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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 my guest is editor and author Aaron Sikes @SikesAaron
I go for instrumental over vocal music when I write. Spoken or sung lyrics are a distraction. My mind wants to catch the words and hold them long enough to get immersed in the experience of the song. But with orchestral or ambient electronic music, my imagination is free to roam through my story worlds.
My serialized novel, Gods of Chicago, was drafted to the title track of Joe Satriani’s Time Machine. Satch paints pictures with melody, and every one of his songs can bring an image to mind. Listening to Time Machine as I wrote brought to mind scenes of dirigibles soaring overhead while automatons march on the streets below. Radio signals beep and crackle through the air from spires and beacons. Bootleggers’ sedans rumble down back alleys, and my protagonist, a hard-boiled newshawk named Mitchell Brand, races around the city to find the answers nobody else seems to care about. Following on the tail of Time Machine, I happened upon a mind-blowing noir soundtrack by Josh Pfieffer of Vernian Process (DJ Fact.50). The Mixcloud of his DJ set, Noir Jazz and Swing, saw me through first round revisions.
As I moved into deeper revisions, I got turned onto three soundtracks. I started with Hans Zimmer’s score for The Dark Knight. The moody atmospheric quality of the music was a perfect fit for the noir landscape of my story, and the score really helped me get under Brand’s skin a lot better.
In early drafts of the character, I had him as a mashup of Edward R Murrow and Philip Marlowe as played by Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep. This gave Brand a rough exterior and a hard nose for news, but he lacked depth of feeling, and I couldn’t get into his motivation well enough to fix that problem. Once I had The Dark Knight soundtrack playing in the background, I quickly found Brand’s core as a WWI veteran, and much more than the ronin I’d originally thought him to be. He’s still a man obsessed with truth, but he’s also a would-be father to the three newsboys who answer to him. That puts a softer edge to the character, making him feel more like a real person.
I’ve also written to Zimmer’s score for Inception and Daft Punk’s soundtrack for Tron Legacy, which have been incredible for helping me visualize major action scenes, flight and escape scenes, and moments of peril faced by all the major characters in the story. The ambient symphonic quality of both soundtracks is also responsible for me discovering how much more my supporting cast has to say. Previous drafts were Brand-centric, but now I have two major POV characters in addition to Brand, and each supporting cast member gets a little air time of their own.
Last but not least, when it comes to editing, I change gears and go with Adrian Legg – Guitars and Other Cathedrals. The exacting and fluid brilliance of Legg’s fingerstyle playing calms down all thoughts of action and suspense and puts me right into editor mode, smoothing out clunky prose, fixing typos, and ensuring clarity.
Aaron Sikes has been writing and editing full-time since late 2011. Gods of Chicago is his first full-length novel and he has previously had three stories published in anthologies by independent presses. Find him on Twitter @SikesAaron or visit his website http://www.ajsikes.com. He is also one half of the editing/formatting duo, The Wordwrights, with fellow author Colin F Barnes.
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You could divide my Undercover Soundtrack guests into those who aren’t put off by lyrics and those who are. My guest this week is one of the latter. He says that music with lyrics is too domineering when he’s trying to write – but that orchestral or ambient electronic music sets his imagination free to roam. His novel is a quirky noir of dirigibles, automata, back alleys and a hardboiled hack (the bipedal journalistic sort, not an equine), and his central character was honed by long hours simmering with Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack for The Dark Knight. He is Aaron Sikes and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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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 romance novelist and Novelicious founder Kirsty Greenwood @kirstybooks
Soundtrack by Jeff Buckley, Fairground Attraction, Phoenix, Carole King, John Grant, Grease 2, George Fenton, Color Me Badd, Bobby Helms, Skeeter Davis, Rosemary Clooney, Duke Ellington, Stacey Kent, Best Coast, Stevie Wonder, Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, George Gershwin, Rufus Wainwright, Ella Fitzgerald, Toni Braxton, Ani Difranco
I always intended to have a career in music. Encouraged by musically minded parents, my sisters and I spent much of our teenage time singing in harmony. We were cool that way. Known for our rendition of The Andrews Sisters’ Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, we performed in local pubs, at karaoke, family birthday parties and such. We still get asked to perform Boogie Woogie, but it’s not quite so adorable now we’re in our 30s. At 22 I studied music at college, sang, learned to play the guitar and wrote whimsical/folksy pop songs. I won a ‘Song of the Year’ award and wrote and sang for a local bhangra/pop producer. Music was my everything. Shortly after getting my degree, I was hit with a period of bipolar depression that lasted for over a year. I stopped performing and lost all interest in pursuing music professionally. During my recovery I started to write romantic comedy – writing fiction is remarkably similar in process to writing songs (both crafted in terms of story, rhythm, theme, timbre, pace and texture) – and found it to be hugely enjoyable as well as restorative.
A creative place
I use music to quickly access a creative state, particularly if I’m procrastinating on a book or I’m having a day when I don’t feel like writing jokes. So before a writing session I’ll listen to songs that buoy my spirits, energise and inspire me. Jeff Buckley (Mojo Pin, Vancouver and So Real are all shortcuts to a mood lift), John Grant’s Queen of Denmark album, Carole King’s Tapestry, Eddi Reader, Phoenix, Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, Rufus Wainwright, Ella Fitzgerald, plenty of 80s power ballads and, er, the Grease 2 soundtrack which just straight up makes me laugh.
When deep into writing I love the easy companionship of music, but find anything lyrical too entertaining and end up singing along. I’ll listen to classical music and film instrumentals, particularly Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, George Gershwin and George Fenton, whose You’ve Got Mail soundtrack really helped me to get into a jaunty, ‘romcom’ mind-set for Yours Truly, as well as making me think about Nora Ephron and how I need to try harder.
Back to the 90s
My debut novel, Yours Truly, gave me a legitimate excuse to listen to lots of 90s pop. My leading man, Riley, has a thing for the supremely cheesy band Color Me Badd (they had one hit song, it was called I Wanna Sex You Up), and there’s a sex scene set to Toni Braxton’s extra randy You’re Making Me High. Music was used to bond the main characters, as it does so much in real life. Riley, an amateur musician, sings little off-the-cuff ditties to Natalie in order to woo her, and she is constantly amused by his willingness to expose his 90s pop ‘fanboying’.
I’m now writing my second book. It’s called The Vintage Guide to Love and Romance (published June 2014 with Pan Macmillan) and is the first in a series. One of the central characters, Matilda Beam, is a 77-year-old writer who can’t let go of her 1950s glory days. When my protagonist, Jess, meets Matilda, she’s sitting in a grand, cluttered room, listening to a Bobby Helms record on repeat. I find the melodies of most of his songs melancholy and the hefty reverb used on his voice makes it sound otherwordly and creepy. I wanted to provide a soundtrack for the scene that would give the audience an immediate insight into Matilda’s state of mind and also to freak out the thoroughly modern and lively Jess.
I have a dedicated Spotify playlist for The Vintage Guide to Love and Romance. These are the songs I’ve listened to in order to connect with characters and emotions, or to help me get to the ambience of a scene more clearly. The most often played tracks on there are:
End of the World (Skeeter Davis): Hauntingly beautiful, lonely and lost. A soundtrack for Matilda Beam in 2013.
Sophisticated Lady (Rosemary Clooney, Duke Ellington): Sultry and smoky, this song perfectly embodied the young Matilda Beam as a socialite and writer in the 50s. When I listen to this, I think of her being spun across the dance floor at some fabulous New York party.
Wishin’ and Hopin’ (Ani Difranco): I saw a tongue in cheek video for this song on the opening credits to My Best Friend’s Wedding and it mirrors the way Matilda Beam believes women ought to behave in order to find love. Its ludicrousness always makes me laugh and Ani Difranco’s raspy voice sounds so damn sexy in it.
This Can’t Be Love (Stacey Kent): The main romantic relationship in The Vintage Guide to Love and Romance is kind of screwball in nature with fast dialogue, disagreements and a touch of slapstick. This charming little song always puts me in mind of that.
