Magic, Myth, & Mischief, hosted by me and Bonnie, is a month-long event that celebrates fairy tales and mythological retellings, as well as retellings of favorite classic novels and books featuring mythical beasts such as mermaids, dragons, and fae! Find the schedule of events and other information here.
Today I’m welcoming Sarah McGuire, author of The Flight of Swans, to the blog to talk about her new book and a crazy run-in she had with some stinging nettles while she was doing some research for it!
The Flight of Swans & Stinging Nettles
(or how I came to love Benadryl)
by Sarah McGuire
For me, writing a novel-length fairy tale retelling involves exploring what I love about the tale and what I want to change. In Grimm’s “Six Swans,” I’d loved that a girl did the saving. The young princess single-handedly saves her older brothers by remaining silent for six years and making them shirts out of stinging nettles.
Stinging nettles are the centerpiece of the original tale and there’s just something about the name. They sound like such sinister plants! It was easy to imagine a girl with blistered, perhaps even bleeding, hands weeping as she made six shirts.
… it felt like the narrator sat there, saying, “You’re not going to talk? Well, what if you have to live alone? Okay, still won’t talk? What about if I make you work with stinging nettles that destroy your hands? Still won’t talk? You should marry this guy and have two babies–all while you can’t speak.”
“Six Swans” was all about the heroine’s endurance. But in The Flight of Swans, I wanted Andaryn to have agency. I wanted to show all the ways she sought to communicate even when she couldn’t speak, and how hard she worked to save her brothers.
That’s when I realized just what I wanted to change about my retelling. (Well, that and the romantic interest. That man was a mess! But that’s another blog post…) Andaryn wouldn’t just survive the nettles–she’d outwit them. And the more I researched nettles, the more I realized that was possible.
Here’s what I discovered:
- Nettles were a primary source of fabric in Europe before linen. That may be why the Grimms’ version of the tale (gathered as folklore) is fairly matter-of-fact about nettles, while Hans Christian Anderson’s “Wild Swans” involves so much suffering. I doubt Anderson had much experience with stinging nettles except for occasionally being stung by some.
- There’s a way you can touch nettles so that you don’t get stung. Thank you, YouTube! There were even folks who tore leaves off the nettle plants and ATE them.
- Stinging nettles are incredibly nutritious.
But research isn’t anything without trying it yourself, right? So I met with Krista, a local farmer whocultivated and harvested stinging nettles. She told me how people with arthritis would use the nettles to sting the affected areas– and that it helped. She told me that you got used to the stings. The first stings of the season hurt, but you’d hardly notice them by the end of the season.
Then she asked if I wanted to try it. And–this was probably me–it seemed like she wondered if I would actually do it.
Oh, I wanted to harvest them. (Because research. Also ego.) I rolled up my sleeves, grabbed a handful of nettles (the wrong way- because research!) and started hacking away. When I had an entire grocery bag of nettles, Krista looked at my welt-covered arms and told me that I had the strongest reaction to nettles she’d seen in a while.
I nodded bravely (because, ego) but to be honest, my arms looked worse than they felt.
By the time I’d driven home, the welts had disappeared. My hands and arms looked normal, and the pain was definitely manageable. Perhaps the fairy tale had been overestimating how much stinging nettles hurt.
A few hours later, I’d changed my mind. Every bit of skin that had been stung burned, and even the slight pressure of typing on laptop hurt. The pain was prickly from the inside–the way it feels when you lose circulation in your foot and then stand up. Except it didn’t stop. A few hours later, it still hadn’t stopped.
I chickened out by bedtime and took an antihistamine. Even so, I still felt triumphant. Because while I’d definitely harvested the nettles the wrong way, I’d also realized that I could strip an entire nettle stalk of its leaves without getting stung. I won’t lie–I was proud of that.
Here’s what stinging nettles taught me. Yes, awful things happen, and we writers do awful things to our characters. But it’s also important to concentrate on the way that we (and they!) fight back.
I love that.
The Flight of Swans wasn’t an easy book to write. Andaryn is mute for most of it. I had to cover six years of her life without bogging down the story. And while I’d loved researching nettles, the story needed to be about so much more than the nettles.
But for me the research on nettles allowed me to create the sort of heroine that I love. Yes, Ryn endures a great deal, but she doesn’t just endure this curse. She fights it. And for me, that is always, always, the kind of story I want to read.
Based on the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tale Six Swans, The Flight of Swans follows Ryn’s journey to save her family and their kingdom.
Princess Andaryn’s six older brothers have always been her protectors–until her father takes a new Queen, a frightening, mysterious woman who enchants the men in the royal family. When Ryn’s attempt to break the enchantment fails, she makes a bitter bargain: the Queen will spare her brothers’ lives if Ryn remains silent for six years.
Ryn thinks she freed her brothers, but she never thought the Queen would turn her brothers into swans. She never thought she’d have to discover the secret to undoing the Queen’s spell while eluding the Otherworldly forces that hunt her. And she never thought she’d have to do it alone, without speaking a single word.
As months as years go by, Ryn learns there is more to courage than speech . . . and that she is stronger than the Queen could have ever imagined.
About Sarah McGuire
Sarah McGuire is a nomadic math teacher who sailed around the world aboard a floating college campus. She writes fairy tales and would be just fine if one day she opened a wardrobe and stumbled into another world. Coffee and chocolate are her rocket fuel. She wishes Florida had mountains, but she lives there anyways with her husband (who wrote this bio in less than three minutes!) and their family.