Thursday, May 14, 2020

Down the Rabbit Hole: Questions from the workshop about researching stories

Last night I taught a 90-minute online workshop as part of the Story Crossroads Spectacular! It was a lovely, lovely experience with a lot of amazing people from various countries. The title of the workshop was Down the Rabbit Hole: The how and why of researching stories. It was the "teaser" version of a 5-hour workshop I will be (hopefully) teaching in person at Story Crossroads next year.

People were curious and actively engaged all the way through. So much so in fact, that even though I left the last half an hour for Q&A, there were questions I still did not have time to answer! Because they were all exciting questions, I decided to pick out the ones I glossed over, and answer them here. I can't guarantee all the answers will be complete, so feel free to comment for more!

Are these resources (storyseeds, wikisource etc.) that you've listed only for stories that are already translated to English? Are other languages also included?

The ATU (folktale type index) does refer to many books that are not in English. This is both an upside and a downside. Upside, great for diversity of stories. Downside, it is annoying to do the whole four-step research process just to find a reference to a story you can't read. (But you can always pay someone to translate!).
There are other, regional indexes (e.g. Types of the Folktale in the Arab World) that refer to more non-English sources. Also, here is the link to the Japanese tale type index I promised!
There was a website called The Multilingual Folktale Database (, but it has been down recently. It was a good initiative where people could upload folktale texts under the appropriate ATU numbers, in any language!

What about sources that use a different alphabet? Will Google Translate help you?

Oh, this one gets tricky. Yes, Google Translate does translate other alphabets, just not really well. And if you can't type said alphabet on your keyboard, all you have left is copy and paste. Whenever I hit this point in my research, I usually reach out for translation help.
(German texts written in Gothic letters are the bane of my existence. You can't even copy and paste those.)

Do emotions or personal attributes work as key words, example: pride, jealous, inadequate, self esteem?

(We were talking about using search terms in Google Books or the motif index)
Yes, they do. Usually the ones that would appear in older stories or texts. Things like "pride" and "jealous" show up in the motif index (try here!), but if you search for more modern terms like "self esteem" you might find publications talking about folktales in academic (or psychological) terms. The psychological analysis of folktales is a popular topic, so you might get lucky even with these terms.
Also, if you want to find stories, you can try searching for story phrases, such as "she was jealous" or "the jealous queen".

If you are collecting these stories that have "questionable" English behavior, how do you market them?

This question came up because we talked about collectors "censoring" folktales to fit the tastes and sensibilities of their audiences (this was common in the Victorian era, and is still common in children's books). So, if you collect traditional stories that contain elements that are considered "sensitive" by modern standards (sex, violence, crude humor, etc.), what do you do with that?
I believe it largely depends on what the goal of your work is. If you are looking to publish a book on folklore, you have academic obligation to leave the texts as you collected them. In that case, you'd market it as an academic book, to the appropriate (adult) audiences. Sometimes you might give a title that point at the nature of those stories (such as Erotic Folktales from Norway, or Grimm's Grimmest), so that people know what they are getting into.
(People don't always know what "folklore" entails. A famous example is the "Folktales of Nations" series in Hungary, which was an excellent series of folktale collections in the 1950s-1970s... except people started buying them as children's books, and then freaking out over the uncensored gore and sex in the stories.)

Do you do such extensive research for EVERY story you tell?  I know publishing is a must….but telling - if its a folktale.

I do so much research because I am curious. I love knowing a lot about my stories, especially when they are from another culture. So it is less of an obligation and more of an exciting quest for me. But no, sometimes I run across stories and I just tell them to test them out. But if I want to integrate them into a show, or work with them extensively, then I go back and do the research. I believe it is an important part of my job as a storyteller.

How do you feel about telling stories professionally if they are outside your own culture?

This could be (and should be) a whole other 5-hour workshop. A panel, even. A series of round table discussions, ideally, involving lots of people from lots of different traditions. It is a super important topic that we need to talk a lot about.
Personally (short answer), I fall somewhere in the middle of the scale. I do tell a lot of stories from other cultures, with the caveat that A) I do a whole lot of research on them, and B) I do my best to respect cases where the stories belong to the kind of tradition that should not be told by outsiders. I still make mistakes sometimes, and I need to own up to that. But I do love stories of all kinds too much not to try.
(Also, I believe it is important to know one's own tradition very well, even if we venture into others. I think of Hungarian stories and lore as my currency, that I put out into the world in exchange for all the lovely things I take in. I make sure I hone and develop my knowledge of Hungarian tradition constantly.)

If you put together a story from several versions, how does that stand with copyright?

Good question, and it largely depends on the sources, and the copyright laws of the country you are in. For example, in Hungary there is no copyright on folktales, but there is copyright on creative re-tellings. So if I merge multiple folktales, that becomes my version of a story, and falls under my copyright.
Using multiple versions is good for making your own story, but then you have to pay attention to the claims you make about representing certain cultures. (We talked about this in the workshop.)

Is there a problem with the publishers not permitting the author to give permission?

Yes, this can happen. I just usually find it easier to ask the author first. Often they forward me to the publisher, but at least then I have an in, and they are more likely to respond to my request. With large publishers, you need to go through official channels, filling out copyright request forms (you can usually find these on their websites).

Thank you all for participating, and asking so many great questions! If you have more, or if you have a specific research topic you'd like help with, check out my Girl in the chair posts on this blog, and send me a message!


  1. It was a brilliant workshop and these answers are also very helpful. Thank you, Csenge.

  2. I love the idea of another 5-hour panel on telling stories outside your culture. We will have to figure out funding/grants...but this idea has stuck and will come to fruition!

  3. Thank you! This was a great workshop!