Lyrical Inspiration

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 Song lyrics tell a story, spark images and feelings, transport me to a different word. A song can be a brief interlude in my day or an experience that lingers long after the music has stopped. Sometimes lyrics from a song and emotions of a character collide in my head. The lyrics bring the character to life or the character becomes more real through the lyrics. Other times, one song becomes a backdrop for an entire novel, like a theme song for a movie.

Enemies and Playmates

Ever have a song get stuck in your head? A line or two of the lyrics playing on a loop through your mind until it becomes a silent mantra? Annoying as that can be, sometimes it also provides inspiration.

My music addiction rivals my book addiction. If I'm not writing or reading, I'm listening to music. Some music lovers barely acknowledge lyrics. For me, the lyrics make the song.

When I write, I step inside my characters' personalities. I need to feel what they feel, so I can present them to my readers as a three-dimensional person, not just a character on a page. While writing my novel Enemies and Playmates, I had a relatively minor character whose impact on the story turned out to be much larger than his small part. His name is Stephen and he is the younger brother of Lauren, the main character.

Stephen's character ran continually through my mind, along with the lyrics from two songs. The lyrics drove his character, as much as his character sparked the endless loop of the lyrics in my mind. The first was a line from The Struggle Within, a Metallica song from their Black album. Home is not a home it becomes a hell… Turning it into your prison cell. 

The other was a song called Fade from the Break The Cycle album by Staind. That entire song, in my mind, became Stephen's song. I could hear him singing it, see him living it. One line from that song – But I never meant to fade away – became Stephen's plaintive cry.

I don’t know whether the songs sparked the character or Stephen's character made me pay closer attention to the lyrics in those songs. I'm also not sure that it matters. Lyrics are pieces of a story. When I listen to a well written song, I can see that story play out in front of me. Sometimes it becomes more than a three to five minute vignette.

I am sure that what I visualize is most often not the same vision that inspired the song's writer. However, that's the beauty of words. They can be many different things to many different people. It's all in how we listen. Or how we read.

Max's Song
Into The Light

I was asked by an author friend to name one song that reminds me of my book Into The Light. Given that I'm a music addict and lyrics have always been my focus, that should be an easy task. It's not. This is difficult, though not because I can't come up with one song. I could name many and narrowing the field to one is the hard part. Snippets of songs, one line or an entire verse, will make me think of a character or a scene or a situation from my book. My characters are quite real in my head and I relate music to their lives in the same way I relate it to my own. 

But I was asked for one song and I have one that is, in my opinion, a perfect fit: This Is Your Life by Switchfoot. The song is simple. You won't find literary genius or complicated lyrics. What you will find are words that could be the backdrop for Max's feelings and for what death, and the light, teaches him. 

One line that is repeated often in the song sums up the premise: This is your life. Are you who you want to be?

Long before I wrote Into The Light, this song struck me. That one question is powerful. How many people could answer a resounding yes? Life offers no do-overs, as Max discovers all too late. 

The song goes on to say: This is your life, is it everything you dreamed that it would be when the world was younger and you had everything to lose...

As I said, the lyrics are simple. Yet, I think for most of us, they strike deep. Max had let the tide of life carry him along. He'd put his dreams on hold, forgotten the passion of his youth. This is a familiar scenario for many of us, though most of us won't realize it until the end.  

You can listen to the song on YouTube:

But I don't want you thinking that Max and his story are all gloom and doom. He has a goofy side and his personality, even in death, is a lot larger than he realizes. He is not about to give up before he's ready. We could toss in some Don Henley here: 

I will not lie down. I will not go quietly.

And I have to mention one song that makes me laugh. No, the song itself isn't funny but, as I wrote Into The light, I couldn't listen to it without cracking a smile. The song is - Is There A Ghost by Band of Horses: 

I could sleep, when I lived alone. Is there a ghost in my house?

Max literally haunted my sleep. He kept me awake. He was the most demanding, stubborn character I've had in my head so far. (I shudder to think another character could be stronger!) The story had to be written. Of that there was never a doubt. Max also quickly taught me that the story had to be written his way. 

Then there's Joe Cavelli, the P.I. who has both the misfortune and the luck (yes, an oxymoron there) to be the only person alive who could hear Max. Is there a ghost in my house? Yes, that ghost was in my house and in Joe's. I've set Max free now. I'm hoping he'll be off to haunt other houses for a while.


Music is sometimes an inspiration for what I write. Other times, it’s not until after I’ve written something that a particular song strikes me as significant to the story. The latter is the case with Secrets. While I’m very much tuned to lyrics, everything about a song has to fit. The tempo, the mood of the music, and the tone of the voice all have to mesh perfectly. I have to hear, feel and see my characters in the song.

The song I most relate to with Secrets is Cold Water by Damien Rice; the version sung with Lisa Hannigan. 

This is a video of the two of them singing Cold Water stripped down and live: 

Everything about this song is haunting. The mood, for me, is one of both sadness and hope. The lyrics are simple. In fact, there aren’t many words to this song at all. The ability to move someone doesn’t come from a lot of words; it comes from the words we choose. Songs and stories have this in common.

Damien sings the first verse. He opens with: 

Cold, cold water surrounds me now...
And all I've got is your hand.

The cold water here isn’t literal. I hear it as a man who feels he’s drowning in a metaphoric sense. This is Jeff, Samantha’s husband. He’s clinging to her hand and, without that connection, he’s lost.

Lisa sings the second verse and her opening words are striking to Samantha’s story in Secrets:

Love one's daughter...
Allow me that.

As a child, Samantha was sexually abused by her father and despised by her mother. In these words, I hear Samantha’s plea for all parents to grant their daughters this one basic gift.

Then she sings:

And I can’t let go
Of your hand.

Samantha’s lifeline is her husband. 

This song hits me deep each time I hear it. Damien Rice’s voice can move me to tears. For me, it’s powerful and raw, and speaks volumes with few words.