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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s post is by writer and translator Alison Layland @AlisonLayland
Soundtrack by Steven R Smith, Aiko Shimada, PJ Harvey, Colin Stetson, Laurie Anderson, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Dark Patrick, Darko Rundek, Smoke Fairies, Beth Orton
Music is an essential part of my writing process. I pick up on atmospheres, and fragments of lyrics that suggest an idea, character or situation (not always in the way the artist intended!), and build up a playlist for almost everything I write. I rarely listen to music when actually writing, but my playlist influences my work, and a copy to play in the car or while working keeps me in the zone.
A great inspiration, and music I definitely can and do play while writing, comes from Steven R. Smith. His music, mainly instrumental, captures my imagination, and the range of atmospheres he creates match so many of my moods. He records under various names/personas, and when working on Someone Else’s Conflict I found his Hala Strana records particularly appropriate as the Eastern and Central European influences helped me to tap into the Croatian backstory to the novel. I was also delighted when he agreed to let me use an extract from one of the Hala Strana tunes, Wedding of the Blind, for my book trailer.
Stories from a dark place
In Someone Else’s Conflict, Jay is an itinerant storyteller and busker, leading a self-imposed nomadic lifestyle and using his stories as a way of escaping from his memories and past. Stories by Aiko Shimada is that world of escapism through stories. What Jay is concealing is involvement in the Croatian conflict of the early 1990s, and the guilt that still haunts him. Scenes from the war are shown in flashbacks and, as I’m fortunate not to have experienced any kind of war zone first-hand, I used music as the vehicle to take myself there. PJ Harvey’s album Let England Shake told me it was possible and throughout the time I was writing the novel I had the first line of The Words That Maketh Murder going round in my head, as similar thoughts must have plagued Jay.
Saxophonist Colin Stetson’s amazing album New History Warfare Vol. 2 immersed me in all kinds of dark places and provided the perfect atmosphere both for the war scenes and the effects they had on the characters, in particular The Stars in his Head with its menacing driving pulse and swirling loops, and the chaos and displacement of A Dream of Water with guest vocals from Laurie Anderson. My fictional war zone was further intensified by the beauty and terror of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Mladic.
The haunting Ivases Lament by Dark Patrick not only suggested to me the feel of loss, tragedy and anger, but also had personal associations with my characters though a loose connection with its title – Ivan was Jay’s friend who was killed in the Croatian war and his son, Vinko, now a teenager and immigrant searching for identity, is central to the novel. The song brought out all the edginess of their relationship.
As I’m a linguist, it was more or less inevitable that, during my research into the Balkan conflicts, I would be moved to learn the language, especially as a personal way of gaining an insight into the feel and culture of the region. Music also features in my language-learning process, and I made some wonderful discoveries from that part of the world. My favourite so far has been Darko Rundek, in the context of writing the novel especially since a number of his songs deal with the conflict and its aftermath. When I first heard Ista Slika (The Same Picture) – before I saw the video, worked out the lyrics and fully appreciated the tragedy of what the song is about – I simply thought it was a lovely song. When I looked into it more deeply and discovered that it was about the war and that the refrain, roughly translated, means ‘whatever your way in the world in your crazy head you see the same picture’ it became a kind of theme tune for the novel. My own reaction epitomised the way Jay hides his own dark side from the world.
The novel is certainly not all darkness, and my playlist helped me keep me grounded in this, too. An essential thread is the developing friendship and love between Jay and Marilyn, the artist he meets who helps him come to terms with his past and has to decide whether to stand by him as things start to go wrong. Several songs from the Smoke Fairies’ Low Light and Trees album became part of their relationship in my mind, especially Summer Fades with its strong feel of the other person’s past. For a long time, Marilyn is understandably not sure of Jay; she is finding her feet after a difficult previous relationship and is unsure how much to trust him, despite his charismatic and outwardly friendly nature. In one of those serendipitous moments of musical discovery, I was initially drawn to Beth Orton’s Magpie because it reflects the imagery of one of Jay’s stories, and soon found it gave me a real feel for Marilyn’s inner strength.
