Detecting folk songs

One of my favourite authors is Dorothy L. Sayers. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve reread or simply revisited her detective novels, even though I’ve known whodunit in each of them for years. Her best known books feature Lord Peter Wimsey, shell-shock survivor, man about town, bibliophile, and sometime copywriter for an advertising agency.

Now, I encountered Lord Peter at an early age and he is still, for me, the sine qua non for detective fiction. Poirot, Rebus, Grant, Wexford, even Holmes… All have their merits and their notable successes but none to my mind can, quite, match Lord Peter (let us not consider too closely the follow-up books penned by Jill Paton Walsh, other than to say that Wimsey without Sayers is like a fine wine, corked). He might begin as a set of characteristics and catch-phrases, a caricature of the English upper classes, but over the course of his investigations the layers of mannerisms are stripped away to reveal the man. It’s a powerful examination of the aftermath of conflict.

So why am I wittering on about Lord Peter? Well now, this started up as a blog about folk songs. And – lo and behold – there’s an easy link between Lord Peter and folk song: Strong Poison  (1930) takes both its name and its epigraph from Child Ballad no. 12, Lord Randal (sung here by Alasdair Roberts).

The ballad comes under the general heading of murder ballads. It’s a broad category; many (most?) of the Child Ballads deal with unnatural death of one sort or another. It’s slightly unusual in that it gives the victim’s account: Lord Randal makes his accusations of who poisoned him and how and when, and instructions as to how to deal with his murderer.  It was his sweetheart, of course, with the poison, in the stewed eels. Love seldom goes well in ballads, as I may have mentioned this once or twice before.

Strong Poison opens with Harriet Vane on trial for her life for the murder of her erstwhile sweetheart, Philip Boyes. It is alleged she used poison, although stewed eel does not feature in the dinner the dead man ate on his last evening. And, like Lord Randal, Boyes accused his lover on his deathbed. So far book and ballad run in parallel.

But, whether or not Strong Poison was inspired by the ballad, their courses diverge from that point. It needs to be so – there’s not a lot of plot in Lord Randal; it’s a snapshot of a moment and doesn’t concern itself with what happened before or after. Ballads are like that. Detective fiction, on the other hand, requires rather a lot of plot and a linear progression from problem to solution. Fortunately for Harriet, Lord Peter is around to ask a few questions about that last dinner. His taste in reading is also useful; familiarity with late 19th Century poetry provides the reader with a last, late clue.

It’d be stretching interpretation far beyond breaking point to call Strong Poison a retelling of a ballad. Oh, the supernatural is invoked in Lord Peter’s cause but there’s a rational explanation. You can, if you try hard, find touches here and there evoking balladry; there are, for example, red roses like splashes of blood – a folk song image if ever there was one – in the first line of the book. At best one can conclude that Sayers borrowed an idea or image and ran with it. Literature is like that: the more one reads, the more connections between different forms and stories become apparent.

We never find out if Lord Randal’s sweetheart did, in fact, poison him. It’s not a spoiler to say that Harriet Vane didn’t poison Philip Boyes. Nor to say that, in detective fiction, wronged women can end up living happily ever after. Not quite yet – there’s another couple of books to go before that happens. I don’t think folk songs or ballads feature in them at all.

In an amusing coincidence, as I was writing this post, The Guardian published an article on the likelihood of the murder strategy used in Strong Poison.

Posted in Child Ballad, Dorothy L. Sayers, folk song, novel, personal opinion, Twentieth Century Fiction | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Some thoughts on writing, revisited

I wrote the following about eighteen months ago in reaction to a lot of the advice to writers I’d seen posted here and there about the internet. It started as a rant but I managed to tone it down by the point of posting. As I keep bumping up against my pet hates, I’m reposting it in an attempt to achieve equilibrium.

l. Grant yourself unfettered access to the entire English language. Do not fret unduly about using words or parts of speech others have misused or overused or put on a list of ‘things to avoid’. All you need consider is whether you are using the right word in the right place for your work.

2. ‘To be’ is a very strong verb. If you don’t believe me, reread the first ten verses of the KJB translation of The Gospel according to John or else the first sentences of 1984 or The Bell Jar or Bring up the Bodies or More Than This. You may decide to use it sparingly but few verbs are more powerful in declarative statements.

3. Don’t rush to judgement when a sentence is written using the passive. No crime or sin is being committed.

4. The presence of ‘was’ does not automatically render a sentence passive. Your writing life will be easier if you can distinguish the grammatical passive voice from the past continuous (otherwise known as the past progressive or past imperfect) form of a verb.

5. Feel free to make use of dialogue tags other than ‘said’; people do indeed ‘whisper’, ‘shout’, ‘hiss’, ‘scold’, ‘murmur’ or ‘dictate’ upon occasion. That said, unless you’re writing a very particular sort of fiction, ‘ejaculated’ is probably best avoided these days.

