Posts Tagged historical fiction
The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is SD Mayes @authormayes
Soundtrack by John Mayer, Doris Day, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Mozart, Liszt
Letters to the Pianist, a story set amidst the bloodshed of WWII, is a parallel dance between that most powerful and complex of bonds: father and daughter. Joe, a Jewish greengrocer and his eldest daughter, Ruth – my two protagonists – narrate their own stories and in many ways sing their own deeply felt songs, as their paths take radically different directions, with at times, devastating consequences. Their story is about choices, the secrets we carry, overcoming challenges, and most of all, the importance of family.
We always hope we have an angel to watch over us, but we don’t realise how our parents are the true guardian angels, for the good times and bad.
Often I would lie in bed and play music, to find that special song, or a melody that could help me express their relationship journey. John Mayer’s song Daughters really helped me connect with Ruth’s complex bond with her parents – and her father’s absence in her life which mirrored mine (my parents split when I was only three) and that contrary emotion you can have with a parent. Fathers are, after all, the subconscious blueprint for a daughter’s future loves.
Let’s travel into the blitz of 1941: a red-brick terraced house in London’s East End has been bombed in the early hours. And Ruth Goldberg, a Jewish teenager, escapes into a fantasy world to avoid the horrific reality of wartime life; the song Dream a little Dream of Me sung by Doris Day really helped me to tap into the dreamy, illusionary state she would sometimes drift into.
One night, Ruth awakens in the pitch dark, still groggy from sleep, and buried up to her neck in bricks. Unable to move, she frantically screams for help, wondering if her parents and two younger siblings are dead. But this introductory scene is no work of fiction; the narrator is based on my mother, Ruth, who as a young girl, awoke to find herself orphaned and alone in this exact scenario.
Dreams and wishes and fairy tales were like icing on a mouldy cake—they can’t hide the truth—because when you take a proper bite, you choke.’
In the creation of a wartime world, a song tapped straight into this atmosphere of ‘rubble-strewn streets and a swamping sadness that hung in the air like the reek of burning flesh’ – along with that desperate sense of hope that Ruth needs to hold onto as she and her two younger siblings are parcelled out to relatives – Smile sung by Nat King Cole, which I played repeatedly until it seeped into every cell in my body and I was almost breathing it.
Ruth, like my mother’s real life experience, believes that she is the ugly duckling, black sheep of the Goldberg family compared with her beautiful siblings – overweight, and spotty, she wonders if she perhaps deserves all this heartbreak, abandonment and loss. And yet there is hope for an internal transformation: My Funny Valentine sung by Frank Sinatra, really connected me to Ruth’s illusionary story of her own unworthiness, along with my mother’s that doesn’t reflect the reality, as she will learn to discover.
Meanwhile, her enigmatic father, Joe, regains consciousness in hospital and soon discovers he can play the piano as good as the great maestros – and this becomes his saving grace, along with his good looks and charm as he marries into a sinister aristocratic family, and achieves fame as a concert pianist with a new identity – Edward Chopard.
Although I had piano lessons from an eccentric French teacher in a housecoat when I was eight years old, I needed to impart that wild energy Edward feels when he plays, as he is moved from a deep space within, which he doesn’t fully understand, being sparked by savant syndrome.
‘He played Mozart’s Overture from The Marriage of Figaro with such ferocious passion, his body twisted and turned, his face contorted and his eyes rolled wildly…
The Mozart symbolises his passionate side and empowers him as he revels in his good fortune, and yet, is it all as it seems?
Edward has many faces that he reveals to survive this complex family drama in which he finds himself, and Liszt’s Dreams of Love evokes Edward’s loneliness, seeking truth and real connection, as the fragments of his lost family still haunt him.
Joe/Edward is a lost soul, in search of who he really is: ‘Who am I?’ is a recurring question for him, and yet often our true selves are reflected back in the people we love. You Made Me Love You sung by Nat King Cole is a song that threads through the story and stirs old memories, and underpins the unfolding of his real identity.
Halfway through the story, fragments of Edward’s memories begin to return. This is triggered when he receives letters from his supposed long lost daughter, Ruth, after she sees a photo of a pianist who reminds her of her dead father in the newspaper, stating that he will be performing at the Proms.
It Was a Very Good Year sung by Frank Sinatra really sums that up Edward’s mixed feelings. He knows things aren’t right – the family he has married into have dark affiliations to Hitler – but he often sees events with pink tinted vision – out of fear of seeing the truth, until he has to face reality.
