If you’re wondering what this is about, here’s a definition. 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 to suggest its theme. The epigraph lovers of this world, including mystery authors, Jane Langton, Colin Dexter, and myself, not only use them at the beginning of our books, but at the beginning of every chapter. We do so, knowing that while some readers will read every single epigraph, others will skip them completely. We also do so, despite the hassles that can be involved.
For my second book, MURDER AT GETTYSBURG, I wanted to use quotes from Douglas Southall Freeman’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning, R.E. LEE, A BIOGRAPHY. I’d fallen in love with Freeman’s eloquent prose when a friend read aloud from the book years earlier. Also, Freeman’s admiring portrait of Lee fit perfectly with the Confederate reenactors I was writing about. Yet, when I applied for permission, I discovered that the fee would be double the amount of my modest advance. Oops! I cut the quotations by half, then to a quarter, replacing them with less lovely lines from another book, where permission came with no charge.
I faced a different problem with the epigraphs for MURDER AT SPOUTERS POINT. Because the book is set at a fictionalized 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 land and water during the Great Age of Sail. 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, The Maid on the Shore, with its plaintive refrain, “There’s nothing she can find to comfort her mind, but to roam all alone on the shore,” was the perfect “theme song” for an elusive homeless woman in the book. I used verses from it as epigraphs for every chapter in which she appears.
Since many folk songs are in the public domain, I didn’t expect any trouble getting permission. What I didn’t anticipate was the detective work involved in locating the copyright holder of the 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. Months later, my publisher’s rights person reminded me that I still needed written permission. I got the widow’s e-mail address from her friends, but it promptly bounced. Was there 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 did an Internet search, and finally tracked her down to a small seacoast town in Wales. Fingers crossed, I wrote and a week later, received a gracious reply granting me permission.
A happy ending, yes. But next time, I’ll make sure I can get permission BEFORE I select my quotes, and also that I won’t be charged a whopping fee. For me, epigraphs are the frosting on the cake. Still, I hope the epitaph on my tombstone doesn’t read: “She used too many epigraphs.”