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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 women’s fiction writer Anne Stormont @WriteAnne
Soundtrack by Rufus Wainwright, Tom Baxter, Van Morrison, Elbow, Cat Power, Neil Diamond, Louis Armstrong, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, Don Maclean, Military Wives, Blair Douglas, Greg Laswell, Bat for Lashes, Ungar and Mason
It took me almost a decade to write and publish Change of Life. It was a brush with mortality following my diagnosis with ovarian cancer in 1998, and an Arvon Foundation writing course that finally spurred me into getting my writing act together. And so, while teaching full time and putting the finishing touches to my fledgling adult children, I began.
I love music. I have eclectic tastes, from musicals, to Scottish traditional, through hard rock, and classical to contemporary. I’ve always had a soundtrack running in the background. I studied for high school and university exams with 1960s and 70s rock and pop in the background. I got through my cancer treatment to a background of songs by the Lighthouse Family and others, put together by my daughter on a mixtape – remember those?
And it has continued to be music that provides me with focus. While I’m writing, even if I’m not consciously hearing it, it’s on and it keeps me in the zone. It’s very much a mood thing for me. Much like inhaling a reminiscence-filled scent, a few bars of the right music and I’m transported.
Change of Life has two main characters, husband and wife, Tom and Rosie. The narration is in first person and Tom and Rosie take it in turns to tell their story.
Tom, being male, was a challenge to write, but it was one I relished. To get into his head it was Rufus Wainwright’s Do I Disappoint You, Tom Baxter’s My Declaration and Van Morrison’s Have I Told You Lately that did it. Tom betrays Rosie’s trust and, when their resulting separation after more than 20 years of marriage, and Rosie’s diagnosis with breast cancer threaten to rob him of his wife forever, he has to do a lot of soul-searching and face up to some difficult truths. These tracks captured both Tom’s anger and his yearning. They helped keep me ‘in character’ and to tap into the appropriate emotions.
Making the switch to Rosie’s head was helped by Elbow’s Grounds For Divorce, Cat Power’s Woman Left Lonely and Neil Diamond’s You Don’t Bring Me Flowers. She also experiences anger and yearning, but this is overlaid with the fear that her cancer may kill her. When writing these darker passages it was Louis Armstrong singing We Have All The Time In The World that helped me bring out the poignancy of her situation.
Then as the story came towards its conclusion, it was If You Want Me by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, along with And I Love You So by Don Maclean that kept me focussed and at the right emotional temperature.
For my new novel Displacement, it was mainly the Military Wives album In My Dreams that helped me set the tone. Again there are two main characters, Rachel and Jack. Two very different characters, both with their own demons, they meet in dramatic circumstances on the Isle of Skye. Rosie, a sheep farmer and writer of children’s books, is grieving for her dead soldier son, and retired policeman, Jack, is facing up to some difficult truths about himself. They begin an unlikely friendship. The story is set on Skye and in the completely contrasting, but no less dramatic landscape of Israel/ Palestine. The Soldier’s Lullaby and Sonamarg by Skye musician Blair Douglas also featured in supporting roles, as did Your Ghost by Greg Laswell. This last one captured Jack’s longing and conflict perfectly. I should also mention Wilderness by Bat for Lashes, which perfectly reflects both the natural wilderness of Skye and the Middle East and the inner wilderness of the two main characters. And finally, the Ashkovan Farewell by Ungar and Mason was the one track that broke through any resistance I felt when I came to the desk to write this novel. It just led me straight in. What more can a writer ask of their musical soundtrack?
Anne lives in the Scottish Hebrides. She can be a subversive old bat, but she maintains a kind heart. She’s about to take early retirement after 36 years as a primary school teacher. Her stories are about and for the sometimes invisible women; the 1960s feminists; women in their late 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond; thinking, feeling, loving, intelligent women. There is a strong element of romance in her books, but she’s resistant to the restrictive ‘romantic fiction’ label as she likes to think there’s more to her novels than just romance. Her first novel, Change of Life, is about to be republished under her own imprint Rowan Russell Books and, her second novel, Displacement, is due to be published at the end of May. Her work-in-progress is a children’s novel called The Silver Locket and is scheduled for release in the summer. Anne tweets as @writeanne and she blogs at http://putitinwriting.me She also writes for Words With Jam and is a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors.