Up All Night (Best Coast): I don’t know much about this band, but I stumbled upon this song on YouTube before I began work on the book and immediately felt it was a perfect fit for the character of Jessica Beam. It’s bursting with youthful longing and excess. I listen to this on repeat before working on emotionally charged Jess scenes.
And there you have my Undercover Soundtrack. Thanks so much for having me, Roz!
Kirsty Greenwood is an author of comedy romances, founding editor of Novelicious.com and director of the Novelicious Books imprint. She likes American TV, green clothes, Point Horror, Kristen Wiig and funny stories. She doesn’t like the Ironside theme tune or the phrase ‘nom, nom, nom’. Yours Truly is out now (Pan Macmillan). Find her on Facebook and tweet her on @Kirstybooks
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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 award-winning crime writer Terrence McCauley @tmccauley_nyc
People who know me or have read my work may be surprised by how much music influences my writing. I don’t listen to music when I write or even edit, but at other times, a chance song on the radio or browsing the musical selection on my phone can help spark an idea for a scene or an entire story line.
The best examples are the novels I’ve written. The first – Prohibition – is a crime novel set in 1930 with an opening scene of the protagonist stalking someone through the cold, lonely streets of New York City. One could be forgiven for believing that scene was inspired by any number of noir movies – of which I am a huge fan – but in this case, they’d be wrong. The opening scene was inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s song Murder Incorporated. When I heard that song for the first time, the drum beats that open the song reminded me of footsteps echoing on an empty street as someone is fleeing for their life. The sax sounded like car horns blaring past the unfortunate man now on the run.
The ending of the novel (which I won’t give away here) was inspired by 3 Doors Down’s Love Me When I’m Gone, a mournful tune that fit the ending of the book rather nicely.
Hard luck cases
My novella Fight Card: Against the Ropes is a prequel to Prohibition and details the protagonist’s boxing career before he became a mob enforcer. The protagonist – Quinn – has always had his own soundtrack in my mind that was different from the over all soundtrack of whatever story in which he appears. In Against The Ropes, Quinn’s soundtrack comes to the fore: Everlast’s What It’s Like is a song about hard luck hard cases, a description that fits the Quinn character nicely. The ending of the book, where Quinn accepts the inevitable end of his boxing career and agrees to become an enforcer for the very men who have ruined his career, was inspired by the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil. The crafty, patient villainy of the song seemed appropriate for Quinn’s acquiescence of a life of crime.
The third book I have out now, Slow Burn by Noir Nation Books, is also set in 1930s New York, but the protagonist is a police detective named Charlie Doherty. He’s a corrupt, impure Tammany Hall hack and a man whose life is on a downward spiral. His wife left him, his career is ending in ignominy and he’s running out of reasons to get up in the morning. The melancholy, yet strong song Better than Me by Hinder suited Doherty well and I wrote the story with that tune in mind. Some people who have read Slow Burn think Dean Martin’s Ain’t That a Kick in the Head inspired the ending. But I thought of a more triumphant, slightly cocky song. How You Like Me Now by The Heavy worked best and it gave me inspiration for the ending scenes.
Music doesn’t only influence the beginning and ends of my books. I also draw inspiration from music for other types of scenes I write. For more sentimental scenes, I listen to the theme from The Shawshank Redemption soundtrack or Now We Are Free by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard from the Gladiator soundtrack. The Band Perry’s If I Die Young inspired me to write a few scenes for a western I’m working on now called The Devil’s Cut.
My work tends to have a lot of violence and action, and music plays a role in my crafting of those scenes as well. House of Pain’s Jump Around as well as Rob Zombie’s Super Charger Heaven have hard, edgy, fast-moving tempos that get the juices flowing and help me create scenes that pop.
Terrence P. McCauley is an award winning crime writer. His latest novel, Slow Burn, is currently available in e-book format from Noir Nation Books on Amazon. His other books Prohibition, published by Airship 27, and Fight Card: Against the Ropes (Fight Card Books) are also available on Amazon. His website is here and you can follow him on Twitter @tmccauley_nyc and Facebook.
