Posts Tagged music for writing
My guest this week brings a distinct tone of mischief. His novel is a short story cycle about a series of characters who are struggling in the male-dominated society of Dubai. Six of the stories were directly inspired by music, but not in the way you might expect. Phil Collins puts him in mind of the pretentious and overblown. Evanescence conjures up the self-obsessed, self-pitying and immature. And Celine Dion, with that film theme? I’ll leave you to imagine. His characters suffer oppression and brutality, but they don’t go down easily. Perhaps that was an unfortunate phrase. Never mind. He is Garry Craig Powell 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 supernatural historical thriller writer Gwendolyn Womack @Gwen_Womack
Soundtrack by Arvo Part, Paul Horn, Philip Glass, Gabrielle Roth & The Mirrors, Reiki Tribe, John Barry
I’ve always found music to be a wonderful tool while writing. Sometimes I will search for hours to find the perfect song to write a particular scene before I can begin. After I find the right music, I will loop it for days, sometimes weeks. And I’ve found I cannot write while listening to any lyrics. It must be instrumental or else it is distracting.
When I first began writing The Memory Painter years ago I did not think to make note of all the music I was listening to, so this is only a list of the highlights. For readers who are not familiar with the book, The Memory Painter is a supernatural historical thriller about a group of neuroscientists who have unlocked the secret to reincarnation and a love story about a two lovers who have traveled through time to remember an ancient legacy. The novel spans a lot of history and many of the chapters are devoted to specific lifetimes. Here are a few of the time periods and the music that inspired the writing…
Cremona Italy, 1700s
There is a special lifetime that deals with the famous violinmaker Guarneri ‘del Gesù’, and for this I played one song repeatedly: Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in Mirror) by Arvo Pärt. I would actually loop the YouTube video of Anne Akiko Meyers playing del Gesù’s Vieuxtemps violin. The song is incredibly poignant and it was just perfect for writing those scenes. Hearing Guarneri’s violin being played while I was trying to imagine his life was invaluable.
China 6TH century AD
Another album is 80 minutes of Reiki Music by Reiki Tribe and it’s filled with Asian flutes and Tibetan bells. I listened to it primarily while writing the Bodhidharma lifetime, the Zen master who trained the Shaolin monks. I literally plugged the search term ‘Tibetan bell music’ into iTunes and spent hours listening to sample tracks before deciding on this particular collection. Many of the songs felt very transportive and helped create the mental space to write the lifetime of a Zen Buddhist monk.
Ancient Egypt 10,000BC
Just listening to Inside The Great Pyramid by Paul Horn was the time capsule I needed to get my imagination in ancient Egypt where the climax of the novel takes place, and I wrote all of the chapters listening to it. This special album came out in the 1970s. Paul Horn went to the Great Pyramid and recorded the music inside the King’s Chamber. There have been acoustical studies on the King’s Chamber because of its incredible reverberation capability. This music really is quite something.
Present day and 1980s
Philip Glass’s album Glassworks was perfect music to write to, particularly track 1, and I played this album a lot throughout writing the entire novel. The mathematical harmonies within the songs and the heartrending melodies were a perfect backdrop.
Gabrielle Roth & The Mirrors’ album Totem was another go-to album that I looped repeatedly, particularly tracks 1-3. Totem has a driving rhythm and mystical feel and in general simply helped me to focus and write. I actually went to write a letter to Ms. Roth to tell her what I fan I was of the album because I was listening to it so much, but I found she had passed away in 2012. So instead I ended up spending the afternoon reading about her life and the legacy she left behind with 5Rhythms and I bought one of her books, Maps to Ecstasy, which is a fascinating read about her journey and the power of meditative dance. So that was a surprise veer one afternoon, researching the artist I was listening to and becoming inspired in other ways.
I also played several tracks from the soundtrack to Somewhere In Time, music by John Barry. It’s a favorite movie of mine and I’ve had the soundtrack well over 20 years. Several of the songs are so lovely and again poignant (a running theme perhaps in some of the music I chose). Many scenes in the book were written with this music.
Those are the main songs behind The Memory Painter that easily come to mind. For the current novel that I’m working on, I am keeping a more detailed account because it is fun to look back at what inspired you along the way. My current playlist is numbered with some incredible music that is filling my ears at the keyboard and helping the story come to life.
Gwendolyn Womack grew up in Houston, Texas. She studied theatre at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and then moved to California to pursue an MFA in Directing Theatre, Video, and Cinema at California Institute of the Arts. She lives in Los Angeles with her family. The Memory Painter is her first novel. Find her on Twitter as @Gwen_Womack, on Facebook and on her website.
