Worldbuilding: Check Your Lore

If you plan to write stories based off folklore, rather than Hollywood’s take on monsters or things dreamed up out of your own head, you’re going to need to do research. I say that with all due sympathy and plenty of empathy, because really digging into folklore takes time, persistence, and no little out-of-pocket for odd books even if you can get lucky and plunder a university library that has interlibrary loan.

Try that if you can, you can find the oddest old books that way. And often, if you’re looking for folklore, older books are better. They may have been gathered right from the source, and if you can lay hands on works from the early 1900s or before, they were put together by people who lived a lot closer to the bone than we do. The mindset is different. Modern books on ghost stories and lore often have an underlying tone of, “Oh this is creepy but absolutely no threat – it’s fun!” Older books, like W. Y. Evans-Wentz’ classic The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries? “These things are either real or damn convincing hallucinations. Either way they’re potentially life-changing and NOT fun.”

Which mindset do you think fits better with urban fantasy?

If you don’t have a lot of time or cash, by all means internet-search and use Wikipedia to the hilt. There’s some good stuff, if you can cross-check it. But.

There’s one particular pit in folklore that I’ve stumbled into more than once writing the draft of Oni the Lonely, especially when trying to write the final confrontation scenes. A pit that often gets glossed over in a lot of modern works.

Folklore is regional.

Legends of oni and kappa differ from one part of Japan to the next. Folklore on crows and ravens differs across the world. Sometimes they’re all lumped together, sometimes they’re two or more very different beasts. Native American legends tend to focus on them as tricksters, Europeans as messengers to and from the dead, and China has a whole slew of different tales, from the sun-crows shot down by a heavenly archer to ordinary crows as symbols of filial piety. And in America….

Well. That’s the real trick. Too often writers looking at the United States think we don’t have our own folklore – too “young” a country – and surely substituting in legends from back wherever the ethnic group of the character ancestrally came from will suffice.

This is a mistake.

The folklore of the British Isles, for instance, is historically linked to the folklore of those descended from Scots, Irish, Welsh, Cornish, Manx, and English in America. Many tales show up, if in an altered form. But they are not the same. In the Gaelic lands, crows are links between the living and the dead, servants of the great Phantom Queen, the Morrigan, and must always be addressed with respect.

In the Scots-Irish areas of the Appalachians, crows are bearers of ill-luck and servants of the devil, and the proper response to a crow trying to lay lethal ill-luck on you is shotgun.

So. If you plan to use folklore in your stories – from where? And how deep do you want to dig for it? Keep in mind that different places solve their supernatural problems in very different ways. I’d hate to be a hooded crow in the Blue Ridge Mountains….

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31 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Check Your Lore

  1. ::much nodding::

    With the warning that if someone is writing about anybody else’s theology, there’s a really good chance that it’s seriously screwed up, and that other times had their fads, too– I only recently found out that my Scottish grandmother’s understanding of “The Low Road” as being when the dead went home via the Fairy Lands is, at the very least, not universally known. Since it was the only bit of folk-lore she ever offered– even fairy tales were not allowed in her house, she got spooked from tea-leaf reading as a teen, she was very accurate– I don’t think she invented it.

    The approach to mythology as being somewhere between gossip and getting intel on a stronger, hostile, foreign country is one of my favorites. 😀 The conclusions can give you an idea of why they think stuff, but the conclusions may be seriously horribly wrong.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. “These things are either real or damn convincing hallucinations. Either way they’re potentially life-changing and NOT fun.”

    We don’t just need that attitude in fiction, we need it in real life! Yeah, maybe those ghost stories about the old asylum are just fun stories. Maybe they’re *not*, and if you go there…. Bad things happen.

    This is why modern ghost chasing shows drive me crazy. “Ooo, let’s go poke the spooky place with a camera and LOUD NOISES.” 🤦 Put aside, for a moment, the possibility that it’s all theatrics. What if you actually wake something there that really should be left asleep? And what if that something is *not* friendly?

    “Oh, how superstitious.” Yeah, maybe. With the uptick in demonic possessions – actual demonic possessions – around the world, I think a little caution is more than warranted. Don’t poke things that don’t need poking. And if you *must* do it, for heaven’s sake, bring an exorcist along. But that doesn’t sell with Hollywood, so…. 🤦

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Did you know that the ghost hunter “there’s a haunting” things are actually pretty well known and established as having happened, before the fad?

      ….

      They’re signs of demonic infestation. The traditional response is get a priest in there and get it blessed. About the only thing the ghost hunters don’t usually do is have blessed items to check if the “haunting” responds poorly.
      (Has been done in a double-blind manner, with identical saint’s medals, one blessed and one not, or with blessed vs unblessed water.)

      Very much took away any desire that *I* had to go ghost hunting!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. *Nod* This is a thing I think most people don’t realize, because they don’t read old folklore. I’d read a bunch of folklore before I ever read any modern ghost-hunting books.

        So when I did pick up one of those, looking for more info, I went down their list and went, “…Wait. Oh bleep. You idiots.”

