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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 my guest is award-winning commercial novelist and reborn indie Reb MacRath @Rebmacrath
Soundtrack by Rod Stewart
It’s a drag, without doubt, but we all must admit: We’re not allowed to have our cake and toss our cookies too. Still, I found myself starting to do that in a book called Southern Scotch. And if I hadn’t been saved by Rod Stewart, I’d never have finished the novel or gone on to write the sequel.
Damned before the music
I ‘d begun with Pete McGregor, a drunken Scottish lout who’s mistaken for somebody else in the South and beaten half to death. Five years later he returns as Boss MacTavin: rich, thin, brutal and hell-bent on revenge. Now, I saw a strong hook there and liked it. But a big problem came with it: Advance readers hated both Fat Loser Pete and the Mike Hammerish Boss. The character had to be far more sympathetic in both incarnations because dark waters lay ahead: the porn trade in Atlanta. I tried every trick, but failed…
Enter the wee mighty Rodster reborn
The Great American Songbooks volumes 1-5. Rod’s soulful takes on the classics contained the qualities required: sweetness and light … streetsmart sophistication … tenderness, toughness and heart. If these qualities suffused the book, we might be spared tossed cookies.
And the singer also called to me. The Rodster had been written off as a commercial sell-out — two or three great albums followed by slush. Now here he was, singing old songs that he loved while he plotted his greatest rock album.*
And here I was, a writer who’d once had the whole world before him — four novels with two big houses … an international award and film option — scrambling in the ebook jungle. Writing the sort of book I love to read. And hoping, like Rod, that my best lay ahead.
And, hooray now, here came my changed hero: no longer a fat, drunken slob at the start — a man who’d known greatness and crashed but still dreamed … a man who returned as a bit of a thug — but also a complex and admirable soul.
Well, yes, all right. That’s well and good. But, Reb baby, please — some specifics?
I immersed myself in the five albums. For the most part, I felt more concerned with absorbing the qualities mentioned than with providing a soundtrack. As I absorbed these qualities, I began to grow more skillful at infusing my character with them as well. But a few songs had added importance for me. In these I heard the rocker’s growth through mastery of the classics. Blue Moon by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. That Old Black Magic by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer. Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Beyond the Sea by Charles Trenet and Jack Lawrence.
The Very Soul songs
Pete’s dream girl, Tina, dies in a plane crash. Boss needed to be haunted still by the aching sense of loss I heard in We’ll Be Together Again by Carl T. Fischer. I played it repeatedly, allowing it to dictate what I said and left unsaid. The song is present on each page, though it’s mentioned by name only once.
For an epic brawl with six bikers, I wanted a far different mood. Again one song inspired me: I Get a Kick Out of You by Cole Porter.
Rod’s a consonantal singer, not a voweler like Sinatra. With Rod it’s not ‘Iiiiii get a kiiiiick’, but ‘I gggggettttt a kkkkkickkkkk’. And his version of this tune packs an exceptional wallop, one I hoped to channel. I wanted bounce in Boss’s step, sass and pow in every punch. I wanted a Yeah, Baby feeling without even mentioning the song.
How the Rodster helped me build my bridge
The sequel, The Alcatraz Correction, takes place three years later. And Boss is a changed man, who’s fallen in love. Still, we need consistency in a series character. So I always had one of the Songbooks playing in the background so I’d run into the old Boss in unfamiliar places.
*Rod may have the last laugh on Rolling Stone and the old fans who’ve trashed him. Coming later this year: a CD of hard blues and rock. Go, Rod!
Reb MacRath published four horror novels under the name Kelley Wilde, with Tor Books and Dell. His first book, The Suiting, won a Stoker Award for Best First Novel and was optioned for film. After the fourth book, he retired from horror and went to the desert to learn how to write the sort of books he loved to read: high-octane blends of style, humor, romance and suspense. In 2012 Reb returned to publish the four ebooks listed on his blog. Four more will be published in 2013. Contact him on Twitter @Rebmacrath
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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 guest is historical novelist Erika Robuck @ErikaRobuck
I don’t know who once said that art begets art, but that has always been true for me in my creative process. There’s nothing like a particularly evocative painting or piece of music to inspire scenes, mood, or even character in my writing.