The ending of the novel evolved as I approached it, but I always knew it would have a positive feel – though just how positive, I wasn’t sure. And so we return to the music of Steven R. Smith. The title and soaring atmosphere of To Rise and Move On says it all.
Alison Layland is a writer and translator, originally from Bradford and now living in the beautiful Welsh mountains with her family. Her debut novel, Someone Else’s Conflict, originally inspired by her passion for storytelling, tells of trust, love and the need to belong, moving from the peaceful Yorkshire Dales to the horrors of the Croatian conflict of the 1990s and its aftermath. It is published by Honno and was a Lovereading.co.uk Debut of the Month in January 2015. Alison can be found at her website. She tweets as @AlisonLayland and is a member of The Prime Writers @ThePrimeWriters
Aiko Shimada, Alison Layland, Balkan conflict, Beth Orton, Central Europe, Colin Stetson, crime fiction, crime writing, Croatia, Dark Patrick, Darko Rundek, Eastern Europe, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Laurie Anderson, Lovereading Debut of the Month, PJ Harvey, Smoke Fairies, Someone Else's Conflict, Steven R Smith, The Undercover Soundtrack, theprimewriters, undercover soundtrack, war, warzone, writing
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is contemporary fiction author, poet, editor and singer-songwriter Jessica Bell @MsBessieBell
Soundtrack by Judy Garland, Magic Dirt, Hole, Lene Lovich, I Killed the Prom Queen, Metallica
White Lady is written from the perspective of five different characters, each in first person, so, in addition to my usual character-defining tactics, I decided to give three of them specific music tastes. These music tastes also really helped to mould the personalities of these characters, and made it easier for me to write in their different voices.
The musical soundtrack fan: Somewhere Over the Rainbow by Judy Garland
Sonia Shâd, an Australian/Turkish high school mathematics teacher and wife of Melbourne’s leading drug lord, is addicted to slicing people’s throats and admiring the blood cascade down her victims’ chests.
Now the clichéd thing to do would have been to make her a fan of heavy metal. I didn’t want to go the typical route. Instead, I thought it would be a little more creepy having a song associated with innocence and finding true bliss linked to Sonia finding her true bliss—the pleasure of a kill.
I’ve also used the rainbow as a metaphor for Sonia’s passion for numbers:
It is seven a.m. and everyone’s mailboxes are decorated with dew. When I was a child, I liked to think the dew meant fairies had been out to play during the night. Especially when the sun shone through dispersive prisms of condensation, creating a field of colour across my front lawn. It was the rainbow that first got me interested in mathematics and physics, and its ever-elusive pot of gold. It didn’t take long for me to rationalize that the pot of gold was simply the bait to enrich my knowledge.
As an extra quirk, Sonia’s doorbell plays this song when it’s pressed.
Mia Weston is an insecure overweight high school student, who turns to drugs to lose weight, and experiments with her sexuality to manipulate her drug dealer. She falls for Sonia’s son, Mick, and gets caught up in his family’s criminal activities. She enjoys every minute of it, because it makes her feel beautiful. She experiences a tug of war with her conscience — good girl (who is insecure about her looks, and wants to be a good daughter for her single father) versus bad girl (a beauty queen in Mick’s eyes, and bold and confident when engaging in illegal activities).
Mia is also an aspiring songwriter and turns to these female rock goddesses for inspiration.
I don’t, however, just use these songs to represent Mia’s personality. I make sure the songs appear in the story when the lyrics actually mean something to the scene.
For example, she turns Dirty Jeans up full blast when she realizes she might be falling for Mick. The first line of the song is about being attracted to an ordinary boy. Mick is far from an ordinary boy. Mia listening to this song is almost trying to convince herself that there is nothing to worry about, that Mick may be different than most, but deep down he is normal and she will be safe with him. At the same time, it also gives her a false
sense of self-esteem when she imagines the lyrics, about being beautiful, are being sung to her directly.
On the opposite end of the scale, when Mia is feeling guilty about her actions, she listens to Skinny Little Bitch, glorifying that fact that she is acting like one herself. Of course, she’s still romanticising about being skinny. It’s easier for her to be a ‘skinny bitch’ than an overweight one.