SD Mayes worked as a journalist for nearly 20years before turning her hand to fiction. Inspired by her mother’s tragic memories of wartime Britain, along with the bizarre but factual events of Hitler’s obsession with the supernatural, Letters to the Pianist is her first WWII suspense novel. She lives in Berkshire, UK, with her teenage daughter and their voluptuous cat, Saphy. Find her on Twitter @authormayes, Facebook, Goodreads and her website.
Hello! It’s been a while since I’ve had an Undercover Soundtrack guest, but that doesn’t mean it’s muted forever. I’ve been writing, and the soundtrack collection for my own book is almost as tall as its namesake (Everest). Meanwhile, I’ve bumped into a few people who would be perfect guests and this week you’ll meet the first of them – SD Mayes. Her novel is called Letters To The Pianist, which you’ll probably agree makes her the perfect first act for the second act of this series. Letters To The Pianist is set in the London of World War II and draws heavily on the author’s own family history. Music was a route map for the key emotions of the characters – from fantasy escape, feelings of teenage inadequacy and the feelings of wild abandon that come from communion with an instrument. Drop by on Wednesday to hear more.
My guest this week is another returner to the series. When she posted about her first novel, her preoccupations included memory and time, and they return again in this new work – a romantic thriller based around the twined stories of an ancient memoir and the world’s first Tarot cards. Music was key to creating these different lands and lives and her mental soundscape includes a tour through ancient Egypt, Milan in the 1400s and the modern seers Dead Can Dance. She is Gwendolyn Womack and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is award-winning historical fiction and contemporary romantic novelist Nicole Evelina @nicoleevelina
Soundtrack by Sting, Fever Ray, The Civil Wars, Black Veil Brides
Every one of my books has a theme song/album – music without which the book never would have been written.
Capturing the essence of a legend
The theme song to the Guinevere’s Tale trilogy is “ Thousand Years by Sting. This song came out just weeks after I began writing Daughter of Destiny, the first book in the series. There is something about the cyclical sound of the melody that calls to mind reincarnation, the thousands of versions and re-tellings Arthurian legend has gone through over the ages. It also evokes to me the changing nature of the characters as artists reinvent them to fit their time. In the prologue to the book, Guinevere explains that not a single version you’ve heard has been right; she is going to set the record straight in the trilogy by telling the true story of her life. In so doing she can reclaim her name and her dignity from years of slander and abuse.
Plunging into the mind of a killer
The sequel, Camelot’s Queen, has one of the longest playlists of any of my books, most songs aligning with or inspiriting certain scenes. But the most influential album was the soundtrack to the movie Red Riding Hood, specifically the songs by Fever Ray, The Wolf and Keep the Streets Empty for Me. I listened to that soundtrack over and over while I wrote the section of the book dealing with Guinevere’s kidnapping by Malegant – one of the most detailed and longest parts of the book, and also my favorite. There is something feral about this music – wild, dangerous and dark – that fit perfectly with evil in Malegant’s soul. For Guinevere, the experience was the ultimate nightmare, not just for any woman, but especially for a priestess and queen. By his vile actions, Malegant stripped her of her power and her dignity, and unknowingly changed the course of her life – and that of all of Camelot. Scenes of such dark subject matter and import need equally powerful music. It doesn’t hurt that these songs could well have been used for a Samhain ritual, the event during which Guinevere’s torment begins.
Longing for an unknown love
My contemporary romantic comedy, Been Searching for You, actually came about because of a song. In November 2012, my best friend introduced me to the song To Whom it May Concern by The Civil Wars. Knowing I’m a die-hard romantic still looking for my soul mate, she thought I’d be able to relate to the lyrics about missing and waiting for someone you’ve never met, but you are certain is out there. Oh boy, did I. That song is actually why Annabeth writes letters to her soul mate on her birthday each year in the book.
As I got to know more of The Civil Wars’ music, I fell in love with a second song, Dust to Dust. It feels to me very much like a bookend to To Whom it May Concern. To me, it’s the song for when the two lovers who hadn’t met yet in To Whom It May Concern have gotten together, overcome their struggles and realised they finally found one another. So I challenged myself to write a story that began with the words ‘To whom it may concern’ and ended with the words ‘dust to dust’. That book is Been Searching for You.
Remembering a forgotten historical heroine
Not many people would put a metal song and a feministic manifesto at the top of their influences for writing biographical historical fiction about the first woman to run for President in the United States in 1872 – but I think we’ve already established I’m not normal. In the End by Black Veil Brides is my song explaining the urgency I felt to write Madame Presidentess, the story of Victoria Woodhull, a nearly forgotten, but crucial, figure of the American suffrage movement. There’s a line that asks who will tell the story of a person’s life. I was that person for Victoria. I also loved the theme of not being afraid to die and leaving something behind for future generations, both of which Victoria would very much be in agreement with. As a spiritualist, for her death and life were one, and I have a feeling she’s still not done doing her work here on earth – or at least not until her name is in the history books where it belongs.
