Telling Tales

Stromness Harbour

Stromness Harbour

Last month I went to Orkney for a week’s holiday/research for my new book. While I was there I went to a storytelling evening. We heard tales of selkies, the Fin Folk, strange amphibious beings who lived beneath the seas in Finfolkaheem and trows (or fairies) that lived on the seashore. The storyteller wove the tales not only with words but with the tone of her voice, her hands, her whole body. She acted the parts and the audience were held tight in the grip of these ancient tales.
A couple of days later I went on a walking tour of Stromness which is the second largest town in Orkney (with a massive population of about 2,000 people) and historically was a major seaport. It was the home of Orkney poet and novelist, George Mackay Brown whose books first made me want to visit these islands. During the tour, I heard more stories about people who’d lived in Stromness. Some of them seemed like slightly tall tales, like the one about the sailor who lived with the cannibals on Easter Island and returned with a necklace of human teeth.
Others were more poignant, like the story of Dr John Rae, the Victorian artic explorer. He discovered the last link in the North West passage and the fate of the Franklin expedition that had set out a few years before to make that discovery. After reporting that the members of the Franklin expedition had resorted to cannibalism he was branded a liar by Franklin’s widow and didn’t receive the recognition that he deserved for his achievements. The people of Stromness are justly proud of Dr John Rae. To mark the bicentenary of his birth there was a display of art in shop and house windows around the town with the pictures and sculptures each telling part of his life story.
Later that same day I went to a concert of folk music in Kirkwall. One of the reasons I love folk music is that it’s full of stories. Sometimes the songs tell the stories and sometimes the musicians tell you tales about why they’re singing these songs. This concert had more of the latter and one man played a hymn that he’d learned from listening to the wireless as he grew up. He’d heard his hymn on the trawler band of the radio sung by fishermen from the east coast of Scotland as they made their way home in bad weather.



I think all of this made me realised how much people love stories. Some people like them to be true and will read biography or history books. Others are happy with fiction. It doesn’t seem to matter how a story is told whether it’s oral or written, sung or told in pictures. What matters is the story.
As an aspiring novelist I think it’s important to be reminded of this. I think I’ve spent so much time worrying about finding my voice and getting my technique right that I can forget that what the reader wants is a good story. At a writer’s lunch that I went to earlier this year I heard an experienced novelist say that readers will forgive bad writing if the stories good but that good writing can’t rescue a poor story. I’m not advocating that we set out to write badly but I am suggesting that we remember that in the end it’s the story that matters.
As a post script I just wanted to let you know that I’ve finally received my NWS report and its good news. The Reader said that they very much enjoyed Beltane, that the plot was excellent (phew!) and that it’s very impressive for a first novel. I’ve got some changes to make (apparently my characters swear too much for one thing) but none of them are major and then I can start the very scary process of submitting!
Alex xx

10 thoughts on “Telling Tales

  1. Alex you made my heart throb this morning!! Scottish islands are very dear to me, particularly the western isles where I have ancestors. Some of them couldn’t speak English!

    Have you read Crowdie and Cream? That is a superb autobiograpy of a time just at the cusp of our modern age, when visitors were requested to pee in buckets to make the Harris tweed! Now they use something else, I’m told. I shall treat myself to a real Harris Tweed jacket with my first publication money. One of of the things I want to do in my next few years is travel the islands in a camper van.

    One Scot who made a big name for himself was Billy Connolly. He used to tell stories of growing up and the doubts and uncertainties that plagued us all. We do love stories and they don’t have to be literally true to change the world, like Charles Dicken’s stories. They aren’t literally true but they are in essence and hit so many people in the heart that attitudes, and eventually law changed. Something no amount of dry research papers could achieve.

    Great news about Beltane!! What a wonderful accolade for a first novel, I can’t wait to read it now. Will you be sending it out soon?

    • Hi Lynne,
      Thanks for your lovely comment. It’s really lovely to hear that my post touched your heart this morning. The trip around the Scottish islands sounds like a wonderful adventure. I’d definitely recommend including Orkney in your plans. It’s well worth the potentially choppy ferry crossing!

    • Hi Rachael
      Thanks but I don’t think I can take all the credit for the photos. Stromness is so picturesque I think it’d be fairly difficult to take bad photographs! I have got some great new ideas from the trip inspired by some of these stories and the amazing places that we visited. The bones of the plot really came together while I was there which was great.

  2. Like all your writing, Alex, this description of your trip was very evocative and, like Lynne, made me want to dash up to Scotland 🙂 My YA is set on a fictional Scottish island and I can see myself having a Scottish hero in the next adult novel I write, although sadly not the WIP. I can’t wait to read Beltane either and I look forward to hearing more about your plans for submission. In the meantime, I’ll day dream of Scotland to help me get through this dull, grey, wet afternoon xx

    • That’s nice to hear Jo. Maybe I’ve got a future career with the Orkney tourist board! I think a Scottish hero is an excellent idea although (as I know from struggling with Winston) the accent can be tricky! Hope day dreaming of Scotland helped you through the afternoon.

  3. Hi Alex, I’ve been dying to hear all about your trip to Orkney and this post certainly didn’t disappoint. As some of the others say, you paint such a great picture of your surroundings. The pictures are truly stunning – especially that blue sky.

    I’m loving the idea of attending a folk-storytelling evening. How wonderful and magical. It’s something I’ve never done but I’d love to. I guess certain places are so much more tied up in the magical and mystical and it sounds like you’ve spent some valuable time at one of them.

    You do raise a brilliant point about us being storytellers. It is easy to get lost in technique and worry about whether we’re in the right point of view, use “said” instead of “snarled”, show instead of tell and so on. But, if the story is brilliant, the reader will not want to put it down. And we all know what that feels like. Sounds like you’ve achieved that with Beltane which I can’t wait to read.

    Julie xx

    • I’m really glad you enjoyed reading the post. I was worried once I’d pressed ‘publish’ (and realised that I’d managed to include not one but two mentions of cannibalism!) that it was a bit too left field. I think you’d have enjoyed the storytelling evening. I actually know a story teller in York so if you ever want to give it a go let me know!

      • Ooh, yes please! I’ve always fancied going on one of those ghost tours but have never got round to it but a story teller would be even better. With the Guy Fawkes and Dick Turpin connections plus various hauntings and Royal connections, York must be a fascinating place to tell tales about. Ashleigh adores history. She’d probably love it too. x

  4. Your trip sounds fascinating from the storytelling to the folk music…what a great way to really absorb the place.
    Well done too on NWS feedback…get going with those changes 🙂
    Helen P.

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