On the surface, Mick Shâd (Sonia’s son) is an absolute thug. He’s foul mouthed, exhibits violent and crude behaviour, and shows no respect to anyone whatsoever. Yet, deep down, he is a gentle sweetheart with a poetic soul, which readers witness through his scenes with Mia.
All his life he has been exposed to the illegal activities of his parents. The biggest thing that haunts him to this day is the blood stain on the back porch, along with the memory of Sonia tucking him in one night without having properly washed the streaks of blood off her skin.
Mick listens to hardcore music to escape his hardcore reality. It’s a way for him to shut the world out when he needs to be alone. Readers also get the hint that he prays to Allah on his seccade (a Muslim Prayer mat in Turkish), when he’s alone in his room too. He clearly has a conscience.
The songs I’ve mentioned above are not actually cited in the novel. Only the bands. This is because Mick isn’t the type of guy to describe what he’s listening to. He just turns his stereo on full blast — full stop. We also experience the loud music coming from his bedroom through Sonia’s perspective, in which she recognises the bands, but can only make out the sound of roar roar roar.
Despite readers never knowing what songs Mick listens to, these are the songs I had in mind when writing the scenes these bands are mentioned in. If you look up the lyrics to these songs, you will glean a lot of meaning from them and how they relate to the story. Though I would have loved to explain all these details in the book, they just didn’t fit. So I had to resolve myself to the fact that they would remain hidden (a true Undercover Soundtrack!”)
If you ever decide to use music for writing inspiration, have a think about how you can create symbolic branches to your music of choice in your story. Not only does it provide a fabulously diverse platter of character food, but it’s also nutrition for your plot. I don’t think I have ever written a book which didn’t incorporate music in one form or another. And now I don’t think I could ever write without it.
Is your story lacking the nutrients it needs? Perhaps some music will help!
Jessica Bell, a thirty-something Australian-native contemporary fiction author, poet and singer/songwriter/guitarist, is the Publishing Editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal and the director of the Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop on the Greek island of Ithaca. She makes a living as a writer/editor for English Language Teaching Publishers worldwide, such as Pearson Education, HarperCollins, MacMillan Education, Education First and Cengage Learning. Connect with Jessica online at her website, retreat & workshop, blog, the Vine Leaves Literary Journal, Facebook and Twitter
GIVEAWAY To celebrate the release of White Lady, Jessica is giving away an e-copy (mobi, ePub, or PDF) to a random commenter of this post.
authors, contemporary fiction, crime, crime fiction, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, first appearance, Hole, Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop, I Killed the Prom Queen, Jessica Bell, Judy Garland, Lene Lovich, Magic Dirt, Metallica, murder, music, music for writers, music for writing, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, White Lady, Women Writers, women writing women, writers, writing, writing to music
My guest this week is an old hand at The Undercover Soundtrack. She made her first appearance here in 2012 with a soundtrack she had composed, sung and recorded herself – which earned my undying envy (in a good way). She’s a singer-songwriter as well as a poet and novelist, so music is a natural way for her to understand her characters. In her latest novel, she writes from the perspective of five people, and used music to help her create their different voices and mentalities. Join me here on Wednesday to meet Jessica Bell (once again) and the Undercover Soundtrack to White Lady.
authors, contemporary fiction, crime, crime fiction, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, first appearance, Jessica Bell, murder, music, music for writers, music for writing, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, White Lady, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is cyberthriller author Ian Sutherland @iansuth
Soundtrack by John Barry, Vangelis, Ennio Morricone, Elgar, Moby, Leftfield, Underworld, The Smiths
I write to music; never to silence. For me, music is essential. It rapidly gets me in the zone and allows the creative juices to flow freely. Right now I’m listening to the movie soundtrack of 500 Days of Summer. I love it when the two tracks by The Smiths come on.
There’s a pragmatic purpose to my use of music. As most people appreciate, writing is one of the most solitary professions there is. And one of the reasons I procrastinated so long in my life before finally publishing my debut novel was my desire to balance time for my family and friends (oh, and work). And even more so when my daughters left home for university, leaving my wife and me with the proverbial empty nest. The only way I could write was to relocate myself to the living room (and be in the same vicinity as my otherwise lonely wife) and wear headphones to drown out the noise of the TV!
