. I felt as if they spoke to me on some deep and secret level, like something heard in a dream and only half-remembered after waking. I loved the whole atmosphere of the fairy tale world – this was a place where anything could happen, a place where girls could defeat witches and frogs could turn into princes and bones could sing to accuse their murderers. I’ve been trying to recreate that sense of wonder and strangeness in my own writing ever since. 

Me when I was about 7

SL: Where does this book take us?

Kate: ‘The Wild Girl’ tells the true, untold love story of Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told him many of the world’s most famous stories. Dortchen grew up next door to the Grimm family in Hessen-Cassel, a small German kingdom that was one of the first to fall to Napoleon. It was a time of war and tyranny and terror, when the collecting of a few old half-forgotten tales was all the young Grimm brothers could do to resist the cultural dominance of the French. Dortchen told Wilhelm such well-known tales as ‘Hansel & Gretel’, ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, ‘Six Swans’, ‘The Frog King’, ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’, ‘All-Kinds-of-Fur’, ‘The Singing Bone’, and many, many more. They fell in love but were forbidden to marry, and had many obstacles to overcome before they could at last be together. It’s a very beautiful, dark and dramatic story, a true-life fairy-tale.


SL: Why are we still so fascinated by fairy tales? Why do they continue to resonate with us?

Kate: I think it's because fairy tales operate on more than one level. On the surface, they are magical adventures filled with wonder, enchantment, beauty, romance, danger, and the consolation of a happy ending.  On a deeper level, however, they are serious dramas that reflect, symbolically and metaphorically, problems and pitfalls that are can be very real in people’s inner lives. They offer a stage where the reader can act out universal fears and desires, and so resolve deep, subconscious tensions that they are, perhaps, not even aware of. 

SL: What is your understanding of how they have evolved over 200 years?

Kate: Once upon a time, our ancestors used to crouch about the fire in their cave, telling tales of heroes and monsters and quests and enchantments in an attempt to keep the terror of the night at bay. The tales they told taught the young about the dangers of the perilous world in which they lived, and gave them some clues as to how to survive it. 

As language evolved, and symbols were created to express meaning, these tales began to be written down. People took the tales they had heard and retold them, transforming them into new tales. Then those tales were read – both silently and aloud – and told and retold again, constantly changing, constantly finding new forms. The printing press was invented, and the old stories were remade and retold again and again, like a shapeshifter constantly shedding its skin. Sometimes they were told for the entertainment of adults, sometimes for the enthrallment of children, sometimes to teach, sometimes to warn, sometimes to amuse. New technologies brought new ways to tell the tales – yet the vital metaphors and motifs still endure and shall as long as humans tell stories. 

SL: Do you have any favourite retellings?

Kate: I love fairy tale retellings! I have a whole shelf of them in my library. It’s hard to pick only one so I’ll list my favourite seven:

The Glass Slipper by Eleanor Farjeon (published 1955)
Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C.S. Lewis (published 1956)
The Stone Cage by Nicholas Stuart Gray (published 1963)
Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast by Robin McKinley (published 1978)
Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier (published 1999)
North Child by Edith Pattou (published 2003)
Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth (published 2012)
(Yes, I included my own novel – a retelling of Rapunzel - but then I do love it with all my heart.)


SL: Will fairy tales endure? And why?
Oh yes, fairy tales shall endure – happily ever after. They’ll endure because they seem simple and fanciful, but are in fact very deep and very old and very true. 

SL: Do new fairy tales emerge, or are they all derived from the same originals?
Kate: Jane Yolen says that stories are like cities; they are built on the stones and bones of the past. I think this is absolutely right. We can never escape our narrative past. It is encoded into our brains and our imaginations. We can all, however, create new stories, all of them as different from the old as a butterfly is from a caterpillar. 

SL: Which is your favourite of all of them?
Kate: My
all-time favourite fairy tales are ‘Rapunzel’, ‘Six Swans’, and ‘Beauty and the Beast’. 

