Posts Tagged music for writing
My guest this week is a master of many storytelling disciplines – including screenwriting and radio as well as prose fiction. She’s currently writing an action-adventure screenplay set during the Russian Revolution, with a decidedly spooky twist. Her soundtrack includes Holst, the romantic 20th century composer George Butterworth and a haunting, melancholy piano piece she discovered on an album of Chinese composers. Best known for creating the TV series Wolfblood, she is Debbie Moon and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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 prizewinning novelist and short story writer Chris Hill @Chilled CH
Soundtrack by Bobby Fuller Four, Sonic Youth, Little Jackie, Chad and Jeremy, The Emotions, Sufjan Stevens
My latest book The Pick-Up Artist is the story of a young man’s inept attempts to find love through a web community called the pick-up artists who claim to use psychological techniques to help their members appeal to the opposite sex.
Authors write books for all sorts of reasons I suppose. Some, a lot smarter and richer than me, will choose what to write based on market research and audience demographics. For myself, what I write starts not with a bar chart but with a feeling and that feeling is often sparked off by a piece of music.
The Pick-Up Artist was sparked off by a lesser known pop song from the early 60s. It’s called Let Her Dance and it’s by The Bobby Fuller Four, who were relatively unknown in their heyday and whose star has fallen even further in the half-century since they ceased to be. If you have heard of them at all it’s probably because their other hit I Fought the Law was made into a much more famous cover version by The Clash in the 1970s.
I can’t remember where or how I first came across Let Her Dance but it snagged on me as songs often will and I took to playing it on repeat on Spotify during the period I was working through ideas for The Pick-Up Artist. There’s a youth and freshness about the song, an innocence, but also a strength and optimism. My book is a kind of romantic comedy. It’s about men and women, about flirtation and heartbreak and Let Her Dance is about all these things too. There’s a sense of excitement and urgency in the music, from the first moment the bass line loops in like a beating heart.
It’s also a song about a strong woman I think, and a man who has to watch and wait. My book is also about strong women and so it’s perhaps not surprising I found myself listening to, and being influenced by, songs by and about such women. One of these was Cool Thing by Sonic Youth. It’s a noisy rock song with a playful, ironic vocal which messes around with gender roles. Though it’s theoretically about a male object of desire there’s really only one Cool Thing in the picture and that’s Kim Gordon who drawls her way over the howl of the guitars, leaving us in no doubt who’s really the boss in this relationship. We don’t need to have any fear of a female planet she tells us, she just wants us men to know that we can still be friends. In some ways I wanted the women in my book to be like Kim, ironic, aloof, in control.
But I also needed them to be like the woman in 28 Butts by Little Jackie. Hers is a song about a real, rounded person, not the romantic cypher we so often get in pop songs. She smokes way too much, another bottle of whisky’s been emptied and she knows we wouldn’t put it past her. She’s not sure about the direction of her life and though she sounds strong and in control she’s also not sure where she’s headed. She tells us she’d really like to be a housewife and we almost kind of believe her, but only as much we believe she’d like to own a llama.
I found myself listening to music from a different age when I was writing the novel, and valuing it for its innocence. I was writing about young people and early relationships – so I suppose, subconsciously, I wanted to get to a place which wasn’t all about knowing and experience but was also about wonder and finding your way in life. One of the tracks I listened to was A Summer Song by Chad and Jeremy – a throwaway pop song from the early 60s which offers nothing more complex than a simple love song, some harmonies and a catchy tune. There was also some old soul; Blind Alley by The Emotions is perhaps a female equivalent – young and innocent, charming and catchy, a song about youthful flirtation and exuberance.
I think it was Martin Amis who said that when you embark on a novel you find yourself writing about things you didn’t realise were on your mind. Some time before I began writing The Pick-Up Artist I lost my mother to cancer. I certainly hadn’t intended to write about that but, what do you know, it turns out the young hero has lost his mum too. Casimir Pulaski Day by Sufjan Stevens tells a story about the death of a loved one and the impact it has. It’s a complex story, an amazingly rich narrative to find in what is effectively a pop song. Though the narrative details of the song are very specific, what I took from it was more the feelings Stevens conveys, not just of unexpected loss but of bewilderment and anger. It’s calm and low key but leaves a lasting impression – which is something I want very much for my work too.