        It’s like that 11th century complicated recipe someone tried out that actually does work for infected eyelids. Works so well it’s even good against MRSA.

        Just because it’s old, doesn’t mean it’s wrong, guys.

        Liked by 3 people

      2. Demonic infestation or a soul in Purgatory, from what I’ve read, and exorcists do handle them differently. As I recall, with a demonic infestation it typically trends dangerous – collapsing ceilings, spontaneous fires, that kind of thing. With a Poor Soul it’s more… attention-getting without the danger. Like a clock or a picture constantly ending up on the floor, or faucets turning on, or sounds of footsteps. In the latter cases you wouldn’t have an exorcism; you’d probably have a Mass said for the soul (on location if possible).

        Liked by 3 people

      3. Even just a lay blessing can help, since that usually involves praying for anybody who needs it– for all I know, some of them aren’t even in purgatory, they’re just giving someone a nudge to do something that’s important. The fun thing is there are a LOT of theories, a few obedience-to-licit-authority type things, but not a lot of binding teachings. So there can be a LOT of options for what a reasonably informed person thinks is going on.

        Digression: I try to avoid saying ‘exorcism’ at all because formal-term-of-art type exorcism being basically a holy exterminator for the big guns, and some parishes/ entire regions being very, very reluctant to even bless houses, much less do an exorcism (some not even having any trained exorcists), AND I know a lot of people use “exorcism” for any sort of house blessing.
        The late priest who went on Coast to Coast AM all the time was doing amazing work in proper outreach to a bunch of very vulnerable folks, and I salute him! Made it so SO MANY people got better information before they got in trouble.

        Liked by 3 people

      4. *laughs* I felt bad that I couldn’t remember his name so I looked it up– Father Gabriele Amorth, who was a trained exorcist for the Dioceses of Rome. (Just like with the military, a lot of places are going to mess up his religious rank/position, so you gotta kinda roll with it. 😀 )

        Liked by 3 people

    2. Not to mention the fact that people still sell ouija boards marketed as CHILDREN’S TOYS! I’m sorry, you want to play Chat Roulette with things you can’t see? You’re not doing it on my property and you’re not playing with my daughter. Ugh.

      Liked by 5 people

    3. Dont get me started on members of the senate… I swear there is a lich or so.ething sacrificing his aids to to instantly fix age and liver spots and overall make him more youthfull. I dont think the addition of a pastor to the senate helped his efforts beyond a now terrifyingly high turnover rate of his aids that seem to vanish off into the void. Not being from his state, I dont know how to check what happens to them….

      Liked by 1 person

  3. In low-tech settings, travel is restricted, so it’s a lot harder to exchange information with other communities. Meaning if there’s any phenic influence on liminal entities, you’d end up with entities having a ton of regional variation.

    Hmm. Age of railroad era series of short stories: Lots of places tended to placate or quarantine local spots of otherworldly peril, but a few developed ways to remove the problem once and for all. Now a ‘witch hunter’ is taking trains and steam ships all over, hunting down the monsters who destroy human lives.

    -Albert

    Liked by 4 people

      1. IIRC, Jim Baen coined the term ‘episodic novel’ for a book that’s a (mostly) linear series of short stories and/or novellas.

        Age of steam and rail, that’s 1800s. Hmm. Early 1800s to keep guns from completely dominating, plus Japan is still closed, China hasn’t lost the Opium Wars and so opium smuggling is huge, the US isn’t plunged into civil war yet . . .

        A Hungarian man wins a Vila wife by claiming her animal-skin (perhaps a swan), but as the story often goes, he broke the oath she insisted on as a condition their wedding, and so she left him with a broken heart and their baby son.

        Desperate to forget and heal, the man moves to somewhere in the British Isles. This annoyed his wife, because she had promised her son to one of the daughters of the local Vilas court, and now he’s taken their boy to a land where the local fairies are just as strong, but aren’t going to give a toss for her arrangement?

        So while growing up, a series of talking animals — the Vila mother, in various guises — train the boy in how to dispatch all manner of Otherworldly creatures. (To scare off the Celtic hussies who might try to ensnare her boy, of course!) Then when he’s grown enough to marry, she presents him with his ‘cousin’ bride . . . and he uses what he knows to drive them both off, because of course his father had taught him of Vilas.

        But all that would be backstory that eventually comes out, in between going around the British Isles and handling problems, then Europe, the Americas, at some point his growing fame in those circles sees him smuggled into Japan. (Perhaps a gumiho from the continent is visiting cousins, who want her _gone_, because they have better things to do with cute humans than devouring their livers.)

        If pretty girls are at the heart of a local problem, his mom is always willing to respond to a request for aid, but then she nags him to come home and settle down with his proper wife, and he’s kinda tired of that.

        -Albert

        Liked by 1 person

  4. For me the problem is that the more you dig into “true folklore” the less reliable it looks.

    It’s like that moment in anthropology when you realize that even a primary source is no more reliable than a witness statement,(not very reliable) and everything else is worse.

