Folklore is “the boiled-down juice of human living,” Zora Neale Hurston believed. It’s potent stuff and most stories have multiple versions that have been adapted by storytellers to fit the places where they live and the audiences listening to the story.
We often equate the word “myth” with the word “lie” and likewise the word “legend” with the word “superstition” or, perhaps, an ill-informed version of “the real history that actually happened.” I prefer Paula Gunn Allen’s view that myth “is an affirmation of self that transcends the temporal.”
Folklore, whether it’s a creation myth or an often told foundation story brings us, even in a world of science and technology, an alternative, somewhat unconscious and strongly symbolic account of how things came to be the way they are.
When writing about the people who live in a real-life location, I feel ignorant of the place until I read its folklore. These stories tell me a lot about the people and their customs. While many have made careers studying and collecting folklore and comparing that found in one place to that found in another, fiction writers can quickly focus in on some of their states’ basic stories simply through Internet searches like “Montana Ghost Stories,” “New York Legends,” and “Florida Folklore.”
Or, to get a jump start, you can go to American Folklore where you’ll find tall tales grouped by type and by state. You’ll find a diverse array of material by searching for folklore on the Library of Congress’ American Memory website. Similar searches on bookseller sites like Amazon will turn up useful stories as well. If your focus is a specific town, it will usually have a historical society with a local history and/or professional and amateur websites where a mix of history and legend can be found–such as this one for Two Egg, Florida. Many such sites have lists of helpful links.
If you delve into stories about Florida, for example, you’ll discover the skunk ape, a man named Uncle Monday who could turn himself into an alligator and a haunted bridge where a bride in a burnt wedding dress was supposedly seen for years.
The gold in the south isn’t the supposed Confederate Gold, it’s the stories, real, imagined and symbolic. Your town and state also have hidden wealth behind the modern buildings and high-speed Interstates: you can find it at those exits that are badly marked or that are overgrown with weeds due to infrequent use.
I didn’t learn very muck about local folklore in school because when it came up at all, it was always something from the brothers Grimm. Good stuff, that, and universal as well. Yet I cannot help but think that when it comes to legends and tall tales fit to give more to a neew story or novel, that it’s always best to “buy local.”
Many thanks to all of you who helped make my April 30th “Conjure Woman’s Cat” book sale a success: