My friend and fellow writer Kenton Kilgore recently posted a blog about listening to music while writing such Young Adult novels as Dragontamer’s Daughters, Lost Dogs and his current work This Wasted Land. Though I share Kenton’s love of music, I find music with lyrics distracting when I write, so if I’m listening to music while tapping away at the keyboard, its usually light classical or instrumental covers of the adult contemporary, classic rock ,or Americana that I usually listen to.
It’s elevator music, basically.
I do, however, use popular music in my writing.
Almost every character I ever write about has a playlist.
Organizing a playlist for my characters gives me insight into who they are. The music someone listens to can tell you as much about them as what they look like or how they talk. Musical preferences help define a character’s tastes, which in turn helps a writer understand that character’s interior emotions and thoughts, as well as their outlook on the world that’s being created around them.
Music is a type of setting. Think about the difference in the music played at a ballgame, in a ballroom, or in a barroom.
Even lack of interest in music, having no playlist at all, says a lot about a character.
For my novel Bloody Point 1976, a story about a young Chesapeake Bay waterman hired to return a local big wheel’s daughter from The Block, Baltimore’s notorious red light district, all the major characters except Clacker Herbertson, who couldn’t care less about what’s playing on the radio, has a playlist.
Tooey Walter is the book’s protagonist. Tooey’s twenty years old and works on the water catching crabs and oysters. He lives with his grandparents and is a bit of a loner. Until Bloody Point 1976 begins, his life is not very exciting at all. Tooey listens to 8-track tapes in his secondhand pickup truck and prefers southern rock and mainstream rock music.
Tooey’s playlist includes artists like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bob Seger, and Steve Miller. The first time in the book that music is associated with Tooey is when he pops Aerosmith’s Toys in the Attic into his tape player when he leaves Harris Bradnox’s Bloody Point Estate for the first time.
The Toys in the Attic album provided me not only character development points but also hit on some of the darker themes that would run throughout the book. Not only that, but the name of the character Salt Wade, the obvious and primary villain of the story, started with a track off this album called Uncle Salty.
Later, as Tooey starts off on his big city adventure, he pops in Heart’s Dreamboat Annie. He compares listening singer Ann Wilson’s voice to attending church, and finds no over-the-top sex symbol nearly as hot as Anne’s sister Nancy when she’s wailing away on her guitar. Despite including hits like Magic Man and Crazy on You, the song that Tooey is listening to as he drives across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge is White Lightning and Wine.
And towards the end, Tooey has a Stevie Wonder moment. Boogie on Reggae Woman is the song buzzing in Tooey’s head as he tries to recover from a Salt Wade beatdown.
Delores ‘Dee’ Bradnox is the wayward daughter Tooey is sent to retrieve. Working as a stripper called Heaven, and trying to resist Salt’s pressures to take her involvement in the sex worker trade to the next level, Dee is not a discriminate music lover. Whatever’s playing on the jukebox at Club Harem or Nick’s Mousetrap is good enough for her.
In Bloody Point 1976 Disco hits like Thelma Houston’s Don’t Leave Me This Way, Fire by the Ohio Players, Hot Chocolate’s You Sexy Thing, and former porn star Andrea True’s More, More, More all bring the ladies to the stage, as do such funky classics as the Commodore’s Slippery When Wet and party anthems like Rock and Roll All Nite by Kiss and Foghat’s Slow Ride.
And it wouldn’t be the 70’s without big hunks of AM radio cheese like Afternoon Delight (Starland Vocal Band), Let Her In (up-and-comer John Travolta), and Moonlight Feels Right (Starbuck) with it’s Chesapeake Bay theme and references
When Tooey hits The Block for the first time, he’s treated to a surprise striptease by a beautiful bartender who not only gives him a lead on finding Dee, she also provides a moment of major discomfort for our young hero. The song that’s playing is the infinitely sexy Tell Me Something Good by Chaka Khan and Rufus.
The final main character, Salt Wade, more than any of the others, is driven by music. He listens to the bluesmen of the early 20th century almost to exclusivity. More specifically, he’s obsessed with the music of a harmonica master named Howlin’ Lobo, an obvious nod to the great and powerful Howlin’ Wolf.
So that’s how music influenced the characters in my novel Bloody Point 1976.
If you’re a writer, I’m curious if and how you use music in your writing.
If you’re not a writer, I’m curious if music helps define who you are.
BLOODY POINT 1976 is available at Amazon and at various local retail outlets, as are my nonfiction books, REMEMBERING KENT ISLAND – STORIES FROM THE CHESAPEAKE and A HISTORY OF THE KENT ISLAND FIRE DEPARTMENT.
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