The inspiration for this post came from Yana, a reader. Thank so much Yana! You can check out her blog here.
I never knew how rich Bulgaria’s culture is and how many fascinating tales they have in their folklore. Many of them take directions the reader isn’t expecting and that makes them even more fun to read. Enjoy these brief summaries and the prompts that I came up with from reading them.
Title photo By Okotuki [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
1) The Kuker Warriors
In a village called Kukerovo, the citizens were plagued by evil spirits. The Samodiva water nymphs wanted to help so they lured a renowned blacksmith to their gathering. But their song drove him mad, making him unable to eat or sleep. The only thing he found that was able to block the sound of the song, was the clank of his hammer on anvil. He went to work. He made hundreds of bells. They were all in a variety of shapes and sizes and made a variety of sounds. The ringing of the bells freed him from the Samodiva spell. The bells also scared the evil spirits back into the woods. He was the first Kuker warrior. He made a catalog of the bells, how to make them and what shapes worked on what spirits. Since then the villagers in those mountains have trained Kuker warriors with the Kuker guide and kept the people safe from evil.
There are many origin stories for heroes and villains, especially with the incredible popularity of comic book super heroes. Invent a hero, one who establishes a long held tradition, and a villain he must conquer. How do they go from being a normal person, or perhaps an abnormal person, to being a great figure, inspiring generations of people to follow their lead?
2) The Dinner Guest
One day, after creating the world, God decided to go down and visit the people in the guise of an old man. He started in the Balkan Mountains and went to a small village. He was invited in by the husband who told him he would share anything the Lord had given him. During dinner, the husband and wife were enjoying themselves but the old man would not eat no matter what they said. Finally the meal was done and the wife went to tend to the baby. When she left the old man told the husband there was one thing he would like. He wanted the husband to cook the baby for him. The husband said, “Why didn’t you say so? I told you I’d share anything the Lord gave us.” So when his wife laid the baby back down, the husband took him and put him in the oven. When the smell of cooked meat pervaded the cottage, the old man said, “Go, check on the bun in the oven.” When the husband opened the oven the whole house shone with the brilliance of reflected gold. The boy and the frying pan had been turned to gold. The boy was decked out like a little saint. The husband went back out to the old man, who had gone outside, to ask what was going on. The old man said, “Keep living like you are and the Lord will bless you and your children and your children’s children.” And the husband was happy.
I must say this story didn’t go the direction I was expecting. A sort of Abraham-Job combo. But anyway, a writing prompt. If we break this one down we end up with a story about faith, testing, and deceit (although I’m using a more sinister word than the story implies – it’s more fun that way.) Try writing a story in which the main character is tested in some way and they think they know who they are dealing with but don’t. You can make the test benign, like that of a benevolent god making ready to bestow gifts, or more malign. Perhaps the MC thinks they are dealing with their benevolent god but instead an evil force is trying to trick them into doing something bad. [SPOILER – maybe. Now that I think about it, that sounds like the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson. Check it out for more inspiration!]
3) The Girl and the Winter Witch
One year the Winter Witch decided to make the cold season last forever. She hatched a plot and covered a nearby village with mounds of snow. When they woke up and tunneled out of their homes, they decided someone must go up the mountain to the palace of the Frost Father to see what was wrong and if anything could be done. Everyone was too scared to go except a little orphan girl. The people tried to stop her but when it was clear she would go anyway, they gave her their warmest clothes. She started off and was making good progress. The Winds tried to blow and stop her but she kept going. The Blizzards tried to bury her but she kept going. The Winds and Blizzards complained to their mother, the Winter Witch, and she said they were going about it all wrong. You need to be nice and trick her into thinking she wasn’t in danger. The Winter Witch disguised herself as a beautiful young woman and went down. The girl saw the Winter Witch and thought she was her mother singing the girl’s favorite lullaby. The girl decided to lay down and listen for a while. Soon she was fast asleep. The Witch flew off congratulating herself on her deception. The girl began to freeze. But the mice came out of the snow and tried to warm the girl. Then the rabbits came to help, then the squirrels. Finally the girl woke and thanked them. They accompanied her to the Frost Father’s palace on top of the mountain. When they got there, no one answered so they went in to investigate. They found the Frost Father fast asleep just like the girl had been. The squirrels tickled his nose with their tales and he woke up with a sneeze. The girl told him what the Winter Witch had done and he grew angry. He found the witch and threw her in the dungeon until the next year and thanked the girl for her help. She went back down the mountain and Spring was already spreading her touch. The villagers celebrated the girl and gave her the first snowdrops.
