THE WIDOWS, my first novel in my Kinship Historical Mystery series, is set in the Appalachian foothills of Ohio in 1925—and I couldn’t have written it without music.
By that I mean both music to keep me energized while writing, and music as part of the story.
Music Energizes Writing
I can’t write to music with lyrics; I get too distracted by the words and stop writing my own! So I rely on acoustic movie soundtracks (or Brain.fm) to stay focused.
For THE WIDOWS, the soundtrack I listened to most, often on auto repeat, was Batman Begins—even though my novel does not include Batman, superheroes, Gotham City or even bats. (It is, however, inspired by Ohio’s true first female sheriff in 1925, who is as tough as any superhero, and includes plenty of birds and bird symbolism. And a cave, in which there could be bats.) I also love that each track is named after a species of bat!
But more to the point, the rhythmic, powerful music helped me to get in the ‘zone’ for writing. Several of the tracks are particularly dynamic and helped me feel brave enough to tackle challenging scenes in which I pushed myself creatively and my characters to their breaking points.
Music in THE WIDOWS
My family of origin is from Appalachia in Eastern Kentucky and so I grew up hearing gospel and ballads, many of which revolved around tragedy and even murder. (I wrote, directed and produced a musical play in high school called “Just An Old Ballad” inspired by this music, and cast in the lead role the young man who would become my husband… but that’s another blog!)
In THE WIDOWS, Lily, while investigating her husband’s murder, thinks how his death could become the stuff of ballads as she listens to a woman singing a ballad I grew up hearing—Pearl Bryant. (I managed to work in the phrase ‘just an old ballad’ in that scene!) The lyrics are haunting and beautiful: “Down, down in yonder valley…” I learned a much more mournful version than the North Carolina Ramblers version I’ve linked to.
Frankie, the daughter of the other protagonist and narrator, Marvena, has a gift for singing, and sings two of my favorite gospel songs: Precious Memories (this version by Patty Loveless is just like the one I learned) and As I Went Down To The River. (I love this version by Alison Kraus! Those harmonies!)
While researching coal mining, I discovered many great songs about coal mining. Two of my favorite albums:
- Coal, by Kathy Mattea. Check out this video of her performing “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” Chilling–and thrilling.
- Coal Mining Women, by various artists—all female singers, sharing the point of view of women in coal mining towns. So moving. I think Marvena would love this call to unity, sung by Hazel Dickens: “They’ll Never Keep Us Down.”
Though I write to acoustic music, I loved listening to bluegrass at other times. Like THE WIDOWS, the genre evokes themes of struggle, resistance, overcoming and hope. Here are a few of my favorite bluegrass tracks (advance apologies for the ads at the beginning of the videos, but I wanted to use sanctioned links out of respect for the artists):
- Broken, by the Cherryholmes, on their album, Cherryholmes III Don’t Believe. This could be Lily’s song, at least at the beginning of THE WIDOWS.
- Road to Spencer, Ricky Skaggs and the Kentucky Thunder. Some good old fashioned, toe-tappin Appalachian music!
- Wading Deep Waters, by Crooked Still. This could be the theme song of… well, I’m not going to say, because it would give away too much of THE WIDOWS. If you read the novel, see if you can guess whose song this is!
- Good Corn Liquor, by The Steeldrivers. This could be Marvena’s song! I love The Steeldrivers, and had a blast seeing them last summer at one of their shows in Ohio. Go see them if you get a chance.
- Go Rest High On That Mountain. This could be Daniel’s song. Warning: it’s a real tearjerker. And yet, I love it.
- Wayfaring Stranger, sung by Johnny Cash (because how could a list like this be complete without Johnny Cash?)
- And finally, Trying Times, a banjo acoustic by Kristin Scott Benson. I thought I should leave you with an up-tune (which it is…despite the title!)
I hope you enjoy the music I’ve shared and find a few new favorites.
This year, I’m so thankful to spend the day with my husband and our younger daughter. Perhaps we’ll see a few friends and extended family, too.
But I admit… I’m a little sentimental, too. My father passed away just last month. My sweet mother-in-law passed last year, two days before Thanksgiving. Our older daughter will be with us at Christmas, but for the first time, not this Thanksgiving due to her military duties.
We hang on to traditions, following the same rituals and meals year after year because doing so steadies our lives, gives us something secure to look forward to, hang on to, and remember–future, present, past. But the truth is, every year is a little different, even as we pull out the same recipe books.
Here is a column that I wrote several years ago–about cider, but also about how we must focus on and savor each moment. If you’re taking a break from your Thanksgiving duties and festivities, I hope you enjoy this piece–but even more, I hope you have lovely moment after moment on this special day.
I stare at the last of this season’s apple cider, which I have poured into a wine glass. I’ve chosen such a fancy glass for what most view as a modest beverage in honor of the cider itself, knowing that once I’ve imbibed it, I won’t have the chance to enjoy cider for another 10 months or so.
I contemplate the deep amber color of the cider. I sniff the crisply tangy yet sweet aroma. Both color and aroma evoke in my mind’s eye the scenery along the drive to the orchard where we always buy cider every fall, the Crossroads Orchard, west of the Miami River, nestled on a country road between Miamisburg and Germantown. I see the trees, turning yellow, orange, red, their colors so brightly beautiful against a sky burnished to a deep blue from a summer’s worth of hot days, that it hurts, just a little, to look at them.
Then there’s the drive back. We always pause at the top of the hill to stare down at Miamisburg and the church spire and building tops and tree tops and the river and, sometimes, a freight train chugging along on the tracks by the river. Then we drive down the hill and quickly lose our bird’s eye view.
But that’s OK. We’ve just experienced autumn the way we most enjoy it—a pretty little country drive, to a pretty little country orchard, operated by some of the nicest people we’ve ever met.
We tell ourselves it’s just the taste of the cider—unlike the thin, homogenized kind you can get at the grocery—that has inspired us to take this trek, Saturday after Saturday, for about 8 or 9 weeks each fall, for the past decade.
But secretly we know, it’s just as much about the trek itself.
And now I’m contemplating my last glass of the year. I’m reluctant to sip it, because I have some serious questions.
Will I savor the cider? Or gulp it a little too quickly, as I have several times this autumn, thoughtlessly forgetting to enjoy a pleasure that flits in and out of our lives as quickly as the leaves turn brilliant and then scatter in the first frost-tinged wind?
Or should I invest in a freezer, just for cider? You can freeze it, you know. You just pour a little off the top of the bottle, to give the cider room to expand, and then recap it tightly and pop it in the freezer. It’s not as crazy as it sounds. People have cellars just for wine. Why not a freezer just for cider? In its own way, the beverage is just as sweet an experience as wine.
I finally take the first sip of my last glass of this year’s cider, making sure to savor the sweet, crisp, tart flavor before swallowing.
And the answer to my cider-freezer question is in the taste and aroma and even the amber color of the cider itself.
If I could have cider any time—say, on New Year’s Eve, or in the midst of February, or poolside, July 4—then it wouldn’t be a treat. It would become just another commodity in a Big Gulp world. I’d forget the lessons that cider teaches me for several quick weeks every fall.
To feel gratitude for those who craft things like cider.
To pause and enjoy the views.
To relish the trek.
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