Re-telling tales: 'The Mermaid and the Bride'

In the first of a series of guest posts by authors I have worked with, M J Brocklebank talks about his imaginative re-telling of a Scottish folktale. 

A quick intro to ‘The Mermaid and the Bride’ would be…

'The Mermaid and the Bride' is a story about Sorley, a poor crofter grieving for his late wife. One night, Sorley stumbles upon a mermaid in her human form and makes a decision that will change both their lives forever. It’s the first story in a planned collection of traditional Scottish folk and fairy tales that I want to re-imagine for a modern, adult audience.

What drew you to re-tell this story?

The dilemma at the heart of it. I’d been reading a lot of Scottish folk and fairy tales for another project I was working on (a TV idea based on the Finn McCool legends) and this story jumped out at me. I was moved by the moment when the mermaid finds her tail and is faced with the awful decision she has to make between her true self and her human children. I’m always looking for emotional impact in stories – I think that’s why we read; not for plot or character (though they both have to be great for a story to work) but to be moved in some way.

Is there a special care that needs to be taken in re-telling heritage stories like this?

Not sure about ‘special care’ but I think you need to be aware of the role folk and fairy tales played in a culture. For me, they were about imparting a moral, teaching a lesson in some way. While I don’t want to ‘teach’ anything with the story, I am interested in exploring moral dilemmas – because, like I’ve said, I think that’s where the emotion of a story lies. I wanted to take this old tale and really bring out the dilemma for the crofter character and for the mermaid.

The other thing about these stories is that they are very much rooted in the landscape, so I wanted to make sure that was a real, physical presence in my retelling – I hope that came through.

Have you discovered any interesting markets?

I’ve discovered that mermaids are real. Okay, they’re not, but... there is a sub-culture of people out there that like to identify with the whole mermaid lifestyle. They give themselves mermaid names and swim with fish tails and connect with other like-minded people. It might seem a bit odd to some people, but I think it’s cool – we all play different roles in life, so why not be a mermaid (or merman) if you want?

As a television writer, how did writing short fiction compare?

Well, I started out writing short stories so this was a return to writing prose fiction for me. But it was actually quite illuminating. I’ve always been sceptical about the whole ‘writing muscle’ analogy but I really did feel I had to use a part of my brain that hadn’t been used for quite some time when I started writing prose again. With scripts, you obviously focus on what the audience is going to see and hear when you’re writing. With a prose story, you have to bring the world you’re creating to life by using textures, smells and tastes too – if you don’t, you’re not going to convince the reader the world you’re trying to create is ‘real’. I had to learn that all over again – which was good.

How important do you think it is for a writer to work across different formats?

This is a difficult one. I’ve always believed that, in any field you decide to work in, you need to become an expert in one aspect of it. I’ve spent over fifteen years trying to become an expert in writing for television... and I think I’m pretty good at it now! Having said that, I’m drawn to writing and storytelling to in all its forms – film scripts, non-fiction, short stories, novels – even though I’d never consider myself an ‘expert’ in any of these areas. I think at the heart of it is that I have a real desire to tell stories – and the way I tell those stories will change depending on the story itself, the potential audience, financial considerations – a whole load of factors.

How long did it take from initial idea to publication?

Well, I had the idea quite a while ago but didn’t start actually working on the story until fairly recently. I’d say, once I decided I was going to actually sit down and write ‘The Mermaid and the Bride’, the process took about two months.

Can you tell us anything about your upcoming projects / stories?

Right now I’m working on a low-budget feature script for a producer/director I’ve worked with in the past called Bernd Porr (well, I would be if I wasn’t answering these questions!) It’s a psychological horror and I’ve never written one before so it’s been interesting researching the genre. As I was saying about being an expert... I’m not when it comes to many film genres! But in a lot ways this is what drew me to the project (apart from it being a really good idea). I like exploring new genres to write in these days, whereas in the past, I might have thought twice about writing something I considered to be out of my comfort zone.

After that, I want to concentrate on the folk tales again. I plan to write a collection of re-imagined stories and I think I know which one I’m going to tackle next...

Editor update - Martin's latest story, 'Tears of the Tatty Bogle' is now published:

Any tips on managing a good work / life balance as a writer?

 No. Seriously. If anyone has any tips, please tell me.

(Okay, without wanting sound like a complete arse, I think the nature of writing for a living makes it almost impossible to navigate the work / life divide. This is because life IS a story – if we didn’t constantly create a narrative for ourselves we would be lost in a chaos of senses. So what you’re basically doing as a writer is acknowledging that and trying to use it to create a piece of work... life is writing! How do you balance something when you only have one side of the scales?)

‘The Mermaid and the Bride’ is very newly published; how have you found the process so far? How easy is self-publishing really?

This foray into self-publishing is pretty new for me. I’ve only really looked into putting the story onto Amazon but I know there are other outlets out there. But the process of making the story available on the Kindle Store was fairly straight forward. You do have to consider a lot of different things – like pricing, royalties, formatting, artwork for the cover – and it was great to get your advice on a lot of this. I had a bit of a practice run last year when I decided to put some stories I’d written for my MA in Creative Writing onto the Kindle store. But with those stories, I just wanted to get a feel for what you had to do to make them available to download, I didn’t look into marketing them at all.

How much help did you need, or could you do most things yourself?

I think you can do it yourself but it’s been great to have your help and advice, Claire! Going back again to what I was saying about expertise, I like to think I can have a go at most things but I also know when I need to get advice from somebody who really knows the field. So that’s why I came to you – and that’s why I’ll be coming back to you when I’m writing the rest of the stories for the collection.

Any marketing advice so far?

Yes, don’t run a free promotion on a Saturday. Really. I enrolled ‘The Mermaid and the Bride’ into Kindle Select because you can discount the download or run a free promotion. So, after a week of the story being published, I made it free for two days. On the Friday I had a huge increase in people downloading the story but on the Saturday the numbers fell off quite dramatically. On both days I was using social networking to publicise the free offer... I guess people do things away from the computer on Saturdays. Like, have a life.

Social media is obviously key to promoting anything these days. But how to keep something visible is a problem. I have an idea that I might make a small clip to advertise the story, something like a 15-second trailer, and put it onto Youtube. I need to give this some thought, though. I’m also going to create a page on my blog for the story (and the planned collection). The blog is really about TV at the moment but I think I need to be more flexible in what I write about (I also need to post more frequently).

Anything you would do differently next time you publish?

I want to find out about publishing on different platforms, not just Amazon. I’ll be asking your advice about this Claire, so be warned...

Thanks, Martin!


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I’m always looking for emotional impact in stories – I think that’s why we read
I’ve discovered mermaids are real
I like exploring new genres to write in these days