[Alma T. C. Boykin]
Short version – if it happens, file off the serial numbers, and give credit.
Think of musical story ideas as a sort of fan-fic. You can write them for fun, or as a training exercise, keep them for yourself, and there’s no problem. Or you can file off the identifying marks, weave some new things into the song-story, and sell your work.
Three times I’ve had a story get kick-started by music. Usually, I have something running in the background as I write. This is to mute house noises so I don’t get dragged out of the work. In three cases, thus far, the music sent my story-brain wandering into new directions.
The first time happened when I was at a concert, and the orchestra did the “Firebird Suite.” It was a few months after “When Chicken Feet Cross the Highway” came out. My mind started wandering, as it sometimes does, and I started thinking about variations on the legend of the firebird, and did the firebird ever cause damage in the forest, or over the steppe, and . . . A story bubbled up about a firebird in a tinder-dry US forest. Except it was the wrong firebird, which then led to one with the “right” firebird, and thus was a semi-series born.
The second time was because a song cycle didn’t go the way I expected it to go. It is the Dark Sarah story line, first three albums. I’ve mentioned here before that I expected the character of the Dragon to become her love interest. Instead he turned out to be a psychomomp, a figure who guided her to possible redemption, but who did not love her in a romantic sense. The first time I heard the albums, I was surprised and a bit taken aback. Then I started thinking, “What if?” The “Blue Roses” story was the result, or will be once I finish connecting the scenes together. The male lead has no romantic interest in the female character. She just wants to grab some blue roses and go back to the man she’s infatuated with. The hero has no patience for thieves. And thus the story begins.
Most recently, I stumbled onto the music video for “Blind and Frozen” by the group Beast in Black. It wasn’t what I was looking for, but I started to listen. I liked the music, and what little I saw of the video. I went back and watched the whole thing later. The beginning had a lot of promise, then ending was great, but the middle flopped for me, to the point it tripped some of my internal alarms. I said to myself, “I can write a better middle section.” So the story started as a version on the Ice Queen, which the video and song nod to. Except, me being me, the male lead took the story into a different direction. But still no romance. Perhaps.
Each of these examples starts with the basic plot of the music, then goes into a different direction. I’m filing off serial numbers, repainting it, adding a different engine, modifying the frame, and improving the upholstery. It’s the core idea of the song that remains. It’s not copied from, but inspired by. That’s 100% legal.
In the Familiars books, music can serve as a plot cue, foreshadowing something. Or it might just be music. Given the main characters’ preferred subculture, the odds are pretty good that it’s just music. Unless it isn’t. None of the stories in that series came directly from a song, although in a few cases I might, just maybe, have tweaked things so I could drop in a song mention. (In one case, I also took it out, because beta readers said it slowed the story down too much. Alas [mopes in author].)
[Image – Author Photo, Czech Republic, 2019]
Extending your topic just a little from the music that inspires writing… What about the actual music that enters into one’s writing? Obviously we can’t make the written page demonstrate a tune (not talking about mixed-media here), but that doesn’t keep us from having music referenced in our stories, and possibly fundamental to them.
As part of a setting, there’s the ubiquitous tavern (medieval or Star Wars). Then there’s using it as a representation of one slice of an artist’s life (musical protags, musical organizations, etc.) I’ve even seen books organized structurally/suggestively in, say sonata form, or fugue, but that metaphorical usage doesn’t work very well — requires too much technical knowledge from the reader for the metaphor to be intelligible, and doesn’t really add to the narrative enjoyment (there are a couple of exceptions, but still…)
What I like is music as part of a character’s inner life. When he’s in some sort of fraught circumstance, a song will come to him (often sarcastically). When he’s happy and not paying attention, he’ll hum. He’ll add an inner accompaniment to a march-rhythm walk. He’ll quietly invent a descant to a song performance he overhears and perform it under his breath, just because.
This is a version of artist-as-protag (amateur or professional). If we can help the reader see through a painter’s eyes, we can help him hear through a fiddler’s ears. It’s like a free extension of the senses, with psychological insights added on. It requires knowledge of the craft thus embodied, like any other technical field, but if you do it right it can give you more tools to make your characters real.
(I’ve seen pros butcher something as simple to refer to as knitting.)