My guest this week has a novel that spans several lifetimes and puts a new spin on reincarnation stories – she blends thriller with romance and the supernatural with her story of neuroscientists who have unlocked the secret of reincarnation. She used music to conjure her kaleidoscope of time periods, from ancient China to the modern day, and some of her selections are astoundingly haunting – I’m astonished to discover the 1970s album recorded in the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid. Those among you who are reincarnation aficionados will have spotted the reference in the title of this post to the 1980s movie Somewhere In Time, and that was on her Soundtrack too. She is Gwendolyn Womack 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 writing workshop facilitator and novelist Kathryn Craft @KCraftWriter
Soundtrack by A Great Big World, Christina Aguilera, LeeAnn Womack, Pentatonix, The Civil Wars
When Roz first asked me to write a post for The Undercover Soundtrack, I didn’t think I had one in me. I can only escape into story, it seems, while writing in silence. It soon dawned on me, though, that music had played a rather mystical role in the development of my newly released second novel.
The Far End of Happy is the story of three women who must make tough choices and face shameful secrets while awaiting the outcome of a loved one’s daylong suicide standoff. Sadly, the novel is based on true events. Frustrated by my husband’s insistence that I stay in a marriage he was unwilling to contribute anything toward saving, I felt I had no choice but to break my marriage vow to save our young sons. In 1997 I determined to divorce; he pre-empted that action with a more desperate move.
I waited a good long time to gain the perspective I needed to tell the story, and got the book deal in the fall of 2013 after turning in the manuscript for my debut novel, The Art of Falling.
Music first entered the story in 2014—or so I thought—when I was driving a few hours to Harrisburg, PA to do a TV taping to talk about my debut. Surfing the radio to find something new, I came upon the kind of expectant airspace that can only mean a song is about to begin.
The odds against tuning in at that exact moment are great enough to make you think that the Universe is about to speak.
It brought to mind another time that had happened—the day I woke up for my husband’s funeral.
I woke up at 5:30 am habitually on our small Pennsylvania farm, but due to the deviling notion that I may have been able to prevent my husband’s horrific act, sleep had eluded me. It was a morning service, so to be safe, I set the radio alarm. My eyes opened as I heard a soft pop from the clock. A simple opening of the airwaves. A connection to something greater. Again, that expectant silence.
I listened to the new-to-me song—Leeann Womack’s You’ve Got to Talk to Me. The futility it evoked rang through loud and clear, as if in absolution: you can chase someone with your hand extended all you want, but if he never turns back to take it, there’s nothing you can do.
Little did I know that in 2014, after the expectant silence on my drive to Harrisburg, I was about to hear that message reiterated.
Cue music, take two
The song was so quiet, at first: plaintive piano, small breathy voice, strings that added a wealth of emotion. Its difference from most of the songs you hear on popular radio grabbed me right away. Sad yet determined harmonies that built to the point they demanded to be heard.
Later that day, on the station’s website, I looked up the title: Say Something by A Great Big World and Christina Aguilera. The similarity to You’ve Got to Talk to Me struck. Only this time, the point of view was not of one who is chasing or begging: it was of one who is walking away. By bookending the painful arc of my decision to end the marriage, these two songs anchored me to the inner conflict from which I needed to write. A conflict without end, thanks to my husband’s unforgettable act, so perfectly evoked by the haunting refrain of yet another tune I discovered at that time, Poison & Wine by the Civil Wars.
A few months later, in the final throes of the novel’s development, I stumbled upon a Pentatonix cover of Say Something that I loved even more. This time the sombre mood took on an anxious edge through the plucking of a cello.
In the video, the singers stand together yet facing forward. Parallel grief. When the others add on to Kirstin’s initial solo statement, they seem to say that vocalising pain is so crucial to our human connectedness that even the sound of ‘oo’ releases sadness that cannot be kept at bay. Switching to the mournful resonance of bowed cello, Kevin vocalises the pulse of the breaking human heart. Avi’s lament on the vowel ‘oh’ at 2:25 is enough to break me to pieces. One imagines that each of them sings from their own pain, but together, they make something beautiful.
Because our emotions are beautiful, and important, and should be shared. They are the heartbeat of story and music and life. They are our bridge to shared experience, and my husband’s final, silent downturn shows that emotions left unexpressed will rot us from within. We see this message inherent in the end of the Pentatonix performance: the one person who has vocalised but not yet sung, Kevin, is offered the final plea.
In the Pentatonix arrangement the song ends without resolution. The same is true with my novel, because one of the great legacies of suicide is the plethora of unanswered questions. To be true to my experience, this 12-hour story could not be tied up neatly and put away. Healing for my family would extend on as we shared our sadness and fear. But the unresolved song, like my story, ends on a rising note, because we also shared our hope.
For those of us who choose life this day: may the expression of your innermost self go on and on—whether through the arts or the glorious intimacy of the human voice—in all its pain and beauty.