    So think about the regionalism.
    It’s entirely possible that the legends about crows in England and Ireland and Scotland are talking about the same mythological creatures.

    So differences in the legends could be from bad reporting, either from normal witness unreliability, or from the people not having the context to understand what was going on.
    “They were taking his soul to the afterlife.”
    “They were taking his soul to the evil wizard!”
    “They weren’t taking his soul, they were eating the liver.”

    Then you end up with the biases of various sources.
    The new religion has it’s own opinion about the legends, and they will kill people until they agree!

    Ultimately it feels like even if there was some supernatural entity that was a source of all the folklore, then folklore still wouldn’t tell you anything useful.
    Or at least not something I’d want to stake my life on without verification.

    Even within the legends things are often subjective enough that you wonder how they are drawing those conclusions.

    “A horseshoe nailed over the door frame prevented the Fae from entering and stealing our children!”

    “No, the Fae was 6′ 6″ tall and the door was 6’4.” He clocked his head on the frame and left when people started screaming. He was just trying to return something they’d dropped, but he decided it wasn’t worth the bother.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Blessed horseshoes were usually related to local horse-related or smith-related saints (like St. Eloi/St. Eligius, St. Dunstan, etc.), and of course cold iron would be good against fairies in most traditions.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. On the note of regionalism, “regions” could and were frequently a lot smaller than modern views (especially views here in the US). Even for fairly major mythologies. Look at how many people talke about “Greek mythology” as if it was just one thing, when it was really “there’s some overall similarity in names and stories for the majority of characters, but each city had their own variations for specific characters, and usually added a few additional characters that other cities didn’t have.”

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Yeah. I don’t normally like sarcasm, but OSP is good, even when I disagree with their data or their conclusions. Also, both of them manage the rare trick of having soothing voices despite the content of their videos. That really helps too.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I think it also will depend on *when* an area is settled. The Eastern Coast of the US was settled by Europeans a lot earlier than the Western Coast was. So any “folklore” from the West Coast would have to contend with the much more “modern” tech of the mid to late 1800s. Which is right around the time a lot off Urban Fantasy starts getting “fuzzy” about the level of technology “magical” beings can stand. It’s harder to get folklore working in a setting when oh… all major forms of transportation involves iron.

    Also harder is when the Native Americans are still around with their own folklore much more recently, so a lot more of it survived. So you get a more “secular” Western mindset that has already started thinking folklore doesn’t exist (or if it does, we have railways and iron in most places now) vs a native population that is on the out and *obviously* doesn’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to the supernatural.

    That said, there’s probably a great supernatural series out there waiting to be written of the time a European (or even Asian!) supernatural being moved to the US West Coast only to run into Coyote, who is well… Coyote… and all the shenanigans that would ensue…

    And that doesn’t get into all the modern folklore in things like creepypasta and urban legends. Which while they don’t *say* that there’s magic going on… there’s always the implication that it *did* happen. Only issue there is Urban Fantasy and it’s take on “modern stuff doesn’t work around magic”. And so often creepypasta and urban legends involved very *modern* technology like cars, cell phones and the internet, so most Urban Fantasy isn’t going to decide “yeah, a fay looking for prey would totally stage a broken down car on a lonely stretch of highway”…

    One of the *very* few takes on Urban Fantasy I know of that *doesn’t* go that route is the Mathew Swift series by Kate Griffith. There, “urban” magic works just as well as “wild” magic does… it’s just that it took a while for there to be enough “urban” environment for people to really figure out how it worked. One of the thing that series *does* confirm is that different cities have their own flavors of urban magic…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. And that doesn’t get into all the modern folklore in things like creepypasta and urban legends. Which while they don’t *say* that there’s magic going on… there’s always the implication that it *did* happen.

      Oooh, Jimmy Akin’s Mysterious World did a GREAT episode about a Border Patrol guy that fell the week before he was supposed to graduate– and then kept showing up to work for a while, until… well, let’s just say it’s a great story.

      https://sqpn.com/2021/07/border-patrol-ghost-luis-santiago-san-diego-ghost-story/

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Honestly one of my favorite reasons to read Manly Wade Wellman is how much he was talking to the people he got the folklore *from*. There’s a lot of little and big creatures that were genuine Appalachian folklore at the time. It doesn’t hurt that they’re very good stories. Also a ton of white magic as well, from the Pennsylvania Dutch designs to The Long Lost Friend.

    Also, Coyote is totally able to ruin someone else’s day, but Raven has been known to kill whales and sea serpents, as well as be clever enough to trick more then a few demons and gods. That would be a very bad day for someone who is assuming that they can casually kill a few birds.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Unfortunately, there’s not much there. They do focus on practical crafts and historic stories, but they didn’t really look or focus on folklore that isn’t based on those two things.

      Also, they have/had a tendency to “clean up” the stories by making the older women and men they talk to look more simple and cut stuff out of their crafts that they think is “unneeded.” In other words, fine for stuff like crafting an apple doll, not so much good for actual mountain living.

      Liked by 1 person

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