SL: What role do fairy tales play in our modern day society?
Kate: Fairy tales play the same role they have always played – they entertain and educate, while also disrupting the known world to make space for marvellous alternatives. Fairy tales teach us that anything may be possible if we just try hard enough, and encourage us to have courage and compassion and to trust in our own cleverness. What more beautiful and necessary life lesson can we learn?

SL: Why do we all still want to be in a fairy tale – swept up by a prince etc?
Kate: Fairy tales are stories of true love, triumph and transformation. They arise out of the deepest longings of the human heart, and offer us some hope that these dreams may one day come true. We need dreams, we need to imagine what kind of world we want, we need to have hope that goodness and love can triumph over evil and hatred. Fairy tales both console us and compel us; they give us a star-map for the future. 

Please leave a comment - I love to know what you think!



Monday, July 27, 2015

My novel THE WILD GIRL has just been released in the US, so to celebrate I thought I'd share some of my inspirations for the novel. 

The first thing I do when I start a new novel is build my library. 

I order in hundreds of books – some new, some old, some good old-fashioned hardbacks, some in electronic form. I begin to read. I want to know everything there is to know about the time and place my book is set. I want to utterly immerse myself in the milieu. 

My novel The Wild Girl tells the untold story of the forbidden love between Wilhelm Grimm and the young woman who told him many of his most beautiful and haunting fairy tales. Her name was Dortchen Wild and she grew up next door to the Grimm family in the old town of Cassel, in the small kingdom of Hessen-Cassel (now in the very centre of Germany and spelt Kassel.)

They were both young – Wilhelm was in his mid-20s and Dortchen was 18 – and they fell madly in love. But Dortchen was forbidden to see the handsome yet impoverished young scholar. She had to sneak out to meet him behind her father’s back. 

Parental disapproval and poverty was not the only thing keeping them apart. Wilhelm and Dortchen lived through the bloody turmoil of the Napoleonic wars. Hessen-Cassel was one of the first countries to fall to the French, and Napoleon mashed it together with another dozen or so countries to create a new Kingdom of Westphalia. He set his dissolute younger brother Jerome up as a puppet-king. Jerome at once hired all his friends and set about bankrupting the treasury with his balls, masquerades and many mistresses.

I had first read about Wilhelm and Dortchen’s romance in Clever Maids: A Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales by Valeria Paradiz, which examines the oral sources of the famous tales. Her considerable contribution was analysed, along with many others, and then – in the final chapter – it was mentioned that Wilhelm and Dortchen eventually married. I was amazed by this story – both by the beauty and romance of their love affair, and by the fact that no-one had ever written about it before. It was just a footnote in history. I knew at once I had to turn it into a novel. 

But there was so much I needed to know! I began my reading everything I could find about the Grimm brothers (at least a dozen books on their lives have been published – I collected and read them all.) I also read many academic articles examining individual fairy tales and other related information. The best books I read (apart from Clever Maids) were The Brothers Grimm: Two Lives, One Legacy by Donald R. Hettinga, The Hard Facts of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales by Maria Tatar, and The Owl, the Raven and the Dove: The Religious Meaning of the Grimms’ Magic Fairy Tales by G. Ronald Murphy.

I knew absolutely nothing about Napoleon when I started! I’d studied history at school, but we stopped after the French Revolution and then started again at the First World War. Napoleon’s rise from an upstart Corsican peasant to the Emperor of France was right bang in the middle of that lacuna in my knowledge. 

So I read everything about him I could get my hands on. The best non-fiction books were Napoleon and Josephine: An Improbable Marriage by Evangeline Bruce and 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow by Adam Zamoyski (though I read many more). I also read a great deal of fiction set during those times, from Lauren Willig’s comic romantic romps featuring English and Napoleonic spies in love and war (start with The Secret History of the Pink Carnation) to The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1997. 