Many times we writers give our villains the easy path. We have them attack the hero in predictable ways, like the harsh winter winds blowing against the little girl. Write a story where the main character faces more subtle forms of mischief and has to decide what is real and what is not. Who is good and who is evil.
4) The Most Precious Fruit
There was an old man who had a fortune to leave to his sons. He had three sons but didn’t want to divide his lands so he told them to go out and bring him back the most precious fruit. Whoever did so would win their inheritance. With a sack of money each went off to find the prize. The first son returned with white grapes, claiming the sweetest fruit would be the most precious. The second son brought back oranges, dates, and bananas from Africa claiming that the most precious was that which was hardest to get. Finally the third son presented himself. He had spent his sack of money on an education and bettering himself claiming knowledge was the most precious fruit. The father was impressed with the third son’s creativity and intelligence and rewarded him the inheritance.
I want you to write the story that comes after this one. Years down the road, the three brothers – decide what kind of relationship they have – encounter a problem. They each have a method of solving problems as demonstrated by the fruit exercise. Now, the smart rich one is expected to be the leader but can his creativity solve the puzzle you’ve thrown at him? Does he find he needs his brother’s perspectives or will the whole weight of the issue fall on him?
5) The Language of Beasts
Once, a shepherd was watching his flock when he heard a hissing sound coming from the forest. We went to investigate and found the whole place on fire. There was a snake trapped in a tree. The shepherd wondered if the snake could escape but then the snake begged him to save it. He extended his hook and the snake climbed up. She then urged him to return her to her father, the king of snakes. On the way, the snake told him that he would be allowed to ask for any reward but she suggested he ask to understand the language of beasts, no matter how her father protested. When the king of snakes gratefully asked what the shepherd wanted he told the king to understand animals. The king said, “But if you tell anyone you will immediately die.” The shepherd insisted and the king granted the wish.
When he returned to his flock he heard some crows talking and they said there was a treasure buried beneath the lamb. The shepherd dug it up and indeed found enough gold to be quite rich. He went off and built a fine house and filled it with fine things and married a beautiful woman.
Then one day he decided to go back and treat the other shepherds. His wife prepared a feast and they took it to the poorer men. The shepherd told them to enjoy themselves and he would tend the flocks that night. While he was out there he heard wolves speaking with the sheep dogs. The wolves wanted the dogs to help them come in and wreak havoc. Only one dog, the oldest among them, refused. In the morning, the shepherd ordered all the dogs killed but the old one. Everyone was confused but obeyed.
On the way home, he heard his horse talking with his wife’s mare. His horse was chiding hers for being so slow. The mare replied that he’d go slow too if his mount were as fat as hers. The shepherd looked back at his wife and laughed. This prompted the wife to bug him all the way home to tell her what was so funny. Finally he said he would tell her but then he would immediately die. He ordered a coffin brought before the house and he climbed inside. The old dog came over and began to mourn. Then a rooster came and stole the bread the shepherd had ordered thrown to the dog. The dog said, “How can you eat when our master is dying?” The rooster said the shepherd was being ridiculous. He had a dozen wives and had no problem keeping them in line. The shepherd couldn’t even control one woman.
The shepherd realized the rooster was right and hopped out of the coffin and grabbed a stick. He began to lay into his wife saying, “Here, this is why I was laughing!”
Again, this tale threw me. It didn’t go where I was expecting at all. These stories keep me on my toes!
This tale starts with the classic blessing-with-a-curse format. The reader is waiting the whole time for the shepherd to die, for him to somehow get tricked into revealing his secret. I would have liked it better though, if instead of the ending surprising us by being so completely unrelated and out of character for the shepherd, he had faced some other threat of death that he missed because he was guarding against his prophesy so vehemently. Write a story where the main character knows a certain event can cause their death, then throw something unexpected at them. Force them to use their blessing/curse against the new threat.
