Saturday, October 1, 2016

Please Don't Stop the Music

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.

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.


  1. Steve, what a clever idea to use song titles for your books . . . and “Dark Gonna Catch Me Here” sounds terrific.

    Songs that could be crime fiction novels? Supposing you mean the titles, I’d suggest “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.” Also, “It Could Happen to You” and “Shadow Woman.”

  2. Hank: Past VP of the Midwest chapter of the National Beatles Fan Club! Cool!

    Steve: Great idea to use song titles for your books, and congratulations on your self publishing journey.

    Has anyone read the JP Kincaid rock n' roll mystery series by Deborah Grabien? Her protagonist is a musician leading a fictitious band called Blacklight. Each of her titles has a music theme. Some of her books that have mystery titles include: "London Calling" and "Graceland" which works well.

    Peter Robinson's DCI Banks mysteries often have a music theme and some of his books use a song title. "Piece of My Heart" is one of them.

  3. For more contemporary music, how about "Only The Good Die Young" as a mystery book title.

  4. welcome Steve! How about Bonnie Raitt's heartbreaker of a song "Guilty"?

    And most country songs tell wonderful stories...thanks for the post. Never thought of this way of plotting, but I'm like you--I'll grab at anything that works!

    Hank, you must tell us more...Mmmmm, I feel a blog post coming on...

  5. Hey, Steve! Happy to see you and the book sounds like a winner.

    I have to laugh... my new book title is You'll Never Know, Dear -- which of course is from a song You Are My Sunshine first recorded in... 1939. Which is about where my musical taste got stunted. (Love Fats Waller...) Clearly I need to catch up.

  6. I don't think I'm current with it but I've read the JP Kincaid series.

    Michelle Spring had a series with song titles including the title of one of my all-time favourite songs, "Nights in White Satin".

    Ed Gorman has a series with song titles/lyrics.

    Kay Kendall has a series that uses Bob Dylan song titles. I think Janet Evanovich will run out of numbers before Kay runs out of Dylan songs. :-)

    I haven't read it yet but there's an anthology - Trouble in the Heartland: Crime Fiction Based on the Songs of Bruce Springsteen

    Song titles/lyrics as book titles is one thing that will make me pick up a book. "Chocolate" in the title being another. :-)

  7. Hank, I'm a huge EmmyLou Harris fan, and country--especially older country--and folk give us terrific stories. And Grace, yes, Deborah Grabien blurbed Blood On the Tracks for me. She's also a guitar much as her own battle with MS will allow (that's where the idea for JP Kinkaid came from, I suspect). How did I miss "Dead Man's Curve," though?

  8. Hank, really? Past president of a Beatles club? You must tell more.

    I agree, Steve, that songs are often compressed stories and I think old country songs (think Johnny Cash) are some of the best. In fact, I bet a lot of Johnny's song titles would translate well into story titles.

    1. Oh. Yes, Folsom something Blues....prison?
      Or in the mainstream question again, how about "Tie a yellow ribbon," truncating the original title.

  9. Oh lots of Beatles stories .. Later !

    I wonder Steve-- do you listen to music when you write?

    And as for titles__Sympathy for the Devil?

  10. Hank, thanks for letting me participate here.

    I don't listen to music while I write, but I do a lot of my planning and editing at the health club where music is always on...even if it's not "my" music. And I play guitar about an hour a day. I stare at the keyboard I've never quite learned to play occasionally, too.

    Wasn't Sympathy for the Devil a film by Truffaut?
    And, Mary, I've used "Ring of Fire," the Johnny Cash song, for a short story.

    Right now, I still have a word file with over 200 song titles I haven't used...and it keeps growing. Several Beatles and Stones songs are there--some real obscurities, too.

    Hallie, have you read any of Sandra Scoppetone's books? She uses twists on big band and dance music for her titles: Sweet Untraceable You, Let's Face the Music and Die...

  11. "Sympathy for the Devil" was a title used by Jerrilyn Farmer in her first Madeline Bean book. It won the Macavity award (and was nominated for an Anthony and Edgar) as best first mystery. Miss her!

  12. It's fun for me, as a reader, to try to parse out where titles come from, so thanks for the insider info, Steve. One of my daughters lives outside of Detroit (Birmingham), and they've seen the younger Seger having dinner at the same place (I mix them up).

