by Lise McClendon
Songwriters and literary writers have much in common, the creative use of words, imagery and emotion conveyed in a stylized manner, and often the subject matter itself. The love song and the love story have provided endless twists on the human need for affection and belonging. Whether a poet or a novelist, a folk singer or a classically trained violinist, a writer of haiku or 150,000-word novels, the muse flows through her, in word or song.
It’s probably not surprising that writers can get inspired by a song or a style of music. A writer may hear a theme or be turned onto a cause by a popular song. Music can define an era like the sixties and be an outlet for and expression of societal change. Writing a historical novel means familiarizing yourself with everything current in that time, including fashions, slang, and popular music. When I wrote the mystery, One O’clock Jump, set in 1939 Kansas City, the music of Count Basie informed the whole book. Basie’s band shined in Kansas City and he makes an appearance himself in the story. The title is his most famous song. When I started the novel with a young woman who – seemingly – jumps from a bridge over the Missouri River, it just made sense to make title and event mesh. The follow-up book in my Kansas City series is Sweet and Lowdown, the title of a Gershwin tune that perfectly fit the bad girl in the story.
There have always been novels about music, like High Fidelity and Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. But being inspired by a song or type of music is a bit different than writing about music, bands, and record shops. What I mean instead is finding a way to wrap the feeling evoked by the music into a plot that doesn’t focus on it. What’s the theme of the novel? How does it spring from or reflect the emotion in the music? Mystery and thriller writers often name-drop favorite bands or tunes for effect, mostly because quoting lyrics is a tricky practice legally. We just hope you know the tune.
But titles can’t be copyrighted so song titles as book titles are popular in all genres. I did it again when I wrote Blackbird Fly, my novel set in France. The characters in the suspense novel listened to the Beatles as children and have a fondness for their music as adults. Blackbird Fly is a Beatles song (of course) about finding yourself and taking flight into a new life. That describes the arc of Merle Bennett, the main character, whose husband dies and leaves her a house in France and a mess of personal and financial problems. (There is another, more personal connection between the song and Merle which I won’t spoil as she spends the entire book finding it out.) I grew up with the Beatles, too. But I can’t remember exactly when in the process of writing the book I made the connection between my protagonist and the song. It seems embedded in the story like it was always there.
Themes in your fiction are shadowy creatures, darting out of view when you look too close. Music can help you identify a theme, like Blackbird Fly did for me. Of course, there were those five major rewrites.😀
And what about songs about writing? Songwriters are more prone to write songs about writing songs. But now and then there is some serious crossover. Here’s my list of favorite songs about writing. What can you add?
• Every day I Write the Book – Elvis Costello. The classic leads the list
• Writing You a Love Letter – Bonnie Raitt. A love letter is definitely creative writing
• Oxford Comma – Vampire Weekend. Points for punctuation and the music video
• Paperback Writer – The Beatles. You knew that was coming, didn’t you?
• Jonathan’s Book – Teddy Thompson. Is this song about Jonathan Franzen? Pretty sure.
• Dancing in the Dark – Bruce Springsteen. The boss had me at love reaction: I’m sick of sitting ’round here Trying to write this book.
How does music inform your writing? Do you use it to inspire you?
Lise McClendon has been publishing fiction for twenty years. Her latest novel is a sequel to Blackbird Fly called The Girl in the Empty Dress. Read more about her fiction at her website and follow her scintillating twitter feed at @LiseMcClendon.