“M” is for “Music”: The Soundtrack for A Song at Twilight (+ Giveaway)

Well, that was an easy choice! ::grins::

511ZHL8b2rL._SY300_Not too surprisingly, the subject of music arose frequently during my October blog tour. On at least two stops, commenters were asked to share their favorite kinds of music or, alternatively, their favorite soundtrack. Stopping by to chat and give my own answers (traditional Celtic, classic rock, Patrick Doyle’s Henry V), I theorized that many books had their own “soundtrack,” whether that means music the author played to get her in the mood to write or music that the author associates with the characters and situations in her book.

As music figures heavily in A Song at Twilight, I thought I’d share the “soundtrack” for the book, along with a little background information about each song. These are probably the most important musical numbers in the book, and they’re quite an eclectic bunch, ranging from traditional carols/folk songs to classical opera to Victorian parlor ballads.

1. Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day: Traditional English carol, sometimes ascribed to the Cornish. The central theme is Christ narrating his own life cycle as movements in a dance. The carol goes on at length from Birth to Crucifixion to Resurrection, but usually only the first verses are sung.

170px-Purcell_portrait2. Music for a While: Written in 1692 by Henry Purcell, a gifted English Baroque composer who’s not as well-known as he could be, owing to his untimely death at 35 or 36. This song–about the soothing power of music–was composed as incidental music to a play, Oedipus, and sung by the character of Tiresias, the blind Greek soothsayer.

3. Voi che sapete: One of Cherubino’s arias from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. In the opera, the lovelorn page performs this song for his patroness, Countess Rosina, and entreats plaintively of the ladies he serves, “Tell me what love is.” Cherubino, a trousers role, has been famously portrayed by  Frederica von Stade and Cecilia Bartolli. I enjoyed adding my heroine, Sophie, to their number!

A playful moment between Susanna (Hagley) and Figaro (Gerald Finley)
A playful moment between Susanna (Hagley) and Figaro (Gerald Finley)

4. Deh vieni, non tardar (Oh, come, do not delay): Also from The Marriage of Figaro, but sung by Susanna, Figaro’s bride. It’s often staged as a love song sincerely meant for one man (Figaro) but also intended to entrap/deceive another (the lecherous Count Almaviva). Sophie’s interpretation of the song was influenced by Alison Hagley’s performance in the 1994 Glyndebourne production of The Marriage of Figaro.

5. The Mermaid’s Song: A lyric poem by Anne Hunter (1742-1821) was set to music by Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) to make this very lovely canzonetta. Hunter and Haydn became good friends and enjoyed a fruitful musical collaboration.

608a1363ada06f3fe243d010.L6. I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls: An aria from The Bohemian Girl (1843), an opera composed by Michael William Balfe, in which the heroine, kidnapped and given to the gypsies as an infant, confides to her lover the dreams she has had of her noble upbringing. The song on its own enjoyed great popularity during the 19th century, but I first heard it as an airy, ethereal track on Enya’s Shepherd Moons.

LostChord_sm7. The Lost Chord: Composed in 1877 by Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan), who had tried for several years to set Adelaide Anne Procter’s poem “A Lost Chord” to music. He found tragic inspiration in the last illness of his brother Fred, who died five days after the song was completed. Although not written for sale, The Lost Chord became an huge commercial success in Britain and America during the 1870s and 1880s. In Topsy-Turvy, the 1999 film about Gilbert and Sullivan’s stormy partnership, Sullivan’s longtime mistress Fanny Ronalds (Eleanor David) performs “The Lost Chord” at a society function.

8. Love’s Old Sweet Song: An Irish folk song, written in 1884, with music by James Lynam Molloy and lyrics by G. Clifton Bingham. Very popular with Victorian audiences, the song has been recorded by many artists. The title of my book is actually taken from a line of the chorus: “Just a song at twilight, when the lights are low.”

As I observed, the selection is nothing if not eclectic! But I enjoyed picking out each song, and hope that its inclusion enhanced the mood and the readers’ experience!

