Fairly Tales: or, One Author’s Adventures with Enhancing an Ebook

YARN: We are honored to present a piece written exclusively for YARN by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, “Fairly Tales; or, One Author’s Adventures with Enhancing an Ebook.”  Timed perfectly to give you insight into her new book, “Wisdom’s Kiss” — released September 13! — this genre-crossing essay reveals Ms. Murdock’s process of embracing and advancing book technology (something we also aspire to at YARN) with an entertaining, enlightening frankness.  All this and more: an original fairy tale, confessions about her edits, and a bit of literary history thrown in for good measure.

By Catherine Gilbert Murdock

First, the fairy tale:

“The Dolorous Draper,” from “Gory Dragons Galore: A Treasury of Educative and Cautionary Tales for Unformed Youngsters and Others Yet Morally Deficient”

Once upon a time a dragon lived in the mountains of Sottocenere. He lived with his mother, in a cave overlooking a tiny valley, where people tended their cows and made their cheese and had sense enough to keep away from dragons.

All day long the dragon would lie on a boulder outside his cave, watching the villagers far below (he was a young dragon, and so had excellent eyesight), and when night fell, he would watch them still. Sometimes when the evenings were warm and the villagers felt safe, they left their shutters open, and the dragon could observe them eating dinner. He particularly liked to watch the burgomaster. How glorious that dinner looked! The table set with china plates and candles, the plates spread upon a pristine white tablecloth.

Oh, the dragon yearned for a tablecloth. The candles were lovely, and the china, yes, but most of all he wanted that snowy white cloth. The food looked far more delicious — so much better than the cattle and stringy mountain sheep he and his mother ate off the floor of their cave, surrounded by bones and the few scraps of treasure they’d salvaged or stolen from other, wealthier dragons.

His mother, when he worked up the courage to voice this dream, scoffed at him. “A dragon doesn’t need tablecloths!” she’d sneered. “A cloth doesn’t change the taste at all. Besides, cloth isn’t treasure. It isn’t valuable — not like gold.”

“Not even silk?” he’d asked, tentatively. “Not even damask?”

“Nothing like gold,” she’d sniffed. And that was the end of that.

So the dragon returned to his boulder, still dreaming of banquets spread on damask. And there he might have remained, full of unfilled longing, were it not for the arrival in the village of a cloth merchant, or as they used to call them, a draper.

The man appeared pushing a heavy cart laden with the most beautiful fabrics: silks and woolens, fine linens and sheer voiles, cotton grown in far-off lands and damasks woven in intricate detail, some colored with borders of fruit or ornaments, and others snowy white.

Intently the dragon witnessed the man’s approach, and at once the beast flew down to the village entrance, transforming himself into a fat matron with a purse of coins. “Have you a tablecloth?” he asked the draper, affecting disinterest and hoping the man could not hear the pounding of his black dragon heart.

“But of course,” the man answered, displaying several so lovely that the dragon nearly swooned. Yet he was still a dragon through and through, and so haggled for some time over a price for the loveliest one (so the dragon felt, anyway), and with feigned reluctance handed the man his dragon gold before hurrying off with his treasure.

Woe for the draper, for he was not from Sottocenere and so had no experience with the dangers of dragons, and the widespread belief that dragon gold is cursed. Instead, he promptly visited the local brewer’s and purchased an enormous bucket of beer. (The brewer wasn’t so bright either, accepting that dragon gold, but there’s never been much to say for Sottocenere brewers.) The draper then settled himself beneath a shady tree, and drank so much of the beer that he fell into a deep, deep slumber.

Photo courtesy of Giampaolo Macorig (flickr.com).

The dragon by this point had returned to his cave, where he could not resist showing the tablecloth to his mother. She did not share his delight, however, and slapped him and called him names (dragon insults such as “Ice Lung” and “Pappy Tooth”), and told him to return the fabric to the draper and get their gold back. In fact, he should take all the man’s earnings, and anything else of value the man might have. “Which does not include cloth,” she added, with a final blow across the young dragon’s snout.

And so, heartbroken, the dragon flapped slowly back to the valley. He landed beside the draper, curling his nose at the stench of beer. But no matter how the beast shook him, the man would not waken. The dragon sat back on his haunches and stared sadly at his lovely tablecloth, and then at the cloth merchant, who was rather plump, even with all that cart-pushing.

At once an idea came to the dragon, and quick as a flame he wrapped the draper in the cloth, and flew back to his mother. “Look,” he cried, slithering into the cave. “Look at this!” And with a great flourish he pushed aside the litter of bones and treasure and spread out the tablecloth, the draper centered upon it.

