#Writing #Music: (Occasionally) Patrick Doyle

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I love my husband.

I really do.

He knows me so well: his Christmas gifts to me consist of books, music, and a good mystery series. Even the candle is scented “Oxford Library.”

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But I hold up the CD, and scowl.

“Hey, it was on your wish list.”

“That was before I saw the movie.”

“And now you have something to remember the movie by.”

“The book doesn’t count?”

“No.” And off he goes to read his new compilation of Dick Tracy comic strips.

Honestly, I didn’t expect to write about music that is uninspired, but after seeing the latest film adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express with dear writer-friend Ben Daniel ParmanI just can’t understand what Scottish composer Patrick Doyle was going for here. If one didn’t know the film, one would think I’d been given the score to a Hallmark made-for-television movie about railroad workers struggling with love or grief or blizzards or grief-loving in blizzards or blizzards in love or…you get it. It’s music that does not speak to its icon of a detective, Hercule Poirot. It is music that does not speak to its historic period of the 1930s. It is music that does not speak to the claustrophobic tension a snow-bound train car creates. It’s just…there. White noise to the mystery. And while some mysteries revel with distraction, a mystery–or any story, for that matter–cannot afford to annoy its audience. Which this music does. Exceedingly.

In his defense, Patrick Doyle isn’t all bad. Take his score for Brave: it has some lovely moments of both epic scope and intimate character reveal.

From what I see on Doyle’s IMDB page, the man’s collaborated with Kenneth Branagh for, goodness gracious, over twenty years. And I’m sure many of those scores are lovely. But as any author will have her clunkers, so will a composer occasionally make bland music.

One of my biggest struggles as a writer is creating the right ambience around me so I can, well, create. When the boys are trying to shove each other into the wall, when Blondie’s whining she doesn’t know what to do with herself, when the laundry and dishes and course work and cooking and….you know. It all heaps upon you, not just visually, but audibly, too. Take this very moment: I’m trying to finish this blog in the kitchen while the boys fight over a toy and the girl’s yelling at them to be quiet while The Lego Ninjago Movie plays at an obnoxious volume. I’ve got my headphones on. I put on Orient Express, and feel absolute bupkiss. I put on Brave, and feel the hint of Elsewhere swirl about my mind’s eye. I put on The Hobbitand feel the adventure promised in misty mountains cold…

Seek on, writers. Find the music that transports you from daily life’s craziness and unfetters story-telling’s power.

 

 

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#LessonLearned from #AChristmasCarol: Earn that Redemption.

Few stories tell the redemption arc quite like Charles’ Dickens A Christmas Carol. In the midst of Grinches and White Christmases and Peanuts and 34th Streets and Bishops Wives, my family always pulled out four different versions of A Christmas Carol to watch every Christmas: one with Mickey Mouse, one with Mister Magoo, one with the  Muppets, and one with George C. Scott. In more recent years, Bo introduced me to the Blackadder Christmas Carol as well as Scrooged starring Bill Murray.

This year, as Michael Caine follows the Ghost of Christmas Present once more to one of my favorite scenes–

(If you ever wondered what my sons are like at home, those bellboys at the song’s beginning sum it up pretty well.)

–a thought occurred to me, one that has pricked the back of my mind every year I see this:

Why is Scrooge dancing with the Ghost?

I mean, you can see it at the song’s end: Scrooge is all happy and cheery and dancing like a giant Muppet himself.

Doesn’t he still have another Ghost to talk to? If he’s already all happy and stuff, why’s he need to see another ghost? He’s already reformed. If you’re going to make a character go through three different stages towards redemption, then don’t you the storyteller need the different stages actually necessary? What’s the point of having these different stages if an internal switch simply flitches the protagonist’s changed with little effort?

This year, that niggling thought led to a talk with Bo, and the idea to watch a few more adaptations of this story and discuss whether they transform Scrooge, or merely flip his switch.

Here’s what we’ve found. Thanks for listening!

 

 

Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: How Much Stock Should One Put Into a Title?

Memorial Day weekend in a North Woods cabin: restful, right? Lots of time to write surrounded by nature and all its spring glory, riiiight?

Well when one spends a long, rainy weekend with four sedentary in-laws and three hyper-active children in a space roughly the size of a one-bedroom apartment, “restful” does not come to mind.