My debut novel is a thriller called Invasion of Privacy. When I first started it three years ago, I mostly played orchestral movie soundtracks while writing. There were two reasons. The first was practical: at the time I believed hearing songs with lyrics would be distracting (I’ve since overcome that). And the second was because soundtracks follow the tempo of the movies they represent, and pairing different soundtracks to the types of scenes I was writing helped.
For quieter more reflective scenes, my favourite choice is John Barry’s Dances With Wolves, the slow pace of the rather long movie suiting perfectly. For higher tempo, more action orientated scenes, I often selected 1492: Conquest of Paradise by Vangelis. Especially the title piece, which features a chamber choir singing rousting Latin hymns with massive crescendos.
These soundtracks directly influenced my characterisation in the novel and were referenced explicitly. The main protagonist is a computer hacker who, whenever he starts a hacking session, chooses a movie soundtrack to accompany him:
‘Brody selected his favourite movie soundtrack playlist, set it for random with the volume high and pressed play. The opening bars to John Barry’s Dances With Wolves boomed from floor-standing Bose speakers either side of the huge wall-mounted television. Then, like a concert pianist about to perform a solo, he rested his fingers on the keyboard in front of him.’
A hacking session later in the book is, of course, accompanied by 1492: Conquest of Paradise. Ennio Morricone’s The Mission also makes an appearance in the novel. It had to, given the number of times the novel’s author listened to it during the book’s writing.
Unbeknown to me, my editor Bryony Sutherland (no relation!) had studied music at the Royal Academy of Music. She picked up on the large number of musical references in the novel, starting with the opening scene where Anna Parker, the soon-to-be-first-victim, reflects on her journey towards becoming a cellist:
‘A childhood spent observing her school friends through the living room window playing forty-forty, kerbie and later, kiss-chase, while she practised her scales over and over, her bow movements across the strings becoming autonomic as muscle memory took over, the melodies becoming more complex and harmonious.’
Bryony appreciated the background and characterisation this short description provided, but also commented on how accurate the musical description was. In the scene, Anna auditions for a role in the orchestra of the Royal Opera House. She plays Elgar’s Concerto in E-Minor, a perfect choice for a solo cellist performance:
‘She took two more deep breaths, drew back the bow and launched into the concerto, her favourite piece. The music, as Elgar had planned, came slowly and hauntingly at first. Within a few bars she was lost to the stately rhythm of her part.’
As the novel headed towards its dramatic conclusion, the pace naturally picked up in the writing style. To help me maintain a faster pace during writing, I began to play the soundtrack to the movie The Beach on repeat. High tempo electro beats by the likes of Leftfield, Moby and Underworld were perfect to maintain concentration and a high pace. I also noticed that I set the volume in my earphones much higher as well, drowning out everything except me and the words on my laptop screen.
And I’m finishing writing this very post on a cheerful high. 500 Days of Summer has now looped a few times, but I write these last words to the quirky and breezy song, Mushaboom. Always guaranteed to leave anyone in a good mood! Give it a listen if you’ve not heard it before.
Ian Sutherland is a British crime thriller author. Leveraging his career in the IT industry, Ian’s Deep Web Thriller Series shines light on the threats we face from cybercrime as it becomes all too prevalent in our day-to-day lives. Invasion of Privacy is his debut. Ian lives near London with his wife and two daughters. Find him on his website, Twitter as @iansuth and on Facebook.
GIVEAWAY Ian is giving away 1 copy of Invasion of Privacy, either print or ebook. To enter the draw, comment here and share the post. Extra entries if you share on multiple platforms – and don’t forget to note here where you shared them so we know to count you!