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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 NYT bestselling historical thriller author Rebecca Cantrell @RebeccaCantrell
When I start writing a new novel, one of the first things I do is put together a playlist for it. I’ll start with just a few songs and then add them as time goes on, so I might start out with 20 minutes of music and then end up with an hour and half to two hours by the end. I listen to this playlist almost every day while writing the book. At the beginning, I hear every word, but after a while the music becomes background while I’m writing in some Berlin café.
My latest Hannah Vogel novel is A City of Broken Glass and it’s set during Kristallnacht in 1938, so I listened to some modern stuff to establish the right mood and some historical stuff to put me straight in Hannah’s word.
The first song on my playlist is the theme from the BBC series Wallander sung by Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo. It’s haunting and sad and reminds me that it’s time to get serious, to slow down and leave all of my thoughts outside of the writing room and get to work.
The next song was written in 1926, but I think it was more popular during World War II, and it reminds me that Hannah is always trying to help others as they try to escape the burgeoning Nazi menace, even at the cost of her own life. It’s Someone to Watch Over Me sung by Dakota Staton. It’s a love song, and if I’m working on a romantic scene, sometimes I’ll play that song a couple of times in a row. Hannah and Lars both watch out for each other, so it’s not as sexist as it might seem. Or so I tell myself.
After that, I move on to Song of a German Mother, sung by Lotte Lenya with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht and music by Kurt Weill. All of them lived in Berlin at the same time as Hannah, and all of them fled to the United States during the Nazi years. It’s a very grim song about a mother who lost her son to the Nazis because she didn’t understand what would happen. It’s a warning to Hannah and a reminder to me that the Germans, too, suffered terrible losses and had deep regrets, even before they lost the war. I try to paint a nuanced picture of all the characters, because few things were as simple then as we like to think they were when we look back on it. I couldn’t find Lotte Lenya singing this on YouTube (although she sings other songs there, all worth listening to—she has a wonderful smoky voice), but here it is sung by Dagmar Krause.
After this, I need something a little lighter and more fun, so I have Mack the Knife, which was also has lyrics by Bertolt Brecht and music by Kurt Weill. I have a version sung by Lotte Lenya as well, where she teams up with Louis Armstrong. Mack the Knife was part of the The Threepenny Opera and was first performed on stage in Berlin in 1928 (with Lotte Lenya and Peter Lorre!). I think Hannah would have scraped together the cast to go and see it. Its message of violence under the smooth surface was prescient. And Louis Armstrong is always fantastic. I could follow that voice anywhere.
The next song is It’s Only a Paper Moon by Paul Whiteman and his orchestra. I got it off a CD called A Time to Remember 1934 that was in the birthday card section of a gift shop in Hawaii. I always buy one for the year each book is set, although I don’t know what I’ll do now that I’ve moved to Berlin and can’t get to that gift shop. I played a lot of those songs when I was writing the book set in 1934, but this one stuck with even after and moved on to this later playlist, probably because I have Hannah herself sing it while under the influence in A Night of Long Knives. I think it’s been remade many times over the years, but here’s the oldie version because I think that one is still the most fun:
There are various songs in between, some historical and some not, but all of them hopefully speaking to my subconscious and keeping me in Hannah’s world. The soundtrack ends with Beauty in the World by Macy Gray, as it brings me back to the 21st century. And lunch.
Rebecca Cantrell is a New York Times bestselling thriller author. Her novels include the Order of Sanguines series, starting with The Blood Gospel, the award-winning Hannah Vogel mystery series, starting with A Trace of Smoke and the Joe Tesla thrillers, starting with The World Beneath. She, her husband, and son left Hawaii’s sunny shores for adventures in Berlin. Find Rebecca Cantrell on Facebook, Twitter, and at www.rebeccacantrell.com
A Trace of Smoke, authors, Berlin, Bertolt Brecht, Dagmar Krause, Dakota Staton, Desert Island Discs, drama, Emily Barker, Emily Barker & the Red Clay Halo, entertainment, Hannah, Hannah Vogel, how to write a thriller novel, Joe Tesla thrillers, Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya, Louis Armstrong, Macy Gray, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Mystery, mystery series, Nail Your Novel, New York Times, Order of Sanguines, Paul Whiteman, playlist, playlist for writers, Rebecca Cantrell, Roz Morris, The Blood Gospel, The Undercover Soundtrack, The World Beneath, thriller, thrillers, 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.
