Building the Mythology

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne



Last week I had the privilege of witnessing a true ‘once in a lifetime’ event – the transit of Venus. 


Visible from Melbourne for some six hours last Wednesday, I took my boys out of school and headed down to the historic observatory in our botanical gardens in the hope of actually seeing it (we had terrible weather during the week so there were no guarantees we’d even see the sun!). The local astronomical society had set up telescopes on the lawn and, inside the observatory, the historic 19th century telescope was perfectly positioned to capture an event that, by most calculations, won’t occur again until 2117. 


After waiting over two hours (!) it was finally our turn and, thankfully, the clouds parted and we got a terrific view of Venus as it travelled between the Earth and the Sun. Thing was, after all the build up, what we really saw was a tiny black dot passing across a white disc…so how come my boys declared it to be one of the most ‘awesome’ things they had ever seen? 


Mythology. 


By that I mean that after all the anticipation, research, and history involved, the actual event took on its own kind of mythic status. Therein lay its power and therein lies the power behind some of the most popular bestselling books and films. Think of Harry Potter – or the film Alien. Even Twilight has a detailed mythology that draws readers in. So when writing your current manuscript consider the mythology you are building inside. This doesn’t mean you have to be writing fantasy or science fiction because even with mystery and thrillers what you are creating is your own mythology and a world that will draw a reader in and compel them to read further. 


So what do you need to create  ‘mythology’ within your work?
It could be (to name a few):

  • A sense of an epic battle between good and evil being played out
  • An emotional resonance that seems to tap into a universal yearning (for love, for peace – whatever you like)
  • A world that despite being foreign, alien, or even historical feels so fully formed that a reader is transported (using all five senses) 
  • A sense of something that lifts a reader from the mundane to the profound

As a writer or a reader, what do you think about when you consider the ‘mythology’ of a book? Do certain issues resonate with you and therefore raise a book to mythic status in your eyes? Have there been events in your life which have gained almost mythological status? How do you weave mythology into your own work?

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6 thoughts on “Building the Mythology

  1. Thanks, Clare, for sharing the memory. I got my sons — who were in grade school at the time — out of bed in 1986 to see Halley’s Comet. Hopefully they’ll 1)be around to see it pass by again and 2) remember seeing it the first time.Truly cosmic events.

  2. Mythology is very important to my enjoyment of a book (including the writing of my own). All the best westerns I read as a kid were built on a specific mythology for that genre. As I write my own historicals now, those key elements you describe are always foremost in my mind. I’m especially drawn to the ‘epic battle’ element. I want my readers to be worn out (in a good way) when they finish my book.

  3. The best stories do, IMO, tap into the same thematic river that flows back to classic myths. I think you hit on it, Clare, with “epic battle.” That’s why I teach the stakes in your story must be DEATH. Physical, professional or psychological. Any genre. Even most comedy is really about psychological death.

    In that way, the story is helping the reader in his or her own journey through this “dark world.” Which is what the myths were doing millennia ago.

  4. GREAT post, Clare! You really got me thinking.

    I like books rich in character layers, symbolism, & greater complexity or gut wrenching emotion that make you want to discuss it with others who’ve had the same experience. You feel special for “getting” it. THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak was like that for me.

  5. My father, a retired radio astronomer and avid photographer, took a wonderful shot of the transit of Venus, very moody and atmospheric in black and white. We’ll definitely preserve it for the family photo album!

  6. I think those epic battles really touch a nerve within us for good to triumph over evil and recognition of the emotional as well as physical costs involved. As Jim says that’s why the stakes need to be so high. I find when a book really touches on universal themes the mythology elevates it to the sublime:) the book thief is a great example, Jordan.

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