Thankfully, parenthood has given me the ability to read despite screams and comfy animal battles about my legs and thrown cars and training potties full of urine positioned in dangerous places upon the floor, so I decided to allow myself some time with a couple mysteries Bo gave me at Christmas:

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At the outset, the titles didn’t strike me as anything unusual. Christie’s titles always connected to the story, so I was sure that when I opened up The Big FourI would indeed be reading about a group called The Big Four. Sure enough: the antagonist of the story was a crime syndicate run by a group of bosses known as The Big Four. Poirot saves the planet, everything is awesome, I got to read an entire book in one day, which I hadn’t done in ages. Could I get through another book before the weekend was out?

I began Murder on the Links with high eagerness. I wasn’t planning on doing a close study of these books for this blog–I wanted to read for fun. (Crazy concept, I know.)

But the more I read, a question began to niggle my inner writer. Something felt off about this story. Oh, the plot read plausibly with a strong balance of clues and red herrings. The dialogue was so-so, but not nearly so heavy-handed as Poirot’s Christmas. What the hoobajoob was wrong here?

I closed the mystery, completed, and saw it: the title.

One look at the title, and one expects golf to play a major role in the story. After all, the Nile was quite the set piece in Death on the Nile.  Murder in Mesopotamia was as exotic as it sounds. The train doesn’t just fade into the background in Murder on the Orient Express. Murder is definitely committed under the sun; ergo, the title Evil Under the Sun.

Bo noticed my scrunched face as I glared at the golf course on the cover. “What’s wrong?” I explained my niggle. “Well, did the murder happen on the golf course?”

“Yeah.”

“So what’s the problem?”

The-Murder-on-the-LinksAnd that was the thing, I guess, that really got to me: technically, the title fit. The murder itself occurred on land being turned into a golf course. Christie didn’t fib. Murder did indeed happen on the links.

But with the other stories I mentioned, the place was more than just a location. Whatever was mentioned in the title carried influence into the story, be it through the culture, method of crime, strategies of investigation, etc. I thought back to other stories I’ve covered in my “Lessons Learned” posts and their titles–were any lame titles in those?

Howl’s Moving Castle: Heroine Sophie is cursed and seeks help from the Wizard Howl. His castle moves because of a curse between Howl and a fire demon that Sophie promises to break. So, pretty important.

Charmed Life: Cat Chant and his elder sister Gwendolyn are taken on by the great sorcerer Chrestomanci to learn more about magic. There’s more magic in Cat than he realizes, which is finally revealed with his sister’s villainy. By book’s end Cat is destined to be the next Chrestomanci. That’s about as charmed a life as you can get.

Five Little Pigs: Poirot sets out to solve a murder committed 16 years ago. He considers the five living suspects like the five little pigs; the rhyme comes up every time he meets another suspect.

The Name of the Rose: I admit, I had to read a bit more into this one. I knew there was some sort of connection with language, since the mystery fixates upon the danger of language and ideas.  How fitting, then, that Eco found a poem reflecting that a thing destroyed is preserved in its name. I found Eco’s own explanation for the title:

 

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Eco states in the Postscript to the Name of the Rose that Bernard’s poem is also the source of the novel’s title and last line —

Stat rosa pristina nomine; nomina nuda tenemus.”
(Yesterday’s rose endures in its name; we hold empty names.)

— meaning that in this imperfect world, the only imperishable things are ideas.

“Since the publication of The Name of the Rose I have received a number of letters from readers who want to know the meaning of the final Latin hexameter, and why this hexameter inspired the book’s title. I answer that the verse is from De contemptu mundi by Bernard of Morlay, a twelfth-century Benedictine, whose poem is a variation on the “ubi sunt” theme (most familiar in Villon’s later “Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan”). But to the usual topos (the great of yesteryear, the once-famous cities, the lovely princesses: everything disappears into the void), Bernard adds that all these departed things leave (only, or at least) pure names behind them. I remember that Abelard used the example of the sentence “Nulla rosa est” to demonstrate how language can speak of both the nonexistent and the destroyed. And having said this, I leave the reader to arrive at his own conclusions.”

