The Savage Breasts

William Congreve

William Congreve and his Savage Breast

As Dave Barry might say, that would be a good name for a band. But I chose it simply because my last two posts happened to be about musicians, which caused me to reflect on the connection between music and writing.

A lot of my stories have a link to music. My first real story, as noted elsewhere, is closely based on the Deep Purple song, “Blind” (from their eponymous third album). It’s been a long time – I can’t recall what it is that drove me to write the story. I listen to music most of the time, at home, and, likely as not, this album just happened to be on when I decided to become a writer and needed an inspiration.

Most of my musical catalysts are a little less calculated. Sometimes I just hear a great phrase and steal it. “Drive Like Lightning … Crash Like Thunder” is a straight out grab from Brian Setzer’s Vavoom album. I’m not too sure he had had aliens and starships in mind, but I named a town and a bar after him, and a ship after the album. In fact, the name of the ship drove its design, which affected the storyline, so Mr. Setzer and I had something of an interactive writing session.

Sometimes, I mishear a phrase. A story still in production, “For This Rich Earth” is based on Peter, Paul, and Mary’s version of Travis Edmonson’s “If I Were Free“. Except that where Edmondson wrote “Of how the flowers do bloom and fade; Of how we’ve fought and how we’ve paid”, I, as a ten year old, heard “Of how the flowers to Blue Man came; Of how he fought, and how he failed.” Frankly, that still sounds like what they’re singing. I always wondered who blue man was, and what he failed at. Then last year, I started a story with nothing more than an image, and naturally got stuck after a few paragraphs. Then I remembered this lyric, and the whole story came to me.
I even started a series of stories based on a (knowingly) misheard lyric. Eliza Gilkyson has a song called “Bearing Witness“, but the more I listened, the more it sounded like “Barren Witness”. It took me some years, but eventually that was the genesis of a Donaldsonian anti-hero. The stories are about a galactic service that witnesses cultural births and deaths. My anti-hero specializes in death, and I wanted to write a total of four stories, all with titles taken from a Roger Miller song (“Pardon this coffin, Please step aside, Pardon this coffin, My brother just died”). I thought most people would figure it out only on seeing a table of contents (if ever). I dropped the idea when it came to negotiating with Sony Music about copyright. I’m sure there’s a fair, transformative use argument but the whole point is that I like these musicians – I’m not trying to literally steal anything. That is… you know what I mean.

There are others. “House of Hope” draws from Toni Childs. Some artists inspire more than once. I’ve already written about “Puff, the Magic Dragon” as the source for “Autumn Mist”. Fred Eaglesmith suggested “The Girl Who Just Went Wrong” and the nascent “Seven Shells“.

Except for “Blind”, none of these stories has much to do with their source material – they’re catalysts, not reagents. But the point of a catalyst is that it can allow a reaction that otherwise would not happen. So in almost every case, I usually to acknowledge my inspiration somewhere in the story. The hero in “For This Rich Earth” is named Edward Travis, and the title of the story is from another line in the song that happened to fit my story perfectly. Part of “The Girl Who Just Went Wrong” takes place in the Eaglesmith Hills. I haven’t always followed through on the tributes, but I try. So, little hints for those in the know. And, of course, the stories work even if you don’t know the music. My wife says my “Barren Witness” stories are her favorites, and she couldn’t care less where the ideas came from – she just wants me to write more of them. (“Please Step Aside” due in an anthology some day soon, in theory.)

If you’re a writer, what music has inspired you? As a reader, what do you listen to while you read? What are your favorite stories linked to music?

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