The Undercover Soundtrack – Erika Marks

The Undercover Soundtrack is a weekly series by writers who use music as part of their creative process – special pieces that have revealed a character to them, or populated a mysterious place, or enlarged a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by contemporary fiction author Erika Marks

Soundtrack by Billie Holiday

There’s no question music plays a big part in my writing process, and since my novel Little Gale Gumbo featured a woman from New Orleans who loves jazz, I knew I would have a grand time building a soundtrack for the manuscript.

There was one scene in particular where the element of music was especially crucial.

Upon leaving New Orleans with her two teenage daughters, determined to start over, Camille arrives on a small island off the coast of Maine and rents an in-law apartment above the attached barn of a divorced islander, Ben, and his teenage son. Shortly after, Ben learns the first snow of the season is forecast and comes to Camille’s apartment bearing extra blankets. She invites him in.

The scene that follows is an unabashedly romantic one. It’s late in the evening. Ben and Camille’s kids are asleep, and now they are alone together. In thanks for the blankets, Camille trims Ben’s hair while one of her jazz records plays in the background. There’s no question it’s a seduction scene. But Ben is being seduced by Camille through the senses, and it needed to be clear to the reader from the moment Ben steps into her apartment that he’s stepped into another world.

It had to be you

To make this transition convincing, I knew I had to reveal who Camille was to Ben—the reader already has a strong sense at this point in the story, but for Ben, this is really the first opportunity for him to see Camille truly in her element, alone with her passions, which are jazz music and her love of cooking. So as I wrote the scene, I wanted to have the same experience that Ben would have. The same slow appreciation for a piece of music in the background, not too loud, but so distinctive, so rich and full-bodied, and such a contrast to the stark, reserved landscape he knows, that I—and the reader—couldn’t help but be swept into Camille’s world in that moment too.

In the scene I mention how the record plays “the smoky wail of a trumpet, the pluck and purr of a standing bass” so I knew I wanted the soundtrack to be soft, moody, lulling. I also knew that Camille loved Billie Holiday best of all, so while I wrote the scene, I played only Billie, in particular It Had To Be You and I’ll Be Seeing You, which elicited every bit of the smoldering attraction that had been building between Ben and Camille from the moment she arrived on his doorstep.

So, did the music work its magic on my characters as well as it did on me as a writer?

Come now. It’s Billie Holiday. What do you think?

Erika Marks is a native New Englander who was raised in Maine and has worked as an illustrator, cake decorator, and carpenter. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her husband, a native New Orleanian, their two daughters, and their dog. Find her on Twitter as @ErikaMarksAuthr

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  1. #1 by Nancy Sima on November 23, 2011 - 3:16 pm

    You can never go wrong with Billie – the lady rocks!

  2. #4 by Victoria on November 24, 2011 - 2:14 am

    Erika! You’re so fabulous! We love Billie Holiday at our house, and in fact I put her into an opening scene in a novel long ago.

    I learned “Summertime” from her and used to sing it to my son back when he was just a babe in arms.

  3. #7 by Erika Marks on November 24, 2011 - 4:56 am

    Isn’t it the truth! I defy anyone to listen to Billie and not end up with a scene that steams up a reader’s (and writer’s!) glasses.

  4. #8 by journalpulp on November 24, 2011 - 11:48 pm

    Erika, have you ever heard of a writer named Nicholas Christopher? He’s an American novelist, born in 1951, and also an excellent poet (who, incidentally, was kind enough to give me an endorsement quote for my novel). I mention him here because one of his best novels is called Franklin Flyer, and in this book, he has a very memorable and beautiful character named Narcissa, who’s a jazz performer based loosely upon Billie Holiday.

    In an interview with Random House, Nicholas Christopher has the following exchange:

    Random House: Another character in your book, Narcissa, is a blues singer who rises to fame as she fights addictions. Is she based on Billie Holiday or an amalgam of singers that rose out of the 30s in the Chicago blues scene?

    Nicholas Christopher: Yes, she is really a fictional character but I’m sure there are bits and pieces of Billie Holiday in her and the blues singer Mary Johnson and others who are much more obscure than that. What I tried to capture was the era of blues singing and the early era of blues recording in Chicago. In the early 30s, Chicago was not the mecca it was later with blues singers like John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters.

    Random House: I thought that Chicago did have that then because of the migration from the south.

    Nicholas Christopher: The migration was there but the recordings mostly took place in Memphis. The recording business was just beginning to come of its own in Chicago when Narcissa gets there. The record company I have her record for is invented but the world there is very real. I tried to capture what it would be like. She’s a doctor’s widow, really a middle-class African-American woman from Alabama who comes north and enters that scene and becomes a singing star …

    But I don’t mean to make this about Nicholas Christopher or his sultry chanteuse.

    Just read the opening of your novel and thought it was very well written.

    • #9 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on November 25, 2011 - 8:10 am

      Thanks for stopping by, JournalPulp!

    • #10 by Erika Marks on November 28, 2011 - 3:13 pm

      Hi JournalPulp, thanks so much for the tip, and the kind words! I will have to look Nicholas Christopher up–FRANKLIN FLYER sounds fascinating.

  5. #11 by jacquelincangro on November 26, 2011 - 3:52 pm

    I was just having a discussion with a friend last week about the music we listen to as we’re bringing our characters to life. I love that you were listening to Billie while writing this scene with Camille and Ben.
    If I listen to music at all, I pick something I think my characters would like, even if it’s not necessarily my taste. My novel is set during the 1940’s so I’ve been listening to a lot of big band tunes. :)

    • #12 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on November 26, 2011 - 4:08 pm

      Thanks for stopping by, Jackie! I can relate to that – my musical tastes have definitely widened because of what my characters have liked. I love Erika’s description of the ‘pluck and purr of a standing bass…’

    • #13 by Erika Marks on November 28, 2011 - 3:16 pm

      Jackie–that’s such a good point–it’s about listening to what the character would listen to you–or certainly hear in THEIR world. It makes such a difference–I’m always amazed how much of a difference, how powerful a simple song can be in transforming a scene or even a whole book.

  6. #14 by Cynthia Robertson on November 28, 2011 - 11:59 pm

    Erika I love that you tell us you used music to set the mood for your novel. Even though I like to write in silence best, sometimes a certain song or album just gets me into the space I need to be in to write a scene or character, so I can totally relate! Billie Holiday sang so beautifully, and you describe the scene you wrote so well… I can’t wait to read it all. And now of course, I will hear Billie when I read the scene you describe.

    Roz…the pluck and purr…yep, love that.

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