His mother pursed her dragon lips. “Hmmm,” she mused, smoke curling from her nose. “Is that what you’ve been talking about all this time?”

“Yes!” cried the dragon. “Tablecloths make everything look better!”

“Well, son, I stand corrected,” she said at last — for while dragons may be greedy, selfish, envious, and altogether cruel, they are not above admitting their mistakes, at least sometimes. “You have an excellent point, and, I must add, you have made an incomparable presentation. Shall we?”

With that, the two dragons lunged at the draper and gobbled him up, pausing only to squabble over the juiciest bits, and to set aside the man’s purse. Afterward, their bellies bursting, they happily flossed their teeth with the shredded remnants of the tablecloth, the mother dragon praising her son for his excellent choice of fabric.

The End

For the past two years I’ve been writing “Wisdom’s Kiss,” a tale about a princess en route to her wedding who discovers she’s a pawn in a malevolent plot for imperial control. In order to save her kingdom, Wisdom (the princess) joins forces with a gifted orphan maid and a handsome young soldier. Sword fights, magic and romance commence. The maid and the princess disagree violently, not least about the handsome young soldier, and their tensions are compounded by a thoroughly malevolent duchess and a vain little swordsman complete with goatee and huge plumed hat. The story, of course, ends happily ever after, but not before heartbreak and a treacherous, breathless escape.

I absolutely adore this story, which contains every element I’ve always wanted in a book (a book either to write or to read), including a large smug black cat. (As I pen this, I’m looking at *our* large smug black cat, who though passed-out on the window sill is still quite delighted in my attention.) My summary of “Wisdom’s Kiss” requires one more very important detail: the story is related from the various perspectives of each of these characters (except the cat; the feline mind is beyond me). Thus, instead of one narrator,”Wisdom’s Kiss” has eight, including the soldier’s letters, the princess’s diary, the autobiography of the maid, the swordsman’s preening memoir, a play (terribly campy), encyclopedia entries . . .

I chose such a multifaceted format not for its complexity (though doubtless some readers will grumble; some readers already have), but because I couldn’t figure out another way to share the plot, to withhold and reveal critical information in the most timely and dramatic manner. Such a format also, I discovered to my great satisfaction, saves an enormous amount of space and time. Instead of contriving an illogical three-page dialogue on the laws of royal succession, the encyclopedia presents it in half a paragraph, allowing readers — snip snip! — to return, quickly educated, to the story and the characters we truly care about. Given that the voices are so often contradictory, “Wisdom’s Kiss” in effect becomes a mystery: who is telling the truth? Are all these people who they claim to be? Who can be trusted?

“Wisdom’s Kiss” was an absolute blast to write, as much fun as I’ve ever had with the creative process. Putting it together, I felt as though I were assembling a mobile, adding one element here, its counterweight there, doing my best to keep the whole edifice aloft . . . And yet even as I was writing, I couldn’t help but wonder how these voices would work if they were read not all mixed together but in separate chunks. What would that campy play sound like if read independently from beginning to end? Or the maid’s autobiography? This notion immediately raises the question of how one would go about accomplishing such a task. A traditional book, being a hard-copy construction of paper and ink, doesn’t allow for random, reader-prompted reorganization . . . But an electronic ebook does. Or at least an ebook offers the potential of random reader-prompted reorganization.

Photo courtesy of Sean Kelly (flickr.com).

So, very early in my writing process, I began pondering an ebook version of “Wisdom’s Kiss,” including all the marvelous improvements and additions that such an ebook might potentially incorporate. The actual ebook technology was — and, I must confess, remains — rather vague to me, which, oddly enough, may have encouraged the creative process: I didn’t know what couldn’t be done. Thus, I’d say things like “Just add one of those button things,” however frequently and patiently the tech folks at Houghton Mifflin responded, “Um, what you want hasn’t been invented yet.” But they came up with fantabulous solutions, and gave me remarkably free reign. So now we have an extra-special deluxe electronic edition of “Wisdom’s Kiss.” Want to know how the character of Trudy emerged, or why Felis’s memoir title is so long, or the significance of castles, or the origins of the Elemental Spells, or the truth about the Drachensbett Cloud Wars? You can, simply by clicking a (proverbial) button. The enhanced ebook contains the entire first act of “Queen of All the Heavens” in all its campy glory; sound clips from the audiobook; recipes; deleted scenes; author commentary on the text, the characters and all sorts of other stuff; a gazetteer of place names complete with pronunciation guide . . . and two original fairy tales.

