As a musician as well as a writer it seems like second nature to have music inform and surround my writing, not only when I think about my story, but when I write. And often it doesn’t stop just as background, but enters into my story and even influences, shapes and directs my story. And finally, I have created a page with a growing library of downloads of the music that I recorded which informs and shapes my books. It’s available to anyone who signs up for the newsletter (see the website home page) or buys my books.
I grew up with a love of music, always seemed to have some tune playing in my head and I was lucky to have learned to play a few instruments including harp, piano and violin. My range of music tastes was primarily classical and folk. Over the years I focussed on the music associated with Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Brittainy and Cornwall, often labelled as Celtic music. My interest in those countries wasn’t limited to the music, it also encompassed the folk tales that shaped the culture and psyche of the people. Ballads, to me, were musical stories and I particularly loved them. Over the years I developed my approach to the harp to include a storytelling element and would often perform in a manner very similar to a bard. I composed music, taking in fragments of old Cornish pieces if it was a Cornish tale, or Irish pieces if it was and Irish tale, and so on. One of my favourite songs was the Selkie of Sule Skerrie which I would sing after telling a selkie tale while I played my own composition, and wind up playing the Manx air, Song of the Water Kelpie.
When I was planning out a novel, set in 19th century Alaska, I discovered that Native Alaskans also had a kind of selkie myth. The novel was roughly outlined in my mind, but one day, as I played the Selkie of Sule Skerrie, idly at home I realised it would make a perfect framework for the novel. So as the novel developed the music would play either in my head or on CD as I wrote, and the story would take further shape in my mind as I played the song or any other kind of “selkie related” music in my repertoire. The novel eventually became Selkie Dreams and is part of the Celtic Knot Series. I made a book trailer with a producer and played the music from the Song of the Water Kelpie and a friend sang an excerpt from the air, The Song of the Seals, (poem by Harold Boulton and music by Granville Bantock).
In my successive novels music always seemed to pop up in some way or other. Many of my characters are musicians themselves. Since I write historical novels, I play and weave in music of the time period as well as the instruments. In the case of my Highland Ballad Series, set in Tudor Scotland and shaped around the particular ballad, Iain Glinn Cuaich the two main protagonists, Abby and Iain, both play the lute. In the first book Abby disguises herself as a male court musician and enters the household of the Laird of Glenorchy to hide from her enemies. Later on, in another scene Abby conveys a warning to Iain using music and song.
When I wrote the first three books of the series (the third, The Braes of Huntly is just published) I would play the ballad and also lute music of the time period. I also looked on Youtube and found some dance music of the time period with dancers dressed in period costumes dancing. It was lovely and inspiring to watch and listen to a gavotte, branle or a galliard to give greater definition and depth to my imaginings. Abby and Iain also play the music very popular during Mary Queen of Scots early reign, even one, Lament of the The Master of Erskine, which was thought was addressed to Queen Mary’s mother, Mary of Guise. Mary of Guise was rumoured to have been loved by Robert, Master of Erskine. The words ‘depart, depart, alas, I must depart from her that has my heart with heart full sore’ echo in the novel. The Master of Erskine was off to fight the English at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh (1547) and sadly was killed.
I brought the harp into another novel from the Celtic Knot Series, Raven Brought the Light. With two parallel stories, one in the present day at an archaeological dig in western China, the main character Bríd, an archaeological assistant, is trying to escape her musical past that she links to heartbreak and betrayal, only to find that a friend has buried a whistle at the bottom of her luggage. Ultimately, she cannot resist the pull of music and she finds herself playing old jigs and reels on it to relieve her distress during a tense day. Her supervisor, a Native Alaskan named John, comes upon her and she finds he plays the Native American flute. The musical mix adds to the chemistry between them, which is linked to an ancient past. That past is shaped in the landscape where in ancient times a pre-Celtic family arrived, one of whom, Tlachtga, was a healer and seer who played the harp.
In the present day tale I explored contemporary Irish music, which I knew well, and I could pick and play tunes while I shaped the story or played a CD when I wrote. Towards the end I had Bríd participate in an Irish music session playing and singing which I hoped gave a flavour of what she was used to as a musician and how that could be separate from the heartbreak. For the Native American music I pulled on my past interactions and work and thought much about how it compared with the music form of the traditional Irish and tried to weave that into the scene where John and Bríd discuss the music.
The music of the ancient past was something I imagined myself from what I knew of the research and conjectures of historians and ethnomusicologists. I decided the harp would be of simple construction with gut strings sitting comfortably on the lap, but something more substantial than a lyre. The harp is an ancient instrument and looking to ancient cultures like the Greeks and the Israelites gave me some clues as well as to what I would describe. It was great fun and fascinating for me, but pure conjecture for the most part. In the end, Tlachtga became a bard, a filídh telling stories with the harp as I imagined it, singing and speaking while using the harp to emphasise the drama of different parts.
I set my novel, In Praise of the Bees, set in 6th century Ireland around an injured woman with no memory taken to a community of nuns. What captures her imagination and stirs her memory of who she might be is the singing and later, playing the harp. It’s music that bonds her to her closest friend in the community and music that helps her slowly heal emotionally.
In the Renaissance Sojourner series, I wrote with a view to one of my protagonist to aspire to be an artist, thinking for this series I would just play 15th century music in which it was set, in the background. Somehow my female protagonists ended up playing the lute as well. Music is just in my blood and there is no escaping it, it seems.
Kristin Gleeson is a writer, artist and musician who lives in the west of Ireland in the Gaeltacht.
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