“Setting” the Mood with Music

Before I get to this week’s post, shall I announce the winners of last week’s drawings?! <DRUM ROLL>  The winner of the Shakespearean Finger Puppets is…Donna Maloy!!! <Cheers!>  The answer to why Michelle’s book was photographed on a Vespa in Italy comes straight from page 24, when Ophelia reflects on her time with Hamlet in Florence, the happiest time of their lives. She says, “Vespas coughed shrilly and constantly, a sound I will forever associate with intense joy.” The winner of the signed copy of FALLING FOR HAMLET is…Jeanne Ryan!!! Congrats to our winners! We will contact you for your mailing addresses!

The week before last (before the big launch party!) we, here at Emus, were talking about research. I’ve come back to this topic because I have been…uh…researching. I like to call it that, anyway.

Unlike Cynthia, Jeannie, and J. who research facts for information, I mine for facts as catalysts. The facts I gather may or may not get into a book, but I find it very helpful to know things. Small details bleed through, I think. Inform the voice. And I do think that’s a big part of voice—the undercurrents that are harder to pinpoint.

Enter Sandwich. No, not the tasty variety. I speak of a town on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, that has been recently voted as having one of the top ten weirdest town names in the country. I must admit, it amuses me to see cars with “Sandwich Police” painted on the side. “Excuse me miss. Has that mayonnaise expired? I’ll have to write you a citation for that.” A place where the local theater says, “Lettuce entertain you” and they really mean it. A place where Sandwich Psychological Services helps sliced cheese deal with the insecurities of being at the bottom of the food chain.

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting with a juvenile detective in Sandwich. A really great guy—even though he yelled, “See you next week!” before slamming the cell door behind me. You see, I had asked for a tour of the facilities and the details on how a juvenile would be arrested and processed for my next book. I got the run down and sat in a small cell with thick concrete walls for quite a while. I knew the things Peter would notice. The things that would stick with him. Worry him. The stunning losses that he felt and the despair and hopelessness of it. How he ended up in jail out of pure desperation—because, in his mind, there was nothing else he could do.

While sitting on the spongy cot, I stuck the buds of my iPod into my ears and played a song. The music, coupled with the setting is magic for me. The combination creates movies in my head. Conversations. Mannerisms. Too much to write down neatly. My notes are a complete mess after these trips. But, when my fingers touch the keyboard, they become full scenes, complete with details I’d forgotten I know.

I’ve spoken with many writers that listen to music that their characters would like—helps them get into their characters’ minds. (After all, music is a creative form and creativity begets more creativity!) I don’t work that way, exactly, though. I will listen to music that I know will spark a particular emotion in me. I, then, apply it to the circumstances of the book.

I feel kind of silly writing this and I’m afraid it will come off as a bit…uh…dramatic (unless I write something else last minute!) but…the song I listened to in that jail cell has probably never been played in a jail cell before. It was the introductory theme to The Little Mermaid.

That’s because, when I hear that music lately, it reminds me of a time when my daughter loved Ariel. (She has shifted to being more of a Hermione fan these days.) How she loved that movie/music and how I loved it because it brought out so much joy in her. That little girl—my oldest—is going to be a senior in high school this year, and I am preparing to let her go. She’s ready to spread her wings and I can’t wait to watch her accomplish wonderful things!

But…I must admit, the music makes me sad, as I feel the days of hearing her music fill the house, our girls’ nights out together, and getting the after school reports slip away. Countless things will become memories rather than being part of our daily routines, and I have to admit, I’m finding that thought rather difficult.

However, I have to say, it was gold in that jail cell, because I could feel how Peter longs for things he can’t ever have again. I do have to turn the volume up for Peter, as his losses are permanent, much more painful ones. But, when it comes to the writing, all I need is a seed.

And, in terms of setting, there is something about Sandwich I’m drawn to. (Stop laughing, Erin. I never said, “universe.”) It is so odd. I set the book in Sandwich after seeing a single image from town online, which created a firestorm of images in my head. I had not planned on two brothers but, with fingers to keyboard, there they were; and I “knew” their names—Russell and Peter.

After finishing a rough draft very quickly, I was floored when I rolled into this small town for the first time, finding Peter’s Pond, St. Peter’s Cemetery, and Russell’s Corner cafe. Weird. This week, I drove by a house on the way to the marshes that, in my mind, is a character’s house—a character that collects Mickey Mouse figurines. This week, there was a five foot high Mickey Mouse sitting in a chair on the front porch. This week, I also had a very strange coincidence happen at the local glass blowing studio. I have countless examples of weird Sandwich happenings. I figure someone up there must really like me. (I mean Heaven—not Sandwich. Or are they synonymous?)

