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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 medieval literature scholar and metaphysical fantasy writer Alice Degan @ajdegan
Soundtrack by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Maddy Prior, Adele, Sarah Slean, Loreena McKennitt, Squirrel Nut Zippers
Before iTunes, making a mix of music to write to used to be this whole ritual. For me it was one of those great para-writing procrastination activities, like buying notebooks or clearing off your desk. I’d want to carefully select a track to go at the beginning of the CD, which served as a kind of invocation to set the mood as I sat down to write. Often this one would be a song that wasn’t musically appropriate to the setting, but had some apposite lyrics, or related thematically somehow. With From All False Doctrine, which I began after I had started migrating my music library onto my computer, things were a bit different. It was easier to create a soundtrack, which deprived the ritual of some of its distracting power, and it wasn’t necessary to select just one track to open with. Several different songs ended up playing that role of invocation.
Adding to the choir
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was the track that most often functioned as an entry point. It’s an exquisite piece that embroiders on the melody of one of my favourite hymns. It builds slowly and quietly, but reaches a dramatic climax. Listening to Vaughan Williams’s version calls to mind not so much the exact words of the hymn but its general theme and mood: a feeling of inadequacy in the face of greater powers, and a plea to God for the strength to add my own voice to a great choir. That spoke to me as I approached my writing, and it evoked the concerns of my main characters in their different pursuits.
If it’s the life you feel called to, it’s what you should live. If you’ll pardon the expression.’
‘ “Called. “’ He grinned up at her apologetically. “It implies there’s Someone to do the calling.’
‘It’s just a turn of phrase,’ she said sternly.
From All False Doctrine is set in the 1920s, but jazz music isn’t a major feature of the plot, and didn’t help in its creation either. Of course that’s partly due to my own musical tastes. But it’s also partly because the book is set in Toronto, which was still a fairly conservative city in the ’20s, not a hotbed of the kind of social and artistic innovation that we associate with the decade. A jazz soundtrack wouldn’t quite capture the mood of 1925 Toronto as I understand it. My story centres on the worlds of the university and the Anglican Church. My hero, Kit Underhill, is a young Anglo-Catholic priest in the working-class neighbourhood of Earlscourt, an area populated at the time mostly by English immigrants. Elsa Nordqvist, my heroine, is a classics student who has lost her faith in God but believes passionately in her academic calling.
The words to a number of hymns feature in the story, but I didn’t listen to most of these while writing: they’re songs I know from years in the pews, not from recordings. Jesu, lover of my soul, in Maddy Prior’s atypical rendition, was one I did play while writing, though it doesn’t get a mention in the story. Privately, though, I know that my characters like it: I think of it as expressing something of Kit’s spirituality while at the same time evoking Elsa’s Protestant upbringing.
Then there are songs that evoke just the right mood even though the style and lyrics may have no obvious connection to the story. One of those for this book was Adele’s Set Fire to the Rain, which spoke perfectly of the unhappiness of a secondary character, Harriet Spencer, a charismatic young woman who is abandoned by her fiancé. (Come to think of it, she looks a little bit like Adele, especially in that video!) Sarah Slean’s Society Song evokes something of Elsa’s relationship to propriety: it’s a defiant, upbeat song that made a nice contrast to the more contemplative tracks on my list.
Star of the County Down is the shiftless fiancé’s theme. A classic folk song about a determined suitor, it’s also very close in its tune to another hymn, I heard the voice of Jesus say, so it evokes two aspects of this character for me. I have several recordings, but the one I had on the False Doctrine soundtrack was Loreena McKennitt’s rendition from The Wind That Shakes the Barley.
Finally, because of the turn that the story takes towards the end, the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ Hell made it onto the soundtrack.
He reached for her hands and then stopped. ‘At midnight my soul—whatever that may be—is forfeit to that thing and its Master. Do you think I would hesitate to throw you to him, to save myself?’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘You are hesitating right now.’
I’m working on a sequel now, and the song I use to get in the mood (this is a slight spoiler) is Sarah Slean’s Angel.
Alice Degan is an academic and novelist who lives in Toronto. She studies and teaches medieval literature, and writes fantasy and something she likes to call metaphysical romance. From All False Doctrine, a supernatural mystery wrapped in a 1920s comedy of manners, is her first published novel. She also has a series of urban fantasy stories involving a collection of misfit otherworldly characters who live above a bakery. You can find her on Twitter as @ajdegan, or on her website.
