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!