Friday, July 22, 2011

Sound of the Past

by Sheila Connolly

Recently, in my quest to find air-conditioned places to hang out (my house isn't), I wandered into our local Antiques Emporium, in the middle of our small town.  That's a rather grand term for a collection of assorted stuff (everything from clothes to china to street signs to stuffed bears), managed by a scruffy bunch of guys with grizzled ponytails who I suspect are bikers in their off hours.  It's housed in what I think was once a grocery store, and it's big.  And cluttered.  And a great place to waste an hour or two.

One of my finds--I used them as Lula
and Nettie, the last Warrens to live
in my heroine's inherited house
I go in usually to look for "faces":  old photographs of unidentified people who interest me, and who I use for inspiration for my characters.  It's an inexpensive indulgence (and this time I also found a 1910 postcard of the town where I live--amazing how little it has changed in a century).  I've been known to buy cookware--for example, a giant baking pan for Emily Dickinson's Black Cake recipe, which will serve an army.

But this time I found something new:  music boxes.  I don't mean those cute little hand-held devices with a cylinder with spikes, although we probably all have one or more lurking somewhere in our own homes.  Nor do I mean the classic pink jewelry box with the twirling ballerina.  I'm talking big, industrial size music boxes, with interchangeable disks over a foot wide.  Serious stuff.

I didn't notice them at first, because there were so many other distractions in the store.  It was only when I was on my way out (clutching my new photo treasures) that I stopped and realized how many of them there were, lining the main path into the store.  I stopped and stared.  The sole guy on desk duty that day must have noticed my interest and we started talking.  Turns out he's a serious music box collector, and his partner at home (I didn't ask for details) had drawn the line and said "no more!"  I don't think he even wanted to sell them, but he wanted to be able to see and enjoy them.

And then I asked, "could you play one?"  He did, and I was transfixed.  The sound is nothing short of gorgeous.  So we talked some more, and he was explaining the prize of his collection:  a seven-foot-tall model in an ornate wooden case (we're talking spindles and carvings and gewgaws, oh my)--with a slot on the side for coins.  Yes, this was a pay-per-play model; the slot was labeled "2 pfennig."  According to the avid collector, this was the jukebox of its day.  Two pfennig would buy you about five minutes of play.

Picture, if you will, a German brewhouse (or whatever the German equivalent of a pub or bar was circa 1900).  This elegant machine provided the musical backdrop.  Now think of our modern version, with its discreet CD player--which more often than not blasts loud rock, amping up the noise in the place (I may be wrong:  I don't hang out in a lot of bars).  Compare that to the rich and resonant sound of the elderly disk player.

And, funnily enough, the songs were much happier than modern ones.  No dark, draggy tunes, but upbeat cheerful ones (to encourage more beer drinking?).  And as I stood there in the cluttered, messy, chaotic antique store, I felt as though I was hearing a tiny piece of a lost world.  How rare is that? 

We as writers are always collecting bits and pieces like this, because it is the details that make a story come alive.  In One Bad Apple I wrote about a local historical society that was crammed with somebody's donated collection of stuffed creatures, large and small, stuck anywhere there was room.  It's real--I couldn't make up something like that.  It takes up maybe two lines of the book, but it's a vivid image--all those beady glass eyes watching anybody who enters the building.  We need to use all our senses--vision, smell, hearing--to make a description resonate.  And you never know where you'll find inspiration.

What single brief image from a book stands out in your memory, long after you've read the book?

1 comment:

Sandra Parshall said...

Sheila, I cannot believe you don't have air conditioning! I consider AC essential to life -- even though I grew up without it in the south.

As for indelible images in books, I'll never forget the scene in Tess Gerritsen's THE SINNER where Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles are creeping around in a dark attic, searching for the source of thumping noises. When Jane's flashlight beam falls on the face of a baby staring back with big eyes, it's a jump-out-of-your-seat moment. The "baby" turns out to be a doll, but in the split-second before that's revealed, my heart rate doubled.