Tag Archives: Alys West

Fiction from Folklore

Guest post by Alys West

Fiction inspired by folklore has had a bit of a renaissance in recent years.  Folklore and folk tales have always been a fruitful lode for fantasy writers but through the novels of writers like Sarah Perry and Joanne Harris it’s become both more literary and more mainstream. 

I’m the author of the Spellworker Chronicles which are contemporary fantasy novels inspired by folklore. Beltane grew out of the folklore of Glastonbury and Storm Witch was inspired by an Orcadian folk tale. There are challenges in taking folklore as your starting point especially if you’re translating it to a contemporary setting. Some things don’t shift forward as well as others. Orkney has stories of trows, fairylike creatures who are not blessed in the looks department, who have a habit of tempting human into their world. In writing Storm Witch I couldn’t find a use for the trows, even though there’s some great stories about them. I had to accept that they didn’t fit with the world I was creating.

I was more interested in the tales that people told about the pre-historic sites on the islands. There’s a saying that if you scratch the surface in Orkney it bleeds archaeology.  Orkney’s World Heritage Site comprises the key sites of Skara Brae, Maeshowe, the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. The dig at the Ness of Brodgar has revealed a Neolithic temple complex which has overthrown much accepted thinking about the period. It’s exciting stuff if you’re interested in pre-history and the lives of the people who built such fascinating but enigmatic monuments.

It’s believed that folk tales grew up around pre-historic sites as a way for subsequent inhabitants to understand the landscape they’d inherited. I’m from Yorkshire and there’s a great example of that in the Devil’s Arrows, three standing stones just off the A1 at Boroughbridge. According to legend these were thrown by the Devil from a nearby hill. He was aiming for the next town of Aldborough but the stones fell short and landed near Boroughbridge instead. Similarly, there’s the Devil’s Chair at Avebury. According to folklore if you wish to speak to Old Nick you need to run round it a hundred times widdershins after which he’ll appear to you.  It’s not hard to imagine that for a God-fearing population the Devil must have been a handy way of interpreting these inexplicable monoliths.

It’s where magic and folklore intersect that I find the questions arise for the writer. The folk tale of Janet Forsyth, the storm witch of Westray (one of the northern islands of the Orkney archipelago) is a mixture of fact and folklore. It involves a girl who was believed to be able to control the weather and call up storms. You can read my retelling of the story on my website but the key elements are that Janet had an unusual ability to read the weather which results in the other islanders ostracizing her.  Then when a ship was blown onto the rocks in a storm, she rowed out and brought it safely to harbour. Unlike Grace Darling three hundred years later, it was felt that only through witchcraft could a woman have achieved this. Janet was tried and convicted as a witch.

There were two question which interested me most about this story. The first was what if Janet could actually do what she was accused of? From that grew the character of Rachel Sinclair who has the power to manipulate the weather but is unable to control her abilities.  As the Spellworker Chronicles have spellworkers (which are extremely powerful witches) and druids the book imagines the possibilities of this form of magic in the real world setting of the Orkney archipelago. 

The second was, how do you cope when your whole world falls apart? In the story Janet loses her sweetheart, loses her place in her community and is tried and convicted for witchcraft.  As this is a folk tale we don’t find out what that does to Janet and how she puts her life back together but in Storm Witch I could look at that. The two female main characters are living with the repercussions of trauma and have to decide how that affects the way they interact with the world. 

Of course, when Janet was alive in the seventeenth century the belief in magic was much more prevalent in society.  In the same way as the Devil was thought responsible for standing stones, witchcraft was the go-to explanation for an unusually powerful or intuitive woman.  There’s always a choice for the writer as to whether they accept the magical which comes with the folklore. Personally (and there’s a potential spoiler coming) I was hugely disappointed in Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent as, in the end, it didn’t.  As I’m writing fantasy I can explore these questions and let them play out in the world of druids and spellworkers that I’ve created. 

Bio:

Alys West writes contemporary fantasy and steampunk. She lives in Yorkshire but loves to travel especially to Scottish islands. Her stories grow out of places and the tales which people tell about places.  Her work draws on her own experience of surviving trauma but always with the possibility of a hopeful ending.

Alys has a MA in Creative Writing from York St John University and teaches creative writing at the Centre for Lifelong Learning at the University of York. She’s also a book whisperer (like a book doctor but more holistic), mentor to aspiring writers and runs an online mindful writing group.

When she’s not writing you can find her at folk gigs, doing yoga and attempting to crochet.  She occasionally blogs at www.alyswest.com, intermittently tweets at @alyswestyork and spends rather too much time on Facebook where you can find her at Alys West Writer.  She is also on Instagram at @alyswestwriter.  To keep up with Alys’s news you can join her Facebook readers’ group ‘Druids, Spellworkers and Dirigibles’


The Dirigible King’s Daughter – a review

When Alys West guest blogged with me recently about living tradition (https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2019/06/13/referencing-the-tradition-by-alys-west/) she mentioned a Steampunk novel, so I asked for a review copy.

The Dirigible King’s Daughter is a steampunk romance and I liked it as a romance because it deviates from the usual story shape in some interesting ways. We know from early on that the protagonists are in love with each other – it’s never really in doubt, but it’s more a case of whether love is enough and what it might cost them. This is a question I’d like to see asked more often- I think the assumption that love will always be enough is a harmful one that needs challenging.

