Earlier this week I put the finishing touches on the outline for a short story set in Gapone, the world of Cleansing River. I’m looking forward to starting the first draft tomorrow morning, but as I look forward to returning to writing new things I realised that my writing process was similar to playing folk music.

The scroll is one of my favourite parts of a violin

I’ve been playing folk music for nearly twenty years now, playing both old favourites and learning new tunes. Recently I started to play for a group of Cornish Dancers, playing traditional Cornish tunes while they practice the intricate steps, the different dances require.
When I first started playing for the group, I wasn’t sure of many of the tunes but the group were wonderfully understanding of all my mistakes and more importantly the lack of tempo. Learning the new tunes is not simply a case of remembering the right notes in the right order but also getting the speed right. Too fast and the dancers won’t have enough time to complete the dance. Too slow and they will be waiting around, patiently tapping toes.

Each dance will take a certain time to complete, this length is normally referred to in number of bars, a bar can be of any length normally indicated in the time signature at the beginning of a piece. I won’t get overly technical but if a tune has 32 bars each with four standard notes in then the dancers will need to count 128 beats to complete their dance.
It seems fairly simple but the dancers will need to remember that at beat 64 they will need to swap places with the person opposite or start weaving between all the other dancers. Not quite so simple.
Fortunately most folk music is designed to give the dancers their cues. Folk tunes are commonly made up of two parts (A & B)these parts normally have 8 bars and are repeated twice each before the tune returns to the start. In a 32 bar tune there are in effect 4 parts, of 8 bars each, or 32 beats. So now our dancer instead of having to count the beats (although they still do) to know when to change a step, instead they are relying on the musicians.

Violin scroll close up, tuning pegs

During the course of a dance there are so many things that can go wrong, from the musicians missing notes or forgetting a repeat, to the dancers forgetting a step or missing a change. We all know where we are starting from, we all know the signposts you have to hit along the way, and where the end point is but the result is not certain. But then the percussion of the dancers feet will match up perfectly with tune and their rhythm will change seamlessly with the music and the dance goes well, just like magic.
The other day I realised that playing for the dancers felt very similar to writing. I have just finished the outline for a short story, a prequel to the story of Cleansing River. I know the main points of the story, where it will start and where this story ends, but whether the story will work, whether the notes and steps of each section will fall cleanly and securely is not something I’ll know until I’ve finished writing the first draft.
Until then I’ll be looking for the clues that everything is working out correctly, looking for the moments when the dancers change perfectly in time with the music. When all the elements have come together, just like magic.


(Penzance Guise