Collecting Folk Tales & Legends: Author Helen Grant

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Silent Saturday, Helen GrantMost people collect physical objects like postcards or sweatshirts when they visit a new country. Helen Grant isn’t like most people.

She collects folk tales.

“One of the things I like about folk legends is that they give me a sense of the history and character of the region,” said Grant. “I’ve moved about a lot over the years – Spain, Germany, Belgium and now Scotland – so I rarely have any real personal history with the place where I live. Learning about the local legends gives me a little bit of that history.”

Even though she currently resides in Scotland, her Forbidden Spaces trilogy was inspired by her previous residence in Flanders, a Dutch-speaking area in northern Belgium.

The first book Silent Saturday follows seventeen-year old Veerle, a frustrated teen that is annoyed with her every-day routine and her life in Brussels. Enter Kris Verstraeten, an old acquaintance who introduces Veerle to a secret society that breaks into houses. Just when Veerle thinks life is getting exciting, the two of them get wrapped up in the exploits of a serial killer.

Demons of Ghent, Helen GrantSilent Saturday begins with the folk tale related to Silent Saturday, the Saturday that falls between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. That day, all of the church bells are silent.

“Children are told this is because the bells have flown away to Rome to collect Easter eggs from the Pope,” explains Grant. “I remember hearing about this tradition from my teacher and thinking, hmmm, if I were a little Flemish kid I would want to get into the church bell tower that day and see if the bells really had flown away or not!”

And that’s how the trilogy kicks off – with Veerle and Kris meeting as kids because they want to explore the bell tower. But it’s not just the first book that revolves around a folk tale; the entire series is inspired by local legends and historical sights. (Book two is titled Demons of Ghent and book three is titled Urban Legends.)

“Setting is very important to me as a writer. I often get the ideas for my plots from visiting interesting locations,” said Grant. “The original idea for Demons of Ghent came from a visit to the city of Ghent. I was enchanted by the ancient Saint Baaf’s Cathedral and very impressed with its massively high tower.”

Urban Legends, Helen Grant“I love visiting potential book locations – to me, they are like a stage set, waiting for the actors to appear. I love to soak up the atmosphere, see the sights, listen to the sounds, even smell the smells! – and then I imagine what might happen in this environment.”

In the last book Urban Legends, Grant changes things up a bit by not following one tale, but many different tales. It was hard to find legends specific to Belgium; the ones she ended up choosing are ones also told in other countries around the world. For example, one tale is the Angel Smile – a laceration created by making small cuts on the corners of someone’s mouth. When the victim tries to open or move their mouth, the cuts rip open further, creating a wound that extends towards the ears in the shape of a smile. Different variations of this story are found in many countries, specifically Belgium, Scotland and Japan.

“I bought a copy of a book of Flemish urban legends by Professor Stefaan Top and then cross referenced the stories I liked with UK and US sources to make sure that versions of them were known in both places,” explained Grant. “I thought it would be scarier for the reader if some of the tales were familiar.”

Author Helen Grant

Author Helen Grant. Courtesy of Helen Grant

Although the Forbidden Spaces trilogy is over, Grant is currently working on a novel set in Scotland – the place she currently lives now. “I like to push my own boundaries a bit when I’m writing. The novel I am working on now has less death in it but it goes more deeply into the emotions of people under psychological strain. It’s a change, and it’s tough to write, but I’m enjoying it.”

For more information about Helen Grant and her Forbidden Spaces trilogy, visit her website or follow her on Twitter.

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Alison Ng

Alison live in the NYC area, works in book publishing and really, really likes food.

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