6. Fiction isn’t Latin or academic prose, so it’s fine to use contractions, to split infinitives and to end sentences with prepositions if you wish to.

7. Too much showing is as tedious to read as too much telling. Assume intelligence in your reader: there’s no need to show, tell or explain everything.

8. A little description can go a long way. The well-placed detail is the key to world building, whatever genre of book you’re writing.

9. Sweat the small stuff! Anachronisms, factual errors and unwarranted assumptions will play havoc with a reader’s ability to suspend disbelief so do your research and get the details right. Pay attention too to internal consistency. That matters, as much if not more than external consistency.

10. Be open when people offer their opinions on your work, consider carefully what they say, but do not feel obliged to follow their advice if it goes against your grain (and, yes, this goes for everything I’ve written here, except point 4).

I feel better now.

Posted in personal opinion, rant;, thoughts, writing rules | Tagged , , , | 13 Comments

Imacah’s song

There are several songs in After the Ruin Like the map, they’re there to give the impression of a world that is rather larger than the story between the covers of the book. The book was inspired by ballads so it felt right to include them; besides, I like writing verses as much as I do prose.

This one belongs to Imacah. He’s a child of five, singing this in time to his skipping.

Three kings beneath the tree are seen
Of day and night and might have been.
But day and night fill dark and light
There is no time for might have been.

The red king, black king and the green
Say was, was not and might have been.
I know what’s what, I know what’s not,
I’ll never know what might have been.

Three kings beneath the bone-bare tree
Say will, will not and it might be!
If I do what another will not
Can you tell me what might have been?

The three kings are important, of course. Who they are, and which of them – red, black or green – has the last word, is revealed by the end of the book.

Posted in After the Ruin, fantasy novel, Hadley Rille Books, Harriet Goodchild author | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

As I am, so shall you be (villanelle)

I know this blog has wandered a long way from folk songs and from fantasy. I’m still listening to the former and blocked on the latter. Now, and for the foreseeable future, I’ll be posting the odd (very odd?) poem here, when I can manage them.

I read somewhere that villanelles started off as a comic form. This one isn’t laugh-out-loud funny but I did intend it to have a black humour about it. The refrain, As I am, so shall you be, is a fairly common momento mori on old gravestones, though my narrator isn’t yet quite in her tomb.

As I am, so shall you be

‘Smile,’ you say, ‘and look at me!
I’ll take a picture of this time.’
As I am, so shall you be.

You do not care for what you see –
I’ve heard you – Sadly past her prime!
‘Smile,’ you say, and look at me,

Seeing a second infancy,
Foolish, withered, hoared with rime.
As I am, so shall you be,

And, once, you looked quite differently:
‘Again!’ you’d beg. ‘Please! One more time!’
Smile? you say. And? Look at me,

Child, who once sat on my knee
Gumming and babbling an old rhyme:
As I am, so shall you be.

‘Here’s the picture – can you see?
A lovely record of our time.
Smile,’ you say, and look at me.
As I am, so shall you be.


Posted in poetry, villanelle | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Pantoum: All the time there is

The prompt for this was a composite photo of many different clock faces. I can’t find the picture now (note to self: save things!) but you all know what a clock looks like!

All the time there is

All the time there is, is here.
Each moment ticked, exactly, off.
Dead time, never quickening
To the beat of a racing heart.

Each moment ticked exactly off.
Each gives the measure of the rest.
To the beat of a racing heart
Such constraint cannot be borne;

Each gives the measure of the rest
In substance only, not in time.
Such constraint cannot be borne:
Some leap while others murmur.

In substance, only not in time,
Hearts beat together ’gainst the clock.
Some leap while others murmur,
And all the time there is, is there.

Posted in pantoum, poetry, verse | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Ill winds are blowing

Two triolets
Both say much the same thing because I wrote the first and then turned it into the second to fit the character limit for twitter.


Ill winds are blowing
Out of the west
Certainties going
Ill winds are blowing
Cold hatreds sowing
This is the test
Ill winds are blowing
Out of the west


Truth lies bleeding
Cold winds blow
Falsehoods breeding
Truth lies bleeding
Vanity feeding
Hatreds grow
Truth lies bleeding
Cold winds blow


Posted in Brexit, Erdogan, May, rant;, triolet, Trump, twitter poems | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Love in folk songs

I’ve been listening to Nic Jones (great man; his set at Towersey a few years ago is one of the highlights of my musical experience) and, well, after an evening in the company of Annachie Gordon and a Bonny Light Horseman, pondering the wisdom of crossing the Clyde Water to the Banks of Fordie, whilst waiting for the Daemon Lover to come along in the company of Master Kilby so we all could sail away to the Lakes of Shillin, I wrote the following:

Love in folk songs: a warning to the inexperienced

In a folk song
Before too long
Love will go wrong
Every time.

