My characters show up at my inner door as if I’d invited them for an interview. My list of questions has grown over the years, and music has always been there. Recently I peeled back a new layer with the question: Who is on your soundtrack?
When I was a kid my dad played guitar in a local band that performed nights and weekends. He did a lot of ground-breaking rock and roll and country from the 50’s and 60’s. When I was about ten, he bought me a clock radio for my birthday saying, “I know how important it is to have your music.” I had no idea what my music was. The radio in the barn was on all the time, but in such a rural area we had limited access. The place we lived had a one-horse radio station that tried to play a little of everything, but always sounded outdated.
I embraced music from Elton John, Jackson Browne, Fleetwood Mac, Styx, Foreigner, and the Eagles. The first time that I heard “Hotel California” I didn’t understand it, and realized there was a vastly more experienced world that I knew nothing about. I was thirteen. Life out there was smarter, faster, and had much sharper teeth. I’d need to figure out how to be better prepared. So I tried to toughen up with Pink Floyd, Def Leppard, and Led Zeppelin.
My mother’s tastes were altogether different. No country allowed. Her soundtrack included Andy Williams, The Carpenters, Moody Blues, David Gates and Bread, and the classic voice I came to loathe: Streisand. She played Barbra relentlessly. If I ever hear “Evergreen” again, I’ll need a straitjacket.
The 80’s were unkind to me. Miami Vice was all the rage, and while I lived in South Florida – they played Glenn Frey to death. I liked “Smuggler’s Blues” all right, just not in the first ten minutes of every set. “Desperado” was getting air play timed perfectly to every miserable low point in my life. To this day, I can’t hear the opening piano notes without wanting to reach for a 12-gauge. Pink Floyd’s “Run Like Hell” and Golden Earring’s “Twilight Zone” bought me a couple speeding tickets. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had me “Free Fallin’” right out of divorce court. And Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” still brings to mind everyone I’ve lost along the way. If you think about it, you’ll find a song to go with every emotional touchstone you’ve had, and so will your characters.
Musical tastes shift with age, but core music through the formative years becomes a person’s soundtrack. Music that speaks to them of first experiences and lessons learned. Those songs move them forward and take them back, like good friends who never bailed and always called “shotgun.”
So when you ask your characters, “Who is on your soundtrack?” pay attention to the teens and early 20’s answer. You’ll find a deeper truth beneath the surface of who the present themselves to be. Unrealized dreams, guilty pleasures, and hidden regrets will reveal their humanity and provide a third dimension.
Sheila Englehart is the author of Warning Signs, published by Second Wind Publishing