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On The Undercover Soundtrack, we’re used to writers using music to summon the muse. My guest this week goes one better. One of his main characters is a computer hacker, who limbers up by listening to Vangelis’s music for the film 1492: Conquest of Paradise. In real life, the author has a lifetime’s experience in the IT industry and seems adept at opening files in people’s pasts – Dave and I used to play 1492 incessantly as background for our own writings. My guest did it again when his editor revealed she had trained as a musician, like another of his characters. He is Ian Sutherland and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack – when he’s finished hacking the pasts of his production crew and blog hosts.
authors, computer hacker, computer hacking, contemporary fiction, crime, crime fiction, cyber crime, cyber thriller, Deep Web Thriller, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, film 1492: Conquest of Paradise, hacking, Ian Sutherland, Invasion of Privacy, main characters, male writers, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, The Undercover Soundtrack, thriller, undercover soundtrack, Vangelis, web thriller, writers, writing, writing to music
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is Yasmin Selena Butt @YasminSelena
Soundtrack by Jeff Buckley, Death in Vegas, PiL, The Smashing Pumpkins, The Pixies, Nine-Inch Nails, Skunk Anansie, Garbage, Portishead, The Cure, Interpol, Cocteau Twins, Editors
If I hadn’t have become a novelist with a 36G chest, I would have been a rock star. I’m serious. You try learning electric guitar when you can’t see the strings, it’s dead tricky. Music is huge for me, HUGE. When I was 15, I made a decision not to live abroad because you couldn’t buy Smash Hits in Pakistan. Music back then was the only thing keeping me alive. It fuelled me. I couldn’t risk losing it.
It was a huge, creative fuel when penning my debut, Gunshot Glitter. The title might be familiar to you if you’re a fan of the singer, Jeff Buckley. If you’re not, it was a bonus track released on his posthumous album Sketches for my Sweetheart the Drunk. I loved the song, and, if I’m honest loved the title more. The song itself is lo-fi, distorted, wobbly but utterly impassioned.
Crime drama morality tale
In my novel, Gunshot Glitter is the name of an infamous London burlesque club. How would I describe the story? It’s the genre-bending story of an incinerated boy who never quite goes away; a morality tale, broadly a crime drama. I was thrilled it was shortlisted as a self-published read by The Guardian last year, along with the tome of my kind blog host Roz Morris. (Thanks! – Ed)
This year, I hope to give it the launch it deserves. It hasn’t had that yet for good reasons. Last year, I almost died of anaphylactic shock at a club on the launch of the print edition. It was a surreal way to discover you now possess a lethal shellfish and nut allergy. This year I hope to do the novel justice.
While writing it, I used mainly alternative music as a fuel to take me to the places where the characters go, especially Celine, the protagonist. And some of the songs I played also feature in the novel. When I listened to them, I got so immersed in the music, the songs become little stories within themselves, almost like an operetta with tragedy and pathos in spades running riot in my head. I made two CD compilations ‘Black Glitter’ and ‘Angry Glitter,’ depending on where I needed to go creatively, each featuring 18 songs. Black Glitter was achingly emotional, gut wrenching and tender.
Bands featured on Angry Glitter included Death in Vegas, PiL, The Smashing Pumpkins, The Pixies, Nine Inch Nails, Skunk Anansie. Garbage’s Vow from their debut album is amazingly powerful. I played this song literally on repeat when writing some of Celine’s pivotal scenes when she made some of the darkest decisions of her young life. Portishead’s incredibly sexy Strangers ended up featuring in a bittersweet memory for Cornelia:
She had been obsessed with Strangers with its melody full of dark, sexy suggestion. It turned her on. She even choreographed an examination piece to it. Cornelia put it on and, when it kicked in with its sleazy, dark electronic riff, she winced. Now she hated it. It reminded her of all she’d lost. It’s just music, she said fiercely through gritted teeth, ‘just music!’ Music could never punish her like her own guilt could.
The Cure is a band that bonds lovers Anis and Celine. I played Disintegration heavily when writing their more intense scenes. And Interpol’s Narc rears its head in the aftermath of their sex, like a shadow in the background on the wall. Other songs such as Blind, Dumb Deaf by The Cocteau Twins, was just powerful, no intelligible words as Liz Fraser doesn’t use them, but you can’t help but feel a strong sense of foreboding when you hear it, and, when I was getting inside protagonist’s Cornelia Friend’s twisted head this track made me think of her. It made me think of someone splintering on the inside, as did Editor’s Munich.