Through my research, I’ve determined that I will probably always place a book in a setting that I’ve been able to smell. A setting in which I know how it makes me feel to stand within it. I stumbled upon my setting for ONE FOR THE MURPHYS in the same way, and there is no doubt, that knowing that setting as I do, fueled that book in ways readers would never imagine.

Wait! I take that back! Hopefully, they will imagine it!

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25 Comments

Filed under Editing and Revising, Research, Writing, Writing and Life

25 responses to ““Setting” the Mood with Music

  1. I’m not laughing, Lynda! Shaking my head knowingly, maybe, but not laughing. You and these “coincidences” never cease to amaze me.

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    • Lynda Mullaly Hunt

      I know. Between the genuine spookiness of some of the things that happen and my corniness, a little head-shaking is warranted. I must admit, though, that these coincidences fuel me in writing the book–make me feel like its presence in the world is meant to be. (Which refers back to my corniness. 😉

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  2. First off, I’m thrilled to win a copy of Falling for Hamlet! (I’ll still buy my own copy, but now I’ll have one for my niece too.) Great contest, guys!

    Loved the story about your research and all the coincidences, Lynda. Although I once interviewed a police officer about the procedures for arresting juveniles, it never occurred to me to ask to be locked in a cell. Or to play music from The Little Mermaid. What a cool way to get the creative juices flowing. I always get great ideas and insight from this blog. Thanks!

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    • Lynda Mullaly Hunt

      And we are thirlled to give it to you! 😉

      Thanks so much, Jeanne, for your kind comments. My trip to the police station was amusing, I must say. The look on the detective’s face when I asked to be “locked up” for a while was pretty funny. Imagine what he would have said if he could have heard my music?

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  3. On the topic of music, I also tend to listen to music differently according to what I’m working on, but I don’t listen to it while I work, so it is similar to your approach as more of a mood thing. Only when I was working on a manuscript about a garage band did I actually have a “play list” that went with my work.

    On the subject of coincidences, I seem to have some of those occur with every novel, ranging in scale from curious to downright spooky. They often make me think there is a fine line between creating and channeling. I mentioned one of these on Facebook a few weeks ago, and was amazed by some of the similar stories I heard from fellow writers! Glad to hear it happens to you, too, Lynda!

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    • Lynda Mullaly Hunt

      Yes, I have thought a lot about the line beteen channeling and creating. I remember reading once that all stories already exist in the universe–that it’s the job of the writer to find them. It’s like chiseling a rock until you reach the inside (either Stephen King or Anne Lamott–can’t remember which :-0) Don’t know if I buy that completely, and then I go to Sandwich and question it all over again.

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  4. J. Anderson Coats

    I rely on those spooky coincidences, and I rely on my backbrain to just make them happen. If I planned them, they’d be too contrived.

    I use music for setting as well, but not quite in the same way. I can’t listen to music while I write, but I listen to it whenever I can’t – while I’m doing the dishes, driving, doing yard work. The music I like – folk music – is evocative of the worlds my characters inhabit, and it primes my backbrain to start making these connections for me.

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    • Lynda Mullaly Hunt

      I do the same thing! I find that music and exercise are a good combination–whether it be on a treadmill or weeding the garden. I even like folk music. I like everything but jazz–too random/all over the place for me.

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  5. Hi Lynda –

    Great post! In writing historical novels and biographies I listen to the very songs that my characters would have known. It puts me right into period, imagining someone humming the tunes while working on a loom, bathing a baby, or skinning out a deer. (Not always the same tunes!)

    Thanks for reminding me. It is time to gather a group of tunes for my current work – a historical fantasy time-traveling back to 1639 in New England. Anyone know of some catchy Pilgrim songs? (Authoritarian but a tad raunchy on the side)

    Happy writing, all!

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    • J. Anderson Coats

      Are your pilgrims from anywhere in the British isles? If so, they’d have been very familiar with a group of songs that’s become known as the Child ballads, after Francis James Child, a prominent collector of these songs. As printed texts, they’re available in a five-volume set called “The English and Scottish Popular Ballads,” and I believe they’re in paperback now.

      http://www.contemplator.com/child/ has a good collection of small midi sound files you can listen to, as well as lyrics for some of the songs. If you get really into them (like me!), I recommend Ewan MacColl’s versions, or the Alan Lomax collection.

      They are really quite raunchy; your pilgrims would have snickered but pretended not to. They’re also sad, violent and exciting by turns.

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    • Kathleen, I seem to remember a little ditty being sung by one of the Plymouth Plantation’s museum actors about child discipline. They have mined the diaries, etc. and I am sure they would be happy to sing them for you.