Victoria’s theme song is Woman (Oh Mama) by Joy Williams (formerly of The Civil Wars). It chronicles woman’s roles throughout history – caregiver, life bringer, helpmeet and victim – how she has been seen by men – from Madonna to whore and back again – and the identities she has reclaimed to be her own – goddess and fabric of the universe. Victoria was a very strong woman, who by her own admission was years beyond her time, so I know she would proudly sing this song and declare herself strong and free.
Nicole Evelina is a multi-award winning historical fiction and contemporary romantic comedy author from St. Louis, Missouri. Her debut novel, Daughter of Destiny, was named Book of the Year by Chanticleer reviews. She’s now at work on her first non-fiction book, tracing the evolution of Guinevere over the last 1,000 years of literature, and is also finishing the final book in her Guinevere’s Tale trilogy, Mistress of Legend, which will be published later this year. Learn more about her at nicoleevelina.com or follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest.
I had a hard time this week picking just one pull quote to represent my guest’s work. She’s a writer of two halves – historical romantic fiction and contemporary romance. And she’s now also venturing into biographical historical fiction as well. The common thread is always music. A song by Sting that evoked for her a sense of an untold angle for the Arthurian legend. Or a friend who recommended music by The Civil Wars that gave her the opening and closing lines of a modern romance. What could be more fitting with Valentine’s just around the corner? Drop by tomorrow for the Undercover Soundtrack of Nicole Evelina.
I’d like to bet that many readers of this blog went through a teenage phase where they wrote lyrics. Or is it just me? Well, it’s also my guest this week. He says the lyrics phase was superseded when the urge to create narrative took over, but music remains central to his creative life. It has formed many underlays for his novels, including the shorthand between friends, the backdrop to life events, the tunnel to the past. One major character came alive when he realised that music wasn’t a big deal for her. Funnily enough, a significant musical touchstone is Mogwai, who was cited just a few weeks ago by Philip Miller, one of his stablemates at the imprint Freight Books. There must be something in the water. Anyway, his name is Iain Maloney, and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack
My guest this week says she would like to be able to play the piano to concert standard, but since she can’t, she uses words as her instrument of enthrallment. Pianos are central to the plot of her latest novel, a historical romance in which four nouveau riche fathers attempt to marry off their daughters by displaying their talents in a music recital. Mayhem ensues, con brio. She says her musical ear guides her writing; Bach helps her to listen to the cadence of words and Purcell reminds her, in the most emotional way, that writing is all about remembering. (Are you guessing that Dido’s Lament might be coming up?) She is Royal Literary Fund Fellow Katharine Grant and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s guest is MFA graduate Mark Richard Beaulieu @MarkRBeaulieu
Soundtrack by Chris Isaak, Elmer Bernstein, David Darling, Alan Silvestri, CocoRosie, Hildegard von Bingen, Laraaji, Jon Hassell, Maurice Moncozet, Maurice Jarre, Natacha Atlas, Ibrahim Maalouf, Prokofiev, Steven Price, David Motion, Erik Satie, Gabriel Yared, Nino Rota, Ennio Morricone, My Life With The Thrill Kill Cult, Trevor Morris, The Ting Tings, Beethoven, Handel
O, let me tell you – writing about the 12th century, you had better be listening to music. And if you are writing about Eleanor of Aquitaine, one must attend troubadours, trobars as my friends call them. When I understood their music, I arrived at the joy of Eleanor and what she heard.
The Young Life is the first of six novels in the Eleanor Code series. In the beginning there is passion. Modern trobar, singer-songwriter Chris Isaak’s Blue Spanish Sky underscores my writing of a 13-year-old girl’s experience of love and sorrow for a father’s sudden death far away. I replayed this theme to write of Eleanor at age 76 lying by his Spanish grave, six novels later. Establishing emotions of a medieval daughter and father who only had each other were reinforced by playing Elmer Bernstein’s To Kill a Mockingbird, David Darling’s Children in Cello Blue, and Alan Silvestri’s Contact end credit.
