I was listening to Radio 4 the other day when I heard the author, David Nicholls, talking about his novel, One Day. Now, I haven't read the book, although my daughter has and recommends it highly, but I'm always interested in writers talking about their writing, especially ones who are selling shed loads. For those, like me, who have not read the book, it follows the lives of two people from their student days in 1988 to near present day. As I understand it, the device that Nicholls uses is to have them meet every year on St Swithin's Day. In this way we can follow their lives and changes, kind of When Harry Met Sally, but more organised and British. Do Americans know about St Swithin's Day? Anyway, what interested me was the way he described going back to these past years. He used the music, what he and everyone else was listening to in 1988, say, 0r 1992. He found this one of the best ways of getting into the feel of the time. Songs are like scents, they bring back detail, the kind of detail a writer needs to make a time come alive.
I have always used songs and music in my writing, not just to evoke different times, but also moods and states of mind. My first novel took its title from a song: Every Step You Take. I was listening to it in the car one day and remember thinking how creepy it was, the perfect way to get into the head of an obsessive stalker. Another early novel, Midnight Hour, also owes its title to song lyrics, Wilson Pickett singing, I'm going to take you girl and hold you, do everything I told you, in the midnight hour. 'Do everything I told you...' that was the line that chilled me. And it doesn't even matter if it is not the right words, that's what I heard, so it is what my killer heard, too.
I first heard the Ballad of Sovay, sung by Pentangle, more years ago than I care to remember. I had no idea then that I would ever become a writer, much less that this song would provide me with the title and main character for a novel. But the haunting melody stayed with me, as did the story of the daring young woman who dressed as a highwayman to test the fidelity of her lover. Many years after that first hearing, I was having a conversation with fellow novelist, Susan Price, about folk ballads and Sovay came up. We both said how much we loved the song, and the girl. By the end of the conversation it was more or less decided that I would make Sovay the heroine of my next novel.
Songs do not just provide titles, characters, basic plots and starting points. When I'm writing historical fiction, they give me a powerful way into the world that I am trying to create. When I was writing Sovay I listened to John Gay's The Beggar's Opera over and over again, not just for the beauty of the lyrics and the music, but for the moods and emotions that they evoked and the deeply subversive, satirical view of a corrupt society where the heroes and heroines are thieves, murderers and prostitutes. John Gay gives us a view into an 18th Century underworld that he knew well. At the same time, he is letting us know that respectable society was also under scrutiny by those who would seek to change it.
You cannot beat contemporary sources for insight into any past time. Popular songs and street ballads are often the only way we have to see into the lives and minds of ordinary men and women, allow us to hear the words that they used, the cadences of everyday speech. For me, they help to 'raise the spirits of the age', to evoke a sense of love, loss, danger and excitement. When I was writing Pirates! , I listened to songs of the sea, of dark eyed sailors and female sailors bold. When I was writing The Fool's Girl, I listened to Elizabethan street songs, jigs and bawdy ballads, as well as Shakespeare's own songs and court music. Each of my books has its own soundtrack,. Sometimes the music gets mentioned in the text, sometimes it doesn't. That is not important. Neither is exact authenticity. What is important is how this music, these songs have sustained and fed my imagination and freed my creativity.
Anyone else care to share their playlist?