This only happened to me three times (two for a novel, one for a short story), and I hope to experience it again because compared to the process of writing novels that aren’t inspired and sustained by actual musical compositions, this (accidental? unplanned?) method tends to be a lot richer. That’s with regard to the process of writing, not the finished product. Though I hope that the finished product provides readers with hours of good reading material. 🙂
Start out with a piece of music that, for some reason or other, fires up the imagination by touching on a certain mood or feeling. For me, it was a very specific version of a traditional holiday carol.
Allow the mind to work with the music and the mood that it feeds until images – or in my case, a specific image – takes shape.
Nope, there was absolutely no logical reason why I envisioned a toymaker who, unlike the one in the picture above, sat isolated in his workshop, hunched over a little glass ornament. It was the feeling of melancholy and nostalgia – and a lot of regret – that came over me when I first listened to Chanticleer’s rendition of “In Dulci Jubilo”.
The earliest passage that helped lay the foundation for a story, which turned into a novel – The Glass Minstrel – came after the “visualization”, and it was naturally murky at first. With the help of my editor, it became this:
For several weeks after his son’s burial, Abelard Bauer remained isolated. He lost himself in his craft, molding and perfecting little figurines, tossing several away with increasing frustration. Living off meager sustenance, the grieving father nonetheless found strength and determination to carry through with his work. A consistent, gnawing hunger that made his belly ache sharpened his senses and heightened his restlessness and impatience. It would take some time for him to create a figurine which managed to embody his love and his loss, and once shaped, he’d immediately put all his time and energy in sculpting it further till it pleased him, finishing his outpouring of unhappiness through his paintbrush.
It was, as a friend would later describe it, his little masterpiece.
Abelard Bauer had recreated his own son in a little glass ornament. He used a mold he specifically designed for his purpose – and which he destroyed once he felt that he succeeded in his attempts. The figure was that of Stefan at the height of his youth and promise at fifteen years of age, costumed to look like a poor, traveling minstrel from days long gone, a little harp in one hand, a look of hope shining in his eyes. Stefan, after discovering his musical talent, had looked forward to pursuing his passion under the tutelage of any genius of his age who’d follow Schubert’s long-silenced footsteps. He was always ambitious that way.
– from Chapter Three
The Glass Minstrel
The story at first took shape as a holiday fairy tale, in which the glass ornaments came alive when Christmas rolled around. In the original version, the glass minstrel, because its creator poured all his sadness into it, spent its time alone and unhappy and unable to get out of it until a glass king (it shows up in the novel toward the end) comes around and cheers it up.
After a few years, I decided to dust it off and rewrite it into a YA novel, adding the subplots of Schiffer and Jakob and dumping the fantasy elements.
The Glass Minstrel is one of three books I’ve written that I hold closest to my heart (Renfred’s Masquerade and Desmond and Garrick Vol. 1 &2 are the others). It’s the second “pure” historical novel I wrote (i.e., no fantasy elements anywhere), and the subject matter’s also a pretty weighty one. It’s also the most difficult book I’ve written, and truth be told, I don’t know if I’ll be able to match it down the line should I be inspired to write another “pure” historical.
The subject matter is weighty because it deals with the effects of the deaths of two young lovers on their families. It’s also weighty because with the addition of Jakob Diederich, I had to tackle the experiences of a boy who lives in poverty and who discovers he’s gay. He’s alone, confused, and constantly projects his dreams onto people who can’t, for whatever reason, be what he desperately wants them to be. He needs guidance, and he turns to petty thievery as a way of coping with his troubles.
I once complained that The Glass Minstrel was my albatross, and it was on a lot of levels.
1. With the addition of Andreas Schiffer and Jakob Diederich, I had to balance the POVs between three main characters, something I’d never attempted before. I also didn’t follow the more logical alternating sequence of chapters (Chapter 1: Bauer, Chapter 2: Schiffer, Chapter 3: Diederich, Chapter 4: Bauer, etc.). Time was an important factor, and I needed to keep track of it the whole time because the story unfolds about a month (maybe three weeks) before Christmas. So the POV sequence was more jumbled, depending on what was happening to whom at the same time another character was doing something.
2. The setting was very limited and so made research a challenge. I chose the 19th century Bavarian Alps region for the setting because of the music that inspired it (a traditional German carol) as well as the fact that it was the image of a grieving toymaker that prompted me to write the first version of the story. Zirndorf, a small town in Bavaria, was known for its toy-making industry at that time, so it came out the winner. That said, there’s hardly any info out there about the town’s history, and I needed to depend on more generalized articles on mid-19th century German holiday traditions for my guide. Some historical purists frowned on the generic image I created of the setting, but I was interested in the setting only as a means of anchoring the time and the conflict of the story. My primary goal was to explore the fallout from Stefan Bauer and Heinrich Schiffer’s love story.