There is a darkness, intensity, danger, sorrow, passion and fury that dominates the music that literally leaches out onto the pages. When you have great music, fuelling your fingertips, you’re almost obliged to create an impressive result to justify the privilege of what you’re listening to.
When you read the behemoth or listen to the soundtrack, I’ll let your ears and eyes decide if the fifteen year old girl who grew up to write that novel, made the right call to coming home to grow up in London. I hope you believe that she did.
Yasmin Selena Butt was born and lives in London. She has worked in the Maldives as an English language trainer, freelanced in marketing and been published by The Times as a music writer. She has also written over a thousand poems, exhibited her fiction and photography and performed her debut reading at Proud Galleries in Camden. She adopted ‘Selena’ as her middle name in 2000, after meeting a concierge who told her the story of the naming of his own daughter, Yasmin Selena. She has since repaid the favour by naming a character in Gunshot Glitter after him. Gunshot Glitter is available from Amazon, Kobo and Smashwords and in print from her website. Tweet her as @YasminSelena
authors, Black Glitter, burlesque, Cocteau Twins, contemporary fiction, crime fiction, crime novelist, crime novels, Death in Vegas, Desert Island Discs, drama, Editors, entertainment, Facebook, Garbage, Gunshot Glitter, Interpol, Jeff Buckley, London, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, near-death experience, Nine Inch Nails, PiL, playlist for writers, Portishead, rock star, Roz Morris, Skunk Anansie, Smashing Pumpkins, The Cure, The Pixies, The Smashing Pumpkins, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music, Yasmin Selena Butt
My guest this week swears that if her chest hadn’t obscured her view of her guitar, she’d have been a rock star. Some of her early life decisions were dictated by the need to be connected to music, and when she wrote her crime novel set in a London burlesque club, she had two flavours of playlist – angry and dark. Fiction nearly became reality when she had a near-death experience at her book launch – which I was startled to hear because I remember when her cheerful invitations were circulating on Facebook. Thankfully she lived to tell the tale. She is Yasmin Selena Butt and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
authors, burlesque, contemporary fiction, crime fiction, crime novelist, crime novels, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, Facebook, Gunshot Glitter, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, near-death experience, playlist for writers, rock star, Roz Morris, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music, Yasmin Selena Butt
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s post is by NYT bestselling author and ghostwriter Joni Rodgers @JoniRodgers
Soundtrack by Dick Dale & the Del Tones, The Playboys, Rockin’ Rebels, The Ventures, The Trashmen, The Tremolo Beer Gut, Propellerheads, Shirley Bassey, Fabulous Playboys, B-52s, Booker T & the MGs, Dave Brubeck, Archie Bell & the Drells, Caroline Savoie, Hanson, Cake, Nancy Sinatra, Duffy, Amy Winehouse,
Kill Smartie Breedlove is the story of a Shep, a dishonored cop, and Smartie, a pulp fiction writer, who is convinced that Shep’s employer, divorce attorney Suri Fitch, is behind the murders of several of her clients’ inconvenient exes. It is the most fun I’ve ever had writing a book – ever – and was born out of a pure pleasure reading/listening binge of pulp fiction (hardboiled mysteries of the 1930-60s) and ‘pulp music': electric guitar and percussion-driven beats embodied by Dick Dale & the Del Tones’ Misirlou – which a lot of people associate with the movie Pulp Fiction. The Playboys’ Cheater Stomp actually gave me the original working title.
As I absorbed a plotting masterclass from Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the vaguely nerdy vibe of the music took me to a creative place that was fun and full of reckless energy, a semi-cool throw-back to horn-rimmed glasses and pencil pants. The Dick Dale channel on Pandora features The Ventures, Rockin’ Rebels and other old-timers along with gritty off-beat wonders like The Trashmen and a Danish band called The Tremolo Beer Gut. These instrumentals are driven machine-gun percussion and gritty electric guitar leads. They’re a bit reminiscent of the theme music from The Munsters – which might explain the macabre undertones that rumble and rise throughout the book, which has a lot of ‘whistling past the graveyard’.
Rhythm and sense memory
Two songs that anchored me to my original vision with rhythm, lyrics and sense-memory: Propellerheads (featuring Shirley Bassey) History Repeating and The Fabulous Playboys Nervous. Archie Bell and the Drells Tighten Up always reminds me of exactly what I love about Houston, which is very Southern but very urban.