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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 scientist, writer, Russian speaker and aliased musician Grigory Ryzhakov @GrigoryRyzhakov
I write in silence. It helps me to dive into the world of a story. Some people listen to music while they write; I listen to it before I write. I also listen to music when I walk to and from work through the streets of Fulham, south-west London, while plotting just another scene. Music replenishes my creative energy for writing and for science.
At times, I can’t find the right music, so I compose my own. My first self-published novelette Usher Syndrome was inspired like that: I wrote Cabaret Song, in which my character Agie describes her transformation from man to woman in a cheeky manner.
A year after it was written I attended a London concert of a M-F transsexual gospel singer My Lady J and bought her album. When I embarked on writing Pumpkin Day, a comic adventure sequel to the first Agie’s story, I really needed to be in Agie’s quirky spirit. So I listened a lot to My Pink Prada Purse by My Lady J at the time.
Music was also very important to me when I first started writing fiction seven years ago. My so far unpublished and untitled Russian-language sci-fi novel contains several episodes of gripping action. I listened to the Inception film soundtrack by Hans Zimmer to get myself in the mood for writing them. Thumping drums and basses associated in my mind with escalating threat of peril, I could feel the adrenaline rush as if I was at my character’s side. This music affected the way I wrote those action scenes: with shorter sentences, rhyming syllables, like gunshots. No room for reflection.
On the other hands, some parts of this book were quieter. In one chapter I introduced a secondary character, an international singing sensation and the opera diva Dez. When I wanted to describe her lofty performance on stage, I thought about what music would she sing. I listened to many pieces of Russian classical music and surprisingly my choice fell on Alexander Skryabin’s Poem of Fire.
I imagined vocal parts Dez would sing. She was like a tiny pure raindrop fighting the forest fire, I imagined the modern arrangement of Skryabin’s music, its mysticism, its symbolic meaning (the poem is also called Prometheus), and I thought just how well it suited Dez, her own mysterious aura. You may think the result would be a cacophony, but in my head it worked really well.
Right and Wrong
My upcoming book Mr Right and Mr Wrong, which I completed writing at the beginning of March, is a romantic comedy with elements of science, like all of my writing. Since it belongs to a rather light rom-com genre I listened to songs of Will Young and the Love Actually film soundtrack to get into the right mood. In Mr Right and Mr Wrong the heroine Chloe meets two men individually on the same day, she likes both of them and has trouble of choosing her Mr Right with all the funny and not-so-funny consequences following.
One of them is a DJ and songwriter, and some of the scenes occur in the nightclub. I’m not a regular clubber, so I was glued to the UK top 100 chart. Club music can be quite aggressive, while my story is a light-hearted comedy, so I tried choosing tracks with quirky, satirical lyrics. There is no space to name dozens of songs I listened to: my favourites are Thrift Shop by Maclemore, Black Heart by Stooshe and maybe I Fucked Up, a melancholic synth-pop track from Madonna’s new album, which I use as my phone’s ringtone. You can imagine the look on people’s faces when I receive a call.
In some alternative reality I am not a scientist or a writer, but probably a rock-singer like my idols David Bowie and Radiohead’s Tom Yorke. A vain thought it may be, but what the heck, any thought is useful if it fuels our writing.
Currently dwelling in the cosmopolitan ecosystem of London, Grigory is a Russian molecular biologist who communicates his love of science through his fiction and blogging. In addition, he makes/performs music using an alias Grisha McArrow and deposits it on Soundcloud. His books are Becoming Agie, Usher Syndrome and Pumpkin Day. Mr Right and Mr Wrong is scheduled for launch soon. Find him on Twitter (@GrigoryRyzhakov) and at his blog www.ryzhakov.co.uk
GIVEAWAY Grigory is giving away 5 copies (Kindle or epub) of his two-part novelette Becoming Agie to commenters here. Leave a note to enter – and if you tweet or share on Facebook, G+ or other media, be sure to mention because that counts as extra entries too.
