Be they echoes of tales from long ago, retellings or twisted and fractured mash-ups, fairytales never lose their appeal. This issue, author Claire Watts talks about what fairytales mean to her — and the result of a self-imposed 500-word a day writing challenge.

Claire Watts

A few years ago I set myself a writing challenge. I would write 500 words a day, every day. Didn’t matter what, just so long as by the end of the day 500 words had come out of my fingers. And that was fine when I was in the throes of writing a novel. But eventually you get to the end of the writing part of a novel and have to concentrate on the editing and refining. You have to stop adding words.


Fairytales, it seems to me, are the bare bones of stories

Writing exercises, I thought. I would hone my craft with exercises until it was time to write something new. But where to start? I began by writing down all the things I thought I could use practice in. Characterisation, showing different emotions, suspense, conveying information without info-dumping: it was a long list. The trouble is you can’t just go, OK, I’m going to write about jealousy in 500 words – go! You have to hang it on some sort of plot or character. So where can I turn for a quick source of multiple types of plot and characters I can work with? Fairytales, of course. Fairytales have everything: love, jealousy, murder, fantasy, ghosts, mystery, quest, adventure, talking animals.


Fairytales, it seems to me, are the bare bones of stories. Forget all the Disney versions you’ve seen, all the modern retellings, and go back to the first experience of fairytales you remember. Is it the Ladybird books for you? Or a big volume of stories with illustrations that you had to stop and pore over? Maybe you were lucky enough to have a family member or teacher who told you fairytales rather than read them.


Ask yourself, who are the people in these stories? Where are they? When? What do they feel? How do they speak? Fairytales give us almost nothing. A miller had a daughter. They lived once in a far-off land. A king and queen were sad because they didn’t have a child. A wolf said, “All the better to eat you with, my dear.” Fairytales are all plot with puppet characters. Did you ever see those extraordinary Jan Pienkowski fairytale illustrations? The characters and features of the story are black silhouettes against bright backgrounds. That’s what fairytales seem like to me.


Why are fairytales like this? I wonder if it’s because of their origins as oral tales. Maybe when you tell stories aloud, getting into a character’s head or talking about their surroundings might make listeners lose the thread of the all-important plot. It’s like the way you recount the plot of a novel or a film:


  • ‘So there’s a girl and she’s an orphan, and she goes to live in a big house with an older man so she can look after his child…’ 
  • ‘This boy finds an alien in his garden shed and takes him home…’
  • ‘There’s a ship’s captain and he’s obsessed with capturing this whale…’


Fairytales gave me a perfect hook to hang my 500 words a day on. I would write tiny morsels of fairytale detail – motives, thoughts, conversations, descriptions, before and after. I would poke into the gaps that fairytales leave, sometimes twisting a little from the standard tale, sometimes doing no more than bringing it into a sharper focus.


  • What did the prince think about being expected to choose a bride at a ball?
  • Why did the witch steal baby Rapunzel?
  • What is a gingerbread house really like?


Snippets, by Claire Watts

I called these pieces of fairytale, Snippets, and the more I wrote them the easier and more addictive it became. I have always loved fairytales, but I didn’t realise quite how embedded in my writer brain they were. Every day when I sat down to write my 500 words, often with no more than half an hour to spare, I found it perfectly easy to find somewhere to start. I’ll have a go at evil, I’d think. And then, I could go to any number of stepmothers and witches, and Bluebeard of course. Why are fathers always sending their children off into forests or telling kings that their daughters can spin straw into gold? And that would be another thread.


I wrote these stories just for myself but other people liked them so I thought I would share them. The audience for Snippets isn’t obvious enough for traditional publishing. They’re not really children’s stories. They’re for people like me who love fairytales and thinking about the way stories are made. And so, I published a little volume of twenty-two of the stories myself. You can preview the first couple of stories of Snippets here. Or look at this fun animation of one of the stories my daughters made.


I’ve started a new Substack where I’m publishing Snippets regularly. You can find the first post here.

*Header image: Tita Berredo;
profile of Claire Watts: andrewperry.co.uk


Claire Watts is a children’s writer and editor.

Website: https://www.clairejwatts.com

Twitter: @evangelinecluck

Instagram: @evangelinecluck


Françoise Price is Deputy Editor of Words & Pictures magazine. Contact deputyeditor@britishscbwi.org

Tita Berredo is Illustrator Coordinator for SCBWI British Isles and Art Director of Words & Pictures. Contact illuscoordinator@britishscbwi.org


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