A couple of summers ago, I was sitting with a group of friends in one of US Cellular Field’s massive parking lots, enjoying a tailgate party before my beloved White Sox took on the Boston Red Sox. It was a glorious Friday evening in late August. The smell of barbecue and beer hung in the smoky air, and as the only one among our group who owned a convertible, it fell to me to provide the music for the tailgate party. I’d spent a good two weeks prior to gameday putting together the greatest compilation of tunes any parking lot had ever heard— a whole two hours worth of hard-rockin’ heaven designed to end in time for us to hurry down to our seats before the National Anthem began.
Call it sheer stupidity on my part, but I forgot how those tailgate parties go sometimes. They don’t always end on time— some folks like to hang around and chat or polish off what’s left of the beer before heading into the stadium. I also forgot that my car has a six-disc CD changer, and when one disc comes to an end, it immediately moves on to the next.
So, wrapped up in a dozen conversations and looking forward to what would hopefully turn out to be a White Sox victory on my mind, I have to admit that I was as startled as anyone to realize that once the AC/DC had faded out, it was quickly replaced by a shrill, mildly grating sound coming from my car’s speakers.
Bagpipes that merrily belted out “Scotland the Brave.”
My stomach filled to bursting with grilled burgers, beer, and jello shots, I leaped… well, stumbled… to the car, and clumsily switched the stereo back to Disc One. But although the dulcet tones of Nazareth’s “Hair of the Dog” burst forth in all their electric glory, I realized with embarrassment that my friends were now looking at me as though I’d come from Mars.
My forgetfulness had ruined the mood. Worse, I was now something of a strange little doofus in my friends’ eyes, all of whom looked at me with expressions that said, “Dude… bagpipes… really?”
What I could not explain to them was that the bagpipes were not necessarily something I take delight in hearing, but rather the music was part of a soundtrack album I’d put together to help me write my newest book. Oh, they all knew about my second career as a writer—and they all thought it was cool— but I learned that to the normal human being, novels are sometimes like hot dogs: most people like them, but you sure as heck don’t want to know what actually went into the process of making them. Sometimes it’s just too terrifying a thought to contemplate.
When I set out to write a book, I’ve got a process. Yes, I come up with the characters and plot and all that fun stuff… but then I tend to get weird. Coming from a film school background, I believe that every character, every situation, every basic concept in a story must have a corresponding theme song— Richard Wagner called it leitmotif— and I have been known to spend hours sifting through the strangest, most esoteric genres one can find in I-Tunes, just to find the most appropriate song.
But, dude… bagpipes??
I suppose my music choices were more acceptable to the uninitiated back when I wrote contemporary stories. One story, set in the modern South, had me listening to Johnny Cash and George Strait for months on end (not that I would ever complain—I love their music). But writing historical novels is a completely different animal. My new book, Passage to November, is set on a Great Lakes freighter in 1913. Back then, music was played on cylinders, and the gorgeous but unwieldy Victrola (or, more accurately, the “Victor Talking Machine”) was just coming into widespread use.
The music itself was charming, innocent, and sometimes even downright odd to our modern ears. “Danny Boy,” that sad Irish dirge, had been released only a year earlier, and now everyone knows it well enough to warble it off-key while soused on St. Paddy’s Day, but most of the music that was popular back then never really stood the test of time. After all, how many people nowadays can actually belt out “Peg O’ My Heart,” or “The Band Played On”? Probably only a few obsessive romance novelists, truth be told. But if it was current and meaningful in the lives of your characters, you owe it to them as their creator to go the extra mile, add it to your musical library, meditate on it, and find out what the song means to the people in your little world.
Music creates a mood and sets the tone for the characters and events in the story. My heroine, Clara Grace, is a violinist who lives and breathes music; although she is an attractive young woman, it is her music that breaks through the shell that’s hardened around the heart of Captain William McTavish (yep, he’s the reason for the bagpipes).
As a writer, music takes me back to the place where I need to be, back to the world that lies just beyond what Stephen King calls “the hole in the paper,” and into the hearts and minds of the characters that chose to spring to life in my cluttered mind. For Clara, I chose quiet classical pieces. McTavish got the Celtic treatment. Together, they have a beautiful love theme called “The Pearl,” (the version by the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra is especially gorgeous). The storm that tears them apart has a score that evokes extreme danger and fear, and when it is realized that all may be lost forever, a quiet hymn reveals their desperation. Just for the heck of it, I got a little crazy and threw in Beck’s “Loser” as the bad guy’s theme song. Anachronistic? You bet. But it worked.
As novelists, we are charged with the duty of inviting our readers into our hearts, our souls, our minds. Unless you are lucky and someday Hollywood comes along and makes a film of your book (or you screw up the music at your next tailgate party), it’s not likely that your reader will ever hear the music that plays in your characters’ hearts. But if you’ve listened carefully to what moves your characters, your audience will not only read your words—they, too, will fall in love with the place you created, with the characters you brought to life… and maybe they will even hear— really hear— the music that lives in your heart.
Your music, dear writer, is the story you have to tell.