My primary touchstone was Jane Austen. Pride & Prejudice was published in 1813, one year after the first edition of the Grimms’ Children’s and Household Tales. Jane Austen was actually ten years older than Jakob Grimm, twelve years older than Wilhelm. Her heroines were the same age as Dortchen (in THE WILD GIRL, we follow Dortchen’s life between the age of 12 to her early 30s). Dortchen was therefore a contemporary of Jane Austen’s heroines, and so I re-read most of novels in order to gain insight into Dortchen’s inner life, her thoughts, her voice, her longings, her fears. I read Persuasion particularly closely, since it is a novel about a young woman who must find the courage to speak out, and that is what I felt was the key narrative arc of The Wild Girl too.

I also read the work of the German Romantic poet Novalis (the hero of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel), the letters of Bettina von Arnim (who married the Grimm brothers’ best friend, Achim von Arnim and was a fine writer herself), and countless books on life in Germany in the early 19th century.



Sunday, July 26, 2015

Whenever I begin daydreaming about a new novel, I buy a notebook.

Sometimes I search everywhere for the perfect notebook. Other times, I’ll be impatient and grab one from the local stationary store. If I do this, then I’ll make a cover for it. I’ll search out a photo that speaks to me and print it out and stick it on the cover. As you can see, it can get very tattered:


THE WILD GIRL is a very big and complicated book. It was a two notebook novel. So was BITTER GREENS. Most novels, though, only need a single notebook.

I begin by writing a brief outline of the book and what I think it’s about:

I stick photos and maps and drawings in my notebook. I scribble down questions, ideas, timelines, research notes, list of things to do, and problems to be solved. I draw myself narrative arcs, and think about where to put scenes for maximum impact. I play with the shape and structure of the novel. If I jot down a thought to myself on a sticky-note, or a paper napkin, or an old receipt, that gets stuck into the book too.   

It’s not a pretty notebook. It’s a chronological record of ideas and inspiration. Sometimes I doodle in it. Sometimes my writing is indecipherable and my sketches appallingly bad. It doesn’t matter. Everything is recorded. 

I usually put the date and often the time in the top of the page. This way I know I began thinking about THE WILD GIRL on 1/2/08. I wrote the first draft of the first line on 26/8/11 – a considerable time later. I spend a long time thinking about my novels before I begin to write them. I planned the first chapter on 12/10/11. In July 2012, I wrote a list of problems to be fixed in the editing stage. I began to edit the book at 11am on 13/11/12. 

Once I begin writing, I keep a record of my word count too. One of my pages tells me that I began writing at 3am on 1/5/12 and wrote 1,700 words by 5.40am (I often can’t sleep towards the end of a book). 
I’ll also record where I am if I’m away from home. So on 20/4/12 I was in Sababurg in Germany, and had written 104, 426 words in total. That day I wrote 8 pages in my notebook; the next day I pushed my word count to 107, 042.

Why do I do this? I find it interesting. I like to record every step in the creative process. I like to imagine some future scholar blowing off the dust on this notebook and finding my process as fascinating as I do. My notebooks are paired with my diaries, in which I record my thoughts and feelings and discoveries. One is the key to the other. 

Whenever I am stuck or stymied, I can go back through my notebook and read my notes and find new inspiration. I can keep track of what needs to be done and draw up lists for myself. I can see the whole messy process of writing a book, from the first idea to the last word. I can remind myself, when I first start writing a novel, that I never really know where I am going or what amazing serendipitous discovereis are yet to be made. 

When I'm on tour, I keep my notebook in the hotel safe (even fi that emans there is no room for my laptop). 

When I go on holiday, or on a research trip, it travels with me (which helps explain why it gets so tattered).

Then, when I’m finished writing and editing the novel, it gets put away.

And I will go in search of a new notebook, filled with excitement and joy at the infinite possibilities presented by its pure white pages. 

SPOTLIGHT: Sources of the Grimms' fairy tales

Thursday, July 23, 2015


To celebrate THE WILD GIRL being released in the US tis week, I'm going to share some vintage Wild Girl posts this week - I hope you enjoy!


Everyone has heard of the Grimm brothers.

Everyone has read some, at least, of their famous fairy tales.