Kathryn Craft is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. Her work as a freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she leads writing workshops and retreats, and is a member of the Tall Poppy Writers. Her Twitter campaign, #choosethisday, is designed to empower others with the notion that each day we get up and go about our business we are choosing life. What will you do with yours? www.kathryncraft.com. Find Kathryn on Facebook and on Twitter @KCraftWriter
My guest this week grew up in thrall to wild west movies, especially the ones with epic theme music. Many years later, she was reading some history books as research and stumbled across the freed slaves who were conscripted to fight the Indian Wars. Those early movie memories with their sweeping soundscapes came back to her, along with a more bitter kind of song – gospel music and spirituals by Nina Simone, Paul Robeson and Sam Cooke. She emerged with a mission to, as she puts it, tell the story of the Civil War from the other side. She is Tanya Landman 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 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 romantic comedy and romantic suspense writer Louise Marley @LouiseMarley
Soundtrack by Robbie Williams, Alesha Dixon, Pulp, Little Boots, Eliza Doolittle, Damian Marley
I’ve always been good at blocking out any distracting noise, whether I’m writing or reading. The distraction of silence is another matter, particularly if I’ve become stuck writing a scene, but I’ve learned to work around this by playing music.
It took me a while to realise the music I chose influenced my writing. I was listening to whatever was in the charts, but the music didn’t always fit the scene I was trying to create and would sometimes take me right out of it. So I got into the habit of creating playlists.
Nemesis, my most recent novel, starts with a flashback to 1998. Natalie is 15 and furious because her parents have forbidden her to go to the carnival. So she’s watching from her bedroom window, hoping to see enough to pretend she was there. Instead she spots her sister, Sarah, sneaking out to meet a man waiting in the shadows. It’s the last time Natalie will see Sarah alive. A quick way for me to take the reader back to 1998 was to reference Robbie William’s Let Me Entertain You, but the song is also about rebellion and infidelity, and these became Sarah’s motivations for running away.
Music also helps me develop my characters by providing them their own ‘theme tune’. Natalie’s became Knockdown by Alesha Dixon. This song, as the title suggests, is about a girl realising that no matter how many times you get knocked down, you have to pick yourself up and carry on. Natalie’s mother neglects her, her father is a violent bully and her sister was murdered. Despite all this Natalie works hard, educates herself and now has a successful career as a thriller writer. She feels it’s the perfect time to finally find out who killed her sister – by using herself as bait.
Understandably Natalie’s boyfriend, Simon, thinks she’s insane to put herself in such a dangerous situation. His character was inspired by Common People by Pulp (the song is also playing when they first meet, back in 1998). The track is really about a rich girl who wants to play at being poor but I twisted the meaning to create Simon, who is one of those people who is never happy with his own life. He hates being one of the ‘common people’. He wants to be rich and successful, and he blames everyone else for the fact he isn’t. Simon is jealous of Natalie’s friend because she lives in a castle, he hates another character because he got the job he wanted, and he’s even bitter about Natalie having the more successful career:
Look at everything you’ve achieved, all those books you’ve sold, the millions you’ve made. But while you’re living up here in your ivory tower, do you ever consider the rest of us? Do you ever think about what it must be like to be me, stuck at that bloody school forever and never progressing, all because of my relationship with you?’
As well as ‘theme tunes’, music helps me work out the characters’ relationships to each other. Remedy by Little Boots, with its line about dancing with the enemy, inspired the relationship between Natalie and Bryn – the man the police suspect of killing Sarah. Bryn’s cousin disappeared the same time Sarah died and he’s convinced the two incidents are connected. Natalie can’t make up her mind as to whether she thinks he’s guilty or innocent.
Despite the police warning her off, Natalie agrees to work with Bryn but, as they follow up one false lead after another, the body of another young woman is found in identical circumstances to Sarah. Natalie is devastated.
She was so small, so slight – so young. I was the one who started this. It should have been me.’
Natalie has spent years trying to bring her sister’s murderer to justice. She’s so used to bouncing back from all those knockdowns she hardly notices them anymore, but this is one knockdown there’s no getting up from. Go Home by Eliza Doolittle, about a girl who is in denial about being in trouble, helped me get into Natalie’s head at this point, revealing why she feels she has to finally give up on this obsession.
Natalie might have given up on her sister’s murderer but unfortunately he hasn’t given up on her.
There was no one there; of course there wasn’t. The front door had remained locked and the chain was even in place. She was spooking herself.
Then the music started.’
I don’t mention the track by name but inside my head it was All Night by Damian Marley, about a man exasperated by his girlfriend. I had the idea that anyone would feel freaked out by music echoing throughout an empty apartment in the middle of the night, wouldn’t they?
Unless they were a writer, in which case it might just kick-start their imagination.
Louise Marley writes romantic comedy and romantic suspense, and sometimes she mixes the two. She lives in Wales, surrounded by fields of sheep, and has a beautiful view of Snowdon from her window. Her first published novel was Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, which was a finalist in Poolbeg’s ‘Write a Bestseller’ competition. She has also written articles for the Irish press and short stories for UK women’s magazines such as Take a Break and My Weekly. Nemesis is available here. Her website is here, her blog is here. She tweets as @LouiseMarley.