Writing: Check Your Folklore Sources

Poke any supposed collections of folklore you pick up. Poke them hard, and see if they quote sources, history, anything. Because there is a distinction between folktales and folklore, and some writers either don’t care about or don’t even recognize the difference. I’ve run into more than one book that’s supposed to be about hauntings and folklore that’s actually collections of campfire stories instead. Complete with how to tell them as the spookiest story you can. Which, fine, those count as folktales, and if you want to perform stories at festivals and summer camps that’s all well and good – but it is not the folklore I’m looking for.

When I’m putting together ideas for a story, I look for old folklore. It grounds a story, if you can give it a “past” based on things people have believed in for a long time. It’s like giving your characters a family background; where someone came from, influences where they’re going and why, and thus how the story ultimately comes out.

Which is why books like The Moon-Eyed People: Folk Tales from Welsh America by Peter Stevenson, make me very, very cranky.

I only got the Kindle sample. That was more than enough. If you’re going to write “liars’ tales” for storytelling, fine – but it had no less than three errors of fact in the first few pages. Said errors: that the moon-eyed people were Welsh, that the Cherokee were called Aniyvwiya’i by their enemies, and that their actual name for themselves was Tsalagi. All things an unwary writer might take as given – they’re stated as facts! – and all wrong.

The moon-eyed people were not Welsh. They’re attested to in the earliest stories gathered from the Cherokee back in the 1700s and in those stories they aren’t even Caucasian. The Cherokee’s name for their own people is Aniyvwiya’i. Tsalagi is currently the name for the Cherokee language, but it may have originated from names given them by the Creek and other enemies.

You can check all of this on Wikipedia.



I didn’t have to check, because I have and have thoroughly read an old copy of James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. The original text is from 1891 and 1900 (it’s two books put together), but the paperback has been available since 1992 and the Kindle version is cheap for the amount of info contained – under $7.

I didn’t have to check, but how many other people would just pick up the folktales book and think, “oh, there’s no reason for the author to be wrong about that!” and use the inaccuracies without thinking?

It just… makes me cranky. And sad. Go ahead and make up stories. Go ahead and create “folktales” out of whole cloth, if you must. But please, please, get your facts straight, so other writers following you aren’t starting from a disadvantage.


16 thoughts on “Writing: Check Your Folklore Sources

  1. Doesn’t just happen with stuff like that. One of the big things in the study of historical arms and armor was the view that “swords are really heavy”, with the main difference between the two main fields of thought on that being the exact weight ascribed to them (you can still find old textbooks claiming “longswords weighed 30 lbs…”). Because each author just took it on faith that the previous authors they were citing had it right, and the more authors wrote about it the longer the chain of citations became (and thus the more “surely they must not _all_ be wrong”). Until someone finally did get enough connections and free time to go through museums measuring each and every sword in their collections and finding out “oh, those traditional numbers are way wrong”.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Because each author just took it on faith that the previous authors they were citing had it right, and the more authors wrote about it the longer the chain of citations became (and thus the more “surely they must not _all_ be wrong”).

      THIS is what got me into being That Guy for a lot of stuff. I don’t even remember what the first time WAS, but one of the earlier ones was reading I thing Asimov’s Book Of Facts and it stated that stallions could not be around women because they would attack them at certain times of the month.

      … I knew the name of mom’s horse when I was born, and he was a stallion. I heard more about that horse than about her brothers. I’m not STATING the name of the horse because I’m pretty sure she uses him as password verification, that level of dedication. And he wasn’t the only stallion I knew of. The only stallion I’d ever heard of attacking someone was the issues with “wild” stallions attacking riders who were on a mare— which did tend to be women, because smaller horse=> smaller rider. Other than that, it was individual horse personality, not broad group. Horses can get a grudge against people for really dumb reasons, including hair color or bulky-jacket-in-specific-colors — and even be smart enough to go “uh-oh, baby human, be super careful! K, all clear, NOW I act like I’m a wild beast!”

