The Undercover Soundtrack – Dina Santorelli

‘Music enables me to reach a deeper understanding of myself’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to open a secret channel to understand a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by journalist, writer and editor Dina Santorelli @DinaSantorelli

Soundtrack by Avril Lavigne, Coldplay, Miley Cyrus, Barry Manilow, Susan Boyle, Bonnie Tyler, The Pointer Sisters, Frankie Valli, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin

Full disclosure: I write in total silence. Well, maybe not total silence (I do have three kids), but in an environment that’s veritably music free. While I do things like pay bills or edit copy while listening to my favorite Pandora stations, when it comes to fiction writing my creativity amps up only when the radio is turned down.

Now before you start wondering, What the heck is this fraud doing penning a guest post for the Undercover Soundtrack, you should know that although I don’t write with music playing, my writing is fueled by songs and lyrics just the same, particularly in the following three ways.

1. Pure inspiration

For better or worse, my writing process is one of perpetual breaks – periods of furious keyboard tapping followed by periods of drought, or perhaps pause is the better word. Many times during a writing session my momentum will come to a crashing halt, and it is during these periods of inactivity when self-doubt tends to rear its ugly head: I’m not good enough. Who’s going to care about this story? Why am I bothering?

And while I have been known to take a walk, a shower, and do all kinds of things to get past this kind of “block,” one thing that almost always does the trick is my go-to soundtrack of inspirational songs. There are many of them that I’ve compiled over the years, performed by all kinds of artistes in all kinds of categories. What I find is that often the artiste or song doesn’t matter; rather, it’s the intention, or the message of the song, or sometimes it’s just the title or a meaning that I, alone, have infused into it that’s important to me. Here’s a quick list of some of my stand-bys:

  •  Keep Holding On by Avril Lavigne
  • Fix You by Coldplay (this song undoubtedly made the list because of a very touching and inspirational weight-loss video posted on YouTube)
  • The Climb by Miley Cyrus
  • It’s a Miracle and Looks Like We Made It by Barry Manilow
  • Defying Gravity from the Wicked original Broadway cast soundtrack
  • Freak Flag from the Shrek original Broadway cast soundtrack
  • I Dreamed a Dream, sung by Susan Boyle (what better lesson in triumph than Susan Boyle’s rendition of I Dreamed a Dream on Britain’s Got Talent?)

2. Pacing

Baby Grand is a contemporary thriller, which means one very important aspect of the book is its pacing. I was very conscious of keeping a certain pace – almost like a perpetual drum beat – throughout the writing of the novel and then ratcheting things up toward the end, as if riding a train that was traveling fast and suddenly accelerates until it is speeding out of control. And because writing a novel is all about stopping and starting and picking up where you left off, I found there were times I needed some zippy songs to get my toes a-tapping and to return me to that ‘train’ mindset, particularly for the chase scenes that are inherent to most thrillers, Baby Grand included. Here are two of the many songs I’ve turned to in order to help me keep readers alert and on the edge of their seats (interestingly, these both come from films):

  • Holding Out for a Hero by Bonnie Tyler and featured in Footloose (this one, I find, is particularly useful for chase scenes – is there anyone out there who doesn’t visualize Kevin Bacon with his shoelace caught on a tractor pedal during this song?)
  • Neutron Dance by The Pointer Sisters and featured in Beverly Hills Cop

3. Character development

Occasionally, I’ll use music to help me get into the mind of a character. I also use movie clips for this purpose, particularly when a character is loosely based on the physicality of an actor. I did this for Baby Grand’s villain Don Bailino (whose appearance is based on a younger Robert De Niro), a handsome, charismatic ex-war hero/successful businessman in his late 40s. Bailino hails from Brooklyn, and having grown up around Brooklynites my entire life, when writing Bailino’s scenes I tended to channel lots of family favorites from the 1950s , 1960s and 1970s, such as Frankie Valli or Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin (who happens to be the person I was named after—my parents were big fans):

I call these songs ‘the soundtrack of my grandparents’ and they stir up in me fond memories of summer vacations spent shopping on Nostrand Avenue or at Kings Plaza and playing at the Buddies Arcade. I think in this case, though, it’s not necessarily the songs that inspire, but the memories that they invoke.