What few people know, however, is who originally told the stories to the Grimm brothers. The names of the original tellers has been lost to all but those fairy tale scholars that have painstakingly pieced together clues taken from the brother’s notes and diaries to name the sources of the some of the world’s best loved fairy tales.

For example, ‘Aschenputtel’, (better known today as Cinderella), was told by an old woman in a poorhouse in the small medieval town of Marburg where Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm went to university. Her name is thought to be Frau Creuzer.

‘Hansel and Gretel’ was told to Wilhelm in the house of the local apothecary, Herr Wild, which was next door to where the Grimm brothers lived. It was most probably told by Herr Wild’s second youngest daughter, Dortchen. She most certainly provided the famous rhymes, usually translated into English as ‘Little mouse, little mouse, who is nibbling at my house?’ with the children replying, ‘it’s the wind so wild, the heavenly child.’

‘Little Red Cap’ was told by Jeannette and Marie Hassenpflug, young women in their late teens and early 20s, who also told ‘The Robber Bridegroom’ and ‘Brier Rose’ (better known as ‘Sleeping Beauty’), as well as many others. Their brother Louis married the Grimm brothers’ younger sister, Lotte. 

‘The Worn-Out Dancing Shoes’ (sometimes called ‘Twelve Dancing Princesses’) was told to Wilhelm Grimm by Jenny von Droste-Hülstoff, the niece of a university friend. She had a warm and tender friendship with Wilhelm, so that many thought they might marry, but the wedding never came to pass.

‘The Bremen Town Musicians’ was told to Wilhelm by Jenny’s aunts, the sisters of Werner von Haxthausen, who studied law with the Grimms at Marburg University. 

‘The Goose Girl’ was told to the Grimm brothers’ by Dorothea Viehmann, a poor old woman, widow to an innkeeper, who came to the Grimms’ house selling vegetables and butter.

‘Snow White’ was originally thought to have been told by the Wild family’s housekeeper, Marie Müller, better known as Old Marie. Now many scholars believe it was told by Marie Hassenpflug instead (though the Grimms had not yet met the Hassenpflugs when this story was first recorded). It is likely that a number of different variants were told by different tellers, and that the Grimm brothers blended the best elements of them together.

‘The Twelve Brothers’ was told by Julia and Charlotte Ramus, daughters of the local pastor

‘Rumpetstilskin’ was told to Wilhelm by his next door neighbour, Dortchen Wild. She also told him ‘Six Swans’, ‘The Frog King’, ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’, ‘Sweetheart Roland’,   ‘Mother Holle’, ‘The Three Little Men in the Wood’. ‘The Singing Bone’, ‘All-Kinds-of-Fur’, and ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’. 
In fact, she told almost one quarter of the Grimm brothers’ first collection of fairy tales. 

Dortchen and Wilhelm fell in love during the collection of the fairy tales, but were unable to marry for many years thanks to her father's disapproval and the Grimm brothers’ poverty. It was not until a small collection, chosen especially for children, was published that the tales at last became popular and the two star-crossed lovers were at last able to marry. 

I tell the story of their star-crossed love in my novel THE WILD GIRL:  

Please leave a comment - I love to know what you think!


Saturday, July 18, 2015


I stumbled across the story of Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild quite by accident one day.

I was busy researching the sources of ‘Rapunzel’, one of the Grimm brothers’ best known fairy tales, for my novel Bitter Greens which I was then writing. 

I had bought a book called Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales by the US writer and academic, Dr Valerie Paradiž, little knowing that I had just changed the course of my own life. 
Clever Maids debunks the myth that the Grimm brothers travelled the German countryside, collecting stories from old shepherds tending their flocks, and elderly peasant women rocking by the fire, their fingers busy with their knitting. Instead, it revealed, most of the stories were told to the Grimm brothers by their friends and neighbours - young, middle-class women. 

One of these young women was Dortchen Wild. She grew up next door to the Grimms in the small medieval market square of Hessen-Cassel. She was just 19 years old when she began telling Wilhelm the stories she knew – tales that are now known the world over, tales like ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, ‘The Frog King’, and ‘Six Swans’.  

