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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 romantic novelist Fiona Walker @fionawalkeruk
If I know I’m not going to be overheard, I sing – in the bath, on long dog walks, and when writing, or more realistically the thinking pauses between writing. This habitual distraction is also creative inspiration. It’s no coincidence that characters sing in many of my books, from my first novel French Relations in which dinner party guests gather around a piano to perform Eric Clapton’s Wonderful Tonight, to my twelfth novel The Love Letter, where my heroine inadvertently finds herself duetting an old Bo Diddley number with her ex boyfriend in the local pub. That song, You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover, is a joyful riot of old-time rhythm and blues that also feeds into the themes of a novel in which characters are not as they first appear, most especially a reclusive writer who hides his identity behind a pen name.
As a romantic novelist with a reputation for raunchy romps, I appreciate Bo Diddley is a far cry from a power ballad, but I once bought The Greatest Love Songs In The World…Ever to listen to when writing passionate scenes – much to my husband’s hilarity – and it was the most awful backing track from which to seek inspiration, like writing on the dance-floor at an over-40s singles night. Most of the music I listen to when I write is white noise, and if I’m on a roll I don’t notice it at all, until that one song sticks, and that’s when inspiration strikes.
When a song connects with a book’s plot, I often play it – and sing it – day and night, and it occasionally even gets woven into the text. This means that I have to be very careful what I listen to when writing. It once cost me almost as much as a new car to gain permission to quote six lines of a Jim Steinman track that I couldn’t get out of my head, after which I not only stopped featuring heroines who were Meatloaf fans, but also monitored my listening habits and now tailor them to each book. I keep a limited number of CDs ripped to my computer, so if I’m not listening to the radio, I’m going through the same albums on a loop, many of them instrumental. The energetic Brazilian guitarist/percussion combo Rodrigo y Gabriela fuelled the first draft of The Love Letter; the sultry Gotan Project added tempo; saxophonist Jan Garbarek injected cool, and I played endless Mozart for jollity and Bach for comfort.
When the rough plot of The Love Letter was in place, that tailor-made compilation changed to vintage Kate Bush, Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, Bjork and Birdy, all inspiring the book’s larger than life characters, comic melodrama and coastal setting, as well as a very long, flirty seduction in a fairytale tower. Yet it was when googling something entirely unconnected that I found the Bo Diddley song that fitted the story so well that I couldn’t stop playing it.
If I hit upon a theme-tune for a plot or its characters, I know I have a secret entrance into the book, and although the album or song itself may never appear on the page, you can guarantee I’ve listened to it hundreds of times when writing certain scenes. One of my novels was written whilst listening to Damien Rice almost non-stop, another to Alison Krauss – and when a romantic hero who always made me think of Christy Moore’s Ride On featured in a sequel 10 years after his first appearance, I only had to listen to the song to find him coming to life again. Although many of these songs get honourable mentions in the books, only the very special few are performed by me and my characters; You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover is still being sung loudly in Worcestershire.
Fiona Walker became a best-selling novelist in her 20s and her books have sold over two million copies worldwide to date. Dubbed ‘The Jilly Cooper of the Cosmo generation’ she is renowned for her large casts, addictive plots and sharp wit. She lives in rural Worcestershire with her partner Sam who is a dressage trainer and their two daughters. Her twelfth novel, The Love Letter, is published by Sphere.Find her on her blog and on Twitter @FionaWalkeruk
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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 novelist and playwright Catherine Czerkawska
Music is such an intimate part of the creative process for me that it’s not often I’m tempted to reveal it, unless it figures in the work itself. My plays have accompanying music but the public and private soundtracks only occasionally coincide. With a novel, music helps me to tease out characters, situations and stories, but everything goes through many versions. The first draft of my new novel, Bird of Passage, was written so long ago that the story seems like a completely different entity now.
The change in the book or the change to the music?
It would be hard for me to say which came first: the change in the book or the change to the music of the book. That early story focused on Kirsty Galbreath and her relationship with a young Irish farm worker, Finn O’Malley. But at some point, I realised that my flawed hero was a cipher about whom I knew very little. The late Luke Kelly was my constant companion, musically, when I embarked on the re-drafts. Many years ago, I saw him in person, walking down a Dublin Street, and I still find his voice inspirational. In listening obsessively to his solo songs, particularly Will You Come to the Bower and Raglan Road, I began to recognise what I had known subconsciously: I had neglected the Irish dimension to the story.