Love is woken
Words are spoken
A promise broken
Every time.

There’s but one rule:
She’s a young fool
He is so cruel
Every time.

She’s believing
He’s deceiving
Quickly leaving
Every time.

If not one lover
Wronging the other
It’s his mother
Every time.

Love ends badly
Love ends sadly
Never gladly
Every time.

Posted in Child Ballad, folk music, folk song, love, Music, Nic Jones, verse | 1 Comment

Twitter poems

A few poems, written whilst I was away over New Year. Most were posted first on Twitter (micropoetry is, for me, the best thing about Twitter) and thus written quickly, reflecting the medium.


Curlews take flight
Beyond the stone wall
Ghosts in halflight
Silent as nightfall
Slip out of sight
Hardly here at all


Sweet the twicefold call
Of curlews rising at dusk
From a western shore

After the sunset
The wind blows out of the north
Cold as last year’s bones

A finger of stone
An arc across the moorland
In the distance rain



A robin sings
Before the dawn
Bright notes take wings
A robin sings
Each ripple rings
With hope reborn
A robin sings
Before the dawn

Posted in haiku, triolet, twitter poems, verse | 8 Comments

An end, maybe a beginning?

I’d like to say everything has sorted itself out, writing-wise, since my last post but I can’t, because it hasn’t. I’m in no part closer to finding the spark missing from my manuscript. Something has changed, however, as a result of a couple of helpful, sensible conversations – thank you, Jane and Colin. I am worrying about the whole thing less and that is, I hope, the beginning of progress. Even though I’m not sure when, or even if, I’ll start writing again, not worrying about not being able to write feels like a burden has been lifted. Not writing now doesn’t change the fact that those books I have written are out in the world.

Anyway, today is the solstice. The winter solstice in these parts, and a grey, wet rainy day it was too. Nominally we get about seven hours of daylight but it was so dreich it never really brightened. It’s still raining. But, from tomorrow, the days will be getting longer.

In life, of course, one is stuck with the weather as it happens. In fiction, one can select it to fit the mood and the need of the book. No need for rain or dull halflight if clean, clear cold seems preferable. Here’s a crisp, dry midwinter’s night from After the Ruin (commercial plug: I see that AtR is being heavily discounted right now on Amazon UK; I’m not sure how long the offer will last). The extract is taken from the turning point of the story, when hoped-for ends turn into unlooked-for beginnings:

Midwinter. The king walked through the wood, snow on the branches, frost on the trees. The darkness parted itself around him, the splinters of frost shining bright as the stars in the sky. He walked in silence through the night and left no mark upon the snow. Tonight, as he walked out of the wild wood into the world, there were no boundaries between a dream and waking.

The king stood between the earth and sky. When he spoke, the world fell quiet to listen. “If you are there, show yourself.” The meadows were full of shapes and shadows. Light and lovely as the falling snow, the liùthion danced around him, existing only at the edge of vision, in the world and out of it. Their dance span and wove its patterns across the meadows as snowflakes span across the sky but the king was the still centre, the fixed point, more solid than any flesh, more real than any dream. The world was ever changing but he endured forever and for always.

His voice was the gentle cold of falling snow. “Come out of the dark.” He held his hand out to a darker shadow beneath the shadows of a bone-bare tree.

The piper stepped from beneath a birken tree, its pale branches hung all about with ice, bleak and beautiful as hope. “Only in borderlands can we meet, between your lands and mine.”

“Are you come to beg an apple?” The words rang out into the night, the clear cold of broken ice skimming across a frozen loch.

“I cannot eat that fruit, beneath this sky or the other.”

The king raised his hand. The music died away to a memory of sweetness and loss, the liùthion were gone; nothing was left to break the emptiness of snow and frost. All that remained was the wind upon the meadows, the soft and silent fall of snow upon the night.

The piper shivered in the silence and the cold, because he was afraid, as he had never before been afraid, even on that longest day when the sun burned fierce and still above him.

The king bowed his head. His cloak was ragged and his feet bare but there were stars tangled in his hair. His voice was the wind rattling the birken tree. “As you desire. I do not take the unwilling. But, if you did not come to eat, why come here at midwinter when I cross the water to walk in the wild wood?”

“You know all the ways of all the men that ever walked beneath the sky. You know why I came to you.”

The piper held out his hands. The king took them in his own, cold hands and turned the palms face up that he might study them.

“Ask and I will answer.” The king’s voice was the snap of twigs upon a winter’s night. “But think before you speak: remember that I make no promises, I offer no hope, I grant no boons and I make no bargains. What I am, I am.”

The piper let out a long breath. His life hung before him, white mist in the black night. He asked, “What is left to me?”