They fell in love, but were forbidden to marry. It would take another thirteen years of war, death, famine and heartbreak until, at last, the two were free to marry and build a life together.

I knew as soon as I read about Dortchen Wild that I had to write a novel based on her life.

I didn’t realise what a challenge this would be!

The world knows very little about the Wild family – unlike the Grimms, who have been researched exhaustively.

We know – thanks to Dr Paradiž - that Dortchen had five sisters and one brother, and that she grew up in a rambling old house above her father’s apothecary shop. We know that her father was a stern man who had a famous garden in which he grew many plants for use in his remedies. 

We also know that Dortchen had a childhood crush on Wilhelm which she confessed in a letter to Lotte Grimm, his younger sister. 

We know that they met in 1805 and married in 1825.

It was not much to weave a tale with.


So began a long, arduous research process that hit setback after setback. 

I wrote to Dr Paradiž asking if she had any further research that may be of use to me. She told me that she had moved house, and thrown every single bit of work she had done on Clever Maids into the garbage bin.

I hired a German translator to help me with research on the ground in Germany. He was hit by a car, and spent months in rehabilitation.

I found a German academic who specialised in Grimm research. He promised to find out what I needed to know and email me back within the week. I never heard from him again. I think he died. Or changed his email address to avoid my increasingly anxious queries. 

Gradually I began to piece together the key details of Dortchen’s life. I found mentions of her in footnotes and in academic essays. I read her birth records and realised that the official date of her birth was wrong by three years. 

I realised that the kingdom of Hessen-Cassel was one of the first to fall to Napoleon’s Grand Army, and – not knowing a thing about Napoleon – set about discovering everything I could about him. I identified which stories she had told Wilhelm, and when, and then I read them over and over again, wondering about the girl who could tell such beautiful and frightening tales. I puzzled over the darkness at the heart of many of her stories. I imagined her telling them to Wilhelm, these stories of thwarted desire and abandonment and silenced women. I imagined how Dortchen and Wilhelm might have begun to fall in love. I thought very deeply about what stories are really for – why do we tell them, why do we want to hear them, what power do they hold?

One day, searching blindly through the internet for more background on the Wild family, I stumbled across a blog by a German cartoonist and artist named Irmgard Peters. With the help of Google Translate, I read a story she had posted about a small white cot that had been passed down through her family for generations. Dortchen Wild and her sisters had slept in that cot as young children, when they were first told the stories that later became the backbone of the Grimm brother’s fairy tale collection.

I wrote to Frau Peters in high excitement. She wrote back to me and confirmed that she was the descendant of Rudolf Wild, Dortchen’s older brother. Over the next few years she shared with me many snippets of family lore, sent me photos of family portraits, and translated many German texts for me, including Wilhelm’s unpublished diary. 

With her help, I was able to uncover many aspects of Dortchen and Wilhelm’s romance that nobody had ever known before … and so was able to bring this life one of the great untold love stories of history …

Please leave a comment - I love to know what you think!

This blog was originally written for the Random House Australia Blog on 2 April 2013

SPOTLIGHT: Fairy Retellings

Thursday, May 07, 2015


A few months ago, I gave a speech on fairy tales at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. I've had a lot of queries from people who were unable to make it for various reasons (including vast distances) and so I've summarised my speech into a couple of blogs so everyone may enjoy.  Here is a brief rundown on fairy tale retellings and ways to use them in your own creative work ...

A fairy tale retelling is a story which retells or reimagines a fairy tale, or draws upon well-known fairy tale symbols and structures.

Fairy tale retellings deal with personal transformation - people and creatures change in dramatic and often miraculous ways. Many fairy tales hinge upon a revelation of a truth that has been somehow hidden or disguised. 

Fairy Tale Retellings are most often written as a fantasy for children or young adults.


Some of my favourite fairy tale retellings for young adults

Not all, however. In recent years, there have been a number of beautiful, powerful and astonishing fairy tale retellings for adults too. 


