The Big Idea: Karen Mahoney

Folklore has tropes and tales that it comes back to again and again — but today’s readers are a discerning lot, and it takes more than reheating a trope to engage them. How to mine the trope and yet make it fresh is a subject on author Karen Mahoney’s mind, and today she talks about how she approached the problem for her new YA novel The Iron Witch.


Many things went into the pot while stirring up The Iron Witch, but I think the ‘big idea’ at the heart of it all came down to a question: How can I make the ‘Armless Maiden’ folktales accessible to young, contemporary fantasy readers?

Ever since I first read Midori Snyder’s essay, ‘The Armless Maiden and the Hero’s Journey’ in The Journal of Mythic Arts, I couldn’t stop thinking about that particular strand of folklore and the application of its powerful themes to the lives of young women. There are many different versions of the tale from around the world, and the ‘Armless Maiden’ or ‘Handless Maiden’ are just two of the more familiar. But whatever the title, we are essentially talking about a narrative that speaks of the power of transformation – and, perhaps more significantly when writing young adult fantasy, the power of the female to transform herself. It’s a rite of passage; something that mirrors the traditional journey from adolescence to adulthood.

Common motifs of the stories include – and I am simplifying pretty drastically here – the violent loss of hands or arms for the girl of the title, and their eventual re-growth as she slowly regains her autonomy and independence. In many accounts there is a halfway point in the story where a magician builds a temporary replacement pair of hands for the girl, magical hands and arms that are usually made entirely of silver. What I find interesting is that this isn’t where the story ends; the gaining of silver hands simply marks the beginning of a whole new test for our heroine.

My own Handless Maiden in The Iron Witch – Donna Underwood – has always felt like an outsider (a “freak” as she has been labelled in high school), and must learn to look upon her swirling iron tattoos as a gift if she is ever truly to gain the freedom-from-duty she so desperately desires. I worked with the striking visual element of a girl with silver hands and created my modern-day heroine as a teenager born into an Order of alchemists. Donna has her hands and arms remade by alchemical magic after being mortally injured by the fey – specifically, the dark elves, who are the enemies of the alchemists – when she is just seven years old. She’s spent the last ten years trying to be ‘normal,’ while also keeping her tattoos – and the enhanced physical strength that they give her – hidden.

Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, in her seminal work Women Who Run With the Wolves, says that ‘The Handless Maiden’ tale is truly that of the heroine’s Test of Endurance – and in The Iron Witch, Donna faces a huge test when she has to answer the question:

What are you willing to sacrifice for someone you love?

When her best friend, Navin Sharma, is abducted by the wood elves who reside in the dwindling remains of the Ironwood, Donna has to figure out her answer pretty quickly when she’s given a non-negotiable deadline to deliver the alchemists’ Elixir of Life in exchange for Navin’s safe return.

So, beginning with the idea of updating the Armless Maiden mythology for today’s young adults, I hit upon an effective way of linking the folklore I love with my other great passion: alchemy. I used to work in an occult bookstore in London and had ready access to some wonderful resources including some genuinely esoteric texts. Let me tell you: you haven’t lived until you’ve read John Dee’s journals! But that’s a blog post for another day…


The Iron Witch: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read the first four chapters (with author commentary). Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

14 Comments on “The Big Idea: Karen Mahoney”

  1. Having had the chance to both read and review Karen’s book when it was released here in the UK, it’s great to hear a bit more about the background and her writing process as well as where it all started. I’ll be referring to the article – with your and Karen’s permission of course – when I sit down with some Year 6 students in March to talk about writing, creating memorable characters and how to come up with story ideas etc.

  2. Really interesting Big Idea post – I never heard of the Armless Maiden stories before reading The Iron Witch and I have to say, it sounds fascinating. Glad to hear you were able to mix your two passions into one story, Karen, and I think it worked really well too.

  3. Sounds fascinating. Question: how did you come up with the name ‘Donna Underwood’? Does it have any significance, or did you just like the sound of it? Underwood… under the Ironwood… *muses*

  4. Karen – great to see you on here!! I’m so very proud of you. ::beams:: I love the background info on the story. Fascinating. As Ana said above, I’d not heard of these folk tales before now. Love that you chose something less well-known to explore.


  5. Thanks for the comments, guys!

    Maria: *blushes* That’s so nice of you! It’s been a long journey getting here, but however it happens we keep on keeping on… right? :)

    Phil: There totally is significance – though I have to admit a friend of mine helped me to come up with the name. (I have to say that, or he might read this and accuse me of taking all the credit!) I was looking for something that had sort of shamanic undertones, because the Handless Maiden undergoes a shamanic rite of passage (that’s one interpretation of the lore), so the name came more from ‘underworld’ initially. Then the fact that Donna goes into the forest/woodland – another feature of some versions of the tale – and there you have it. Underwood was perfect.


  6. This book looks fascinating! I see B&N doesn’t have a nookbook version of it yet, but I did hit the little button expressing interest in one (don’t know how much good that actually does, but hey, can’t hurt right?) and added it to my wishlist so I can periodically check if the e-book is available!

  7. I’m always looking for good YA books for my daughters, and when I see something that shows me there’s *thought* behind the story, rather than formula, I sit up and take notice. This one is definitely going on my “buy” list.

  8. Underwood, as I understand it, meant that the person lived next to the forest, under the branches, but not necessarily *in* the woods. And, being an Underwood myself, it’s always cool to see the name out in the world!

  9. verbranden: It’s not available for the nook yet, which is a shame. Available on kindle (at both Amazon US and UK), but other than that I’m not sure about where things stand re. ebooks. I need to find out as I’ve been asked a few times now, so thanks for the nudge to make sure I actually *do* ask my agent and/or publisher about this. And thanks for your interest, too!

    Steven Cole: I’m really glad to hear this. I worked hard to make Donna as realistically awesome as possible (which I know sounds funny…). I wanted her to be the kind of girl who rescues the boy, too, as you can never have too many YA heroines who are proactive in solving their own problems. ;)


  10. nancileigh: I like the part about being “under the branches, but not necessarily *in* the woods.” That’s interesting, and sort of appropriate because my Donna Underwood is always going to be associated with the woods in some way – as that’s where she was injured as a child (leading to her first transformation with the tattoos) – and yet she can never be considered OF the wood, not truly, because she is human rather than fey. Also, it’s nice to ‘meet’ a Real Life Underwood! *waves*


  11. @9: From looking at things, the Amazon Kindle version is a ‘Topaz’-format ebook, which basically means it’s been scanned by Amazon. Barnes & Noble doesn’t do that, so it looks like the publisher did not give an electronic version to anyone. (This guess is based on the description of the Kindle version having a page count, but not a file size; my experience is that this means Topaz-format, and those are also generally larger than the MOBI-format versions. And after a painful reading experience on an iPhone, I’ve tried to avoid those.)

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