      As best we can guess, it was someone playing telephone with warhorses being trained to be vicious if they smelled blood.

      Since then I’ve found a lot of “everybody knows” was based on stuff ranging from I kid you not war propaganda to someone blowing up a foot-note that was completely unsupported speculation in a completely unrelated document, and it doesn’t even make SENSE unless you’re speaking English. (Actually, a LOT of ones are “is a little plausible if you assume everyone was speaking English…before that language existed.” Little salty, sorry. )

      Liked by 4 people

      1. I’ll back you up on the horse response to baby humans. My mom’s family had a horse growing up that was great with little kids; if you put any child five or younger on its back it would walk nicely around the field once, then stand still and wait for someone to help the kid get down. Women were allowed to ride him, but he would try to scrape them off if he could. Any male beyond early childhood was bucked off immediately.

        I suspect that last response was due to him previously being owned by an all boys school. I’m not sure what they did, but I suspect they did do something that left a lasting imprint.

        Liked by 3 people

    2. There’s a guy, uses the handle TRX, mentions from time to time that he traced through some recent EE textbooks, chased the citations back to the originals in the early/mid 20th century, and found that the recent texts were saying the opposite things.

      “You will respect this authority” basically is something that makes sense only to those who have never really studied anything. Or did a few study projects in a short period of time, and haven’t had time to learn how consistent sources can really be.

      Liked by 5 people

  2. Just to tease a little, Wikipedia isn’t 100% reliable as a source either, unfortunately. I suppose the main benefit is that people usually provide sources on Wikipedia, but since anyone can update the info… I swear, you would think the modern internet would make it Easier to find accurate information, not harder…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It actually does make it a lot easier. In some ways, if you already kinda know what you are looking for, and have access to the correct paywalled resources.

      I remember /before/, or at least pretty much before.

      I remember when I was mostly dependent on what was in my home.

      I remember depending on school and public libraries.

      I even remember having access to a university library around the time I began to really have useful internet access. (Before the end of highschool, for me.)

      Liked by 4 people

    2. Oh, it’s easier to find information– thing is, the quality stayed the same, and it’s easier to find out that the information is WRONG!!!

      (picture those words in like 20 point font, three-D and flashing. 😀 )

      I was musing after I posted about how much crud the ancient Greeks got about their history and biology books having traveler’s tales recounted, but clearly listed as “this is what sailors who come back from there say they heard about,” while in modern times the same guys who give ’em crud are spreading utter HOWLERS of easily researched information that could be identified as false in seconds of searching.
      (such as “Catholics believe in the Rapture”– good heavens….)

      Liked by 3 people

      1. That was a major plot point for the guy (that very publicly despises Catholics) they brought in to write Nightcrawler. The somewhat famous Catholic Mutant.
        Same time they made him literally the son of Satan. About…2002?

        Only something like one in five citizens of the US, not a sizable demographic or anything. /eyeroll

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Doesn’t hurt that while there is a lot of “what on earth?” response from Japanese spins on Catholicism, it’s generally in the spin of “oh, that’s cool!” type spin, not demonization.
        They’re using nuns because they think it’s shiny! (And wow, does anime have a lot of really, really pretty churches.)

        Liked by 3 people

  3. Sometimes it’s wrong. Sometimes it’s correct, but only in X area and places where those people immigrated. And sometimes it is so so so wrong….

    The one that kills me is the old books on Highland Catholic hymns, songs, and prayers in Gaelic, which get listed as occult books of spells. If you actually read them, there’s maybe five or ten prayers, in one of the volumes, that might be construed as occult or as peasant spirituality, depending on who you are. But nope, it’s all occult.

    Btw — I just saw a very cool article about Hormuz Island, which is geologically fascinating (and someplace that’s never going to be a tourist destination, unless Iran’s government changes). The natives there will never ever suffer from iron deficiency (although I’d be fascinated to know about their dental health).


    I would love to know how that sauce started.

    Liked by 1 person

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