Chris Hill lives in Gloucestershire. The Pick-Up Artist is published by Magic Oxygen Publishing. He works as a PR officer for the UK children’s charity WellChild and spent more than 20 years as a journalist on regional newspapers. He lives with his wife Claire, their two teenage sons and Murphy, a Cockerpoo. His first novel, Song of the Sea God, published by Skylight Press, was shortlisted for the Daily Telegraph Novel in a Year prize and won the efestival of Words award for Best Literary Fiction novel. Chris has previously had some success as a short story writer including winning one of Britain’s biggest story awards, The Bridport Prize. Find Chris on his website, on Twitter @ChilledCh and on Facebook.
My guest this week describes his novel as a romantic comedy about a young man’s attempts to find love through an internet community. Despite its thoroughly contemporary setting, he says it was sparked by a song from the early 1960s, by a band who have long faded into obscurity. Other songs joined it, to represent the strong women characters who are at the centre of the book – people who are aloof, cool, full of contradictions – and some of them dealing with the painful bewilderment of losing a loved one. He is Chris Hill and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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 Audrina Lane @AudrinaLane
Soundtrack by Berlin, Wham!, Rick Astley, Robin Beck, George Michael, Bill Medley, Jennifer Warnes, Patrick Swayze
As I started 2013 and my 40th birthday I started to think about what I still wanted to do with my life, call it a mid-life crisis bucket list. It was a time to look back into my past from an 80s adolescence to my life today and wonder if I had made the right choices. Music has always been my life blood from watching Top of the Pops in the 70s and wanting to be a dancer in Hot Gossip, right through to the fact that I always have music on in the office, house, car and headphones. Wherever I was working on my novel the music was there.
So on my bucket list I wanted to write a book, my first attempt at this was in 1992 after suffering my first break-up. It was called Take my Breath Away and straight away you can see that the song by Berlin was my starting point. The mood and lyrics of the song a haunting epitaph to lost love. Afraid of rejection of my teenage romance novel I shelved it.
Happily in February 2013 I found the manuscript and set to work to achieve my dream. The title of my novel is a song Where did your heart go? By Wham, its poignant lyrics and soulful vibe pointed me in the direction my story was going to take. With the local radio station on I decided to bring my idea from 1992 into the present and include music that I loved from the 80s. By setting my novel in 2013 my main character Stephanie Eden, widow, single mother and local radio station DJ is 40 years old. She grew up and experienced love for the first time in 1988. The song that made me remember my first love was First Time by Robin Beck. I listened to this track constantly as the lyrics evoke that breathless yearning when you are hit by love. I needed the music of the era to awaken my memories.
Stephanie’s daughter Charlotte is 16 in 2013 and just experiencing her own break-up. Stephanie remembers her diary from 1988 from when she was 16 and about to embark on her first relationship. Handing the diary to Charlotte she lets her read about how first love was in 1988 compared to 2013. My favourite scene is Stephanie’s first kiss with Lifeguard James, unexpected and beneath the water in the local swimming pool where they met.
I felt his lips on mine, soft and firm against the liquid coolness of the water. We were suspended in a timeless moment’
Stephanie yearns to be a DJ so for every romantic event in her relationship a song comes to mind and for this kiss it was Whenever you need somebody by Rick Astley. Upbeat and hopeful like my character feelings.
You feel for Stephanie when she realises that James is moving away. I needed a song to express the yearning and desperation she feels and I listened to A different corner by George Michael, the lyrics and piano on the track highlighting her yearning and the decision she made that led her to James in the first place. Stephanie has never moved on from her first love, despite her short marriage and the birth of her daughter. James has kept appearing in her memories every time she hears a song from the past. How many of us have experienced the same thing when you hear a certain song?
Music was such a powerful memory tool and one that I could never silence no matter the pain it bought.’
Charlotte loves music, influenced by her mum’s career and also her own dreams of becoming a dancer. I hope you are all seeing the parallel’s in my own ambitions?? At a dance competition Charlotte meets Mitchell and with a shared love of the film Dirty Dancing they re-create the iconic dance to the song I’ve had the time of my life, it becomes the first song of their relationship.
She could almost hear the music in her head, just louder than the beating of her heart as they moved together in perfect synchronicity.’
The book follows both characters through their sexual awakening and each of these scenes was easier to write with a song playing for the characters. For Stephanie and James I found it in the beautiful lyrics of George Michael’s Father Figure, for Charlotte and Mitchell with She’s like the wind by Patrick Swayze. As Stephanie watches her daughter falling in love she wonders if she should give love one more try?
In a way the soundtrack of my teenage years became those of the characters I was bringing to life and recreated that magical feeling of first love.
