Dougie Maclean – The Scythe Song

I’m on my holidays and finding it hard to stick to my routine of Mon/Wed/Friday posts on History/Travel/Writing. Which is a good thing really, because holidays are a time for stepping back and taking time to look at yourself in the world.

Dougie maclean1One of my best experiences this trip has been the opportunity to hear Dougie Maclean perform in a tiny village hall in the back-of-beyond Perthshire. For those of you who don’t know of him or his music, if you’ve ever watched the film The Last of the Mohicans and listened to that wonderfully hypnotic music – that’s his. Or how about ‘Caledonia‘, a song that people around the world have taken to their hearts – his ‘loveable monster’ as he calls it – and which one day may become Scotland’s national anthem.

One of the songs he performed the other night was The Scythe Song, a haunting and incredibly wise song about learning, practise and patience.

He told us the story behind it; of how his father, a farmer, was skilled at scything the old-fashioned way, slicing through the wheat which then fell to the ground with a softly whispered hishh. Dougie tried to copy him but was unable to match his father’s skill.

“Oh, this is not a thing to learn inside a day,” his father says in the song. “Stand closely by me and I’ll try to show you the way. You’ve got to hold it right, feel the distance to the ground.  Move with a touch so light, until its rhythm you have found. Then you’ll know, what I know.”

The final verse suggests that years later Dougie’s daughter asked him to show her how to play like him. “So little dancing girl you want to learn to play a tune. One that your heart can fill to help you shine under the moon.”

His reply? “Well, it’s not a thing to learn inside a day. Stand closely by me and I’ll try to show the way.”

Then, by changing one single word and adding another, he completes the circle and teaches all of us that, no matter what our passion, whether it’s writing, singing, knitting, sports, building, engineering, science, the answer is the same.

“You’ve got to hold it right feel the distance to the sound
Move with a touch so light until its rhythm you have found
Then you’ll know what I know now.”






Advice To A Young Author – Arthur Conan Doyle

I visited the Surgeons’ Hall Museum in Edinburgh on my last visit there, a fascinating – but quite gruesome – place. One of the exhibits detailed Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s training as a doctor at The Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh before he became celebrated as the creator of Sherlock Holmes. It included the following poem, which I found both inspirational and thoughtful.

ADVICE TO A YOUNG AUTHOR by Arthur Conan Doyle

First begin

Taking in.

Cargo stored,

All Aboard.

Think about

Giving out,

Empty ship,

Useless trip!


Never strain

Weary brain.

Hardly fit,

Wait a bit!

After rest

Comes the best.

Sitting still,

Let it fill.

Never press,

Nerve Stress

Always shows

Nature knows.


Critics kind,

Never mind.

Critics flatter,

No matter.

Critics curse,

None the worse!

Critics blame,

All the same.

Do your best,

Hang the rest!

Did She Go or Did She Stay?

I know Wednesday is supposed to be my travel writing day, but as Shirley Valentine was set in Greece, maybe I can squeak it through.

ShrielyI’m trying to write a one-woman play for my nightclass, so I’ve just spent the morning reading through the script (stage version) of Shirley Valentine by Willy Russell, working through the GMOTS that I mentioned in Friday’s writing post, to try and figure out how it’s done by an expert.

Shirley clearly articulates her physical goal (to drink wine in the country where the grape is trod) and emotional goal (to be Shirley Valentine again and ‘jump off the roof’) while being very conscious of the high risks (the loss of her marriage/family/friends) she will face in their pursuit. There’s no messing or tiptoeing around these goals and possible consequences. The stakes are high.

Shirley achieves both those goals, but the ending of the play is ambiguous when it comes to the risk involved.  Does she manage to keep her family… or in finding herself, does she lose them?

Or was the greater stake the even smaller life she would have lived if she hadn’t had the courage to find herself?

WindmillI found a posting on the internet where someone posed the question – Did Shirley Valentine stay in Greece or did she return to England? Apparently the women who responded said she stayed, the men said she went back.


Early in the play Shirley says she remains married because she needs to – she’s terrified at the idea of facing life alone in the world beyond the wall.

But once she does go out into the big wide world perhaps that marriage isn’t as important as her self-actualization.

