Friday, November 5, 2010

Epigraphs, Anyone?

By Guest Blogger Leslie Wheeler

If you’re wondering what on earth I’m writing about, a definition is probably in order. An epigraph—not to be confused with an epitaph, which goes on a tombstone, or an epigram, a wise, witty saying —is a quote that appears at the opening of a book. Webster’s defines it as “a quotation set at the beginning of a literary work or a division of it to suggest its theme.” The epigraphophiles of this world, including mystery authors, Jane Langton and Colin Dexter, aren’t content to use them only at the beginning of their books, but at the beginning of every chapter. They do so, even though they know that while some readers will read every single epigraph, others will skip them completely. I use epigraphs because I believe they add something to the kind of mysteries I write, despite the hassles that can be involved.

I call my series “living history” mysteries, because although they take place in the present-day, they are set at historic sites, which enables me to weave in a lot of history. Epigraphs are part of this “weaving in” process. In my first mystery, MURDER AT PLIMOTH PLANTATION, for example, I was able to give the book “a nice historical flavor,” in the words of one reviewer, by quoting from period sources like William Bradford’s OF PLYMOUTH PLANTATION at the beginning of each chapter. I chose these quotations with care, because I wanted them to serve as a commentary on the action in each chapter. Some epigraphs were easy to find; others more difficult.

I used a more contemporary source for the epigraphs in my second book, MURDER AT GETTYSBURG, and here I ran into trouble. I’d fallen in love with the eloquent prose of Douglas Southall Freeman’s 1930s, Pulitzer-Prize-winning, R.E. LEE, A BIOGRAPHY, when a friend read aloud from the book during my first visit to Gettysburg. And, Freeman’s admiring portrait of Lee fit perfectly with the Confederate reenactors I was writing about. Yet, when I applied for permission to quote from Freeman, I discovered, to my horror, that the fee would be almost twice as much as the modest advance I’d received from my small-press publisher. Oops! First, I cut the quotations by half, then down to a quarter of the original number. This was a painful process, because it meant removing many lovely lines, and replacing them with less lovely ones from another book, whose small-press publisher gave me permission with no charge.

I faced a different problem with the epigraphs for my third book, MURDER AT SPOUTERS POINT. Because the book is set at a fictionalized version of Mystic Seaport, I decided to use lines from sea shanties, the rousing work songs that tell the often funny, often poignant tales of seamen’s lives on both land and water during the Great Age of Sail. Again, I worked hard to find just the right lines for each chapter. In the “body drop” chapter, for example, I quoted from Lowlands Away, a haunting song of which there are several variations:

“I dreamed I saw my own true love,
His hair was wet, his eyes above.
I knew my love was drowned and dead,
He stood so still, no word he said.”

Another song I drew upon for epigraphs is The Maid on the Shore, which I heard at a concert of sea music. Right away, I knew that the song with its plaintive refrain, “There’s nothing she can find to comfort her mind, but to roam all alone on the shore, shore, shore,” was the perfect “theme song” for one of my characters, an elusive homeless woman. My main character, Miranda, is as struck by the song as I was, when she hears it sung in an early chapter of the book. Thereafter, I used verses from Maid as epigraphs for chapters referencing the homeless woman.

Since many folk songs are in the public domain, I didn’t expect any problems getting permission. What I didn’t anticipate was the amount of detective work I’d have to do in order to locate the copyright holder of the main collection of sea shanties I used. An address from the publisher of this collection brought me to two friends of the late compiler and his widow, who was now the copyright holder. They assured me that the widow would be happy to give me permission, and that many of the songs were in the public domain anyway. Fine, I thought, and moved on to other things. Several months later, the rights person at my publisher reminded me that I still needed written permission. I got the widow’s e-mail address from her friends, but it promptly bounced. Did they have another e-mail address, or a snail mail one? No. They did tell me that the widow had remarried and now went by another last name. Armed with this information, I spent several hours searching for her on the Internet, and finally tracked her down to a small seacoast town in Wales. Fingers crossed, I wrote her and about a week later, received a gracious reply granting me permission.

A happy ending, yes. But next time, I’ll save myself a lot of headaches by making certain I can get permission BEFORE I select my epigraphs, or choose ones I know are either in the public domain, or for which I won’t be charged a whopping fee. I’ll continue to use epigraphs in my mysteries, because for me and for at least some of my readers, they’re the frosting on the cake. I just hope I don’t wind up with this epitaph on my tombstone: “She used too many epigraphs.”
An award-winning author of books about American history and biographies, Leslie Wheeler now writes the Miranda Lewis “living history” mystery series, the most recent title of which is MURDER AT SPOUTERS POINT (October, 2010). Her short crime fiction has appeared in four anthologies published by Level Best Books, and she has recently become a contributing editor of the newest LLB anthology, THIN ICE (November, 2010). Leslie is a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, serving as Speakers Bureau Coordinator for the New England Chapter. She divides her time between Cambridge, Massachusetts and a home in the Berkshires.
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