On June 30, 2020, RedTrumpetWriter wrote, I was wondering how you came up with the epic poetry you wrote in the Bamarre stories, Gail, and some of the songs/poetry you’ve included in other stories like Stolen Magic. I would like to include something like that in a book I’m working on but I guess I wasn’t really sure where to start, like what examples I should look at or if there was any sort of formula that you followed. I’ve done a bit of looking but I was wondering if you had any tips/advice that would help me as I found what you did really immersive and such a cool part of the worldbuilding. (if anyone else has ideas they are welcome to chime in as well!)
Erica wrote back, I would recommend reading a lot of poetry and lyrics to find a style you like, and then going for it. Also, there was a post about including songs in your writing a while back (http://gailcarsonlevine.com/blog/2020/01/01/tra-la-la/). That might be helpful too.
And I wrote, I’d suggest reading ballads, which I did when I wrote The Two Princesses of Bamarre.
I love questions about poetry! We can make poems work for us in lots of ways in our stories.
For Two Princesses, I read fifteenth century English ballads, like “Barbara Allan.” I’m sure you can find examples online, but my source was Volume 1 of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, which most public libraries are likely to have. “Barbara Allan” doesn’t strictly follow ballad meter, but it’s close, and it does follow the ballad’s simple rhyme scheme. You can look up ballad meter online, but my source is The Teachers & Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms, a super useful book if you’re interested in writing poems—or more poems. I go back to it often. Just saying, the ballad form is pretty easy. I’d suggest picking simple rhymes, not only if you’re a beginner. Simple rhymes give the poet the most options.
I’m glad RedTrumpetWriter mentioned worldbuilding, because poems can help define the world of our stories, whether they’re fantasy or not. In Two Princesses, they establish a heroic culture. In The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, they highlight the martial nature of the Lakti and the artistic aspect of the Bamarre. In A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, poems add depth to Jewish culture of the time. Mine were inspired by The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, in which the poems were translated as prose. I had fun turning their themes back into verse, and the ideas in them were unlike anything I’d write on my own, so they broadened me. In my forthcoming Trojan War book, Sparrows in the Wind, the poems are modelled on my idea of a Greek chorus, because in school, I loved the Greek chorus in classic Greek plays. My chorus is three crows.
There are lots of options!
We can also use poetry for other aspects of fiction. In Stolen Magic, I was thinking of limericks, and they reveal a lighthearted side of the dragon detective Meenore—so they add to character development.
I know a poet who, as a child, spoke only in iambs (meter—da DUM, da DUM) to a friend, who answered the same way. This says a lot about who they were! You can invent characters who speak in rhyme or who use poetic devices, like alliteration, in their dialogue, combining dialogue and character development. Or a character can decide, for an entire week, never to use the word but. What do these proclivities say about a character’s personality, specifically, spontaneity? If these practices are kingdom-wide, for example, we’re back to worldbuilding.
We can—but we don’t have to—stick to one kind of poem in a novel. In Lost Kingdom, the Lakti sing simple warrior songs, while Bamarre poetry is more varied and complex. And Bamarre proverbs are short rhyming poems.
Poems can even be used for setting. In Two Princesses, a poem by Drualt describes a prison. We could use a poem even more directly for setting. Suppose a character is stuck in a labyrinth, and the only way out is to say a rhyming poem while the way unwinds—but the labyrinth will complicate itself again if the character stops speaking. This one even advances the plot too.
We can imagine poetry contests that will advance the plot too. Our villain can cheat!
I’ve used poetry for spells too, sometime in made-up languages, which move my story along. Rhyming is easy when we’re inventing the words!
And poetry is a subtle instrument, which I love about it. It’s hard to hit a reader over the head with a poem!
A couple of editors have suggested that I write a whole book in verse. Might be fun, but I’m a slow enough writer as it is. Writing poems, for me at least, is slower going than writing prose. And I worry that writing only in verse would leach the fun out of it.
If you’re not confident as a poet, I’d suggest leaning on forms, which will support you with structure. Forms help with where to end a line, whether or not to rhyme, and sometimes with length. I’d suggest also reading about rhyme because I think you’ll be surprised by the possibilities.
Here are three prompts:
- A poem form I especially love is the pantoum, which can be as long as you like. Lines repeat, and the poem ends where it began. Look up the form and write a pantoum about a journey from home and back again—like the Lord of the Rings, but shorter!
- At the triumphant beginning of the tragic myth of Oedipus, he manages to enter the city of Thebes because he correctly answered the Sphinx’s riddle. Imagine a distant descendent of the Sphinx who has parked herself outside your home town or outside a major city. She is devouring anyone attempting to enter who can’t answer her rhymed riddle in a rhymed answer. Traffic is blocked halfway around the world. Your MC answers the riddle with a poem and then asks the new Sphinx a rhymed riddle in return. Write the riddles and the story.
- Look up the ballad form and write a summary, either of the next story you plan to write or of one you’ve written, as a ballad.
Have fun, and save what you write!