Which brings us to “The Dolorous Draper.” “The Dolorous Draper” emerged from a section of “Wisdom’s Kiss”in which the main characters battle a dragon. The section included the proverbial fight scene — quite dramatic, conducted by moonlight from a hot-air balloon — as well as an encyclopedia entry describing the mythic country of Sottocenere and the dragons that inhabit its mountains. Placing cherry firmly atop sundae, I even cooked up two fictitious titles of fairy-tale compilations describing said dragons, “Gory Dragons Galore” and “Terrifying Tales from the Mountains of Gloom.”

Well. How could titles as ghastly as that just sit there, unused? So I decided to write a story from “Gory Dragons Galore” as a exercise for my own enjoyment and also as potential enhancement to the ebook, an example of original prose that might be woven into the bonus text and linked to from the book’s “official” prose.

As it happens, I was, if not uniquely suited, at least unusually suited to composing fairy tales. In my one experience teaching creative writing, I gave several lectures on the subject. If you want to learn something, assign yourself a one-hour public presentation — you’ll get proficient real fast. Fairy tales, so I learned and so I taught, have several defining characteristics. They’re timeless and placeless, for example, versus “set in London in December of 1734.” They’re also non-religious, which is particularly surprising given that the stories so often have morals, either written or implied: the innocent, kindly hero(ine) prospers; greedy and selfish villains fail. (Inferior fairy tales tend toward ham-fisted and overbearing moralism, as may be witnessed in the “Gory Dragons Galore” subtitle: “A Treasury of Educative and Cautionary Tales for Unformed Youngsters and Others Yet Morally Deficient.” Gack.) Fairy tales frequently — although not invariably — have talking animals or other magical devices that are accepted without question within the story, and just as commonly archetypes such as a youngest son, or numbers such as three, seven or twelve. They also involve the breaking of prohibitions: Don’t open that door . . . follow that troll . . . attend that ball! But it happens anyway. The list goes on from there, but what I found most fascinating is that fairy tales, from at least the 1600s onward, have been overtly self-conscious. The authors of new fairy tales were well familiar with the old versions and set out intentionally to build on, to revise and quite often to tweak them, in the process both updating and strengthening the fairy-tale tradition. William Steig’s 1990 picture book Shrek, for example, describes a hideous ogre who woos an equally hideous princess: a grotesque inversion of the “handsome prince and princess” narrative, but the two nevertheless end up Happily Ever After.

I go into all this detail (sorry if it sounds like a college lecture; it kinda started life that way) to show the origins of “The Dolorous Draper.” I very self-consciously set out to craft a story that both acknowledged and tweaked the history of dragon tales. Dragons — so my lifelong reading indicates — are either wicked and expendable à la “St. George and the Dragon” and “The Hobbit,” or noble and wise à la David Wiesner’s “The Three Pigs” and pretty much everything else written in the last thirty years. I love and cherish both these traditions, but they’re . . . they’re established. These are the two approaches everyone expects. So why not go in a completely different direction and create a dragon character that, instead of being initially horrifying but ultimately sympathetic, is the other way around? And, may I add, horrifying on multiple leves. Not only does this monster cheat and murder an innocent merchant, but he even trashes the tablecloth — and flosses his teeth with it! His disregard for basic decency is positively inhuman. It’s like he’s a dragon or something . . . Oh wait, he is.

I don’t harbor such prejudice toward dragons personally, you know; dragon-wise, I’m more in the noble and wise bloc. But “Gory Dragons Galore,” the fictitious anthology for which I composed “The Dolorous Draper,” was a book intended to demonstrate the viciousness of Sottocenere’s mythic dragons. This Duchy of Sottocenere is not a country through which to stroll late at night — or, apparently, in broad daylight.

Photo courtesy of lapidim (flickr.com).

If we compare “The Dolorous Draper” to the classic characteristics of fairy tales, we see that the story fulfills the genre on some levels but fails on others. Self-consciousness, check; magic and the breaking of prohibitions, check; timelessness, check. It is most definitely not placeless, however (though to be sure “Sottocenere” is a bit more fanciful than “1734 London”), and the moral is subversive at best: use a tablecloth? Practice dental hygiene? Don’t trade with dragons? I suppose one could describe the moral as “follow your dreams,” but do we really want to follow that particular dream? None for me, thanks.

To my mind, the most subversive element of “The Dolorous Draper” is the presence of a mother. An abusive, critical, domineering mother. Mothers are almost never in fairy tales. Fathers, stepmothers, grandmothers and siblings ooze from every page, but not dear old Ma. Indeed, living mothers tend to be absent from children’s literature generally, a point I’ve addressed elsewhere (see my discussion in the March 2009 Horn Book). “Jack and the Beanstalk” is the only fairy-tale exception I can think of, and even his mother is absent for the bulk of the story, and for all of the adventure.