So, dear reader, do you have a favorite opera/composer or a soundtrack that you associate with a favorite book? And writers, do you find yourself imagining or even arranging a soundtrack for your works in progress?

I will be giving away a signed copy of A Song at Twilight to one commenter on this week’s post, until midnight, PST, 11/10.

“L” is for “Location”: The Pleasures of On-site Research

The Alphabet Posts are back!  (And believe me, it took a few minutes to remember which letter I’m on. Ahem …)

For me, research is one of the most fascinating parts of writing a book. And for a (predominantly) historical romance writer, that generally means submerging myself as much as possible in the past, absorbing the details and attitudes of a bygone age, while trying to keep my connection to the story emotional, visceral, and real. So I read letters, memoirs, and journals, and familiarize myself with the lives and careers of historical figures who might have influenced the creation of my characters.

Model of H. G. Wells' Time Sled
Model of H. G. Wells’ Time Sled

Virtual time travel is wonderful, of course, and with the wealth of print and online resources now available, you can get closer to the past than you ever imagined. But even the best secondary sources can’t always recapture the experience you want to have as a writer and to convey to the reader. And that’s when on-site research becomes highly desirable, even essential.

The late Margaret Frazer attended a reenactment of medieval mystery plays, performed in the open air by a traveling troupe, as part of her research for A Play of Heresy, her last Joliffe the Player mystery. Deanna Raybourn, author of the Lady Julia mysteries, traveled to England because she needed to smell a moor for her third book in the series. And I’ve heard some Regency authors discuss the upcoming bicentennial of Waterloo and debate going to visit the battlefield to get a genuine “feel” for the last battle of the long-running Napoleonic wars.

Battlefield of Culloden, photo by Auz
Battlefield of Culloden, photo by Auz

Having once visited Culloden Moor, though not for research purposes at the time, I can attest that the old battle sites do carry a certain “vibe.” In Culloden’s case, it was a mournful, desolate one, enhanced by the overcast grey sky and the scrubby reddish-brown brush–the color of old blood–that covered the terrain. I was depressed even before I saw the stones marking the mass graves where Highland clans had fought and died for the Jacobite cause.

Magdalen College, Oxford University, photo by Romanempire
Magdalen College, Oxford University, photo by Romanempire

On a happier note, I’ve also visited Oxford University, though sadly my memories of it aren’t as vivid as they could be. I’ve seen Blenheim Palace and Stonehenge.  I’ve walked on the medieval walls surrounding York, which could come in very handy in one of my WIPs, set in Yorkshire. I’ve seen the Elgin Marbles, the Rosetta Stone, and a fascinating collection of cameos and intaglios at the British Museum. I’ve walked my feet off visiting the Tower of London, and seen–though not heard–the Tower ravens hopping about the yard. And I’ve been to Cornwall, though not, alas, as close to the north coast as my characters are.

Unfortunately, on-site research of this nature is a luxury. My first-hand memories of the UK were all acquired on one trip, years ago. Few of us have the means or opportunity to jet off to see every detail of our books’ setting for ourselves. So it’s pure serendipity when you find what you need much closer to home.

MemorabiliaWallIn my case, that turned out to be the Hard Rock Cafe. Because, as it happens, one of my WIPs is actually a contemporary–or maybe it’s more accurate to call it a “modern” historical–romance starring a British rock band, set in the 1990s. Up until now, my research process for this story has consisted of mining my own memories as a child/teen of the ’80s, reading interviews with actual British bands of the time, watching concert footage and old music videos. Not until last month did I realize that some of what I might be looking for–the ambiance and overall set-up of a theme restaurant/live-music venue–could be found at the HRC.

In retrospect, it seems strange not to have thought of it before–there have been several HRCs in California, though several have closed over the years. But there was still one within driving distance in Hollywood and that was where my companion and I headed one Sunday morning.

