That’s not how the story goes!
Any adult who has ever altered a line, by accident or design, in a child’s favorite tale has heard this indignant protest. Silly grownup. I do recall making this protest the first time I heard a different version of Cinderella. My early childhood had been filled with the German versions of fairytales, so when I heard the version with the fairy godmother, my thoughts ran toward “Where’s the hazel tree and the dove? This isn’t right!”
Childhood indignation aside, the revelation started me on a lifelong collecting of fairy and folktales, stories that grandmothers once passed down orally and are, by their nature and intent, changeable. Fairytales have a higher mutation rate than most viruses. While the basic structure of the tale remains the same, the delight is in finding how the story can change in a new setting, through new eyes. Re-imagined fairytales have been cropping up long before Snow White and the Huntsman, and authors of M/M fiction picked up the bug several years ago.
In large part, for the M/M romance writer it’s the challenge. How does one go about turning and reshaping a het princess story into a story of manlove? When I asked readers the first time to challenge me with the stories they thought would be tough to turn into M/M romance, one of the suggestions was the request to retell the Russian fairytale “Vasilissa the Beautiful.” This idea stuck with me since I adore any story with Baba Yaga. It’s a slightly surreal story, a little scary sometimes, weird and wild, where the heroine has to rely on the witch and her own courage to save herself rather than a Prince. How, though? I’d previously set Boots in a contemporary setting, in the mountains of Pennsylvania that are so familiar to me. But Vasilissa would lose so much in a modern setting; its very alien oddness would be watered down.
Ah – and therein lay the key. I needed to translate it into a setting unfamiliar to the modern reader and so chose a setting in the distant future, on a non-Earth world. It must have been done before, the Science Fiction Fairytale, but the world needs more of them, in my not always humble opinion.
At the same time, I wanted to preserve the Russian flavor and the slightly surreal quality of the story. The setting then, the city of New Makorov, also became a bit dystopian and the characters’ names carefully chosen to reflect their origin. Vassily and Baba Yaga already had their names, of course, but the stepfather and stepbrothers needed names, so I turned to the roll call of Soviet leaders. Originally, they were Boris, Yuri, and Alexei (but I liked Anton better so changed the last one.) Names for Baba Yaga’s sons took some brain bludgeoning, but I eventually took the literal route. In the original story, the three men on horseback, one golden, one red, and one black, represented morning, day and night. So the boys received Russian words for names: Rassvet = dawn, Poldien = noon, Sumerki = dusk.
Since I was having way too much fun with Russian, their family name became Silka, which means “exile.” Read the story. You’ll get it.
Fairytale? Yes. It’s that. Like most fairytales, Vassily the Beautiful is about courage and facing the darkness head on, about finding that core of self that allows us to rise out of the worst circumstances. I won’t lie to you. There are some tough subjects tackled here. But stay with me. The nice thing about fairytales is that we all know the rules.