The Undercover Soundtrack – James Scott Bell

‘This wonderful, startling alchemy when music meets the writer’s brain’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by bestselling suspense author and writing coach James Scott Bell @JamesScottBell

Soundtrack by Bernard Herrmann, Thomas Newman, Carter Burwell, Thomas Newman, Hugo Friedhofer, Mark Isham, Jerry Goldsmith, Alfred Newman, Steely Dan, Steve Miller Band

‘Of all noises,’ Samuel Johnson wrote, ‘I think music is the least disagreeable.’ I’ll go along with that. I like to write in public, mostly at Starbucks, with a little bit of ‘white noise’ around me. But when I have to get deep into a project or scene, I pop on the Bose headphones and fire up iTunes.

Music has a way of snapping the creative synapses. I once saw the whole plot of a story unfold because of a piece of music. I was thinking of my characters when it came on, and the emotional impact of the tune came in and mixed with my imagination and created something new. I doubt I could have gotten to that place any other way.

And that’s the point. There is a wonderful, startling alchemy when music meets the writer’s brain.

In the mood

That’s why I have created a collection of ‘mood tunes’. They come in three categories: suspense, heart and inspiration.

Since I’m usually writing suspenseful scenes, I have this collection going constantly, on a random basis. The foundation of this collection is Bernard Herrmann and his Hitchcock scores. Over the years I’ve added to it, of course. A few that work well for me: The Road to Perdition (Thomas Newman), Burn After Reading (Carter Burwell) and Sherlock Holmes (Hans Zimmer).

If I need to get warm, I go to scores like The Best Years of Our Lives (Hugo Friedhofer) October Sky (Mark Isham) and various selections from classic Hollywood.

Not in the mood

But there is another way I use music, and this is when I’m tired or just not feeling motivated to write. A professional writer believes what Peter DeVries once said: ‘I only write when I’m inspired, and I make sure I’m inspired every morning at 9am.’

So I have some ‘pump me up’ tunes to get me going on days when I’m dragging. There’s the football tryout theme from Rudy (Jerry Goldsmith) and the opening credits from How the West Was Won. But I don’t limit myself to movie scores. I’ll sneak in a little classic rock, like Bodhisattva (Steely Dan) and Jungle Love (Steve Miller).

As I listen to these selections I think of writing as an athletic contest. My competition is with myself. If I don’t write, the books won’t get done. I put in a weekly quota, and have for twenty years. The pages accumulate, almost by magic, but only if you show up each day ready to write.

Music can help you get there.

James Scott Bell is a bestselling suspense author and writing coach. His books for Writers Digest Books are Plot & Structure, Revision & Self-Editing, Conflict & Suspense and The Art of War for Writers. Writing as K. Bennett, he is the author of the zombie legal thrillers Pay Me in Flesh and The Year of Eating Dangerously. He blogs each Sunday at The Kill Zone. Follow him on Twitter as @jamesscottbell and find him at his website 

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  1. #1 by Sally on March 28, 2012 - 8:25 am

    Hi James, thanks for sharing your music experience. I like your ‘mood’ collection, and agree that a piece of music can actually help propel your plot. Interesting that you go so far as to motivate yourself using music when you’re not feeling inspired.

  2. #2 by James Scott Bell on March 28, 2012 - 1:01 pm

    Sally, my foundational discipline, ever since I started, is that word quota. Even if I feel like skipping it. So the music helps.

    • #3 by Sally on March 28, 2012 - 3:33 pm

      It’s a good idea. I’ll try it next time I hit a wall.

      • #4 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on March 29, 2012 - 8:52 pm

        I have a rough mood collection – ie never formalised. But I have some albums that will get me in the right frame of mind, no matter what I’m writing.

  3. #5 by artravis on March 29, 2012 - 1:44 pm

    Mr. Bell’s books on the writing craft have made a huge difference in my learning curve. Long ago I discovered mood music for writing/imagining scenes. When I read his thoughts on this it was great to see the confirmation to what I was doing. Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard original scores are my favorite soundtrack composers.

    • #6 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on March 29, 2012 - 8:53 pm

      James is a lovely writer – I’m so pleased I managed to persuade him to be part of this series. Thanks for spreading the love – and for reblogging in a tantalising but discreet quantity :)

  4. #7 by artravis on March 29, 2012 - 1:45 pm

    Reblogged this on A. R. Travis's Blog and commented:
    Mr. Bell’s books on the writing craft have made a huge difference in my learning curve. Long ago I discovered mood music for writing/imagining scenes. When I read his thoughts on this it was great to see the confirmation to what I was doing. Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard original scores are my favorite soundtrack composers.

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