I don’t know for sure what happens.  I think she stays in Greece for a while and then moves back to England or moves on – with Joe if he’s willing to accept Shirley Valentine, without if he needs her to be St Joan of the Fitted Units. But her life will never be the same again.

What do you think?

And is it important that the ending of a story dots all the ‘i’s’ and crosses all the ‘t’s…or can a little ambiguity sometimes be a good thing?

Caroline Russell-King

A couple of weeks ago I stepped waaaay outside my writing comfort zone and signed up for a playwriting course taught by award-winning Calgary playwright and dramaturg Caroline Russell-King.  Writing for the stage is very different from anything I’ve attempted before, but I believe that anything that challenges the writing brain cells has got to be good for developing one’s craft. Fortunately, Caroline creates a very safe emotional space in which to work, experiment and learn.

The one thing I love about taking writing classes is that although you may ‘hear’ the same lessons over and over again – eg plot structure, character development – sometimes a teacher will use a word, phrase or expression that turns the light bulb on and allows you to reflect on something in a different way.

Using the acronym GMOTS, Caroline Russell-King did just that, forcing me to examine various elements of my plot as a whole rather than individually. Like most people, I’m familiar with Goal, Motivation and Conflict, but I like how Caroline Russell-King breaks it down even further.

G – GOAL – Your protagonist wants something.

M – MOTIVATION- Must be High.

O – OBSTACLES – List the obstacles the protagonist will have to face.

T – TACTICS – What tactics does the protagonist use to overcome the obstacles.

S – STAKES – What are the consequences if the protagonist fails to achieve his/her goal?  These MUST be high.

And the real zinger?

Once you’ve worked all that out for your protagonist, repeat the process for your ANTAGONIST. In doing so, you’ll discover hidden layers of conflict in both your protagonist and antagonist.

And conflict is drama, right?

Disengage the digital and engage the mind.

I’ve been having trouble focusing on my writing recently. I might claim writing’s the most important thing in my life  – after my family –  but over the past few weeks I’ve not been giving it the attention it deserves or requires. To try and help get my focus back, I picked up a copy of MANAGE YOUR DAY from Kindle and have been working my way through it.

One contributor to the book remarked that we can’t seem to allow ourselves to enjoy the moment nowadays – that faced with a few minutes of ‘spare time’ we immediately plug ourselves in to some kind of electronic device (phone/e-reader) and cut ourselves off from the world.

So…long story short.  About an hour ago I found myself waiting for a bus downtown. (Last time I used transit, a single adult fare was $1.65.  Now it’s $3.) My immediate response was to pull out my Kindle, but then I thought: Wait a minute. Doesn’t that mean I’m doing exactly what the writer of the book says I shouldn’t do?

So, from 1402h to 1406h, on 5th and 5th in Downtown Calgary, I put down my Kindle, and this is what I saw.

A car that had bronze rims – instead of silver – over black tyres. They looked really cool.

A slim guy, in running gear, running along the sidewalk, discussing a business deal while talking on his phone – he was so fit that he was neither breathless nor breaking a sweat. 

A slim guy, in a business suit, running along the sidewalk (late for a business meeting?) red in the face and out of breath.

Two food trucks driving past.  City council okayed them a while ago – must try one out sometime. 

The bright blue metal transit seat I was sitting on had an open mesh/grated design.  Is that because we get snow in the winter and it melts easier?

A burst of laughter from five window cleaners across the street taking a break.  Four guys, one girl (with blue hair). What does it feel like to clean the 40th floor windows?  And how do you prevent yourself from getting a blue face when you dye your hair that colour?

A few people wearing ear buds on their iPods (closing themselves off to the world – according to the book) but quite a few people wearing headphones of really funky colours.

It’s 20C out today, so quite a few open top cars.

Several men of ‘a certain age’ wearing ponytails.  Is that because they grew up in the seventies… or an attempt to hide their bald patches?

I ‘unplugged’ for four minutes and collected a wealth of data for setting a scene in a downtown location.  Am I likely to use it in the near future?  Probably not, but you never know. But what if we, as writers, take four – oh, go on, make it five – minutes each day to unplug and just look, listen, smell and feel what’s going on around us?  Imagine the detail we’d have for our stories.

BTW, if you’re on a Calgary bus, trying to exit out the back door, and don’t want to look like a total numpty who hasn’t been on one since the fare was $1.65, a word of advice: when the green light goes on above the door, you PUSH the door open!  :o)

The Magic of What If? and Why?