My latest novel, Hemingway’s Girl, is set in Key West in 1935, when a half-Cuban woman goes to work for Ernest Hemingway to support her widowed mother and sisters, and save money to start her own charter fishing boat business. Soon after she becomes Hemingway’s housekeeper, she finds herself torn between the writer and a WWI veteran and boxer working on the Overseas Highway.
Like the other novels I’ve written, music was integral to my creation of this work, particularly in the areas of temperature, time, and theme.
In Hemingway’s Girl, the characters and the time period are warm, passionate, and colorful. From the Spanish-speaking Cuban mother, to the dark bars and boxing matches in town, to boating under the blazing sun on the Gulf of Mexico, Hemingway’s Girl simmers with tropical heat.
Nothing captures that simmering intensity for me better than Spanish classical guitar music, specifically by Manuel Ponce and David Russell. Both composers’ blends of sultry guitar riffs, moody reflective measures, and sudden bursts of sound and scale matched my characters and their volatility.
One of my characters is an amputee from WWI, and he plays Ponce’s Suite in A Minor on his guitar to convey his emotions associated with his passionate love of life and pain over his loss, just as my protagonist’s widowed mother plays the song on her gramophone. I named the song in the text as a frame of reference for the reader with the hopes of sending my audience searching for the music that inspired me, and to convey the heat I felt while writing it.
Writing historical fiction while living in the present day, with three sons running around the house, is a special challenge. When I step into the writing zone, I put down a sippy cup and pick up a metaphorical long, pearly cigarette holder. I don’t actually smoke, but the act of turning from my life to the past happens more seamlessly in the context of prop and music.
While writing Hemingway’s Girl, one of the songs that grounded me in the thirties was All Through the Night by Cole Porter. It came on a Pandora mix one night while I was writing, and inspired a scene where my protagonist first danced with the boxer. The song is so intimate and filled with longing that I was able to get lost in a moment where two people began to understand the depth of their feelings for each other. The music opened up a new avenue for me in the story because, until hearing it, I couldn’t figure out how to transition their relationship from casual friendship to the beginnings of love. It was the music that made the scene.
Ernest Hemingway once said that he used words the way that Bach used notes. He said that he studied Cezanne until he could paint a landscape with words the way the artist could with his brush. Hemingway felt the connection between art forms and recognized their power. It is my hope that the music in the creation and product of my novel enhances the themes in the story.
Erika Robuck is a guest blogger at Writer Unboxed and has her own historical fiction blog called Muse. Her novel, Hemingway’s Girl, was published in September 2012 by NAL/Penguin, and will be followed by Call Me Zelda in 2013. Connect on her website, www.erikarobuck.com, Twitter @ErikaRobuck, or on Facebook.
GIVEAWAY Erika is giving away one signed copy of Hemingway’s Girl to a commenter here… so be sure to say hello!
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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 journalist and contemporary women’s fiction author Fanny Blake @FannyBlake1
I don’t listen to music when I’m writing. If I did, I’d lose my focus on the words and spin off into whatever I was listening to. However I do use music in my novels as an indicator of character or to set a mood. When I’m thinking about a particular scene or someone’s state of mind, then I spend ages (too long, probably) listening to different tracks, or trawling through Youtube, to check that the pieces I choose are the right fit. Sometimes I play them very softly in the background, because they can transport me into the scene I’m writing, but never loud enough to distract me, and not for long.
