Writing Lessons from Heather Dale
Thanks to Spotify, I recently stumbled upon an artist named Heather Dale, who describes herself as “a full-time Celtic songwriter & touring musician for 15 years. Think Loreena McKennitt + Sarah McLachlan, writing songs about ancient legends.” I’m picky about the music I purchase, since I can listen to so much for free online, but I promptly bought all her Arthurian music. Contrary to my brother’s prophecies, I have not yet tired of her songs.
In addition to the fact that I like her voice and find her subject matter fascinating, there is an aspect of Heather Dale’s music that intrigues me as a writer. She is able to tell complete stories in songs that typically last less than five minutes.
The Challenge of Brevity
I find it challenging to keep short stories under 5,000 words (which I’ve heard is easiest to publish). Flash fiction, typically under 1,000 words, continually eludes me. For proof, just see my last two blog posts, which were supposed to be a flash-fiction story and ended up over 4,400 words long. But Heather Dale can tell the entire story of Tristan and Isolt in an interesting fashion with under 500 words in a 10 minute song.
Even more impressive, in my opinion at least, are her first-person songs by characters in Arthurian legends. The longest is only 6 minutes, 22 seconds long. Most are under 4 minutes. Even with so few words to work with, each tells a stand-alone facet of each character’s story.
Take “Lily Maid,” for example. It is the story of a young woman who dies because of her unrequited love for Lancelot. In other Arthurian tales, she is known as Elaine of Astolat or The Lady of Shallot. She writes a letter to Lancelot before she dies, with instructions that it and her body be sent in a boat to Camelot.
Another song, “Mordred’s Lulluby,” is written from the perspective of Morgan Le Fay singing to her baby Mordred. It is perhaps Heather Dale’s best known piece. Almost 30 seconds shorter than “Lily Maid,” it still manages to reveal Morgan’s relation to Arthur, her plan for overthrowing her brother, and foreshadow the entire Mordred story arch.
What We Can Learn
Here are a few tips that we can apply to flash-fiction, and which we can see examples of in Heather Dale’s songwriting. A few of these ideas came from 10 Flash Fiction Writing Tips by J. Timothy King.
- A limited word count can force you to focus only on what matters. We don’t have to know the Lily Maid’s entire backstory to understand her pain at Lancelot’s rejection.
- Don’t waste time with unnecessary description. There’s no need to tell audiences that Morgan Le Fay is a sorceress — we can hear her weaving a spell around her infant son as she foretells his death and role overthrowing her brother.
- There’s only room for one main character. Okay, Heather Dale has two in Tristan and Isolt, but we won’t typically be writing an overview of a long story like that in flash fiction. For “Lily Maid” and “Mordred’s Lullaby,” it is clear the stories are about Elaine and Morgana even through other characters are mentioned.
- Pick just one plot. People are complicated and nuanced, but in short stories we only have time for one part of their story. Though the full story of Elaine involves her father hosting a tournament, two brothers who love her, and Lancelot fighting in disguise before he is wounded, those details don’t figure in to the story told in this song. Launcelot broke her heart, and nothing else matters.
- Have a single, clear goal. Morgana wants revenge on Arthur — everything in “Mordred’s Lullaby” is about her fixation on that goal. If it doesn’t have to do with the main character’s goal, it doesn’t belong in the story.
I think I may try to write more flash-fiction, as an exercise in focusing on what really matters. All too often when reading early drafts from other writers, I notice that the story could be improved by cutting extra words and streamlining the narrative. I’m sure I do the same thing, often without realizing. Perhaps learning to write flash-fiction could help me contact that tendency in my own writings.