When I first started writing I had one – just one – idea for a story. That was a bit scary.   Would I ever come up with a second?

And then, as I immersed myself in the craft and process of writing, that wonderful thing happened – as it does to most writers – where everything I saw, read, heard, or did threw up thousands of potential ideas.

But there’s a huge difference between having an idea and transforming it into a story. That’s where the two magical writing questions – and I truly believe there is a magic to them – of What If?  and Why? come in.

For example, here’s an article (click here) I saw in the Daily Mail (please don’t judge me!) a few weeks ago.  This gives you the What If?  What if an apartment in Paris lay empty for seventy years?   (It doesn’t have to be an apartment.  It could be a single room.  A cupboard, even.  And it doesn’t have to be in Paris.  It could be set in London, or Glasgow, or Calgary, or anywhere. It doesn’t even have to be contemporary find. The room/house/building might have been discovered in the 18th Century.  Or the 6th.)

Now comes the most important question – the one that allows you to develop an idea into a story.


Why was the house abandoned?  What happened here? Does it hold a secret? Was it, perhaps, cursed, and if so, why? Why did no-one ever cross the threshold in seventy years. Why did the neighbours not question what lay behind the doors?

Why then leads you on to the next important question –  Who?  Who did the property belong to? Who was s/he?  (Or they?) Why did s/he never return?  Out of fear? Grief? Denial? Laziness? Forgetfulness? Did the owner perhaps die and her children didn’t even know the apartment existed?  (If not, why not?) What, if any, impact did abandoning this house have on his or her life?

Then come other questions.  When did this happen? What was going on during this time period in the character’s personal life? What was going on in the wider world around him or her?

Where did it happen and why is this place so significant?

Don’t always accept the first answer you come up with – if you dig a little deeper on each question you will probably come up a more interesting and less clichéd answer.

If you still can’t find an answer, maybe you’re trying to force things, or perhaps shift your focus to one detail – e.g. the painting – in the building.  What if the painting is of the owner?  (What if it’s not?) Why was it painted? When was it painted? Who was the artist? Why – if it’s so valuable – was it left in the apartment?

The questions are endless but the two most important  – the ones that will always get you started are:  What If?  Why?

Guess Who?

Randy Bachman (ex Guess Who and Bachman Turner Overdrive) has recently been touring the country talking about his career and performing some of his greatest hits.  Having seen his show in Banff, it struck me that some of his insights apply to us as writers, not just musicians.

1) When inspiration strikes, BE READY!

Randy and his band were in the middle of a performance when one of the strings on his guitar broke.  Apparently it was a fancy guitar, so the rest of the band went off for a drink while he set to restringing. When it was done, he tried a riff to make sure everything was in tune… and realised the riff he’d come up with was something special.  Knowing that if he stopped playing he’d forget it – this was in the days before recording devices on cell phones! – he called the drummer from the wings to keep the rhythm going, then the other guitarist and then finally the lead singer.  “Sing something!” he told him. There and then, on that stage, they came up with both the music and lyrics for their iconic American Woman. (Something similar happened to Paul McCartney with ‘Yesterday’ which he initially called ‘Scrambled Eggs’, and we’ve all heard about J.K. Rowling coming up with the story of Harry Potter on a train.

Moral:  When a great idea strikes you, write it down – or record it in some way – IMMEDIATELY.

2) Sometimes when you’re at your most relaxed and not trying, you come up with your best work.

‘You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet’ was their ‘work song’ – the song they used to warm up before performing or recording.  Not thinking it had much merit they had no plans of recording it, but when they were persuaded to do so, it became one of their biggest hits.

Moral: Sometimes you don’t always know what’s best. Listen to what others say.  You might not like a particular story you’ve written, but if it strikes a chord with others, you might have captured a piece of magic.

3) Get yourself noticed.

Originally a hit in Europe, RB’s band covered Shakin’ all Over. However, there was a legal issue with the band’s name at the time and the record company decided to put the record out with a white label and the title Guess Who?  This led to speculation that some of the musicians included Paul McCartney and Keith Richards and generated enormous interest.

Moral: As writers, we are responsible not just for writing the best stories we can, but for getting them and ourselves out there and noticed.