6) The Lord as an Old Man
There is a little collection of stories having to do with God disguising himself as an old man and going among the mortals. In one instance he teaches a man to plow by turning around at the end of a row instead of picking up the plow and walking back to where he started. Then he taught a woman to weave by sending the threads back instead of breaking them off at the end of each row. The next day he took a different disguise and asked the man who taught him to plow. The man replied it was the Lord in the guise of an old man; he was blessed. But the woman claimed she taught herself and she was cursed. So, the Lord goes about punishing those who refuse to help him and rewarding those who do help.
This secret test idea keeps coming up. This time I thought of a way to twist it. Take someone who fails the secret test and then force them into the tester’s position. Make them have to walk around and test people. Perhaps that is the curse, they need to walk the land testing people until someone fails and then that person takes over.
7) The Peahens and the Golden Apples Part I
A king had a golden apple tree that bore fruit every night. But the fruit was always stolen. His three sons said they would stop it. The first son tried to stay up all night but failed and the apples were stolen. The second son also failed. But the third drifted off then awoke at midnight to see eight peahens alight on the tree and the ninth come to him. It changed into a beautiful woman. They talked all night while the other eight took all the apples. Before they left the prince asked to keep an apple for his father. The peahen gave him one for himself too. His father was mighty glad to have one of the golden apples and the son said he’d do it again. And so he spent the next few nights.
The other brothers got jealous though and hired a witch to thwart him. She hid under his sofa and when the peahen changed into a woman, she snipped off some of the beautiful hair. The woman changed back to a bird and they all immediately left and never came back.
The prince was distraught so he set off to find her. He came to another kingdom and asked the empress if she had heard of the nine peahens. The empress said yes they went to the lake every morning. But she said he should not worry about them, he should marry her beautiful daughter instead. The prince refused the offer and went to the lake. The empress took his servant aside and persuaded him to take a whistle. She told him to blow it before the peahens arrived and the prince would fall asleep. Just before the birds arrived the servant blew the whistle and the prince slept like the dead. The ninth peahen tried to wake him but it did not work and she left with the others. When he woke, the prince asked his servant if they had come. He said they had and would be back tomorrow. The next day things happened the same way. On the third day when the peahen was trying to wake him up she told the servant that the prince would see them no more.
The prince was morose at this news and set off to find them again. He found a man who told him the birds he sought were at the palace in a certain town. He got there and went to meet the empress. When she came out it was the woman he’d been looking for and they married.
A love story! With so many questions. Is the peahen cursed? Are the other peahens women too? Where do they go when the one is empress? Tell this story from the other eight peahens’ point of view. How did they come to be cursed and are they mindless while they are birds? Are they meant to watch over the ninth – either as protection or as jailers? There is a lot of potential in this tale.
8) The Nine Peahens Part II
The Prince and Empress were only together happily a short time. She had to leave and gave him a set of keys. She told him to open all the cellars but not the twelfth one. He puzzled over this going through the other eleven. Finally his curiosity took hold and he went into the twelfth. He heard a voice from a cask asking for water. He gave it some water and it burst out of the cask – a dragon! The dragon flew off and captured the empress as she was returning. He took her back to his own palace.
The prince then quested to find her. He got to the palace and went in when the dragon was away. He and his love tried to escape but when the dragon came home he rode them down on is fast horse and took the empress back. He spared the prince because he had given him water, but next time he would not be as kind. The prince went back to the empress and asked her to find out where the dragon got his horse. She found out and told him where to go.
The prince went off. On the way he saved a fish, a fox and a crow. Each one said to take a token and they would come help him whenever he needed it.
Finally he came to an old woman’s house on top of a hill. She said he had to work for her for three days, looking after her mare and foal, then she’d give him any horse he wanted. (He knew from the dragon to take the skinny one in the corner; it could fly!) But if he failed, he lost his head. He agreed.