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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 books podcaster and Nikolas & Company author Kevin McGill @kevinonpaper
It’s midwinter in Texas, which means mild winter. A buddy and I have done what my 13-year-old self did with a few crumpled up dollar bills in my pocket and a vacation day: see a movie.
Carlyle and I sit in the movie theater, chatting on about our expectations of Tron 2.0. Disney had taken a gamble on reviving the Tron franchise, hoping that my 34-year old nostalgia would translate into box office sales. As the movie plays on, Disney’s gamble pays off in an unexpected way. The soundtrack, which had been composed by Daft Punk – a band reminiscent of New Wave, flipped a switch. Suddenly, old childhood movies flicker across my mind’s eye. Blade Runner, Mad Max, Ghostbusters, E.T., Indiana Jones, Buckaroo Banzai, Stand By Me. Then came the bands. Talking Heads, The Ramones, REM, Madonna, Michael Jackson. Finally, it just starts pouring out: Punky Brewster, Family Ties, Pong, Alf, jelly shoes. Nite Brite! Hi tops! Sweat bands! By the power of grayskull, I have the power!!!
Yes, friends. I was a child-of-the-80s sleeper agent, and had been activated by the Tron 2.0 soundtrack.
As a writer, I use music constantly to activate emotions, mood, character qualities – it is a crutch I happily lean against. I used no less than 15 different albums and soundtracks to guide me through Nikolas & Company.
Earth: Paradise Lost
The first 100 pages of my story jumps between a fantastic version of Moon set in the past, and a dystopian version of future Earth. It is in this imagined Earth that we meet our hero, Nikolas, and his company. Since my main cast is made up of teens and preteens, I had a bit of a challenge. I had to find music that hinted at a space age, while also tapping into my 13-year-old self. And no, I don’t mean what 13-year-old boys have in their Ipods today. I needed to drum up those teenage feelings about life, adventure, and parents who just didn’t understand me. Oddly enough, the best music turned out to be retro New Wave and other slightly quirky bands. A few favorite songs from the list were Arcade Fire’s Wake Up, Imogen Heap’s Hide and Seek (that’s for the girl scenes), and of course, Daft Punk’s Derezzed from Tron (which I’m listening to, right now). Also, the soundtrack for Firefly (Greg Edmonson) and the new Star Trek (Michael Giacchino) movie popped in and out.
Eventually, the story comes together in the magical world of Mon. For this fantastic version of Moon, Yann Teirsen and Bruno Coulais aided me in scenes about remedial classes filled with mythological students, half-marionette, half-arachnid guardians, and volcano-born nymphs. Loreena McKennitt and Zoe Keating provided the mystical, sombre moments. They got a lot of play during the winter months in Huron, or as Monites called it, Blue Moon days. Of course, let’s not forget the movie soundtracks. Any scenes where Nikolas is sleuthing or traipsing through the underground world of Huron required the new Sherlock Holmes’ Discombobulate (Hans Zimmer) and the Triplets of Belleville soundtrack (Benoit Charest).
What about you? What music awakens the sleeper agent in you? Where does it take you?
Kevin McGill is the mad writer of the Nikolas & Company series where the Moon is much more than we think, mermen walk on automaton legs and 14-year-old boys talk to cities in their heads. When not spinning Lunar yarns, Kevin hosts a weekly books podcast Guys Can Read along with his college buddy and co-host, Luke Navarro. Find Kevin’s blog here and contact him on Twitter @kevinonpaper
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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 suspense author and writing coach James Scott Bell @JamesScottBell
‘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.
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).
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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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 historical and speculative fiction author KM Weiland.
I’m a total non-musician. People ask me if I play, and my glib reply is always, ‘Sure, I play the radio’. My musical accomplishments span the gamut from plucking out My Dog Has Fleas on the guitar, a wheezy rendition of When the Saints Come Marching in on the harmonica (so long as I have the Harmonica Playing for the Spectacularly Untalented propped open in front of me), and pretty much any song you’d like to hear on the kazoo. (What’s that? You can’t think of a song you’d like to hear on the kazoo? Me neither.)