Audrina Lane lives in Herefordshire with her partner and two dogs. She works full time for the Herefordshire Library service which means she is surrounded by books every day. Where Did Your Heart Go? was released in July 2013 and her second book, Un-Break my Heart, was released in December 2014. She is currently working on the third. Find her on Facebook, Twitter @AudrinaLane and her website.
My guest this week brings a real blast of the 1980s, with a bright red emphasis on romance (I guess it’s that time of year). She drew on the soundtrack of her adolescent years to create the love-torn characters in her novel, and the heart of the story beats to George Michael, Berlin and Patrick Swayze. She is Audrina Lane and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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 wartime romance author Davina Blake (who also writes as Deborah Swift @swiftstory)
Soundtrack by Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lena Horne, Kate Bush, George Gershwin, Larry Adler, Alison Moyet, Purcell, Led Zeppelin, Rachmaninoff, Bob Dylan, Mark Knopfler
Music has always been the mirror of my moods, how I am feeling is externalized by the music I play, so it is fortunate that I have eclectic tastes. When writing I prefer silence, but as I type I am aware of the echo of the music from moments before; it still hums inside me, the undertow to what I am writing.
The edge of longing
I need to be able to access certain states in order to write well, and music helps me do this. What I was trying to capture in Past Encounters was a kind of longing – a longing that borders on nostalgia, but is not that sentimental. It is at the edge of things. We have no English word for it, but the German word is sehnsucht. For this novel I was looking for transparency and intimacy, to keep the words simple so you could almost see through them.
I remembered Mary Chapin Carpenter’s John Doe #24 , which does just this, with its simple tune and narrative arc, telling the story of a blind, deaf and dumb man stripped of identity, the ultimate loss, yet still the character haunts us. In Past Encounters Peter becomes a prisoner of war, just a number, so I went back to the track and listened again. In the song, sensory detail becomes enormously important, his toes feeling the streetcar rails underfoot, the scent of jasmine.
Conjuring the past
In the novel both protagonists, Rhoda and her fiancé Peter, mourn the loss of their familiar life to the outbreak of war. I found myself listening to old recordings to conjure the atmosphere of the past. My mother used to love Lena Horne’s The Man I Love (1941), and the crackling of the LP, the sudden silence when it ends, with just the needle bumping round on the record, seemed to say almost as much as the actual music. When I am working I use Youtube to plug myself into the mood of what I am writing, searching out tracks of the era I am working on. Kate Bush’s recording of the same song with Larry Adler on harmonica really spoke to me. The wailing quality of the harmonica seemed to embody Rhoda’s search for the man she loves, which is both Peter, who is missing, and the longing which is somehow not attached to any one man in particular. It is the same longing that makes me want to write, the stretching out towards a feeling I can’t name.
The story is set in WWII, but it is not about heroes. Rhoda’s fiancé Peter spends the whole war in a prisoner of war camp. But what drives the book is his intense friendships with the other men, and the fact that and he and Rhoda survive on memories of each other. Death stalks the captive prisoners and the music I listened to a lot during this phase of writing consisted of elegies to the dead. Alison Moyet’s great natural voice singing Dido’s Lament by Purcell strips away the artifice of opera to make us think nakedly about memory and how we will be remembered.
Writing historical fiction is an awkward relationship between honouring and dishonouring our relationship with the past. Gallows humour is an essential part of survival, both for Peter in the book, and for me as a writer, and I loved the recycling of an old English folk tune in Gallows Pole by Led Zeppelin, especially the ultimate twist, when the hangman (death itself) is hanged on the gallows pole.
I like listening to the layers in music, and Gallows Pole is one piece that repays that sort of listening. That sudden mandolin! I like to pick out individual layers and will often listen over and over to the same piece, following different musical parts. I do this in the novel too; write following different narrative threads. In Past Encounters it is just two, Rhoda and Peter, in my other novels it has been more. When I edit, I do this too, follow different lines of the narrative.
Strangely, although Rhoda’s story is set during the filming of Brief Encounter, I found the Rachmaninoff score too strident and brash for the subtle feeling I needed. The Rachmaninoff score is heavy on the piano. As Nick Cave says, ‘The guitar is something you kind of embrace, and the piano is something you kind of – when you play it, you sort of push it away. It feels very different.’
So the intimacy and loss I was after is there in the guitar of Blind Willie McTell by Bob Dylan. It is a track that was never completed from his album Infidels, and is therefore more poignant because it was almost lost. It is raw and unproduced – you can almost hear a coat button scratching on the top of the guitar as he sings of the loss of not just one blues singer, but of the loss of a whole era of blues singers. Of course really it is Mark Knopfler on guitar, not Dylan, but the impression of one man and a guitar remains. Music is like writing, a world of mirrors and illusion.