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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 multi-award-winning historical novelist Leslie Wilson
The dying days of Nazi Germany played out, not to the music of Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods, but mainly to sentimental hits about love and hope, especially – as I first heard from my German mother -one called Es geht Alles Vorüber (Everything passes). She said she couldn’t get it out of her head even in the thick of an air-raid.
Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister, disliked these songs, finding them too ‘soft’ for an era which he had dedicated to Total War – but he knew better than to ban them; they boosted morale.
I don’t often write to music, but I listen to it when I drive and cook and get up in the morning, and every novel has its theme tunes. For Last Train from Kummersdorf, my first novel about Nazi Germany, with a jazz-obsessed heroine, I listened to Django Reinhardt and Louis Armstrong; for Saving Rafael, which tells the story of a German girl who hides her Jewish boyfriend from the Nazi authorities, I found a CD called Berlin by Night; a compilation of German-language hits from the ’30s.
It’s expensive to get permissions from song copyright-holders, so when I want lyrics I usually write my own, after listening to a lot of contemporary songs. On this CD I found a song that inspired my lyric: schmaltzy and yet it expressed just what the characters are feeling.
Jenny, my heroine, has met Rafael at the Café Kranzler, the poshest café in Berlin – a place he’s forbidden by law to enter, but his blond hair and blue eyes (think of Paul Newman) help him to blag his way through Berlin and meet Jenny – also forbidden, by this time. He even manages to pay the bill – he’s found a lost wallet with a Nazi Party high-up’s ID card in it, so he has no scruples about removing the money.
Jenny, who’s fifteen, has put on her new best dress; the grown-up one she’s managed to persuade her reluctant mother to make her. Only Rafael doesn’t seem to want to look at her, though she’s dressed up specially for him. She doesn’t understand that he’s just shy; she’s miserable, convinced everything’s going wrong – till the singer launches into this song.
I’m dancing in your arms
Forgetting grief and harm
When I look deep into your eyes
My heart flies off to paradise -
Rafael reaches out, takes her hand, and begins stroking her fingers. Later, when Jenny’s convinced he’s stopped loving her, she hears the song, and suffers – and later still it plays another really important part in the story.
The original song was called Ich Tanze mit Dir in den Himmel Hinein, (I’m dancing to heaven with you) - and frankly, it makes me giggle, with its long-drawn-out phrases and languishing violin flourishes – but it was a major hit in its time; the vocalists are Lilian Harvey – an actress born in London’s Muswell Hill, and Willi Fritsch – and it occurs in a film made by the UFA studios and released in 1937.
Some of the words are similar to the lyric of Ich Tanze mit Dir - like the heart flying off to paradise – but my second line, with ‘grief and harm’ derives from my grandmother’s favourite German Christmas carol. However, the German translators seem to have recognised the inspiration, and it’s the lyrics to Ich Tanze mit Dir that appear in the German version. (Nicht Ohne Dich, Boje Verlag)
A lyric in a novel is quite different, of course, from the lyric to a song. In the latter, the music’s most important, but in a novel – and I think this is true even if one’s using a song whose music is well-known – the words have to do all the work. Using clichéd and schlocky language to underline feeling may sound odd, when otherwise one works so hard to to find fresh ways to put those feelings – but Graham Greene did it, and I’m not ashamed to follow in his footsteps.
Leslie Wilson is the author of four critically acclaimed historical novels, two for adults, Malefice and The Mountain of Immoderate Desires (which won the Southern Arts Prize) and two for young adults, Last Train from Kummersdorf (shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize) and Saving Rafael (nominated for the Carnegie Medal, Highly Commended for the Southern Schools Book Award, shortlisted for the Lancashire Book of the Year Award and longlisted for the Wirral Paperback of the Year Award). She has lived in England, Germany, and Hong Kong. She lives in Berkshire with a husband and a dog, and has two daughters and three grandsons. Find her at her website
authors, Desert Island Discs, Django Reinhardt, German songs of the 1930s, Germany, historical novels, Last Train From Kummersdorf, Leslie Wilson, Lilian Harvey, Louis Armstrong, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Roz Morris, Saving Rafael, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Wartime Germany, Willi Fritsch, World War II, writers, writing to music
- '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
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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'