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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 bestselling historical fiction author Helen Hollick @HelenHollick
The Time : The Golden Age of Piracy – 1716. The Place : The South African Coast to the Caribbean.
Before writing Sea Witch, music was mere background noise. Meeting my pirate, Captain Jesamiah Acorne, changed that. Was this because I went indie, or does Jesamiah require more ‘audio colour’?
Music enhances the mental process of writing. I ‘see’ scenes as if watching a movie; a soundtrack brings them to life. I start with Mike Oldfield. I heard Tubular Bells in 1973 when it was first released. It remains a favourite, only overtaken by subsequent versions. This track is inspiring; it hurls me into the world of imagination. I listen to this when I need to empty my mind and ‘timeslip’ into the past.
Going indie and the pirate route
I went indie after my mainstream publisher dropped my backlist – The Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy : The Kingmaking, Pendragon’s Banner, Shadow of the King, and my novel of the 1066 Battle of Hastings, Harold the King (US title: I Am The Chosen King). My ex-agent also dropping me, strengthened my resolve to self-publish. I had nothing to prove, and being an indie author keeps me in control.
Sea Witch joined my reclaimed novels in print. This was a leap of faith in my ability as a writer, and the popularity of Jesamiah; who doesn’t like pirate adventures? According to publishers, though, pirates are not popular. What about Jack Sparrow? The first Pirates of the Caribbean movie was not intended to be taken seriously, but where were similar adult novels with adult situations? Finding nothing, I gave up the search and wrote the book I wanted to read.
The plot developed while I was on holiday. I had my heroine, Tiola, a healer and a white witch; secondary characters, and the ship, Sea Witch. But not my dashing Captain. I gazed at the sea listening to another Mike Oldfield : Sentinel from Tubular Bells II. And there stood Jesamiah in full pirate regalia. Blue ribbons in his black hair, a gold acorn dangling from his ear. He touched one finger to his hat, nodded. ‘Hello Jesamiah Acorne,’ I said. That track always makes me think of his enigmatic character; quick to laugh, formidable when angry. As skilled with a cutlass as he is in bed. A man who values his freedom, and the woman he loves.
Jesamiah is a treasured friend, although with each voyage I discover more about him. He gets easily into fights, and do not get into a drinking contest with him – he’ll win. He pays too much attention to a pretty face (or the anatomy slightly below the face!) but despite his indiscretions he is devoted to Tiola.
Another Oldfield selection is Weightless Tubular Bells II – for Jesamiah and Tiola to make love to. (Superb Video, although nothing to do with the sea.)
On the sea
I’ve never been on a moving ship and have no idea of nautical matters; instead, I devour O’Brien, Forrester and Julian Stockwin. I use imagination for the swaying of the ship, hear wind in the sails and the creaking of the hull. To be on deck, feeling the rise and dip of her bow as Sea Witch ploughs through the waves. Muse music is Promontory from Last Of The Mohicans … The swaying rhythm and grand majesty of a ship and the sea…
Sea Witch opens with pirates giving chase for a prize. Suitable inspiration for writing fights: Master and Commander. Later, Jesamiah is pursued by pirate hunters. He is injured, and the streets of Cape Town might become his graveyard. Tiola senses his difficulty and must find him before he bleeds to death.
Recovering, Jesamiah realises he is in love, a realisation nudged by a rival for Tiola’s affections. But Jesamiah also has his love of freedom and the sea. With the opportunity to acquire a ship he must make a choice – the ship, or Tiola. The Old Ways by Loreena McKennitt captures that moment when the call of the sea is greater than love.
No spoilers; suffice to say he sails away without Tiola… The question, over and over, in Enigma’s : Why?
Initially, Sea Witch was a stand-alone novel but Jesamiah stole my heart; Pirate Code followed, then Bring It Close, which includes the notorious Blackbeard. One of the delights of writing ‘made up’ novels, as opposed to based-on-fact historical fiction, is the freedom to manipulate true events while remaining plausible. In Bring It Close, Jesamiah masterminded Blackbeard’s demise, but states:
I do not want my name writ in any record book.’
Which is why you will not find him in historical documents.
Back to Sea Witch: The lovers reunite when Jesamiah is again in danger. Tiola rescues him… except this is a chance for Tethys, Goddess of the Sea, to take Jesamiah for her own. Cue Enigma’s I love you, I’ll kill you. Is love more powerful than greed? The final scenes were an emotional conclusion. I put my heart and soul into Sea Witch – it is for those of us who seek escapism, adventure and passion within the pages of a book. A ship glides across a calm sea, sails filled with a following wind. A man stands at the helm: Mike Oldfield Misty Tr3s Lunar.