    Wally Lamb's titles often have something to do with songs: She's Come Undone, Wishin' & Hopin", I Know This Much is True. If his other two do as well the reference escapes me.

    The JP Kinkaid books sound great, with interesting and layered characters.

  13. Another, by Alice Cooper, Welcome to my Nightmare.

  14. What a great idea, Steve. Love the idea of a whole series based on Beatles songs. My Pomapoo, Penny Lane, suggests her name for starters. We also had a cat, Lucy, in the sky, etc. There's a lot of titles here. Now all you have to do is write, right?

  15. Billy Joel is a favorite of mine. How about We Didn't Start the Fire...?

  16. Di,
    Dick Wagner, who wrote many of Alice Cooper's songs, also blurbed Blood On the Tracks. He was from Michigan, and my classmate's ex-husband played in his first band. It gets kind of incestuous, doesn't it? Dick was one of the great unknown rock pioneers and passed away a couple of years ago. Every year now, I perform "Only Women Bleed" on his birthday and the anniversary of his passing as a tribute to him. That's another possible title, but maybe a little too creepy?

  17. I m in Bar Harbor at a wonderful mystery festival--and such fun to sneak in and hear you all! Wouldn't it be fun to pick one title --and have each of us write a story? And think how different each would be!

  18. I love creative, clever titles, and, Steve, yours are certainly that. And, I think you're right that people recognizing the title will form a connection that leads to reading the book. Now that I've been fortunate to meet you and your books here on Jungle Reds, I look forward to discovering the titles' musical ties and reading the stories within.

    Hank, you never cease to amaze me. Past vice-president of the Midwest chapter of the National Beatles Fan Club? Your cool level has just soared! And, of course, we all want to hear more about it. I hope you're having a grand time at the Bar Harbor festival.

    Oh, song titles for book titles? How about from The Platters, "The Great Pretender" or "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." Fats Domino's "Ain't That a Shame." Julie London's "Cry Me a River." Or, my favorite would be "Devil with a Blue Dress On" by Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels.

  19. Didn't Walter Mosely write Devil in a Blue Dress?

    How about All Along the Watchtower (Dylan again), Son of a Preacher Man, I Can't Help Myself, Season of the Witch? Lotsa possibilities in the Allman Brothers and Little Feat catalogs: Done Somebody Wrong, One Way Out, Midnight Rider, All that You Dream, Mercenary Territory, Spanish Moon...

  20. Mary Higgins Clark has lots of book titles that are the same as song titles (As Time Goes By, I've Got You Under My Skin, The Shadow Of Your Smile, The Melody Lingers On)

    Hank-I lived in northern Indiana growing up in the same time frame as you so maybe I was one of your members in the Beatles Fan Club??? What fun!! Loved me some Beatles and still do.

    I would love to see someone put together an anthology with a song title and all stories would relate to that title--kind of what Hank suggested.

    Your books sound intriguing, Steve, I'll add to my TBR pile!!!

  21. Jim, I have several of your suggestions on my list already, so I guess we're on the same channel. The Allman cover of Sonny Boy Williamson's One Way Out is one of my favorites, and I keep telling myself I'll use it somewhere. And I perform "Done Somebody Wrong," which they cover from Elmore James fairly often when I play, leaning more toward Elmore's version.

    Kathy, I have several of the Soul and R & B titles you suggest, too. And I only recently found a copy of Shorty Long's earlier version of "Devil With a Blue Dress." I'd never heard it except Mitch Ryder's cover.

    An anthology based on one title like Hank suggested could be a lot of fun, but how do you pick just one title?

    Thanks again to the Reds for having me here and to everyone who dropped by with ideas.

  22. I have to say--titles have been going through my head all day! Steve good luck with your writing .. Cannot wait to hear what happens ! Xxxx

  23. And hey --I'm still up for the anthology ! A Hard Days Nught?

  24. Holy shivers! What a title. What a story. And hey, any book with a protagonist named Chris "Woody" Guthrie has got my interest.

    Leonard Cohen can be a pretty good source. Last Year's Man, No Way to Say Goodbye, Death of a Ladies' Man and his latest release, You Want it Darker. Heck, just go read his title lists.

    And as mentioned by several, check out Billy Joel's too.