“You live and breathe, you walk beneath the sun and moon.”

“Why can I not come to my rest? The dead are dead. All else that lived to the long day’s evening found peace in Ohmorah. But I? I lost my way, my hope, my name and still it is not enough!”

“For all things there is a price. That is the one you pay, piper from the gates of morning.”

“I saw the rowan die; I saw the sun stand still at noontime, a red moon rising and fiery dancers setting the very wind to flame.” The piper looked up into the king’s pale face but could not meet his gaze and shut his eyes against it. Behind the blackness of closed eyes, he saw a flicker of sunlight across the green leaves of a rowan tree, a fall of golden hair. He heard a well-remembered song, rich and sweet as honeycomb on midsummer’s day. He closed his mind against the memory and cried out, “After fire burned and water drowned, I made a balance this side of the sunset. All that I did that day was necessary.”

The answer came back quick and hard. “Who are you to judge necessity? A balance made along the edge of a sword is no balance at all.”

The piper’s face twisted with anger or regret. “The lives and deaths of those in the waking world are no concern of yours!”

“You came to me to ask your questions, and I have answered. The truth is all I have to offer you.”

“Then there is no hope left to me.”

“You live and breathe, you walk upon the earth. All this is left to you and it must be enough.”

“It is but half a life, walking across the years towards an unkind death.”

“Yours is the only hand that shaped your fate.” The king bent his head to study the hands he still held within his own. “You chose, and know the penalty of choice.”

The piper snatched back his hands. He was never good to look upon but now he wore the face of a monster: hate sat on his brow and shame upon his cheek. He cried out, his anger spilling like steam from a boiling pot, “Allodola found peace, the Liùthion found love and Allocco is dead! I would trade all my freedom and my choices for any of these three.”

The king said only, “Yet, even now, you seek to shape the future to one of your own choosing.” His face was quiet and still, free from anger, and from love.

The piper bowed his head, his anger gone, his sorrow left to him. He thought and he remembered, and he said, “An I do not, all I have done before I did in vain. One choice leads on to others, and there never is an end.”

“Death is the end of all things beneath your sky, piper from the gates of morning.” The king turned away and his ragged cloak swung around him on the wind of the world and the wind not of the world. “Enough and more than enough of words. I am to my dancing and all who choose may join me.”

He spread wide his hands. The sky around him was jewelled with starlight; the wind and the land and the empty air filled again with music and shadows. He danced and the kindred of the borderlands danced with him in the long night, and there were no boundaries between a dream and waking.

The piper watched, and let old memories rise through the years to the surface of his mind. Here and now, he knew how much he had feared and how greatly he had failed. Above his head, the winter trees, white and clean as last year’s bones, stretched out their branches to the stars. A long, long while passed by before he turned away, limping back into the shadows towards the company of men.

Posted in After the Ruin, fantasy novel, Hadley Rille Books, Harriet Goodchild author, novel, personal opinion, thoughts | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Writer, eclipsed.

I started this villanelle ages back – so long back I can’t quite recall when, except that it was the last time there was a partial lunar eclipse visible in this part of the world. That’s pretty clear from the subject matter. I got stuck, abandoned it, found the fragment recently and forced it to a finish.

The moon was full tonight.
As it rose above the hill,
The shadow ate its light.

We crooked our fingers tight
To guard against ill-will.
The moon was full tonight,

Our way lay, plain in sight,
An easy path, until
The shadow ate its light

’Twixt dog and wolf. A bite
Consumed and ate its fill.
The moon was full tonight;

As fear faint hearts can blight,
As hate bright hopes can kill,
The shadow ate its light.

No mercy for our plight,
No succour, no goodwill.
The moon was full tonight.
The shadow ate its light.

I know I’ve not written anything here lately. Here, or anywhere else. Truth is, I’m blocked. Blocked for new writing, blocked for revision (my WIP is in pieces and I don’t know how to put them together again; as I pulled on one thread, the whole unravelled, if you’ll pardon the mixing of metaphors.), blocked for poetry, blocked on trying to promote the books I’ve written.

Oh, I’ve tried many of the obvious tricks for unblocking writing – prompts, free association, retelling favourite stories, describing a person, place or thing – but so far they’ve got me nowhere. Writers write, they say. Right now, I can’t. I can, it seems, write sentences, even scenes, but not produce a coherent story with a beginning, middle and end. It’s exceedingly frustrating. If I have an idea, it dries up in the space between thought and page/screen. Nothing lasts. Even if I’m only writing to please myself, the stuff I produce doesn’t please me and ends up being abandoned, like the moon villanelle.

Well, I suppose that got finished eventually. Maybe there’s hope for poor Ardùvai and all his friends and enemies yet. Cross your fingers.

Posted in personal opinion, rant;, thoughts, verse, villanelle, work in progress | Tagged , | 10 Comments