In the end, whether it is inspirational or helps me develop a scene or character, music enables me to reach a deeper understanding of myself in some way. And from there, I am able to find the confidence to explore a deeper understanding of my characters and of my story and the courage to fight through another round of that ominous self-doubt. Cue Theme from Rocky.

A freelance writer for over 15 years, Dina Santorelli has written for Newsday, First for Women and CNNMoney.com, among other publications. She served as the ‘with’ writer for the well-received Good Girls Don’t Get Fat and most recently contributed to Bully, the companion book to the acclaimed film. Dina is the Executive Editor of Salute and Family magazines for which she has interviewed many celebrities, including James Gandolfini, Tim McGraw, Angela Bassett, Mario Lopez, Gary Sinise and Kevin Bacon. You can follow Dina on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, Pinterest, and on her blog. Baby Grand, her first novel, is available on Amazon.

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  1. #1 by katmagendie on July 25, 2012 - 11:28 am

    I loved this post – and related to the doubts that plague when we are zippity do dah daying along and Screeech *sound of record scratching* it comes to a halt! I’ve experienced that more with this novel than any other and I think it is pacing – this book is more “plotty” feeling and I’m a die-hard pantster! lawd! Just as with you, I have to have “silence” when writing (easy to do in this smoky mountain cove!) but music inspires me outside of the actual writing – particularly when I’m on the treadmill – the music is loud, I’m sweating and jumping/dancing/running, and all the stress and worry melt away – I am just a woman on a treadmill without deadlines – then a song will come on and I have this “OH!” moment, this “hey!” and by time I am home, showered, and back to my computer, the way opens.

    I love this series, as I’ve said before — even when I can’t always stop by to comment.

    • #2 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on July 25, 2012 - 3:23 pm

      Thanks, Kat! I really related to that part of Dina’s post. And I do just what you do – take my music on a run (in my case in the countryside or through darkened streets) and see what it nudges me to do. I also find driving and channel-hopping on the radio helps a lot – random music choices or excerpts of shows have given me many a useful connection!
      Delighted you decided to comment this time – it’s always lovely when the ‘invisible readers’ pop up and wave.

      • #3 by katmagendie on July 25, 2012 - 4:22 pm

        I was thinking on the treadmill, and posted it to my FB page, how what if bands partnered with authors and did a “soundtrack” to the novel – not just for books made into movies soundtracks, but as cd’s in the backs of books or as multi-media in ebook form.

        How cool would that be? A reader could listen to music set just for that scene – something the author/band thought fit there – maybe it’s been done or it’s too complicated, but it’d be awesome! :-D

        • #4 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on July 25, 2012 - 4:50 pm

          I think SJ Tucker did for Catherynne Valente’s novels – see her Undercover Soundtrack! Also, Jessica Bell produced a soundtrack to her own novel, String Bridge. I don’t think I could read and listen at the same time, but I could certainly read and then take the soundtrack for a run!

          • #5 by katmagendie on July 25, 2012 - 9:13 pm

            Me, too – I always read at night before bed with just the creek sounds – but i wonder what “the next generation” of multi-media will be . . .

  2. #6 by Dina Santorelli on July 26, 2012 - 1:55 pm

    Roz, thank you so much for allowing me to guest post! This was a blast. Another thing I forgot to mention is that music is so important in terms of helping me focus. Sometimes I get very distracted by all the usual stuff — kids, work, laundry — when I’m trying to write and I find that a song will help calm all that mental discourse and let me get back to the business at hand. Thanks again!

    • #7 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on July 26, 2012 - 9:42 pm

      Dina, a pleasure to have you. I so liked that you brought up the question of confidence – almost as fragile as concentration, especially if you have to take regular breaks from your novel. We all find this hard – so thanks for sharing your secret wobbles and secret weapons.

  3. #8 by Dan Urban Music on September 10, 2012 - 11:29 am

    “Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process” is this from personal experience? :) becase i use music 24/7 in my life as it helps me find a more expressive and enhanced vue at life or at diffrent situations really love what your doing going to check out some of your books ^.^

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