Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Savage-soothing Tip for Novelists Pseudo, Real and/or Lost

I know first-hand: writing a novel can easily overwhelm – both the writer and the writer’s life.
I liken the experience to Alice’s, when she fell down that hole and left behind the world she knew.
By necessity, the writer becomes schizophrenic, a citizen of two countries – one fictive, one real.
Advil helps.
A lot.
The best cure for me, though, to keep me present to both worlds?
Hands down, it’s music.
It soothes the savage beast.

Your writer’s circumstances matter little.
You could be lost, like Mary Ann, in the fog with faulty headlights.
You could be over-tasked like Jeanne Marie or time-strapped like Carmela.
If you surround yourself with music that sings of your story - its heart, its soul, the characters who grabbed yours - you’ll be living your story 24-7.
Driving the carpool.
Shopping for groceries.
Washing dishes or scrubbing the bathtub.

I discovered this cure when writing my first novel,When They Only Had ‘til Monday, a never-sold middle grade – one part historical fiction, one part mystery - set in 1897 in St. Charles, Missouri. My peripatetic orphaned characters had but three days to uncover their beloved patriotic benefactor’s will or else... all six would be sent down river!
Reading about composer Scott Joplin’s Missouri hometown had indirectly led me to the story line. It seemed natural to surround myself with Joplin’s rags and operas.
Before long, I was assigning each Chapter a particular Joplin rag. An action-packed scene? "Cascades." A moment of poignancy? "Bethena." For the glorious resolution I chose the "Gladiolus Rag." 
The syncopation. The thrumping base line. The flurrying high notes.
Each time I listened I was scoring my novel.
Ironically, Joplin composed his rags in 4 prescribed movements, utilizing variations on a theme. Soon the scenes of my chapters mimicked Joplin’s style.

I played two Patti Page songs – “How Much is That Doggie in the Window?” and “The Tennessee Waltz” – while writing my middle grade novel The Confe$$ion$ and $ecret$ of Howard J. Fingerhut. Both 1950’s songs captured Howie’s earnestness, his ingenuousness, his yearning to win The H. Marian Muckley Junior Business Person of the Year Contest.

To me, the Yiddish folksong “Tum Balalaika” and my picture book Chicken Soup by Heart are one in the same, variations on a theme – i.e. the reciprocity of friendship.
To my surprise, the riddle nature of the song led to the back-and-forth dialogue between my character Rudie Dinkins and his afterschool babysitter Mrs. Gittel.

once you’ve written your first draft and told yourself the story,
think about your character, your setting, your story’s time, your story’s heart.
What piece of music sounds like your story?

[Note: if stuck, think what songs your characters might purchase for their Ipods were they living in today's world.]

In many ways, that piece of music might serve as your GPS from first draft to last, a handy tool to help you carry on should your headlights fail, time make itself scarce and/or your Life overwhelms.

Keep writing.  Keep whistling. (Or is it the other way around?!)

Esther Hershenhorn


Carmela Martino said...

Great tip, Esther. I have (wordless) music playing in the background as I work on my novel too. For this historical novel, they're mainly pieces by Scarlatti, Corelli, and Rameau.

Dark Angel said...

I play scary music or spooky sound effects! To set my mood and make the scene come alive for me. LOL

Of course, I write paranormal/horror, so the sounds have to be chilling and inspiring!

Megan K. Bickel said...

I remembered you talking briefly about this at the Indiana SCBWI event and I put it to use just last week! I had to go to the library to borrow the appropriate music for my WIP PB. It really gets me back in the right mindset when I sit down to write!

Esther Hershenhorn said...

So glad my musical connection to my writing works for others too.
Sometimes, when I share the idea with my young writers, they look at me as if I'm a tad crazy. :)
And, yes, Megan: I did share this idea when speaking to your terrific SCBWI Indiana Chapter last month.