Musical taste says so much about someone, as Bea, the central character in What Women Want realises when she hears strains of James Taylor coming from the record player in the holiday cottage where she’s been brought for a weekend. She enters the room to see several LPs that she recognises at a glance strewn on the rag rug: Dory Previn, Fleetwood Mac, Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, The Lovin’ Spoonful, Country Joe, The Byrds and of course Bob Dylan. ‘A record collection speaks volumes about a man, she thought.’ The fact that her new lover has hung on to his vinyl tells us something, but so does his choice of music. He’s a man of a certain vintage who enjoys musical nostalgia, and maybe his taste hasn’t moved on much. Bea immediately recognises that they share a similar musical history, giving them that little extra in common. She feels at home.
In my new novel, Women of a Dangerous Age, the two central characters Ali and Lou have quite different soundtracks to their lives. Lou, a woman in her 50s, has left her husband and is starting a new life on her own. Her passion is for vintage clothes, and she plans to set up a high-end vintage clothing shop called Puttin’ on the Ritz. At work, she listens to the songs I remember so well from the old movies my family used to watch on TV. She gave me the perfect excuse to revisit on Youtube the fabulous song ‘n’ dance numbers of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers or, when she walks home with her ex having had a glass or two too many, of Fred with Judy Garland.
Secret passion for cheese
When her lover takes her to a concert at the Festival Hall to hear Brahms’ Symphony Number 2 in D, Lou is too embarrassed to admit she is ‘a self-confessed unreconstructed schlock chick. Cheesy pop and songs from the shows were more her thing but there was no way she’d confess her secret shame to Sanjeev.’ Instead, when alone in the car, she sings loudly and out of tune to Billy Joel and Dire Straits, and nurses a private passion for one of the band members of Take That. When she receives some shattering personal news, she soldiers through an evening with her children before arriving home and turning to Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven to accompany her misery and a good cry. Ah, the cheap emotionalism of music. Lou’s a woman after my own heart.
However, Ali is cut from another cloth. She is of a classical bent. When her lover is clearly distracted, she chooses one of the ‘most soothing pieces of music she knew’ – Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major. She’s a goldsmith who shares a studio with a silversmith. They listen to Radio 3 in the background all day long. She befriends Lou when they’re on holiday in India. Lou invites her to design some jewellery for her shop and before long Ali is helping her in it. When Lou arrives one afternoon, she finds Ali reading a paperback ‘with something classical at full throttle in the background’. Lou’s immediate reaction is to change the CD for Ella Fitzgerald singing All Through the Night, after all it was ‘her shop, so her mood, and this was definitely more the thing’. Although Ali’s lifestyle is perhaps more unconventional than Lou’s, her taste in music is not and I hope that gives a better indication to the quality of her interior life.
I find that using music in my novels is a way of adding an extra dimension to my characters, and one that can often act as a useful shorthand for the reader.
Novelist and journalist Fanny Blake is also the Books Editor of Woman & Home. Her career has spanned almost every aspect of writing. She was a publisher for many years before becoming an author. She has written best-selling non-fiction, ghost-written several celebrity autobiographies and has written two novels, What Women Want and now, Women of a Dangerous Age which was published last week by Blue Door. She lives at home with her husband, a novelist, an ancient cat that’s young in spirit, and however many of their three sons happen to be at home at the time. She goes to the theatre more than is good for her bank account, loves long country walks and chocolate. Find her on Facebook and on Twitter as @FannyBlake1
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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 comic mystery author Anne R Allen.
Soundtrack by Ella Fitzgerald and Cole Porter
I don’t write with background music, although I do occasionally use a CD of rain or ocean sounds to block neighbourhood noise.
When I was writing Sherwood Ltd. which is set in the soggy English Midlands—I often put on a CD of rainstorm sounds to conjure my memories of living in a 200-year-old warehouse in rainy Lincolnshire. An epic flood figures strongly in the plot. I don’t know if that CD is to blame, but I’m sure it gave some inspiration.