Some of my favourite fairy tale retellings for adults

My own novel BITTER GREENS is a sexy and surprising retelling of the 'Rapunzel' fairy tale, interwoven with the true life story of the woman who first wrote the tale, the French noblewoman Charlotte-Rose de la Force . It moves between Renaissance Venice and the glittering court of the Sun King in 17th century Versailles and Paris, imagining the witch of the tale as a beautiful courtesan and the muse of the Venetian painter Titian. 


There are many different ways to draw upon fairy tales in fiction. Here is a brief overview: 

“Pure” Fairy Tale Retellings
A retelling of a fairy tale in which few changes are made to the best-known or ‘crystallised’ sequence of action and motifs. Changes tend to be small and subtle, such as adding dialogue or rhymes, naming characters, describing the setting more vividly, or smoothing out any inconsistencies. My picture book TWO SELKIE TALES FROM SCOTLAND, beautifully illustrated by Fiona McDonald, is an example of a "pure" fairy tale retelling. 

Fairy tale Parodies
Stories in this genre parody fairy tales for comic effect – they are usually done in picture book form, though sometimes writers do so in longer fiction also. 

Fairy Tale Pastische
A pastiche is a work of literature which celebrates the work that it imitates i.e. it is a new work which copies or mimics the style of an older literary form. A fairy tale pastiche therefore sounds like it comes from the ancient oral tradition, but is entirely new 

Sequels, prequels and Spin-Offs

Many fiction writers take a well-known fairy tale, and then create new stories that tell of the events which happened before or after the pattern of action in the 'crystallised' tale. 

Fairy Tale Allusion & Intertextuality

Some novels can draw upon fairy tale motifs, metaphors and plot patterns in more subtle ways. 

A girl may wear a red hoodie, or red dancing shoes. 

A young woman may be poor and under-valued, yet still win the heart of the most eligible bachelor

A dark forest may be a dark city … a tower may be a hospital …

My novel DANCING ON KNIVES is a contemporary romantic suspense novel set in Australia, yet it draws upon Hans Christian Andersen's well-known fairy tale, 'The Little Mermaid'. My heroine Sara is not at home in the world. She feels as if she cannot breathe, and every step causes her pain. She is haunted by the ghosts of the past, and must learn to be brave before she can begin a new life for herself. The fairy tale elements are used only as allusion and metaphor, and as a structural underpinning of the story. 

Retelling well-known tales from another Point of View

Another way to reinvigorate a well-known fairy tale is to tell the story from an unexpected point of view. I was always interested in the motivations of the witch in 'Rapunzel', and so knew right from the beginning that she would be a major point of view in BITTER GREENS. Here are a few other books which make the villain the protagonist of the story: 


Retelling well-known Fairy Tales in unexpected settings

Another way to revitalise a well-known fairy tale is to set it somewhere startling or unexpected. I have spent the last year working on a retelling of the Grimm Brothers'version of 'Beauty & the Beast', set in Nazi Germany.  THE BEAST'S GARDEN will be released in late April 2015.

Books About Fairy Tales & Their Tellers

As I noted earlier, BITTER GREENS is a retelling of the ' Rapunzel' fairy tale interwoven with the true life story of the woman who first wrote the tale, Charlotte-Rose de la Force. As an author and oral storyteller, I am very interested in the tellers of the tales. In my novel, THE WILD GIRL, I tell the story of the forbidden romance between Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told him many of the world's most famous fairy tales, against the dramatic background of the Napoleonic Wars in Germany. 


Retelling Little Known Fairy Tales

You do not need to only drawn upon the best-known fairy tales. There are many hundreds of beautiful, romantic and beguiling fairy tales that are not as well-known as they should be. In THE GYPSY CROWN, I retell some old Romany folk tales. In THE PUZZLE RING, I was inspired by Scottish fairy tales and history. In THE WILD GIRL, I shine a light upon some of the forgotten Grimm tales. In THE IMPOSSIBLE QUEST, I play with old Welsh tales. 

The only limits are your own imagination!


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