3. From an emotional standpoint, I had a pretty difficult time writing a number of scenes. There’s nothing worse than placing myself in the shoes of parents who’ve lost their children, and there’s nothing more crippling than imagining how it would be like being a largely unschooled young boy with hopes and dreams like everyone else and yet is constantly shown that those dreams are unacceptable and wrong. But their stories needed to be told, and I wanted the challenge of being in an emotionally vulnerable state until the end. I was drained by the time I finished, but it was well worth the trip.
That’s not to say the novel’s a big downer. It ends in hope, with each character finding what he needs from the others. Bauer and Schiffer will both give up a very precious item for the benefit of the other (think of it as a gift exchange involving the glass minstrel and a boy’s journal, though the time gap between them is a big one). And while Schiffer and Jakob will never cross paths in their lifetimes, Schiffer will, indirectly, help Jakob. As I’m wading in the pool of spoilers, I can’t go any further than that.
Today I wanted to leave our mark somewhere. Leaves weren’t any good when I tried painting our initials on them, and I don’t like carving our initials into trees. Everyone does that, and it’s boring. Stefan and I are different. We should have something different. There’s a pile of large rocks about half a mile west of the school, just outside Fürth. I’ve heard people say that they’re used by witches, but what do they know, really? I went there this afternoon and brought a knife. The rocks turned out to be softer than I expected, which helped. All the same, my knife barely survived the carving process, but I somehow made it work. So now all of Nature can see it and know us. Even those stupid witches, if they really do exist. I chose the rock that faces east because that’s where the sun rises. I won’t tell Stefan about this. This is really between me and God, and I know He’s listening to what I have to say. Heinrich und Stefan: in infinitionem.
– from the journal of Heinrich Schiffer
One of the things that was brought to my attention after the book was published was with regard to Heinrich’s journal entries, which open each chapter. The original manuscript I submitted didn’t contain them. It was my editor who suggested showing Schiffer reading Heinrich’s journal and adding an excerpt into that scene. I thought it was a good idea but decided instead to write passages from Heinrich’s journal at the beginning of each chapter as a way of showing the progression of the romance between Stefan and Heinrich.
I also wanted to provide a contrast of romantic idealism and the joy of falling in love with the right person to the chaotic aftermath of that love story. Stefan and Heinrich were wildly in love with each other and were very happy. Why couldn’t Bauer and Schiffer see what they had? Why should they struggle with so many questions, when nothing in the end matters than their children’s happiness? True, this is a contemporary view of mine that I’m trying to project into the past, but when difficult questions can’t be answered, I strongly feel that, even if full understanding is never reached, the matter of a child’s happiness should take precedent. And it’s that specific point that Bauer and Schiffer would have to come to terms with if they really do love their sons the way they claim.
It was a crazy process from start to finish. Looking back, I’m shaking my head at how unpredictable writing can be. I sure wouldn’t have expected to be affected by a Christmas carol I’ve heard so many times before. I never thought it would move me so much as to associate not only an image, but also emotions behind that image. I never thought I’d be writing a short fairy tale for it, and I sure as heck didn’t expect to take that fairy tale and run away with it, turning it into a novel touching on some pretty heavy stuff I’d never tackled before.
When I mentioned earlier that I don’t think I’d be able to replicate this experience again, it’s not for want of trying. The creative process behind a book is unique, and other writers will attest to that. What might work for one won’t work for another, though musical influence remains a constant, and I look forward to being deeply inspired by another piece of music again.
By the way, the other two stories that’ve been inspired by music? Renfred’s Masquerade came about when I listened to Offenbach’s “Barcarolle”, and “Cloud’s Illusions” (a gay YA short story) was inspired by Judy Collins’ rendition of “Both Sides Now”. I’d love to see that list grow.
Two fathers, Abelard Bauer and Andreas Schifffer, are brought together through the tragic deaths of their eldest sons. Bauer, a brilliant toymaker, fashions glass Christmas ornaments and his latest creation is a minstrel with a secret molded into its features. When Schiffer sees Bauer’s minstrel ornament in the toy shop, he realizes that Bauer is struggling to keep his son’s memory alive through his craft. At first he tries to fault him for this, but then recognizes that he, too, is seeking solace and healing by reading his son’s diary, a journal that reveals, in both painful as well as beautiful detail, the true nature of his relationship with the artisan’s son.
In addition to the story of the two fathers, a third character is central to the plot: fifteen-year-old Jakob Diederich. The young man is burdened with his own secret; he develops an obsession with a traveling Englishman who stays at the inn where Jakob works.
The lives of all three men intersect during the holiday as Schiffer tries to focus on his family in the present; Bauer struggles to reconcile his past and Jakob copes with an uncertain future. The lyrical prose and rich period detail will keep the reader engrossed from the very first page in this tale of redemption, hope, and haunting, but timeless, themes.
THE GIVEAWAY: THIS CONTEST IS NOW CLOSED