StefaniGownWhat we found exceeded our expectations. A collection of rock-n-roll memorabilia that included such items as Jim Morrison’s leather pants, one of Gwen Stefani’s evening gowns, guitars played by groups like Guns ‘N’ Roses and Steely Dan, and manuscripts on which original lyrics were scribbled; multiple TV screens broadcasting vintage music videos, including Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock-n-Roll” and the campy Jagger-Bowie ’80s cover of “Dancing in the Streets,” which I find impossible to watch with a straight face; a tiered seating arrangement that explained how HRC could conceivably fit several hundred people in their space even with live entertainment; and, of course, the stage itself, complete with speakers and standing mics. Best of all, we met some friendly, chatty servers who were more than happy to dish about the place and what it was like when a band was booked to play there.

GnRGuitarSo we stayed for a couple of hours, soaking up atmosphere, asking questions, and having a very good lunch on top of all that. We left well-satisfied on all levels, and are even contemplating a return trip in the not-too-distant future. When the answers to our research questions are just a short drive rather than a transatlantic flight away, it seems a shame to waste the opportunity.

After all, don’t we owe it to the Muse?

“K” is for “Kodachrome”: A Parting of the Ways

“I got a Nikon camera, I love to take a photograph, Mama don’t take my Kodachrome away . . . “ –Paul Simon

Resize_P04-19-13_11.49Well, it was bound to happen one day. And I suppose, in the end, the parting was relatively painless, with no hard feelings on either side.

I received my trusty 35 mm Nikon camera more than 20 years ago–a Christmas or birthday present, I can’t remember which–and we’ve been semi-inseparable ever since. On holidays, on vacations, on other notable occasions, I’d whip it out to capture a moment or an image–or try to, at the very least. People, places, and things, immortalized as 4 x 6 glossies, suitable for framing, passing around, putting in albums (although that last part tends to be indefinitely put off).

Time marches on, though, and digital cameras have taken over to the point where my loyalty to my Nikon has become something of a family joke. I shrugged it off, reasoning that it didn’t matter as long as I was satisfied with the picture quality or my camera’s performance.

Over the years, my old partner in memory-making has become a bit less reliable. At one point the shutter stuck and would not budge. I took it to a camera shop and had it repaired. Then, a few years ago, the counter was off by a few shots. I learned to adjust and work around this issue and still took some damn fine pictures.

Unfortunately, on this last trip, the counter let me down completely, to the point where I was happily taking pictures with film that wasn’t there: the photographic equivalent of shooting blanks! If it weren’t for my newly acquired cell phone, I would have had no photos of our recent Palo Alto trip and the friends we’d come up to visit. And while I’m still learning the ropes of operating the camera in my phone–resulting in several wobbly out-of-focus pictures–I did end up with some nice shots, which is preferable to having nothing at all.RoseEmilyEleanor

The Birthday Girls (right)

So, regretfully but with a sense of inevitability, I am retiring my Nikon from active service. It’s been a great twenty-something years, old pal–thanks for the memories! I hope whatever (digital) camera succeeds you gives me as much joy as you have.

(All preceding photos, courtesy of my trusty cell phone!)

Do you own a favorite bit of outmoded technology? And are you still together, or have you put it out to pasture?


“J” is for “Junk”: The Dubious Joys of Spring Cleaning


The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. . . . It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said `Bother!’ and `O blow!’ and also `Hang spring-cleaning!’ and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat.

–Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

Just a short blog this week as I tackle, with decidedly mixed feelings, the process of cleaning house–or room, at least. A task for which I have little to no enthusiasm, but when you walk into your office/study/workroom or wherever you turn out your works of deathless prose, and find you hate just about everything you set eyes on, you have only one choice: change what you’re seeing.

Ideally, I’d have begun this task in January and finished by Chinese New Year–in fact, it’s traditional to have the house spick and span by the lunar New Year, so that the bad luck is all swept out and the good luck may then enter the house. Edits, revisions, and proposals had prior claims on my time and energy, however, so it’s only this past week or so that I’ve had the opportunity to roll up my sleeves and pitch in.