He spent the day with the mare and everything was fine until around midnight. The prince woke up hugging a stump instead of the mare, she and the foal were gone! He came to a stream and remembered the token from the fish. He took it out and rubbed it. The fish appeared and asked how he could help. The prince told him he was looking for the mare and the fish told him she had turned into a fish and was hiding, but he knew how to get her back. In the morning the prince took the mare back to the old woman. The next two nights were the same. The second night she was hiding among the foxes and the third night among the crows. After the third day, the old woman begrudgingly gave him the horse.
He flew it back to the dragon’s palace and rescued the empress. The dragon tried to pursue but his horse couldn’t keep up with the dragon riding. Eventually the prince’s horse convinced the dragon’s horse to throw him and join them. It did and the empress rode the dragon’s horse and the two lovers flew back to her palace and lived happily ever after.
Another love story, sort of. I broke it up because it was so long it offered a lot of potential. For one, I want to now about the peahen situation. Is she no longer a bird, or what? How did she get the dragon in the cellar? Why didn’t’ she just tell the prince there was a dragon in the cellar? What is between the dragon and the empress? Write a story that explains why the dragon is in the cellar and what he plans to do with the empress once he has her in turn.
9) The Stone Wedding
A young couple wanted to get married but their families were against it. Finally, they wore them down and the wedding was arranged. But the groom’s mother still didn’t agree. She cursed the couple to turn to stone. But when the couple kissed they weren’t the only ones to change. The whole wedding party and all the guests turned to stone. And they are still standing there today.
Imagine the wedding attendants are released from their curse one day. Now they are in the future and have to start all over. These two families who were not on the best of terms before must overcome their differences, including one of them turning everyone to stone, and find a way to live in this new world.
10) What Will You Give Me?
Once a king and queen had a daughter. And they spoiled her rotten. They gave her everything she asked for. One day the queen was sewing when she dropped her needle. She was afraid someone would step on it and asked her daughter to come help look. “What will you give me?” the princess asked. The queen said she had already given her everything she had and there was nothing left. The princess said she still had her crown and what kind of queen was she anyway without anything else. The queen agreed and handed over the crown. Then the princess found the needle and sent her away.
The king lost his glasses and called the princess, afraid that he would step on them if he got up to look. “What will you give me?” she asked. He said he had nothing left; he’d given it all to her. She said he still had his crown and what kind of king was he anyway without anything else. He handed over the crown and she took it then told him where the glasses were. He told him to take his wife and get out. The king and queen went to live in a little cabin in the mountains.
When she was alone, the girl tried on her mother’s crown but it was too big and slipped to the side. Then she tried her father’s. It was so big it slid all the way down over her face and got stuck! She began to panic. There was no one left who could help her. She ran around crashing into things screaming for help. Finally a woman came in and asked what was going on. The princess begged her to get the crown off her head, she couldn’t even eat or drink. The woman said, “What will you give me?” The King-Queen-Princess offered all the riches and everything that she owned but the woman refused each time. Finally she asked what she wanted. The woman wanted it all. The girl at first refused. But then the woman said she’d be all alone ruling over everything by herself because no one could stand her and she couldn’t even enjoy it with the crown stuck on her head. The girl agreed and the woman, a fairy, popped the crown off of her.
The girl thanked her and asked if she might have one more favor. The fairy asked what. She wanted to see her parents again. The fairy said the girl would have to work hard first. She changed the castle into a beautiful garden with a little white house in the center. She said if the girl ever got her parents’ forgiveness they could live there. Then the girl went to live with the fairy. She cleaned and cooked, sewed and knitted. She changed completely and became quite skilled. She made some clothes for her parents and decided it was time to go.
She found her parents’ home but they weren’t there. So she went in and cooked a wonderful meal and cleaned everything and set out her gifts. When her mother and father came back they were astounded. They were so happy to have their girl back. And they loved the gifts. The next day they set off together and the fairy gave them the keys to the house.
This story is about second chances. The fairy granted the girl a chance to become a better person and granted the whole family a chance to live a better life. Write a story about a character who makes a mistake, either out of conditioning like this girl, or out of personal faults, and must find a way to atone. Who are they seeking forgiveness from? Who offers them the chance to make it up? What is the reward if they succeed? Will they succeed?