On the steampunk side, there’s enough action, adventure, dirigibles and other technology to cheerfully tick all those boxes. There’s also (which is really important to me) a political aspect to it. It’s not all titled people having jolly adventures. Alys has things to say about class and the way in which wealth impacts on how people are treated. She also has a lot to say about gender politics, both historical and by implication, contemporary.

What really caught me off guard though was the emotional intensity of the book when it came to the main character’s backstory – which you slowly piece together heading towards the reveals near the end. No spoilers from me! There turned out to be a number of difficult subjects in this book, handled with empathy that resulted in something both moving and engaging.

I usually don’t pick up books in which a female protagonist is defined in the title purely in relationship to a man. I made an exception for this one, and I’m glad I did, because the story is very much about dealing with the implications the central character – Harriet – has to deal with from having been defined to herself and others by her father’s actions. This is a story about a young lady taking control of her life and emerging from beneath the long shadow her father has cast, it is about becoming someone other than The Dirigible King’s Daughter, and I very much liked that about it.

You can read the first 2 chapters here – https://alyswest.com/the-dirigible-kings-daughter/tdkd-sample-v2/

Or find the book on Amazon –  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Dirigible-Kings-Daughter-Alys-West/dp/0993288677


Referencing the Tradition by Alys West

When I read Nimue’s posts about Living Tradition and The Folk Process they resonated strongly with me. I write contemporary fantasy inspired by folklore. My first novel, Beltane is set in Glastonbury and I had a fabulous time weaving as much folklore as I could manage into the story.  I’m currently editing my third novel, Storm Witch, which is inspired by an Orcadian folk tale.  Folklore is the initial seed from which the books germinated. It’s woven into the setting of both novels but, once I started dealing with the nuts and bolts of constructing a novel, the pressures of structure, characters, pacing etc. took over.

Then, last year, I started working on a collection of short stories which are re-imaginings of folk songs and ballads. I wrote the first three stories as my dissertation for my MA in creative writing and suddenly I found myself dealing with the issues which Nimue talks about in her post on the Living Tradition.  It’s fair to say I did a lot of research. I read Francis J. Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, I spent afternoons researching in the Vaughn William’s Memorial Library at Cecil Sharp House and I got the university library to order me increasingly obscure academic texts on ballad and folk song theory.  And I started to feel I was doing something far more subversive than I’d anticipated in retelling the stories of these songs.

To use Nimue’s metaphor, these academic texts pinned folk song to a board but, in this case, in a library rather than a museum. I started to feel like I couldn’t change anything. Under the weight of all of this academic erudition, I was getting further and further away from my initial vision and my words started to dry up.  The dissertation had two elements, the larger element was creative content and there was a shorter critical element.  It got to the point that I couldn’t write anything creative. My words felt too flighty, too fragile for the pressure of all of this theory.  In the end, various friends gave me a fairly stern talking to and I found enough of a way back to get the dissertation finished but my confidence in myself as a writer had been severely shaken.

On finishing my MA in October, I was shattered and, after lying on the sofa reading trashy fiction for a few weeks, I put my song stories away to concentrate on other writing. I went back to going to gigs and listening to folk music and I tried really hard not to think deep thoughts and simply to enjoy them.  Then a few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a folk musician which made me reconsider what I’m trying to achieve in re-imagining folk songs.

For me, folk is essentially about people. It’s about the people who sang the songs in the past and the people who sing them now.  It’s not an accident that the stories I’ve written are all about women.  As a writer, I want to hear the narratives which aren’t explicit in the song and too often it’s the woman’s perspective which isn’t told.  The original idea for writing these stories was sparked by wanting to know why the wife ran away with the gypsy in ‘The Gypsy Laddie’.  I’ve written a story about that now and it feels like I’ve found jigsaw pieces which have been missing since I first heard The Waterboys version of ‘The Raggle-taggle Gypsies’ in 1990.

I learned about the concept of traditional referentiality in my research which suggests that every performance of a traditional song resonates with all of the previous performances of that work.  I know this is true in the way I listen to folk music. When I hear a new interpretation of a song, I listen to it in tandem with all of the previous versions I’m aware of which means each folk song echoes with the interpretations which have gone before. For me, that’s part of folk’s magic.

I’ve realised I’m happy to refer to the tradition but I don’t want to be bound by it. The stories I’m writing need to reach forwards more than they reach back. Folk has to evolve and grow in order to stay relevant.  Anyone who is part of the living tradition is keeping folk alive in ways which are, I think, far more vital to its survival than anything you’ll find in a museum or a library.

 

Bio:

Alys West writes contemporary fantasy and steampunk.  Her novels BELTANE and THE DIRIGIBLE KING’S DAUGHTER are published by Fabrian Books.  She’s currently editing her third novel, STORM WITCH which will be published in autumn 2019.  Alys has a MA in Creative Writing from York St John University. She teaches creative writing for Converge, an education project for people with lived experience of mental health.

You can find out more about Alys West on:

Her website: www.alyswest.com

Amazon: Alys West

Twitter: @alyswestyork

Facebook: Alys West Writer

Instagram:  @alyswestwriter