As always, I’m amazed at what I find once I start sorting through stuff and separating the junk from the non-junk. As a writer and an erstwhile academic, I’m used to the piles of books and papers that inevitably end up stacked on my desk and around my computer–for quick reference, of course. But multiple brochures from museums I visited years ago? Ticket stubs from movies I went to last summer? Take-out menus from restaurants that no longer exist? Department handbooks, blue books, and syllabi dating from my undergraduate days? Why on earth did I keep all those? Clearly, these all qualify as “junk” and may be tossed without compunction.

Other items are less easy to relegate to the rubbish heap. The dried corsage from a party or reception. Picture postcards from beloved vacation haunts. Newspaper clippings and reviews of films or plays you saw and loved. Playbills and programmes from those productions. And–something that perhaps any writer can recognize–notes for stories that were never finished, and sometimes not even started. I can almost never bring myself to throw those out, because even if I’ve moved on from those stories and ideas, they were important enough at one time to merit being captured on paper. And because one never knows, can never predict, when lightning will strike. Something overlooked for years can take on new life or lead you down an unexpected path. The name of a character or a place can spark the imagination, and suddenly you want to know more about that character, that place, and, above all, what happens next.

So, while a large quantity of detritus has been cleared away (and my room and workspace look much the better for, I admit), my old story notes have survived the purge. And some ideas that have lain dormant, half-forgotten, are perhaps beginning to stir again . . .

“I” is for “Inspiration”: Finding the Muse


Apollo and The Muses on Mount Helicon (1680) by Claude Lorrain

One question writers are frequently asked is “Where do your ideas come from?” or, alternatively, “What are your sources of inspiration?”

In my case, I can honestly say that my ideas can come from anywhere. From a chance remark that bears unexpected fruit, to a line from a song or poem that leads me to wonder “what’s the rest of the story?”, to a myth, legend, or fairy tale that lends itself to a fresh perspective, to a historical event or anecdote that invites further exploration. All those random details that have me asking “What if?”

Waltz with a Stranger, for example, was inspired by several things: “The Sisters,” an early Tennyson poem about a man who courts identical twins–with tragic results; the transatlantic marriage market so vividly depicted in Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers; and the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, but with a gender-twist (the heroine, not the hero, is the one dealing with physical scars and trauma).

429px-JennyLind-photoMy October release, A Song at Twilight, draws partly upon the lives and careers of Jenny Lind and Nellie Melba, two successful professional singers of the Victorian era. The relationship between George Eliot and her editor, George Henry Lewes, was another partial influence. Another work in progress owes a debt to the life of Lillie Langtry and the films Roman Holiday and Notting Hill.

Photo of Jenny Lind, The Swedish Nightingale, in the 1840s

History has always proved a fertile breeding ground for ideas. It hasn’t escaped my notice, as an avid reader, that George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice was inspired by The Wars of the Roses and, to a lesser degree, the Hundred Years’ War.

516px-MS_Ghent_-_Battle_of_TewkesburyIllustration of The Battle of Tewkesbury, a pivotal event of the Wars of the Roses. From the 15th century Ghent Manuscript

Likewise, Susan Howatch, whose work I’ve recently discovered, reimagined the histories of the Plantagenets in several “modern” novels: Penmarric (Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine), Cashelmara (Edward I, Edward II, Edward III), and The Wheel of Fortune (Edward the Black Prince, Richard II, Henry iV, Henry V). Barbara Taylor Bradford, best known for her family saga that began with A Woman of Substance, did something similar in The Ravenscar Dynasty (Edward IV) and its sequels (Yorks, Lancasters, Tudors).  For me, the fascination of that kind of book lies in how closely the author chooses to parallel the lives of her characters with their fictional counterparts–and whether she changes the final outcome. Or if, as was the case in so many of these histories, things are destined to end in tears . . . and blood.

So, writers, where do you find your inspirations? And readers, can you spot the inspirations–whether historical, mythic, artistic–in some of your favorite books?