His own jazz age
But when I was brainstorming ideas for my Hollywood mystery, The Gatsby Game, I often listened to big band jazz, especially Cole Porter tunes. The anti-hero, Alistair, is a charming, self-destructive loser who tries to live as if he’s a character in a Fitzgerald novel. Although the story is set in the 1970s, Alistair inhabits his own private, imaginary Jazz Age.
The character was inspired by David Whiting, a man I knew in college—who died mysteriously on the set of a Burt Reynolds movie. The mystery of David’s death has never been solved, but I’ve always had a theory of how it might have happened.
I was finally inspired to write about it last year, when I was going through some old college papers and found an ancient note David had left in my dorm room one night, hidden under my pillow. It said, ‘While you were out, you had a visitor…wearing spats, and a straw boater, perhaps, and humming a Cole Porter tune…maybe the ghost of Jay Gatsby?’
It brought a vivid memory of David. He was always humming those tunes—so completely anachronistic in the days of psychedelic rock and roll. David’s image came to me in perfect clarity—with all his theatrical charm, narcissism, and the tragic pain that always showed just under the surface.
That was when I knew I had to write his story—and listening to Cole Porter helped me keep in touch with the memories.
I think the greatest recording of the Cole Porter songbook is Ella Fitzgerald’s iconic Verve recording from 1956. I played it a lot while I was writing The Gatsby Game.
The music itself appears in several scenes. When the narrator, Nicky Conway (yeah, a little homage to Fitzgerald’s Nick Carroway there) first meets Alistair, she finds him charming but evasive. He’s constantly bursting into song to avoid conversation. As he drives her away from her Bryn Mawr dorm to who-knows-where, he responds to each of her questions by singing another line from You’re the Top—appearing to compliment her while he’s bullying her into silence.
Later, when she introduces him to her über-wealthy relatives, she finds Alistair romancing her (very married) aunt to the tune of Begin the Beguine. Throughout the story, Nicky is never quite sure how much Beguining Alistair got up to with her aunt—and/or if some Beguining went on with her uncle as well.
Alistair often retreats into silliness, making clever puns and wordplay to avoid real communication. I imagine him as one of the ‘silly gigolos’ Cole Porter talks about in Anything Goes. I could also imagine Alistair responding to Nicky’s pleas for more intimacy with the line from It’s Too Darn Hot: ‘Mr. Pants, for romance, with his cutie pie, is not.’
As I played that 1950s recording, I realized it might have been a favorite of Alistair’s mother, whom I imagined as a kind of high-class hooker. Alistair’s primary relationship is always his love/hate enmeshment with his mother—whom he calls ‘the Gorgon’.
It’s delectable, it’s delerious, it’s de-limit
She made him into her surrogate partner whenever she was between ’employers’, which is why he dresses and behaves like a member of her generation instead of his own. The rest of the time, she abandoned him in expensive boarding schools where he rubbed elbows with the children of the glittering ultra-rich Fitzgerald and Cole Porter wrote about—perhaps triggering Alistair’s compulsive social climbing.
In the end, the Gorgon doesn’t even pay for Alistair’s funeral, so he becomes a tragic figure in spite of the shallow Cole Porter-character persona he invented for himself. The honest, direct perfection of Ella Fitzgerald’s voice combined with the brilliant silliness of Porter’s lyrics conveys to me that same tragicomic reality.
Anne R. Allen is the author of five comic mysteries debuting in 2011 with two publishers: Popcorn Press and Mark Williams international Digital Publishing.— Food of Love (September 2011) The Gatsby Game (October 2011 – and now available on Nook as well as Kindle) Ghostwriters in the Sky (October 2011) Sherwood Ltd (December 2011) and The Best Revenge (December 2011) She is also working on a self-help guide for writers with Pay It Forward author Catherine Ryan Hyde. Anne has a blog for writers at http://annerallen.blogspot.com, where she blogs with NYT bestselling author, Ruth Harris. She can be found on Twitter as @annerallen
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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'