The Joy of Research, part two: The Music

Whoa, my first two-part blog post! In part one, I told you about the fun I had researching background for my novel and mentioned I’d done some research on the music popular at the time my book is set, as well. I lied a bit, because I didn’t do some music research, I did a lot. And while it was fun, it was one of the biggest distractions I had while writing my book.

I like a lot of different music and have quite an eclectic collection. (But it’s nothing compared to my friend Debi Matlack’s collection. She calls herself a “music slut” and her music player shows it. That iPod deserves its own category on Wikipedia!) Combine my love of music with my love of hot British guitar players and it’s a given my stories will have myriad references to music.

When my novel begins it’s August 1968. Though the story is set in London, I was able to get around release dates for records being different in the U.K. and U.S. since my main character is an American freshly arrived in England. Even though a tune might not have been released in England at that time, she’d know it anyway if it was already released in America.

Setting a sense of time and place

Without the added burden of worrying about what was released in which country at what time, I was able to pick and choose songs that fit the story. When my character first arrives in England and passes a group of people waiting for a bus, her internal radio begins playing The Hollies’ Bus Stop which makes her pause and instinctively look for a hip young Englishman holding an umbrella. If she hadn’t paused at that time she might have missed her opportunity to meet her first friend in England, the guy that ultimately leads her to her love interest. All the songs in my book are used in such a way, even if it’s not spelled out the way I did with Bus Stop.

In one scene The Beatles’ For No One is playing on the stereo. Though it’s just background music to the two characters in the scene, one of them has very recently rejected a guy who was in love with her. She’s not talking about him or even thinking about him, but the song is there to help set the scene, kind of a little lagniappe* for the reader familiar with the song. If the reader has never heard For No One, they won’t miss anything.

An important word about copyright

While I mention seventeen songs in my book, no lyrics are used (except for one which we’ll get to in a moment.) Song lyrics are copyrighted material and cannot – NOT! – be used in a novel without permission. And getting permission to use them is time consuming, difficult and horrendously expensive. So if you’re writing a book, don’t even think about using song lyrics unless you’re prepared to navigate the waters of copyright law and have a huge amount of money to spend for the privilege of having a couple of lines of lyrics included in your book.

In my case, the lyrics were rarely important and the song titles were included to give a sense of time and place, and for my own personal enjoyment and that of the reader. The one instance in which I did use the lyrics, I used only four words, two of which were “and” and “a.” From what I’ve been told from a reputable attorney, this constitutes fair use of copyrighted material. Even then I may have to remove them before the book is published, but I made sure it wouldn’t affect the story. After all, it’s only four words.  UPDATE: I did end up taking them out.

Way leads on to way (don’t worry, it’s part of the public domain and not copyrighted)

Though I enjoyed choosing which songs titles to include in my book and researching when they were released and on the charts, it turned out to be the biggest distraction I had while writing. I’d find a song I wanted to mention and then I’d have to listen to it while making sure it had already been released before it appeared in the book. As I looked through lists of release dates I’d invariably find another song I hadn’t heard in years and would have to listen to it, too, even if I didn’t use it in the story. And then I’d find another, and another. And before I knew it I’d wasted an hour of prime writing time. Finally, I sat down one evening and chose all the songs, listened to them, purchased from iTunes the ones I didn’t already own, and removed the temptation to go music hunting while I was writing. Now that the book is finished and being queried, I have a nifty little playlist on my computer that I can listen to whenever I want.

Of course, I’m about to start this process all over again since my next book is set in a radio station in 1982. This time I’ll know to get the music research out of the way first.

Have you used songs to set the time and place in your books? As a reader, do you enjoy it when a song is mentioned in a story?

As always, thanks for stopping by to spend some time with me!

*A lagniappe ( /ˈlænjæp/ LAN-yap) is a small gift given to a customer by a merchant at the time of a purchase (such as a 13th doughnut when buying a dozen), or more broadly, “something given or obtained gratuitously or by way of good measure.” The word is chiefly used in the Gulf Coast of the United States. (via Wikipedia) Since I grew up on the Gulf Coast, the term is something I use all the time, but I thought I’d add a definition for those not fluent in Cajun!

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