With Murder on the Links, however, golf had absolutely nothing to do with the crime. The setting bore no real influence upon the clues, the body, or even how characters moved about the scene of the crime. The course is where the murder just so happened to, well, happen. It could have been on the grounds of the mansion or in the ditch of the freeway–it would have made no difference.

Perhaps that, more than the title, was what bothered me. Or it was because the title gave importance to something that carried none–a red herring from the off.

I remember feeling annoyed like this once before with Louise Erdrich, an amazing American author whose award-winning novel Love Medicine was my one reading joy from those years in graduate school. It was a family drama spanning years–not normally my thing at all, but her portrayals of the Native American life and landscape gripped me from the start. I read more of her work after school, but stopped with Beet Queen. Why?

33315Because this Beet Queen chick didn’t show up until the last few pages, dammit!

Now granted, I can see now that wasn’t entirely true. The character who grows up to become the Beet Queen–the beauty queen of the town–is born halfway through the book, and the first half of the book is about the family into which she’s born–that’s typical Erdrich. At the time, I couldn’t understand why the title fixated upon that final moment, that social title bought by the girl’s family so that she could feel special at last. Now I can see that the title embodied the desperation of the family to do what it could for the love of this girl, to make her socially acceptable, to make her happy…and how this girl, a rather selfish brat, held it all in contempt. Family drama, spanning generations. The title fit.

Murder on the Links, a fine mystery, has a title that pays heed to the least important aspect of the crime. I suppose being bludgeoned by a five iron or discovering a collection of heads in a caddy’s locker would have all been a bit much, but it’s nice to see titles that connect on more than just a technical level.

What of your title? Does it embody the struggle, the hero, the villain? Does it give a wink and a nudge towards a special clue to reveal the truth? Or does it just hang there, stating its purpose and nothing more? After all, some stories have made such titles work brilliantly for them: The Lego Movie, The Peanuts Movie, The Care Bears Movie, The Lego Batman MovieBut notice how all these titles are a)geared for children using b)easily identifiable toys/characters OF their childhood for c)a visual presentation. Kids know they get to watch Legos, Snoopy, and so on. That’s all they want.

But in stories to be read, we want titles that grip and hold. Don’t warp that grip into a bait-and-switch. What influences the characters? What place affects the plot? What taunts your hero from afar, that if he could just push himself a little bit more, he can touch it, taste it, know it? Your answers hold the key to a title of relevance, spirit, and strength.

Hats in Passing

2010

I stand over your bassinet as Bo packs up our things. In a few minutes we’ll step out of the hospital, and you’ll see the sky and feel spring air for the first time. Everything is a first when you’re only two days old.

Wisconsin springs are absurdly unpredictable. This May day is calm, a little breezy.

A breeze? She’ll get pneumonia! We must cover all appendages. What do you mean, we don’t have a winter coat?!?!?!?!?!?!?!

Bo hands me socks and a beanie hat, and holds up the blankets. Ah, yes, we’ll layer her with blankets like fat on a polar bear. She. Will. Survive.

I slide your feet into socks so small. The hat would barely cover my closed fist, yet there: it fits you.

There you lie, half-asleep. My little girl. My perfect blessing.

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2011

Hats bear magical properties. For example, they prevent illness. If a child has no hat for one outing, she is doomed to weeks of snot-addled breathing and green streaks on her face, hands, clothing, etc. And then pneumonia.

In aspiring to fulfill her role as grandmother, your grandmother knitted you a sweater and matching hat. She began the project when you were the size of a papaya inside me, and we did not yet know what little bits you bore. Your grandmother, like all practical Midwesterners, was determined you would get plenty of use out of it.

Barely a curl on your head, barely walking. Shy with people, yet fascinated with the world’s beauty: you study flowers, dirt, and fabric art with the same intensity. So long as you have your trusty snack cup filled with cheerios, you are always up for a new adventure.

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2012

Hats supply ample opportunities for giggles.

You have begun to voice your taste in what you wear and what you want to do. You always wear this hat for indoor activities–reading, ponies, matching pictures. You discover words mean something: they announce what you want, what you see. What scares you, what delights you.

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2013

Hats confuse grown-ups.