Mercedes Lackey wrote one of her Elemental Masters novels using the country song Jolene as inspiration. Lackey even titled it Jolene. It is not the song – or rather, the song plays only a subsidiary role in the tale. You can definitely see the song in it.
There’s a song called “The Fortune Teller.” The version I first heard was the one by Robert Plant and Alison Kraus and it made me want to novelize (or at least short-story-ize) the cute little story the song tells. I found out a few weeks ago that it is a cover (although that does not surprise me at all) but right now I can’t remember the original writer’s name.
I used video game music to write a lot when I lived in Japan. Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger were my go-tos, and I still listen to them when I’m writing something not related to my high school and college dramas.
I’ve wondered what I should do about music in my stories. With my high school drama, I’ve tried to make up band names for the characters to listen to, because anything contemporary will be dated before too long.
Also, Stravinsky’s The Firebird and The Rites of Spring are fantastic writing music.
I used video game music to write a lot when I lived in Japan. Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger were my go-tos.
I don’t use those two, but the Chrono Cross theme is on my playlist. The only problem is that, when it comes on, I have to stop what I’m doing and listen. It was a lousy video game IMHO, but a gorgeous song.
I wrote a short story where the inciting incident was inspired by Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Gimmee Three Steps,” and is actually a test to find someone brave, skilled and naive enough to go on a rescue mission.
There was a Lee Hazlewood-Nancy Sinatra song that influenced one of my early, failed projects. (No, I’m not that old, I just like cheesy boomer music where the arranger/orchestrator is the smartest man in the room). Like MD Streeter, I sometimes listen to music when writing or editing. For editing, I like Adrian von Ziegler’s “Autumn Forest” (easy to find on youtube) or this Jacques Loussier Trio track (rest of album is also good, but this one is my favorite): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z7n9h0tl6nU
For first drafting, depends on the book, and how much dictation I’m doing (since music and dictation don’t mix). There’s a looped, hour-plus version of Daft Punk’s Solar Sailer on youtube that got a major workout when I was writing Spider Star, plus a couple of Star Wars ambience vids. Haven’t settled on soundtracks for the current almost-WIPs yet.
I recently found a call for submissions for an anthology featuring stories inspired by sea shanties, so I listened to a few to see if I could get an idea–and wow, that’s a rich vein to mine! I’ve written two so far, inspired by “The Wellerman” and “A Drop of Nelson’s Blood,” and I’ve got ideas for “Santiana,” “Mingulay Boat Song,” and “South Australia.” At the rate things are going, whether or not I get into the original anthology I was looking at, I may have to put out an anthology of my own!
I grew up listening to sea shanties, because of DadRed’s sailing and Navy background. Note, I was in my teens before he directed me to the unexpurgated ones. The group the Revels (aka Christmas Revels) have an album of sea-songs and quotations that’s delightful, although not “pure.”
All of my stories come from music. Heck, I finally started writing because I realized I would never have the time to develop the animation skills or to animate all the story ideas I get from music. Writing is just faster.
For example The Game in a Scarlet Forest short I did a while back was literally this playlist on that order:
In a later story I was completely stuck on how a thing worked. I knew which character knew what, and roughly that this was where the reveal was, but it just wasn’t working.
Then I ran into a piece (Folk/Ambient Ancient Temple done by Prismriver Orchestra) and it had just the right progression from a moody uncertain ambient piece into an almost mystic thing. That gave me the tone progression I needed to make that scene work.
And I had been seriously debating just dropping that story entirely because things weren’t working.
For me, music is the foundation of what I do.
I go the other way – having music makes the story flow, and each story needs a certain kind of music, although there’s some flexibility. (Although Arthur, when he’s the PoV character, insists on classical music, especially requiems. Make of it what you will.) But that’s how I conditioned myself. It’s rare for a song to lead to a stand-alone story.
I sometimes put folk songs into stories. This can be fun because you want it to be appropriate — but not too appropriate.
Observation: it’s hard to search for actual folk songs because you keep on getting songs by “folk singers.”
Another observation: non-narrative songs are habitually extremely short.
Don’t know if you ran into this site or not, but I’ve found it to be a nice pile of folk songs:
Warning, Plays music on the page: Folk Music of England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and America