Roam by the B-52s plugged me into the quirky artistic tourism that compels dysfunctional Smartie to observe people and extrapolate their backstories. Dave Brubeck’s classic Take Five and Booker T & the MGs’ Green Onions perfectly capture the plodding procedural aspect of Shep’s work and the patiently canny way he goes about his daily grind.
Both Shep and Smartie are widowed, and a collection of cover versions of Bill Withers’ Ain’t No Sunshine kept me mindful of how that terrible loss motivated and defined them. Two of my favorite covers are Caroline Savoie and Hanson. (Seriously! As in ‘MmmBop’ Hanson. They grew up. Sort of.)
Divorce attorney Suri Fitch’s calculating brilliance (and Shep’s ill-timed attraction to her) steps out of Cake’s Short Skirt Long Jacket, while the transformative sorrow, betrayal and bitterness she sees (and generates) in her business are present in Nancy Sinatra’s Bang Bang, Duffy’s Stepping Stone and Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black.
One of my favorite aspects of this novel was the chance to write about the publishing industry with a bit of the ol’ gimlet eye. Smartie and her critique-mates, a group of women authors called the Quilters, approach writing life with a wistful pragmatism best expressed by Nancy Sinatra remixing one of her dad’s standards, This Town.
Amy Winehouse, Archie Bell, Archie Bell & the Drells, authors, B-52s, Booker T & the MGs, Cake, Caroline Savoie, contemporary fiction, crime, crime fiction, Dashiell Hammett, Dave Brubeck, Desert Island Discs, Dick Dale, Dick Dale & the Del Tones, drama, Duffy, entertainment, Fabulous Playboys, Hanson, Joni Rodgers, Kill Smartie Breedlove, League of Extraordinary Authors, murder, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Mystery, Nail Your Novel, Nancy Sinatra, noir, Part Goose, Part Swan, playlist for writers, Propellerheads, pulp fiction, Raymond Chandler, Rockin’ Rebels, Roz Morris, Shirley Bassey, Smartie Breedlove, Swoosie Kurtz, The Playboys, The Trashmen, The Tremolo Beer Gut, The Undercover Soundtrack, The Ventures, undercover soundtrack, Whistling past the graveyard, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music
My guest this week is another old-timer on The Undercover Soundtrack. She returns with a playful story about a dishonoured cop and a pulp fiction writer who investigate a series of murders. Her soundtrack is sassy, full of fun and energy, but also undershot with an awareness of the tragic and macabre. She is Joni Rodgers and she’ll be here on Wednesday with the Undercover Soundtrack to her hardboiled mystery homage, Kill Smartie Breedlove.
authors, contemporary fiction, crime, crime fiction, Dashiel Hammett, Desert Island Discs, detective fiction, drama, entertainment, hardboiled mystery, Joni Rodgers, Kill Smartie Breedlove, macabre, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Mystery, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, pulp fiction, pulp fiction writer, Raymond Chandler, Roz Morris, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s post is by crime novelist TJ Cooke @Timscribe
There is rarely a day when I don’t listen to music. Occasionally I listen whilst actually writing, but rarely, as I find it too distracting. However I will often be listening to something just before a stint at the PC or laptop.
Sometimes I choose a piece which tends to inspire creativity, to help develop a specific character, scene or location. On other occasions it works in reverse. I will actually be working on something and it will remind me of a specific piece of music. Either way music has always helped the creative juices flow.
Lead character Jim Harwood, who narrates, has a passionate but all too brief liaison with the seductive Sarena. Her sudden disappearance from his life is something he finds hard to come to terms with. This powerful song evokes both loss and desire. Not only does it resonate with his feelings, but also with a key location in the story, Beachy Head cliffs. It is synonymous with the film Quadrophenia, being from the album of the same name, but conjures up far more. I remember driving along the clifftop coast road with Love Reign O’er Me by The Who playing loudly… thinking about Sarena’s demise, and how Jim had lost his fleeting but passionate love.
