The Undercover Soundtrack – Jennie Coughlin

‘Rhythm taps into the part of my brain that lets the words flow’

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 author and journalist Jennie Coughlin @jenniecoughlin

Soundtrack by Simon and Garfunkel, Seal, Greg Laswell, Brian Kirk, Lady Antebellum, John McCutcheon, Stop Making Friends, Missy Higgins

It was almost 15 years ago, as a rookie reporter, that I discovered Simon and Garfunkel’s The Boxer made the words flow on deadline. Even today, when I’m on deadline for my fiction writing I’ll put it on repeat on my iPod.

Music has always been part of my writing toolkit. Since I first joined my parish’s children’s choir in third grade, music has been something I use to connect more deeply in many aspects of my life. When it comes to writing, it’s probably the second most-useful tool in my toolbox.

For the rhythm

Music is versatile. Sometimes I’ll use it for the rhythm, because that taps into the part of my brain that lets the words flow. The Boxer is my go-to song for this, but while drafting the novel I’m in rewrites on, I found Seal’s Amazing helped one day when I was stuck. Greg Laswell’s Off I Go falls into this category, too. My sister maintains that if I were a kid today, I’d be diagnosed with Asperger’s, and this is one of those instances where I agree with her — when I’m using music for its rhythm, I’ll put it on repeat, sometimes for hours if that’s how long I’m writing. I call it my brain’s musical marinade.

I don’t just use repeat for rhythm, either. The revisions I’m working on now involve a lot of tension-building, and I’ve had Brian Kirk’s Vance’s Dossier from the NCIS Score album on repeat. It’s one of the few occasions I’ll use a completely instrumental piece. Probably because of my background in singing, I tend to choose my writing playlist based on song lyrics. But Vance’s Dossier has that creepy “something’s not right” feel I’m trying to thread through the story I’m telling.

It’s a contrast to what I consider my theme song for Exeter, the small town where my series is set: Lady Antebellum’s Hello World. You can see it in the opening of my short story collection Thrown Out: Stories from Exeter as Riordan sits on the porch, enjoying a quiet late summer day. And then a different side later in the book when newcomer Chris has to decide if he can trust people in Exeter not to hurt him in the “broken, like I’m never gonna heal” line:

Joe was still running his mouth as he stood a few feet down the third base line, waiting for a chance to score, but Dan seemed to be ignoring him. Chris felt the tension ease from his shoulders that the impending fight had been so easily defused.

Chris rubbed his hand over the scar on his arm. He was suddenly glad there was no alcohol allowed on school grounds, that the scent of stale beer was only in his head. He pressed his hand onto the warm bleacher, the ridged metal as far from chipped brick as possible.

When I’m trying to get into Riordan’s head, the lawyer/town storyteller, I’ll put on John McCutcheon — his Last First Kiss captures how Riordan feels about his unique relationship with Becca that starts in Thrown Out. When he’s in storytelling mode, it’s McCutcheon’s Greatest Story Never Told.

Lyrics lead to scenes

Because my storytelling is character driven, lyrics often spark thoughts about the characters. The journey of the characters in the novel I’m revising is perfectly captured by Stop Making Friends’s Fear. And when I was honing my writing skills on fanfiction, Missy Higgins’s Where I Stood was the theme song for my first novel-length work. I was three chapters from the end, wrestling with a key scene. And as I listened to the song while working on something else, it clicked. I was trying to write it between the wrong two characters — the ex-lovers — when it needed to be the ex- and the current partner having the conversation. I’d heard the piece a few thousand times at that point, but it wasn’t until my brain had soaked in for that long that the pieces fell into place.