      Lynda,
      Another great post, I like hearing about your process. I don’t know that the music would do the same emotional evocation thing for me though. I use period music to help with setting.

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      • Lynda Mullaly Hunt

        Thanks so much, Licia! Funny writing about one’s own process-even I learn a thing or two in writing it!

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    • Lynda Mullaly Hunt

      Hi, Kathleen!

      Thanks so much for coming by! It makes perfect sense to use time period music for historical fiction! Your new project sounds fascinating. Will we hear it in group?

      I think that, back in 1622, Plymouth Rock let loose one morning and rolled down the hill into the bay. After two years in the New World, the Pilgrims were ready for some rock and roll. (Yes. I fully deserve any virtual rotten vegetable throw you want to unleash on me.)

      I can’t believe I’m actually going to post this.

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      • Natalie Dias Lorenzi

        And then they retrieved the rock from the bay and built the Sandwich jail on top of it for a little jail house rock…

        I couldn’t let you flounder out there alone, Lynda. 😉

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  6. Lynda, I listened to civil rights songs and sermons from mass meetings while writing my book, too. And, last weekend, I interviewed the composer of the music for the show I went to doing research on my WIP. Next up: food research. I just had to wolf down an entire box of popcorn. Did you slurp a bowl of gruel?

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    • Lynda Mullaly Hunt

      Civil rights songs are so powerful. Even I could use those for mood. In fact, I have.

      Gruel: Don’t knock it ’til you’re tried it.

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  7. I agree that setting in a story is so important, and Sandwich is quite a setting, for sure. Researching Sandwich must be tough, but someone’s got to do it. I look forward to reading this story of two brothers. Sounds fascinating. Thanks again, Lynda, for a great post!

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  8. Natalie Dias Lorenzi

    Lynda, I also occasionally listen to music before writing to get myself in the zone for a particular character or scene, but it’s usually music that I imagine my character would like, or that describes a particular emotion that my character is going through. I’ve never tried using music that evokes those same emotions for *me* like you did with The Little Mermaid song in the jail cell–I’ll definitely have to try it. Thanks for another thought-provoking post!

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    • Lynda Mullaly Hunt

      Thanks, Natalie! Let me know if it works for you. If not, you could always go to prison?

      Jail House Rock. You crack me up!

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  9. Lynda Mullaly Hunt

    Thanks so much for coming by, Laurie. Yes, I know that you, too, are a fan of Cape Cod! There is no place like it. We are so lucky to have it right here. I may have to set another book there. I like the “research.” Thanks, also, for your kind words, Laurie. I am looking forward to reading your updated version of Melody’s Song. The new excerpts are wonderful!!!

    Maybe Melody and Peter could date! Then we’d be related! 😉

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  10. Pingback: Character is a Place You Love | EMU's Debuts

  11. Lynda, I LOVED your blog post for a number of reasons–one of which being that my wife, Jennifer, grew up on Sandwich, MA and her family still lives there! I had never heard of it before i drove there with a dozen roses staying cool under the AC vent on my little Geo Prism back in 2003 hoping to win Jen’s heart. It was delightful to read about Sandwich in your blog–and to know that your next book is set there! If you want to connect with Jen for the inside scoop, let me know and I’ll pass along your info to her.

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    • Jennifer Reynolds

      Hi Lynda–thanks for your post! I did grow up in Sandwich (this is Luke’s wife) and actually my parents’ house overlooks Peter’s Pond…so that coupled with your mention of Russell’s Corner and picture of the Boardwalk made me feel right at home. I think it’s a wonderful place for the setting of a book! Very exciting. And love your creative research and the way you use music to set a mood. Thanks again for sharing, and looking forward to reading the book once it’s out! Best wishes 🙂

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  12. Hi, Jennifer and Luke! Thanks so much for coming by! Sandwich is really a very special place–I’ve fallen in love with it, as has my daughter. In fact, I’ll be visiting, again, in a couple of weeks.

    I can’t tell you how excited I was to read your comments! Your parents live on Peter’s Pond?! Thanks so much for your very kind offer of help. If I ever need an insider’s take, I’ll let you know. If either of you ever set a book in the Middle of Nowhere, CT., let me know–happy to help! 😉

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    • Jennifer Reynolds

      Hi Lynda,
      Glad to hear Sandwich has won your heart (and your daughter’s), and very cool that you are going to visit it again soon. If you’re ever interested in visiting my parents’ house let me know, they’d be delighted to meet you and have you over. It was definitely an ideal place to grow up being able to walk down to the pond in our backyard…now looking back I see how lucky we were 🙂 And both Luke and I think setting a book in MIddle of Nowhere could really work–maybe you’ve started something there. We’ll be in touch if you’ve inspired something!
      Best wishes!
      Jennifer

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