Music Through the Ages

Even if I hadn’t been working this year, I’m not the kind of person to stand in line for Black Friday deals. That said, I did take advantage of one Black Friday special this year and I’m glad I did. It was the download of Abney Park’s New Nostalgics and in retrospect, I would have been pleased with this album if I’d paid full price for it. This album is comprised entirely of songs from the early 20th century covered in modern style by the band Abney Park. There are songs about airships, burlesque halls, and how people who built the modern world often aren’t the ones who see its benefits. What makes the download really special is a 20-minute “documentary” by the band’s lead singer and songwriter, Robert Brown, where he plays snippets of the old recordings of the songs and then follows that with how he updated them for a modern audience. You can pick up the album in the music downloads section at

Music has always been an important part of my writing. Often, when I write, I like to have instrumental music on in the background that captures the mood of what I’m trying to create. In fact, one of the things I like about Abney Park is that they provide instrumental-only versions of many of their albums and I use those a lot when I’m writing steampunk or retrofuturistic fiction. I also like to collect soundtracks of favorite films or TV shows. Listening to those can be a great way for me to get into the proper mindset for a given scene, whether it be romance, action, or suspense.

While I prefer to listen to instrumental music while I’m in the process of writing, I love listening to songs from a period of time I’m going to write about as part of my research for historical fiction. It provides a valuable window into the things that brought joy and sadness to previous generations. You can often catch slang terms people might have used. If you catch an odd turn of phrase in an old song, it’s often worth looking it up to see if it had a broader meaning. Maybe it’s something you can use in your story. In setting a scene, I often like to describe the kinds of music people are listening to. Even if I don’t mention a particular song, I like to mention the kinds of instruments people heard.

That covers the past, but what about the future? While part of me loves it when a science fiction character espouses their love of David Bowie or Dolly Parton, part of me groans. While I hope these artists will still be known two or three centuries down the road, I’m pretty sure they won’t be mainstream. People in the future will be writing and singing their own songs. They’ll write about their own heroes, like Jayne in Firefly’s “The Hero of Canton” or the ballads sung about Edmund Swan in my novel The Pirates of Sufiro. There will be new musical forms and maybe even alien instruments. As a writer, you don’t necessarily have to write these songs, but you can add some color by mentioning them and talking about how they make the characters in your story feel.

With that, it’s time for me to go listen to some good music and find some inspiration. If you would like to see how I write about futuristic music, you can read The Pirates of Sufiro by subscribing to my Patreon:

Thankful in 2013

Verity at WIYN

This week, I spent Thanksgiving working at Kitt Peak National Observatory. My family was able to join me and we spent the holiday in one of the small houses on the mountain. We ate dinner at the cafeteria, where they served a modest but essentially traditional meal of turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, and pie. I spent the night helping to observe material between galaxies in galactic clusters. My daughters came up to help me both on Thanksgiving and the night before. Here we see my youngest at the WIYN telescope at Kitt Peak as we were opening for a night’s work.

Earlier in the week, I had the opportunity to have dinner with my oldest niece and her lovely family. I was able to meet my grand niece and grand nephew for the first time. I would have enjoyed spending more time with them, but I am definitely thankful schedules worked out that we could see them.

I was curious to learn a little more how this holiday came about. Of course, the traditional story is that it started in November 1621 when the settlers at Plymouth, Massachusetts celebrated their first successful corn harvest with the help of the Wampanoag tribe in the area. Governor William Bradford called for three days of Thanksgiving. As part of the celebration, he sent out a party to go fowling, to bring back game birds for the feast. Whether they actually had Turkey is anyone’s guess.

Thanksgiving Proclamation

What I was less familiar with was that George Washington made the first official Thanksgiving Proclamation, declaring that Thursday, November 26, 1789 would be a day of Thanksgiving to celebrate the successful end of the American Revolution and the ratification of the United States Constitution. Many presidents carried on the tradition of making Thanksgiving Proclamations, but it didn’t become a regular holiday until Abraham Lincoln made it so during the height of the Civil War. In Lincoln’s proclamation, he asked all Americans to pray to God and “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and to “heal the wounds of the nation.”

This year, with all the “black Friday” ads that have poured into my email box, I feel like Thanksgiving has become the preliminary event to an orgiastic weekend of shopping. It’s sure a far cry from celebrating a bountiful harvest or remembering those who strove to make the United States a great nation. It makes me glad I was able to spend the weekend on a remote mountaintop with my family and with astronomers I’ve come to know well enough they feel like family, and look to the stars and dream of the future.