But for all of my very unmusicalness, I am a music drunkard. I am intoxicated by the magic of sound. Even more, I am endlessly fascinated by the power music possesses to tell perfect stories. Even the best of authors require hundreds of words to convey character, emotion, and theme. Musicians share their stories effortlessly and organically in just a few notes. As a writer, I’m determined to steal a little of that magic by imbibing copious amounts of music when writing.
For every story I write, there’s always a soundtrack of particular songs that influenced its evolution. For my medieval novel Behold the Dawn, those songs included everything from Loreena McKennitt’s simultaneously aggressive and dreamy Prologue / The Mummer’s Dance to Within Temptation’s tragic The Truth Beneath the Rose and Ronan Hardiman’s simple love song Take Me With You.
But probably the single greatest musical influence on this story was Hans Zimmer’s Gladiator soundtrack.
At the time of Behold the Dawn’s conception, I hadn’t seen the movie yet, so I knew next to nothing about the plot and was free to speculate according to the music. The story that arose whenever I listened was one of revenge and redemption, tragedy and love. The music—that brutal, sawing, bloody, thundering waltz of The Battle and Barbarian Horde and the earthy primal call of tracks such as The Wheat and Elysium —told the story growing in my head better than I could ever tell it on paper. The callused, hurting warrior knight Marcus Annan and the battered but unbroken noblewoman Lady Mairead lived within the music Zimmer wrote for a very different story. Themes danced in colors of olive green, yellowed sand, and blue as brilliant as the Middle Eastern sky. In one note, I could hear the whole story, see it spinning out in front of me to infinitude, then disappearing in the next instant as the music thundered on.
I took those feelings—and that music—to the keyboard with me, and I wrote it into my story. In so many ways the writing of that book was a special experience (one that often makes me wonder if it was unrepeatable), and I credit it to the music as much as anything else. I finally did get around to watching (and loving) Gladiator and was awed by the entirely different tale that had given birth to the music that had helped me give birth to my own story.
Every story I write is a journey through music. This melding of the arts gives me a power in my stories beyond my own ability with words. The deep emotion of the music breathes life into the characters and the themes to the point that I’m almost not creating at all, so much as transcribing the feelings in my chest. That’s the gift of music. That’s why I listen.
K.M. Weiland is the author of the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn. She enjoys mentoring other authors through her writing tips, her book Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration. You can find her on Twitter as @kmweiland
authors, Desert Island Discs, Gladiator, Gladiator soundtrack, Hans Zimmer, historical fiction, KM Weiland, Loreena McKennitt, music, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Ronan Hardiman, Roz Morris, soundtracks, speculative fiction, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Within Temptation, writers, writing to music
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 travel memoirist, novelist and blogger Catherine Ryan Howard @cathryanhoward
This past summer I sat down to write 70,000 words about a three-month backpacking trip I’d taken in Central America in early 2008. I soon found that while it was easy to remember the things we’d done (there was a travel blog, a travel journal, a well-thumbed copy of the Lonely Planet’s Central America on a Shoestring to refer to, a best friend to double-check with and a thousand photos to help jog my memory), I found myself struggling to recall—and so, recreate—exactly how I’d felt.
I turned to music for help.
There were songs we listened to while on the road that would’ve been obvious choices for memory-jogging, but I wasn’t trying to go back in time. (And I also find music with lyrics fatally distracting while writing.) What I was really trying to do was to create an authentic mood in the present similar to the mood I’d been in back then, that would enable me to write about the trip’s events with a depth of feeling that the passage of time might have otherwise made shallow.
And I found the perfect soundtrack—or soundtracks, rather. When you need music to help conjure up a specific feeling (and conjure it up quick), for me, there’s one obvious place to turn: movie soundtracks, which have been written to serve just that purpose.
