‘We become readers in our listening’
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 my guest is writing coach EJ Runyon @EJRunyon
Soundtrack by Thee Midniters, Simon & Garfunkel, Nancy Wilson, Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt, Otis Redding, Consuelo Velazquez, The Righteous Brothers, Hank Williams
A House of Light & Stone, a tale set in the 60s, could easily have used the expected rock ‘n roll music of its day. Instead, I’ve featured a mention in the novel of other songs within the tale of Duffy Chavez. I’ve gone with a local, specific East Los Angeles song, Sad Girl (by Thee Midniters). Then a semi-folk song of the time, April Come She Will (Simon & Garfunkel) and followed with a light jazz tune, How Glad I Am (Nancy Wilson). The music was in my ear as I wrote and ended up in my novel as well.
In Duffy’s world, like in Roz’s work, there are a number of pieces that have special meaning for this character. We move from nostalgia with the Spanish-language songs and into an American sound of more yearnings. It’s with the mention of a Bob Dylan tune , Mr. Tambourine Man where a frisson of change is now in the air around Duffy. This song shows up at a point where we see a bit deeper into her past.
If you give a listen to the songs in this post, you’ll almost be able to write your own novel from them. These tunes tell a tale of their own as a playlist. Beginning with Lo Siento Mi Vida (Linda Ronstadt) and then to I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (Otis Redding), there’s an arc you can follow and a sense of storytelling in the lyrics.
This is what I love the most about writing to music. When lyricists tell us a story, we become readers in our listening. From there, the inspiration for our own work seems a natural progression if you are open to it, just as I was inspired in the case of Duffy’s world.
Thief to belief
Duffy knows she must choose to either be a thief and liar all her life or believe in herself enough to risk using her gifts of imagination and ingenuity for good.
To tell that tale, I began writing by considering what my scene’s mood might be. I would ask myself what in the setting could reflect each mood. And also, month after month through this child’s journey, how do I show the passing of time for her poetically. And music seemed to be the key with music being such a large part of her young life.
And while listening to my own collection of music, Besame Querido (Consuelo Velázquez), Unchained Melody (The Righteous Brothers), Mr Tambourine Man (Bob Dylan), these tunes are the ones I heard as I wrote and that managed to sneak into the novel itself.
In this novel, we follow a year in the life of one young girl. While reading Duffy’s story, one can hear the emotions of the music I listened to while writing. The music underscores a story that’s powerful, dark, and uplifting. As the songs felt to me when I wrote, so they matter to young Duffy as she traverses a year on Elliott Street.
A bit of foreshadowing of the novel’s theme is reflected in Otis Redding’s song ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’. Duffy’s story is a novel about letting go, as well as about our holding onto our pasts.
Songs as signposts
This isn’t a film we watch with those catchy songs we all know to be signposts to a set range of time we can all identify. These signposts are woven into the telling of Duffy’s quest to be a ‘real girl’. They’re used in her tale to serve the scene. The songs within Duffy’s life show her steps along the quest. Duffy is also being taught to play violin during her summer months. One of the joys I had writing those scenes was searching the web for actual lesson books a child might have used during that time and weaving its title into the story.
The lyrics of Simon & Garfunkel’s April Come She Will runs through the year, month by month, as does Duffy’s quest, chapter by chapter, from one Christmas day to the end of the following year. It’s almost as if I’ve planted lyric-based Easter eggs for folks to find if they are knowledgeable of the lyrics of these songs.
Music as character
Duffy’s world is often impoverished. It’s always colourful. Hopefully, it’s also reflected in the use of these tunes throughout my chapters. If there were a theme for A House of Light & Stone, it might be Duffy’s separateness that seems to be reflected with I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry (Hank Williams)
Duffy’s mother spends most of the novel listening to one song over and over. The repetition of the Otis Redding song, and how it affects so many of the characters, makes it seem as if that one song is a character all its own. And in a way, that is why, while not licensing the tune to use its lyrics, I did describe the iconic album cover to a T. This was in the hope that readers familiar to the time would pull in the lyrics on their own, in spite of none being quoted in the book.
EJ Runyon was born and raised in East Los Angeles, California. She now spends her time in Las Cruces, New Mexico. EJ runs the coaching website for writers, Bridge to Story. Her books have garnered rather nice, if few, reviews. She’s currently working on her fourth book, Revision for Beginners, all her releases, including A House of Light & Stone, are from the UK Press, Inspired Quill. Find EJ on Facebook, or Twitter as @EJRunyon and at her author website.