HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Because I am the past vice-president of the Midwest chapter of the National Beatles Fan Club, I am thrilled to welcome a fellow music lover today…And hey. Steve Liskow can actually sing. Which I cannot. He can play music, and write music. And he can write about music! In fact, music is pivotal in all he does. And today, he offers a terrific bit of advice:
Music Makes the Plot Go ‘Round
By Steve Liskow
Several years ago, my wife and I returned to Michigan for my high school reunion and met a classmate I’d never known in high school. Susie Woodman was now a session keyboard player in Detroit, and her escort that weekend was Bob Seger’s former drummer. Susie and Charlie joined the band that night for a song, and if I’d had a few more drinks, I might have joined them on guitar. I didn’t, but that moment stayed with me when I retired from teaching and returned to writing a few years later.
As the story morphed from a cozy involving a high school reunion into a noir-ish mystery, the protagonist shifted from a reporter to a PI and the reunion disappeared. I decided the PI was a wannabe guitar-slinger—hey, write what you know, right?—and I planned a series, so I listed all the song titles I could think of that suggested a mystery. Good songs are very compressed short stories so they inspire plot ideas from the start. Since plotting comes hard for me, I’ll take any advantage I can find.
After over 100 rejections under at least three titles, I finally self-published the first book in the series a few years ago. The main premise of the old reunion idea—a cold case inspired by the Bobby Fuller murder (remember “I Fought the Law and the Law Won?”)—stayed constant, but everything around it changed radically, so the eventual title was Blood on the Tracks, a Bob Dylan LP in the mid-seventies.
Even though only three of my novels involve Chris “Woody” Guthrie and his companion, former session keyboard legend Megan Traine (Inspired by Susie Woodman, see above), most of my novels and short stories still use song titles or allusions. People recognize them, so it’s sort of my brand—although younger readers think The Kids Are All Right comes from the film instead of the early single by The Who.
Song titles work for several reasons. First, if people recognize them, it gives them a hook or a way in. Second, as I said above, lots of songs suggest a story. “Ring of Fire,” for example, is about a missing wedding ring. The Kids Are All Right concerns plagiarism and drug use at an exclusive private school. Cherry Bomb is based on a true story—teen trafficking on the Berlin Turnpike, what used to be the main highway between Hartford and New Haven—and people make the connection pretty easily if they’re old enough to remember The Runaways.
Some songs suggest an emotional tone, too. I called the second Guthrie book Hot Rod Lincoln until the first draft reduced the car thief with that nickname to a minor character. I tried other car songs, but Spring Little Cobra and Little GTO sounded stupid. My cover designer suggested Hyundai Bloody Hyundai and we both loved it even though we knew it was all wrong. My wife finally came up with Oh Lord, Won’t You Steal Me a Mercedes Benz and we knew we had a winner, with apologies to Janis Joplin. The story is a comic caper, so the title gave us everything we needed.
After a long hiatus, I picked up a guitar again a few years ago and started performing at open mic nights in the area. I ran into two or three other avid blues players who play rings around me, but I decided to buckle down again and go back to the real stuff: Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Blind Willie McTell and Blind Reverend Gary Davis.
Children of the sixties remember Eric Clapton’s version of Johnson’s “Crossroads Blues,” which he performed with Cream, but Clapton combined lyrics of that song and “Travelin’ Riverside Blues” so I never heard one original verse until I bought the re-mastered collection of Johnson’s limited output (He was murdered at age 27 after recording only 29 songs). The first time I heard the verse, I knew I’d found another title:
“Sun goin’ down, dark goin’ catch me here.”
What a great image. Visual, tactile, emotional, really creepy. I told my cover designer I had the title for the next book but had no idea what the story was. He said, “You’re going to have to go darker than usual.” A month later, before I even sent him a synopsis, never mind finished the first draft, he sent me a mock-up of his cover idea.
“Here’s where you’re going,” he said. He was right.
Dark Gonna Catch Me Here is one of the only works where the title stayed constant from the very beginning. Maybe it’s a sign.
Some titles don’t work nearly as well. I’m still having trouble with “In-a-Gadda-da-Vida.”
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Ah. Yes, that is a toughie! Who sang it? Oh, right. Iron Butterfly. Which is much, much easier. I loved what you said about a good song being a compressed short story. And not just the ones that i stantly spring to mind, like the truly unlistenable Honey, or Ode to Billie Joe. But you know Crescent City by Emmylou Harris? And Carey, by Joni Mitchell. Eleanor Rigby. And of course, Dead End Curve. Hey—you could use that one! I could go on. But you take over, Reds and readers:
What songs could be great crime fiction novels?
Steve Liskow is a mentor and panelist for both Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime.
His short stories have earned an Edgar nomination, the Black Orchid Novella Award, and two Honorable Mentions for the Al Blanchard Story Award. Seven of his eleven novels are set in Connecticut and deal with issues such as teen sex-trafficking, a shooting in a public school and teen drug abuse. The Kids Are All Right was a finalist for the Shamus Award. The Chris “Woody” Guthrie novels, including Dark Gonna Catch Me Here, are set in Detroit.
When he’s not writing, he does freelance editing and conducts fiction writing workshops throughout Connecticut, where he lives with his wife Barbara and two rescued cats.
DARK GONNA CATCH ME HERE
Darkness creeps into the motor city…
Detroit homicide detective Eleanor “Shoobie” Dube pursues a killer who leaves his victims in abandoned buildings throughout the city. When builders uncover a skeleton, Shoobie tentatively identifies the remains as Megan Traine’s long vanished aunt. Meg turns to her long-time companion, Detroit PI Chris “Woody” Guthrie, for help.
To help Meg, Guthrie puts the ugly divorce he’s investigating on hold. Then the couple’s daughter Shannon flees from her parent’s warfare and meets a disturbed young man who knows every hiding place in the area. Now, Guthrie, Shoobie, and Megan race to find the girl before darkness claims yet another victim.