The musical innovation of the 12th century was trobars composing emotions into personal songs. In The Young Life two female trobars sing to Princess Eleanor to comfort her grief after her father’s death. I wrote inspired while listening to the lament of CocoRosie singing Smokey Taboo. In performance they paint their faces in protest not sentiment, a thing that trobars used to do. I wrote this in, as Eleanor both laments the uncertain murder of her father, and protests the occupation of Aquitaine by France. CocoRosie’s haunting singing mixes a girl child’s voice with operatic glissandos like the chants of Hildegard von Bingen. As the story goes, Queen Eleanor meets Hildegard the visionary abbess crossing the Rhein. Hildegard’s soaring forest songs played in the background as I wrote of French and German pilgrim camps.
Songs with words are difficult to write by, even when voiced in another language. Sometimes I search for weeks to find the perfect music to write a section. To write my scenes for medieval children dancing in rain, a rafting solace on the Loire, and Irene’s watercourse way in Byzantium I found the unique ambient composer Laraaji. His Day of Radiance, or Cave in England played on a hand-built Harry Partch-like zither brought me the words of rain falling in color and reflecting water.
In another book of the series, The Journey East, I drafted the scene of Eleanor’s strange abduction while she slept, then rewrote it listening to Jon Hassell’s Clairvoyance. His restrained horn gave me words to describe the prelude to dreams and danger. To really get at the trobar experience a historical novelist must hear them perform on period instruments, with the force of the 12th century tongue – Occitan (OXSE-tah). Just as I imagine Queen Eleanor did. I have listened to dozens of troubadour performances, but contemporary performer Maurice Moncozet performing (translated) Rings coming in fountains, helped me imagine Queen Eleanor and her court on blankets before the song’s original medieval composer Jaufre Rudel the Prince of Blaye. Maurice’s vivid interpretation of the 12th century trobar Peire Vidal inspired writing a deeply emotional performance in the Louvre gardens. Translating and getting to know the strange Occitan singing begat a finer writing of emotion and improved dialogue.
Traveling is exciting in the mideast. Eleanor first seemed to fit with Maurice Jarre’s First Entrance to the Desert in his Lawrence of Arabia score, but ultimately an Arabic-inspired court, feast scenes, and trade in the Antioch bazaar benefited from Natacha Atlas with Shubra. Finally Peter Gabriel’s Passion evokes the rooftops and gardens of the Holy Land. Ibrahim Maalouf with his eastern-western cornet was behind a few out-of-control medieval wedding feasts.
Medieval battle in a Holy War. Please no swelling hero music. Crusaders out of supply and desperate required the sparse crudeness of Prokofiev’s The Battle On The Ice: April 5, 1242, and the entire film score of Alexander Nevsky. Supplying ominous violent scenes in empty winter also fit well with Steven Price’s Gravity.
All phases of love and sex are key. The alluring Eleanor inventing court rituals finds sublime kisses in David Motion’s Orlando film score. The art of fine love-making is evoked by Roland Pöntinen playing Erik Satie’s Gnossiennes No. 3. Lovers shift mood in Gabriel Yared’s sexy Betty Blue. Nino Rota’s 1968 Prologue to Romeo and Juliet keeps me in a frame of mind when I am editing teenage Henri Angevin falling head-over-heels for Eleanor Capet. Their families are at war when they exchange their first spark, just like the famous star-crossed lovers.
Romance is contrasted with two Lolita stories that must go further than Nabakov’s book. Eleanor’s 12-year-old sister’s imbroglio and Henri’s later seduction of a 13-year-old nymphette were set in motion by a sympathetic listening to Ennio Morricone’s Lolita Love Theme. To write of courtesans without a code where sex is all about power relied on My Life With The Thrill Kill Cult’s Dirty Little Secrets. The tense energy of sons rebelling against Henri after his elite guards murder Archbishop Thomas Becket, a reformer of a corrupt church, fit Trevor Morris’s The Borgias score.
Chaos writing. I don’t know if you’ve tried this, but I actually play music when I am conceiving a character in stress. Shocked by a death and having to take action in a state of confusion, young Eleanor is written against the loud energetic Ting Tings’ Shut Up and Let Me Go.
The innovation of personal love songs intense with human emotion is a key to the 12th century. Only our generation has ever heard the infinite music of the world. A thousand troubadours came into existence, a jumping point into our era filled with the boundless music of our emotions.
Mark Richard Beaulieu grew up in Heidelberg, New York City, Texas and California, receiving an MFA from UC Davis and a BFA from Trinity University in San Antonio. He is an energetic writer, fluent on the 12th century life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, a collected painter, photographer, and innovative software technologist. He lives in Escondido with his wife and pets. The Young Life is the first of six novels in the Eleanor code series. Mark can be found on Facebook, Pinterest, on his website, and on Twitter @MarkRBeaulieu