There’s an excellent reason for this motherlessness. A story — any story — requires conflict; conflict is the engine that drives the plot forward. “Two children sat at home doing nothing” is not a story. “Two children were turned out by their stepmother to seek their fortunes” is the foundation of any number of excellent stories. The poor dears have been abandoned! They might starve! In other words: conflict. Yet, readers do not like the notion of a mother who spawns conflict. (We’re totally okay with stepmothers, however; “evil stepmother” is practically redundant.) Given the choice between a mother who initiates conflict — heck, a mother who even tolerates it — and a mother who’s missing or dead, readers almost every time choose Door #2.

The mother in “The Dolorous Draper,” however, doesn’t just initiate the conflict; she promotes and intensifies it. Instead of an adventure about how the hero will return safely home, it’s more a saga about how the hero will survive his home. That said, it’s worth repeating that this dragon mother is, well, a dragon, a classic Western baleful dragon. I’m quite comfortable holding her to a lower maternal standard than, say, our next-door human neighbors. It may very well be that “The Dolorous Draper” even strengthens our esteem for human mothers, who at least don’t call their children “pappy tooth” and force them to haggle over dragon gold.

As I mentioned above, I wrote “The Dolorous Draper” as a supplement to “Wisdom’s Kiss,” bonus prose that in an ebook reader would be linked to the “official” text. Unfortunately, “The Dolorous Draper” became tangled in a massive revision to the book’s second draft. The dragon scene, so my very wise editor pointed out, had pretty much nothing to do with the main story, and in fact muddled the main story: why in heaven’s name introduce dragons and then drop them? Dragons aren’t incidental, you know; they’re essential. As far as fiction goes, it’s either all dragons or all something else.

So, with a sad but appreciative sigh, I took the battle scene and its related encyclopedia entry and demoted — erm, shifted — them to the enhancements. I am probably not the first to realize that ebook enhancements are a wonderful way both to savor good-but-incongruous prose and to encourage well-needed editing: “I’m not discarding what I’ve worked so hard on! I’m just storing it elsewhere!” Much of this prose should — and in my sake often does — end up in the trash regardless, but drawing out the excision makes it surprisingly less painful.

Thus the Duchy of Sottocenere, once so integral to our heroes’ escape, shrank to a parenthetical aside, a brief mention as flyover territory. (The more gluttonous may also recognize sottocenere as an Italian truffle-flavored cheese; such was my inspiration for the place name.) “The Dolorous Draper” became an enhancement to an enhancement, another facet in the evermore serpentine enhanced ebook. And, believe me, “serpentine” is not hyperbole: the 50,000 words of enhancements are as long as the original book, and contain over seventy stand-alone entries.

Is such a wealth of enhancements necessary to fully understand “Wisdom’s Kiss”? Heavens, no — no more than knowledge of fairy-tale theory is necessary to understand “Cinderella.” In each case, the story stands alone. We can, of course, choose to learn more and to value that knowledge, but such learning shouldn’t be a requirement for appreciation. In both cases, the story either works or it doesn’t; if the author needs to explain the ending, or a scholar the psychological significance of glass shoes, then the fiction is inherently unsound.

That said, deeper understanding can be a wonderful thing, whether it’s the history of Sottocenere, the contents of “Gory Dragons Galore,” or the potential differences between dragon and human mothers. Reading is its own reward . . . and so is learning. Perhaps in the end that’s the true meaning of enhancement, even an enhancement as fizzy as “The Dolorous Draper”: it is something that improves the quality, however slightly, of “Wisdom’s Kiss,” of fairy tales, of life.


Catherine Gilbert Murdock burst onto the young adult book scene with her debut novel “Dairy Queen” (2006), winner of the Borders Original Voices Award, the 2007 Midwest Booksellers Choice Award, the 2007 Great Lakes Booksellers Children’s Literature Award, and the Pennsylvania Young Reader’s Choice Award. Five years and two sequels—”The Off Season” (2007) and”Front and Center” (2009)—later, Murdock’s popularity and success continue to grow exponentially. Ms. Murdock is also the author of “Princess Ben” (2008), a fantasy novel much like her newest book, “Wisdom’s Kiss.”  Ms. Murdock and her sister, author Elizabeth Gilbert,  grew up in Connecticut on a small family Christmas tree farm.

Ms. Murdock now lives outside of Philadelphia with her husband and two children, plus a black cat who inspired the character of Escoffier and another cat who didn’t.  Visit catherinemurdock.com to learn more about her books for young adults and to find an extremely delicious recipe for Cuthbert en croûte.


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