Jennie Coughlin was raised in Franklin, Massachusetts and the author of Thrown Out: Stories from Exeter. Her first short story was the final project for a local history unit in middle school, and it sparked a love of both fiction writing and local history that continues to this day. She graduated from the University of Missouri with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She has worked as a reporter and editor for community newspapers based in Massachusetts and Virginia. A life of living in small college towns with lots of history and strong arts communities comes through in her stories about Exeter, a small mill town in the Blackstone Valley of Massachusetts. The name is a nod to her hometown’s history, but Exeter isn’t based on Franklin or any of the other small towns she’s lived in — reality in those places is far too unbelievable to make good fiction. Find her on Twitter @jenniecoughlin

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  1. #1 by Vaughn Roycroft on December 21, 2011 - 2:29 pm

    I don’t think I’ve ever tapped into the part of my brain that would respond to the rhythm of my writing mechanics, but I can see (or should I say hear) how it could happen in listening to the Laswell song. I’ve often had the kinds of lyrical revelations you describe, though. So often I pick up serendipitous snippets as I’m working–lyrical pieces of the puzzle of a character’s emotional state or motivation–that I’ve given up wondering and gratefully accept them as musely providence.

    I’ve had fun checking out the songs I didn’t know as I read, Jennie. I have a few Laswell songs in my iTunes, but am adding Off I Go. I particularly love Where I Stood, and was unfamiliar with Higgins. So thanks! And thanks to you Roz, for having her. Another great edition of a wonderful series.

    • #2 by Jennie on December 21, 2011 - 4:14 pm

      Thanks, Vaughn! I first heard the Laswell song at the end of an NCIS episode and hunted down the name as soon as the credits rolled because as soon as I heard it, I knew it would work like The Boxer does. I don’t use it as often, but it makes for a nice change from S&G.

      Glad to know I’m not the only one who has those lyrical revelations, as you put them. Our muses must be conspiring. :) Songwriting, like poetry, has to distill the essence into so few words compared to us novelists that they carry more power — a single phrase can capture what we spend paragraphs or pages showing.

      Higgins, I think, is an Aussie. I’m fortunate that my PT job as a group fitness instructor gets me about 16 new CDs a year — new classes each quarter. A lot of the pieces that aren’t from NCIS or my natural preference for folk/rock story songs are from one of those CDs, mostly BodyFlow/BodyBalance. Higgins is one of those.

      If you’re interested in my current novel’s playlist, I posted it Monday as a prelude to this over on my site: http://jenniecoughlin.wordpress.com/2011/12/19/sneak-peek-writing-playlist-for-all-that-is-necessary/ . Some are on this list, but a lot aren’t. And if you’ve got any songs that have worked particularly well for you, I’d love to hear what they are — I’m always looking for more songs to add to the rotation.

  2. #3 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on December 21, 2011 - 6:20 pm

    Hello, Vaughn! It’s an interesting approach, isn’t it? I sometimes use densely rhythmic, complex music I’m unfamiliar with to hypnotise me into a state of concentration, but I’ve never played a piece over and over. I’m thinking it might be rather effective for certain writing days.

    And about lyrics – yes, I often get lucky insights into a character’s emotional state. There’s a scene in My Memories of a Future Life that snapped into focus when I was driving along and Seal’s Crazy came on the radio. It wasn’t that I’d never heard the song before – hardly possible to avoid it, considering it was such a hit. But I’d been struggling with a scene and then went for a drive, and Crazy suddenly said what I’d been grasping to understand. I love those moments. Especially as I channel hop while listening to the radio, so I could so easily have missed it.

  3. #4 by PW Creighton on December 22, 2011 - 1:39 pm

    Music is very inspiring for setting the mood/tone of scenes for me. The right music can keep the words flowing and keep thoughts together. I also rely heavily on visuals for designing a setting. Mix some Poets of the Fall with some Urban Decay photography and wha-la..

    • #5 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on December 22, 2011 - 3:04 pm

      Hi Phillip! Your blog is so visual, I can imagine that soundtracks form a particualrly textural environment for keeping you inspired.

  4. #6 by Natasha on December 29, 2011 - 10:42 pm

    I’m totally the same way. I have specific music I loop depending on the type of writing I’m doing at the given moment (poetry or my novel) I even go as far as using sound effects (sound machine) ‘noise’ when writing particular scenes. I have the sound of rain falling while sitting in a car, the sounds of a summer night with Cicadas chirping, thunderstorms, a babbling brook… I have at least 20 different effects I often listen to when writing along with countless songs I use to evoke the feelings and mood I’m trying to create. Thanks for the post!!!

    • #7 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on December 30, 2011 - 12:46 am

      Sound effects… I have a friend who listens to the sound of rain in her headphones while she writes. It sounds rather alluring, Natasha

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