The pick-up truck
I’m not exactly your typical backpacking gal (or even her third cousin twice removed) as the book’s title—Backpacked: A Reluctant Trip Across Central America—suggests. For the first month I had to bite back a growing desire to pick up my backpack and go home, and an anxiety about the fact that I hadn’t yet. This all changed when, quite by chance, I got to ride in the back of pick-up truck through the stunning highlands of Honduras where I realised how lucky I was to be experiencing such a thing. To help bring back that feeling of pure joy and sudden elation, I listened to Gumption, a piece by Hans Zimmer from The Holiday soundtrack.
For those thirty minutes, I constantly reminded myself that I was backpacking. That I was in Central America. That I was in Honduras. That I was in the back of a pick-up truck, headed to a Las Vegas that didn’t have a strip, climbing up a mountain covered in luscious tropical forest and while enjoying an uninterrupted view of the countryside that expanded with every turn of the wheel.
And I recognised what a privilege it was to experience such a thing, and I could forever consider myself lucky to have done it.
I thought, I am so lucky that I’m here. I’m so glad I came. This was a fantastic idea.
Me, the Starbucks addict.
Me, the five-star hotel devotee.
Me, the reluctant backpacker.
The only true fear I felt during our trip was when for a reason that is still a mystery to us, a bus we were travelling on got mobbed near the Honduran-Nicaraguan border. In the midst of it, our backpacks were stolen from the roof rack. It was hard to write this scene while preserving the confusion I felt while it was happening, to do it without diluting it with facts I’d learned since. Writing this, I listened to Iguazu by Gustavo Santaolalla, from The Insider soundtrack. It creates for me an atmosphere of underlying danger, sinister events that are unfolding quickly, and there’s something about it (the charango, maybe?) that evokes a feeling of a foreign, unfamiliar place.
We had to come home eventually and when it came time to leave, I became unexpectedly upset. Cruelly our travel plans had our second bus leaving as our first bus pulled into the station, and so our goodbyes to the rest of our six-strong travel group had to be done suddenly, speedily and unexpectedly. I wasn’t at all prepared — for saying goodbye, or for being upset having to. One of the most hauntingly sad pieces of music I know has a suitably sad title: The Letter That Never Came. It’s by Thomas Newman and from the soundtrack to Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. To me, it sounds like sadness with roots: a reflection on the past, a move into a new future, a person changed by the events in between. Perfect, in other words. I put it on repeat the night I wrote the last chapter and by the end—and ‘The End’—I was more upset than I’d be on the day!
It was all a bit like Dorothy at the end of Return to Oz when a stone-faced Ozma cruelly sends her back to Kansas before she’s ready.
Damn that Ozma.
And damn that bus.
We did our best to run around to everyone with a hug and a goodbye, but it was a quick scramble, and we needed to get on the bus, like, five minutes ago. We waved over our shoulders as we ran onto it, and grabbed two seats at the back.
The last we saw of our little group was Dan, sitting on everyone else’s backpacks in the bed of the pick-up, a half-smile, half-smirk on his face, waving to us as our bus pulled away.
As the scene faded from the view, Sheelagh and I turned away from the windows.
And started to cry.
Catherine Ryan Howard is a writer, blogger and self-publisher from Cork, Ireland. She is the author of two travel memoirs (Mousetrapped and Backpacked), a novel (Results Not Typical) and a ‘sane person’s guide to self-publishing’ (Self-Printed). She can usually be found dividing her time between the desk and the sofa, on Twitter at @cathryanhoward or blogging on www.catherineryanhoward.com.
And incidentally, in this festive season you can get episode 1 of My Memories of a Future Life for free on Kindle – but hurry to the Kindle store right now as the offer vanishes after December 30…
Backpacked, Catherine Ryan Howard, Free Kindle edition, Gustavo Santaolalla, Hans Zimmer, memoir, Mousetrapped, non-fiction, Results Not Typical, Self-Printed, soundtracks, The Red Season, The Undercover Soundtrack, Thomas Newman, travel, travel memoir, undercover soundtrack, writers, writing to music
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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'