Davina Blake also writes seventeenth century novels as Deborah Swift. She lives in the North of England in a small village close to the mountains and the sea, a fact which encourages her to go out and get the fresh air that every writer needs. Past Encounters is her fifth novel, but the first published as an independent author. Tweet her as @swiftstory. Find her on Facebook.
GIVEAWAY Davina is excited to be giving away three ebook copies of Past Encounters to commenters here. Extra entries if you share the post on Twitter, G+, Linked In, Tumblr, Facebook, Ello or anywhere else you frequent. Breathe on a bus window and write it inside a love-heart. Just remember to say in your comment here that you’ve done it!
My guest this week is one of those many writers who values silence – but is keenly aware that music is influencing what comes out on the page. She describes how music acts as a portal, letting her access moods and mental states in order to recreate them faithfully in her fiction. She describes trying to capture a state of longing and nostalgia, but without sentimentality and the soundtrack she shares here is such a treat: a Gershwin cover by Kate Bush; a Purcell lament sung by Alison Moyet. If you follow my show on Surrey Hills Radio you might hear me finding an excuse to give them airplay sometime soon. Anyway, this imaginative guest is wartime romance author Davina Blake (who also writes historical novels as Deborah Swift), and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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 and psychological thriller writer Debbie Bennett @debjbennett
Soundtrack by Alice Cooper, Soul Asylum, Bon Jovi, Skid Row, The Seekers
I always wanted to be musical. I’m sixties-born, but identify most with the 1980s – the era of the New Romantics and the beginnings of computer-generated music, but I always had the hidden desire to be a full-on rock chick with my AC-DC, Whitesnake and Rainbow albums! Yes – I did the whole biker-jacket and leather mini look too (see proof here!). I wanted to play music too, but we didn’t have a piano and it took me four years of compulsory music lessons at school to realise I was never going to get past Chopsticks! My teenage daughter is a talented musician and singer, but I don’t think the genes come down my side of the family.
So I turned my creative impulses to writing – firstly fantasy and more recently crime. My first crime novel was dark. Very dark. Part crime, part psychological thriller, we’re dealing with street drugs and rent boys, but while there are police, the story is told from the point of view of the ordinary people involved. And music plays its part in setting mood and tone.
The hero in Hamelin’s Child is Michael, who we follow through another two books – Paying the Piper and Calling the Tune. Michael goes clubbing to celebrate his seventeenth birthday and meets Eddie, after which life is never going to be the same again. Michael’s journey from middle-class suburban naivety through heroin addiction and out the other side is Alice Cooper’s I Never Cry, particularly when he’s thinking about jumping off a motorway bridge.
They’d all done their best, in their own way, to help him forget the past and he couldn’t blame them for not understanding that he didn’t want to forget. He needed to remember. It was the only way he could make any sense out of it all.’
Sometimes it’s not even the lyrics is it? It’s the mood of the piece – the actual notes in a certain sequence that can instantly transport you to a certain place or time in your life. Or even just an emotion. Synaesthesia, they call it…
Out of control
‘He bought me comics,’
Lee says, referring to the best of his mother’s boyfriends, the man who eventually decided he preferred son to mother, at which point Lee was out on the streets. Runaway Train came out in 1992 (or so my CD case tells me) and it was many, many years later when I found it on Youtube and saw for the first time that the accompanying video is all about missing kids. Strange but true.
In Paying the Piper, we first meet my bad-boy Lenny, who started out as a bit-player but I soon realised was way more involved than I’d first thought. Lenny is Skid Row’s 18 And Life, albeit with a lot more money and a public school education. It’s not until Calling the Tune that we learn of Lenny’s real childhood and he becomes far more ambiguous and complex. Lenny’s story continues into Rat’s Tale and new release Ratline and his music becomes softer and more uncertain as we get inside his head. Now it’s less rock and more Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right (the Seekers version – way better than Bob Dylan, in my opinion).
I can’t in all honesty say I listen to music while writing, because I find any noise hugely distracting when I’m working (although a playlist on my iPhone is a Godsend in an open-plan office in the day job). But I do find that music fits the mood of the moment when I’m writing and I’ll subconsciously look for and play certain tracks – even if only in my mind.
Debbie Bennett claims to get her inspiration from the day job in law enforcement. She can’t talk about a lot of the stuff she’s seen and done over the years, but it stews and matures in her mind and often comes out in some twisted form in fiction many years later. She’d tell you more, but then she’d have to kill you afterwards. Her website is here and you can find her on Twitter as @debjbennett