When given the choice between the frilly sunhats of bows and ladybugs, and a baseball hat with a M.A.S.H.-era helicopter, you pick the baseball hat. No doubts. “It’s a helicopter!” you squeal. Your grandmother asks a few more times about the sunhats. Nothing but head shakes, that hat gripped in your tiny hands like it’s the last ticket out of Vietnam (or Korea, really, what with the timeframe for M.A.S.H.,  but anyway).

You wear this hat EVERYwhere we go, be it to dino-digs at the zoo, the bird-laden soccer field by the park, the beach. It hides your curls and confuses passers-by: “That’s a sweet little guy you got there.”

“Girl.”

They squint at the Pinkie Pie shirt, laugh a little, and move on.

Yup. My little tomboy. No poofy skirts or hair-styling dolls for this one. She’s all about gears and bones and colorful hyper-active ponies.

She’s perfect.

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2014

Hats add that perfect touch.

Autumn in Wisconsin can be just as temperamental as spring. After weeks of days warm enough for swimming, the season takes a nose dive into frost and sleet. Just in time for Halloween, of course. (Why someone hasn’t designed costumes to go over winter coats is beyond me.)

You and I meet in the war-room–aka, your bedroom–to discuss the situation.

“What would you like to be for Halloween, kiddo?”

“A fairy princess!”

I bite my tongue for a second. This detour from gears to fairies has been…tolerable, but the princess stuff…all frailty and “woe is me” and waiting to be saved rather than gettin’ your greasy wrench and building something awesome. “Well, it’s going to be really cold for trick or treat. Your wings won’t fit under your coat.”

You ponder this. “But I can wear”–you hold up a fleece sweatshirt–“under my dress.”

“What about the crown? People won’t see it under your tinkerbell hat.”

“I’ll wear THIS one!” and you hold up a pink and silver oddity. The poms hanging down under the crown look like puffy, glittery braids. You go on like this, covering yourself in fleece, and then I manage to slide the thin, shiny tutu down and over it all.

You stand there, wand in one hand and bucket in the other, beaming in triumph.

And I laugh, happy to be defeated.

Lottie Halloween 2014

2015

Hats can be absurd, especially when they’re not hats.

(I’m honestly not sure what’s on her head. A sack for building blocks, I think.)

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2016

Hats age us…a little.

I walk into Blondie’s classroom for the come-if-you-feel-like-showing-interest-in-your-child conference. Her teacher, a fine example of stalwart farmstock, smiles and hands me Blondie’s report card which, considering this is kindergarten, is surprisingly complex.  I decide to study all the S’s, N’s, and I’s later. “How is she doing with the other kids?” As one with a friendless childhood, this question often preys upon my mind.

Her teacher’s eyes light up, and she pulls back with a gasp. “Oh. My. Gosh. We had our read aloud time, and Blondie just, she just blew them all away. I was ready to help her with Olivia Goes to Venice, but she knew all the words. The second-graders she reads with all come to me, saying ‘She’s amazing!’ She reads like a second-grader. Better.” She recommends some chapter books to me, eager to see how you handle the challenge.

I’m wowified. I knew you could read well, but you do it so rarely within earshot. More often than not you’re studying pictures of bizarre fish/bugs/lizards, or outerspace, or dinosaurs. You’re fascinated with creation and all its workings, visible and invisible.

I wait outside for you to finish up your day. Too warm for a winter coat, but there’s a breeze, so, hat. You walk down those steps with your hands on your backpack straps. The Spider-Man beanie has tamed those whispy fly-about curls into a lackadaisical mess. Sweatshirt and backpack, you’re a college student in miniature.

Oh…

Not yet. Don’t you grow up on me too fast, Blondie.

You manage to get into the car despite my shower of kisses and tickles and praises. I blast The Who, because church-school parents can be a bunch of curmudgeons. (I should know, being one and all.)

“Mo-om. Not so loud.”

“Why not? We’re awesome!”

You laugh. “No we’re not.”

Hmmph. “Well, I’M awesome.”

More laughter. “Only a little bit.”

“Hey!” But I laugh, too. My kid’s a reader. A brilliant reader. A genius who will discover new species of fish-eating insects and live on the moon and invent the REAL hover-board.

Your noggin’s a perfect miracle, just like the rest of you.

So, get that hat on before you catch pneumonia!

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