In the 1960s, Finn and poor, vulnerable Francis had been sent from Ireland to work at the Scottish potato harvest. But why? What had happened to them? My grandmother was Irish and her favourite songs had been a part my childhood. They may seem a little sentimental to our ears now, but whenever John McCormack came on the wireless, singing Bantry Bay or the uncanny She Moved Through the Fair, the whole house was hushed. When I went back to these songs, they triggered long-buried memories, not just of my own childhood, which was safe and happy, but of overheard adult conversations about other people’s sad secrets.
Francis stood up and sang, his voice wavery at first but growing in confidence:
The winter it is past, and the summer’s come at last,
and the little birds they sing in the trees.
Their little hearts are glad, but mine is very sad,
for my true love is far away from me…
Francis had a sweet voice and he sang well, but in a traditional style, his voice dipping under and over the notes, embellishing them in a dozen ways. The men and women fell silent. There could not be one of them who had not heard it before, many times. It was a song of youth and heartbreak and hurts that could never be repaired.
There were songs which leapt the barrier to become part of the story and The Curragh of Kildare was one of them. There are countless good versions although I still prefer Christy Moore’s.
No need to know what the words mean
But even listening to this, I was aware that I was avoiding the heart of the matter. And so, I began to hunt for another form of traditional Irish singing. I knew it existed beyond the confines of the safe, gentle versions which make the normal playlists. My great-grandfather – so I’m told – sang like this. I’d heard others singing like this, fragmentary contributions to pub sessions. It was then I came upon Liam Ó’Maonlaí.
There are few singers who can give you so much insight into the weight of Irish history. You don’t need to know what the words mean. All you need to do is listen to this uncanny, heart- rending and deeply disturbing sound, part of an unbroken tradition of attempting to circumscribe raw emotion within the confines of a human voice. It was this voice, whether in the extraordinary Woodstock performance or the gentler Lord’s Prayer, which finally allowed me to engage with what had happened to Finn and Francis, and to consider what a terrible place their world might once have been, turning my earlier story into something much darker.
I’m not sure even now that I’m finished with this book. Francis’s sorrow is part of Finn’s sorrow too; it will colour the whole of his life – and Kirsty’s life as well. I’m still not sure that the darkness is dark enough.
Catherine Czerkawska is a novelist and award winning playwright, both for the stage and for BBC Radio 4. With degrees in medieval and folk life studies, she finds herself increasingly drawn to historical fiction and – as an unashamed ‘mid-list’ author – is joyfully embracing the digital revolution. The Curiosity Cabinet (Polygon 2005) was one of three finalists for the Dundee Book Prize, and is now available only on Kindle. Her new novel, Bird of Passage, is available on Kindle and The Amber Heart, the first in a trilogy of novels based on her Polish family history, is scheduled for Spring 2012. She blogs at Wordarts and is on Twitter as @czerkawska
authors, Bird of Passage, Catherine Czerkawska, Christy Moore, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, Irish folk music, John McCormack, Liam Ó'Maonlaí, literary fiction, literary novels, Luke Kelly, music, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, playlists for writers, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, writing to music
- 'Constant murmur of pouring rain, piano chords and a stormy sea'
- 'A spellbindingly good yarn'
- 'Simple, beautiful - gripping'
- 'So original it's in a class of its own'
Kobo featured book, London Book Fair 2013
Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Independent Fiction, Awesome Indies 2013
Underground Book Reviews Top Summer Read 2012
League of Extraordinary Authors Top 10 Indie Elite 2012
Multi-Story Pick of the Month March and October 2012
Alliance of Independent Authors Book of the Month, January 2013
- Carol is a concert pianist until an injury threatens her career. Desperate for a cure she discovers her future incarnation - or is he a psychological figment? And can he help her recover?
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What is The Undercover Soundtrack?Sleeve notes here
For the soundtrack of My Memories of a Future Life, you'll need Chopin's Sonata in B Minor, Rachmaninov preludes, lashings of Grieg's piano concerto in A minor and The Clash's Rock the Kasbah (they go together well).
You'll also need Samuel Barber's Dover Beach on piano, although that doesn't actually exist so do the best you can.
And the novel's undercover pieces. You can find them here
- What's on their soundtracks? Zip down to the footer and you can search by artiste or composer. See who shares your taste in inspirational music
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- 'My Memories of a Future Life is a poignant story steeped with melancholy, edged with a desperate hope, and twisted throughout with darkness and humor'
- 'Some of the sharpest writing I've read in a long while'
- 'The feel of a modern-day witch trial with a tense romance'
- 'Clever when you think about it afterwards; haunting and engrossing while you're reading'