Helen Hollick lives in Devon, UK and hit the USA Today bestseller list with her novel The Forever Queen. Her full booklist including The Sea Witch Voyages is available here, her website is here, her blog is Of History And Kings, you can also find her on Facebook and on Twitter. Find an even more extensive list of the songs that inspired Jesamiah here.
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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 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
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The Undercover Soundtrack is a weekly series by writers who use music as part of their creative process – special pieces that have revealed a character to them, or populated a mysterious place, or enlarged a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by dark fantasy author Teresa Frohock @TeresaFrohock
Soundtrack by Loreena McKennitt
My first step in writing has always been the compilation of a soundtrack. I look for music that conveys a mood and brings to mind a character’s essence, a trigger if you will, that makes me see a living person in my mind. I’ve loved Loreena McKennitt’s music from the first time I heard All Souls Night from her CD The Visit. Her music was a perfect fit for the ethereal mood I wanted to create for my novel Miserere, and its soundtrack was comprised entirely of her work.
There were three songs in particular that I used for my main characters. Lucian’s song was The Mystic’s Dream. At the beginning of the piece, men’s voices create the atmosphere and bring to mind Eastern Orthodox churches. The chant builds to become more intense as McKennitt’s voice rises to take control of the arrangement. She carries the song away from the men and pushes the notes forward without looking back.
Whenever I played The Mystic’s Dream I could see Lucian, determined to break free of his situation in spite of his fear. The lyrics, “Clutched by the still of the night / And now I feel you move / Every breath is full / So it’s there my homage’s due / Clutched by the still of the night / Even the distance feels so near / All for the love of you,” encapsulate everything about Lucian’s love for Rachael. By the end of the song, I can see Lucian standing on a precipice, looking over the Wasteland, triumphant that he has made a beginning, however slight, to take his fate into his own hands and find his way home.
Sorrow, longing and defiance
For Rachael and Catarina, I used two songs from the Elemental CD. Rachael’s song was Kellswater. The lyrics aren’t as meaningful to me as the way the song is arranged and how the music makes me feel. I’ve always been able to tune out the words and hear McKennitt’s voice as if it is another instrument. Kellswater is a lonely song, full of sorrow and longing for a love that was, and for a love lost. Yet McKennitt sings the song with a quiet determination and a hint of defiance that makes it perfect for Rachael.
Catarina has none of Rachael’s regrets. Catarina’s scenes and a few of Lucian’s were written to Lullaby in which Douglas Campbell recites Blake’s poem Prologue, Intended for a Dramatic Piece of King Edward the Fourth. The piece opens with the sound of thunder in the background, then McKennitt’s voice floats in beneath the storm with a haunting lullaby that gains prominence only to recede and give way to Campbell’s throaty recitation of Blake’s poem. I could see Catarina, humming the tune with a voice bright as summer sky, her beauty transfixed before the frightful storm of her madness.
Campbell begins the monologue softly, but his voice gains fury with every word until, like the storm, the violent imagery grows to tumultuous proportions. All the while, McKennitt’s rhythmic lullaby is in the background, distant as a memory, simultaneously soothing and disconnected to the carnage evoked by Blake’s poem.
Contrasts and hopes
As the last syllables fade, there is once more the sound of the storm and McKennitt’s voice rises over the thunder before the music fades. You can’t listen to the piece without feeling Campbell’s voice roll through your bones. With the final note, I knew I had Lucian, Catarina, and Rachael—their contrasts and their hopes all enveloped in one song. I saw Woerld and the battles fought and won and lost in their never-ending war against the Fallen.
Music will distract me when I’m writing, so I create a soundtrack and listen to it as I work out or surf the net for images. The music becomes background noise that somehow frees my imagination and inspires me to creativity. McKennitt’s music was the perfect accompaniment to Miserere and never failed to take me to that perfect Zen state where I could see my characters and hear their stories.
Raised in a small town, Teresa Frohock learned to escape to other worlds through the fiction in her local library. She now lives in North Carolina with her husband and daughter.
Teresa has long been accused of telling stories, which is a southern colloquialism for lying. Miserere: An Autumn Tale is her debut novel. Every now and then, she heads over to Tumblr and sends out Dark Thoughts, links to movies and reviews that catch her eye. You can also follow Teresa on Twitter @TeresaFrohock and join her author page on Facebook.
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- 'Constant murmur of pouring rain, piano chords and a stormy sea'
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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'