Suzanne Adair writes a mystery/suspense series set during the Southern theater of the Revolutionary War. Her first book, Paper Woman, won the 2007 Patrick D. Smith Literature Award from the Florida Historical Society. In 2009, Camp Follower was a finalist for both the Daphne du Maurier Excellence in Historical Mystery/Suspense Award and the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction. Check her web site or blog for more information.
Of Fairy Tales and Dragons
by Suzanne Adair
When I tell someone that I'm an author, it usually generates a query about what I write. My response is that I write historical crime fiction set in the Southern theater of the American Revolutionary War. Categorizing my fiction satisfies people, stimulates additional interest among those who like reading that type of material, and earns me expressions of social acceptance.
Imagine the reactions, instead, if I told people that I write fairy tales. They'd frown and recoil, as if I'd sprouted warts over my face, and find a polite excuse to leave my company. They'd think, Suzanne Adair's elevator isn't going to the top floor.
But I confess that I really do write fairy tales. At their cores, my novels published thus far — Paper Woman, The Blacksmith's Daughter, and Camp Follower — are each fairy tales. And I continue to write fairy tales, unabashedly.
The prolific English writer G. K. Chesterton said, "Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed."
Not all dragons possess the same strength. Some require extra effort to be slain. Thus fairy tales teach children about creativity and perseverance — good traits for them to develop in the midst of a copycat, instant-gratification culture.
Extra-powerful dragons have names like Disease and Poverty. What's interesting is that the same extra- powerful dragons that imperiled Assyrians, Celts, and Huns threaten us in the 21st century, in first-world countries. Consequently, when I write about these dragons in the 18th century, readers recognize them.
Historical fiction, like speculative fiction, removes the pressure to regard what's written as an in-your-face tale with an All-Important Lesson. What I'm actually doing is sneaking in stories about how people in the past might have dealt with dragons that have names like Psychopath, Addict, Shell-Shocked Soldier, and Child Molester.
Look for a traditional fairy tale that doesn’t terrorize children on some level. You won't find it. In those old tales, lessons are taught well through fear. It is fear, not reward, that motivates heroes to slay dragons. When the hero stands beneath the dragon's shadow, the hero realizes that his/her existence is at stake. The dragon must be slain. Otherwise, the dragon will continue to imperil the hero's existence.
Some dragons will not be slain, no matter how a hero strives. But the hero doesn't stop striving, just because he or she cannot kill the dragon. As the Pirkei Avot says, "You are not expected to complete the work, but neither may you cease from doing your part."
What is my "part" as a writer of crime fiction? I believe mysteries and thrillers are actually fairy tales for adult readers. They appeal to people who have been denied justice in the real world or who have seen loved ones denied justice. These readers embrace crime fiction so they can see wrongs righted. They read to escape the grimness of a world in which some dragons will not be slain.
Each time I receive letters from my readers who thank me for helping them forget about a real-world dragon for a few hours, I believe I've done my part. By writing what I write, I make a difference in the lives of others — but not just by helping them escape.
You see, fairy tales aren't fluff. Every time you read one, whether it's traditional or contemporary, you're exposed to dragons that hobble the human race. You see them from different, often fresh, angles. These angles challenge you to ponder prickly issues anew, search yourself for resolutions perhaps invisible behind the defenses you've erected about your own soul.
The next time you read crime fiction, look for the dragons. Look for the angles. And ask yourself, "What is my solution to this dilemma? Might my solution benefit others?"
What dragons have you slain, and how?