I couldn’t write this without devoting a song to Elton. In a way he’s the star of the show and was based on a character I knew way back when. Elton doesn’t fit neatly into any box. He has serious mental health issues which manifest themselves into bizarre ‘episodes’. Sometime he will appear quite ‘normal, only to morph seconds later into a caricature who spouts random words, song lyrics and general ‘nonsense’. Lack of proper funding for the mentally ill means there are way too many Eltons trapped in the criminal justice system. Talking Heads often tackled challenging issues. I often listened to Once in a Lifetime before writing some of Elton’s more obscure dialogue.
I’m pretty sure that unorthodox lawyer Jim Harwood would be a Captain Beefheart fan, probably on the quiet. It fits in with his flippant and sometimes chaotic character, which grates against the rigid structures of the law. Jim’s own demons mean that he invariably seeks a place to escape from it all, his Clear Spot.
Jon Anderson’s unique voice, probably the antithesis of other ‘rock’ leads, has an earthy connectivity. There’s a section in the book where Jim is driving back from the south coast having just done something quite despicable. Traumatised by events, he starts to hallucinate as visions of Sarena’s dead body etch themselves onto his car windscreen. I’ll Find My Way Home would be playing on his CD, as his path to redemption kicks in.
What a voice Joni Mitchell has, and in The Pirate of Penzance she uses it skilfully to create a truly atmospheric piece of music. I recall listening to this song before penning some of the darker narrative in Defending Elton. It isn’t indicative of a specific moment, more of general mood. I always find it haunting.
Kiss and Tell
Marta’s Song by Deep Forest and sung by Hungarian singer Marta Sebestyen helped me to picture the character of Bella in Kiss and Tell. She is a Hungarian national who lost both parents in a car crash before coming to Britain with her brother. Her brother then abused her by forcing her to work for his drug smuggling ring. This piece of music is evocative of a lost soul.
Many of my characters’ songs follow a particular journey in life. When I was trying to imagine what the character of Jimmy was like when younger,Squeeze’s Cool for Cats sprang to mind. Like many of their songs it has sharp urban lyrics. Jimmy was hiding his criminal exploits from Jill. His ‘Jack the lad’ image was just a front, but it had devastating consequences.
Louis Armstrong has a beautiful and distinctive voice. When we pick up Jill Shadow’s story 12 years on, with her ex Jimmy now released from prison, she is unsure how to deal with feelings reawakened. I listened to We Have All The Time In The World, which helped me to empathise with Jill. It conjures up the immense hope that is offered by young love. When we’re young we have little understanding of the realities of time or growing old, or of the frailty of our ‘first love’.
There are various themes of ‘truth’ throughout both Kiss and Tell and Defending Elton. It’s a theme I struggled with myself when younger. I had been denied truth by my adoptive parents, and could never understand why my adoption was treated as taboo. Some years later I worked in the criminal justice system, where I discovered that truth was often a football kicked about by both sides in an adversarial game. I became wary of accepting ‘truth’ at face value, and it’s no surprise that it features as a theme in my writing… Cue John Lennon and Gimme Some Truth.
TJ Cooke, otherwise known as Tim, was formerly a lawyer before becoming a legal adviser to television dramas in the UK . He went on to write many hours of broadcast drama himself, notching up writing credits for some of UK’s most popular series. He is the author of two crime fiction novels Kiss and Tell and Defending Elton, and has an inventive take on the genre. Tim currently lives in Devon, UK. For further details, and to follow his blog, visit his website or follow on Twitter as @timscribe.
authors, Beachy Head cliffs, Captain Beefheart, crime fiction, crime novelist, crime novels, Deep Forest, Defending Elton, Desert Island Discs, drama, Eastenders, entertainment, John Lennon, Jon and Vangelis, Joni Mitchell, Kiss and Tell, Louis Armstrong, male writers, Marta Sebestyen, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, Quadrophenia, Roz Morris, Squeeze, Talking Heads, The Undercover Soundtrack, The Who, TJ Cooke, undercover soundtrack, writers, writing, writing to music
- 'Constant murmur of pouring rain, piano chords and a stormy sea'
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- 'Simple, beautiful - gripping'
- 'So original it's in a class of its own'
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- 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'