When I began writing The Folk Keeper in 1993, there were no Folk in my story.
I began with a simple idea, inspired by a simple folktale. I had been reading a number of British folktales and found myself returning again and again to the stories of the selkies (or silkies, as they are sometimes called), creatures who swim in the sea in the form of seals, but who can, by shedding their sealskins, walk the land as human beings. If, however, their sealskins should be lost or stolen while they're in their human form, they cannot return to the sea. I found this fascinating, and I knew I wanted to write a novel based on the selkie stories.
What, then, did I know about my story at the outset?
I knew that my heroine, Corinna, would be half-selkie, half-human; I knew she would be ignorant of her true nature. I knew something about her emotional journey, which would be a journey of self-discovery; and I knew something about her physical journey, which would be a journey from a mainland to an island. It would be on the island, I knew, that Corinna's emotional and physical journeys would intersect. It would be there, when she was surrounded by water, that she would discover who and what she truly was, and then she would then have to decide how she wanted to live her life. Was she more of a selkie and would she live a life mostly in the sea? Or was she more of a human and would she live a life mostly on the land?
I began, as do many traditional stories, with a journey. And the beginning worked well enough, for a journey provides its own energy. But when Corinna reached the island, the story ran out of steam. I knew something was wrong, but I didn't then realize what I now know: it was because there was nothing for Corinna to do. She drifted around the island admiring the cliffs and the seagulls and the crashing waves. There was a lot of nice, descriptive writing, but ultimately it was boring because there was no action.
But I didn't know how to give Corinna something to do, how to infuse her story with energy and action. Finally, in September of 1997, I sent the manuscript to my editor, Jean Karl, to see if she could help me. Jean said many things that were enormously helpful, and the thing she said that helped me the very most was this: The main problem, she said, is that we don't know what Corinna really wants. What does she want before she discovers she's a selkie and has to decide where and how she's going to live her life?
That made a lot of sense to me. Of course: give a character something he or she wants! If Corinna wants something badly enough, she'll do something to try to get it, and that will bring action to the book. If she doesn't want anything, she won't be motivated to do anything, and the story will be boring.
Somehow, then, the idea of the Folk came to me, the idea of these dangerous creatures lurking in dark caverns deep below the earth, who, when they get angry, can wreck the food supply of a community. And because I wanted to give Corinna something to do and I wanted it to be something that concerned the Folk, I invented the job of Folk Keeper, someone whose job it is to keep the Folk as happy as possible. It would be a dangerous job; I would give it to Corinna and make her want to be a Folk Keeper more than anything else.
I realized, however, that I had to give her a good reason to want to be a Folk Keeper. Most people wouldn't want to — it's too dangerous. So I gave her a motivation, and I gave her a history that explained her motivation. I had her grow up in a series of orphanages, where she was treated very badly. She always had to do the most menial of tasks — scrubbing the flagstones, for example, or washing the soiled linens. She had no control over her life, so what she wants most of all is power. When she realizes that she can, by becoming a Folk Keeper, acquire a measure of power (a Folk Keeper has some power because it's such an important job in this society), she decides it's what she wants to do more than anything else.
In many, if not most, stories, the character has a problem (in Corinna's case, it is to pacify the Folk and remain unharmed). And in order to remain interesting, most stories have to keep making the problem bigger and bigger; that is the best way to make sure the reader remains involved. So I tried to do the same. I decided that Corinna would be pretty good at tending the Folk in the beginning but that when she goes to the island, the Folk there would be especially fierce and savage, and so she would have increasing difficulties with them. I decided there should be a villain who, when he recognizes who Corinna is (before, even, she does herself), decides he needs to do away with her, and so he throws her into the Caverns to die at the hands and teeth of the Folk. And it is there, in the Caverns, that she begins to come to terms with who she really is, and she begins to make new decisions about how best to live her life.
I wrote four drafts with Jean Karl after the novel turned into The Folk Keeper; that took ten months. I was lucky to have such an insightful, patient editor, who could guide me so carefully through the writing of this novel. To all of you who are interested in writing, I have two words of advice. First, try to find experienced and kind readers for your story, readers who can give you good advice about what your story needs. Second, never give up! Writing takes a tremendous amount of perseverance, and it is those writers who just keep on writing in the face of rejection, and in the face of self-doubt, who ultimately succeed.