Posts Tagged playlist for writers

‘Concentration, energy, imagination, comfort’ – Stephen Weinstock

for logoMy guest this week is another returner to the series, which is rather appropriate as the concern of his book series is reincarnation. He is a composer, pianist and dance accompanist for musical theatre with the UC Berkeley, Princeton, Juilliard, and the ‘Fame’ school. Last time he guested here he wrote about the hidden structures that tell stories. This time, nearly a year has passed and he finds himself questioning the role music is now playing in his writing life. So this is a slightly unusual Undercover Soundtrack, one of questions rather than statements. Nevertheless, you can expect some stirring musical choices. He is Stephen Weinstock and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Into the warzone’ – Alison Layland

for logoMy guest this week is tackling the Croatian conflict of the early 1990s, and she used music to suggest fragments, atmospheres and moments of memory. When she sent me her post, she remarked that she found the process of writing it had been even more challenging than the novel, as she had never before admitted anyone to her personal space of creativity. This is one of the reasons I’m continually refreshed by this series – no matter what genre the book is, or what type of music they choose, the heart of each post is this real contact with a writer delving for the truth. Anyway, here you’ll find some haunting and unusual pieces by PJ Harvey, Smoke Fairies, Steven R Smith and Laurie Anderson, all in the Undercover Soundtrack of Alison Layland – airing here on Wednesday.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Joni Rodgers

for logo‘His familiar voice brought me back to where I began’

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 NYT bestselling author and ghostwriter Joni Rodgers @JoniRodgers

Soundtrack by Patsy Cline, Nick Drake, Jefferson Airplane, Claudia Schmidt, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson

Of course, the song that had the greatest influence on Crazy for Trying is the song that gifted the book with the perfect title: Willie Nelson’s Crazy recorded by Patsy Cline in 1961 and by many others since then. Nelson (who was just a journeyman songwriter back then) actually wrote the song for Billie Walker, who rejected it because it seemed like ‘a girl’s song’, which means, I suppose, that it’s gentle and vulnerable, filled with longing and a willingness to love with no hope of being loved in return. But I see those qualities as strengths, not weaknesses, and I wanted Tulsa’s story to deliver exactly the same vibe we get from Patsy Cline’s powerhouse rendition. Crazy features several times in the book, informing and giving voice to both main characters.

joni smlThe fire tower and a guitar

The earliest version of the manuscript took shape while I was living with my husband on a fire tower on Weaver Bally, a 9,000 foot peak in the Trinity Alps wilderness area in Northern California. I originally thought I was writing a stage play with music, so I sat out on the catwalk with my feet up on the rail, my guitar on my lap and a yellow legal pad between my knees.

I had the plot in mind, knew the characters, and had a list of songs, which I thought would be apt and entertaining in the show. Among these were Pink Moon by Nick Drake, Somebody to Love by Jefferson Airplane and Spoon River, done here by Michael Peter Smith. (I love Claudia Schmidt’s version.) Drinking Buddy by Claudia Schmidt makes perfect sense of the relationship between Tulsa and Mac.

A book, actually

While I was learning it, I started to feel that the songs were actually informing and developing the characters in ways that went beyond dialogue, evolving into more back story and subtext than were practical for a small stage. I started thinking maybe I was actually writing a book. And then I quickly glanced over my shoulder, burning with shame at my audacity for even considering the possibility that I could actually write a book. It took another ten years for me to embrace the idea and find time and quiet to do the work; I finished my first novel in isolation, undergoing chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I do not recommend this as a great way to write one’s debut novel, but it worked for me.

Originally titled Last Chance Gulch, my debut novel was published by MacMurry & Beck in 1996. Brainstorming titles, my editor, Fred Ramey, suggested Crazy for Trying, and it resonated like a gong. It’s so perfect; I wish I could say I was the one who thought of it. The only downside is occasionally being referred to as Joni (Crazy for Trying) Rodgers — which is probably not completely inaccurate.

Crazy for Trying by Joni Rodgers smlDirector’s cut

In the years after Crazy for Trying was originally published, I’d occasionally hear a song that actually opened my eyes to aspects of the story I hadn’t fully thought through as a debut novelist, and I started banking them in a file, thinking I might revisit the book and indie publish a sort of “director’s cut” after it went out of print and I regained the rights, which finally happened in 2008.

While I worked through the second edition, two songs in particular kept me grounded in my goal to be true to the original while allowing it to benefit from 20 years of hard-earned wisdom and craft experience: Johnny Cash’s haunting cover of the Nine Inch Nails heart-wrencher Hurt says everything you need to know about the wrung out heart of an aging drug addict. Willie Nelson’s take on Coldplay’s The Scientist brings such a gracefully aged wisdom to that song about the task of loving, and his familiar voice brought me back to where I began.

The Crazy for Trying second edition debuted as part of Outside the Box: Women Writing Women, a box set of seven stellar novels featuring extraordinary women characters, and will be released next year in paperback to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the book’s original publication. In addition to her own critically acclaimed novels and memoirs, NYT bestselling author Joni Rodgers has collaborated as ghostwriter/ book doctor on a number of celebrity book projects, including Part Swan, Part Goose with Broadway icon Swoosie Kurtz (Perigee 2014). She lives in Houston, Texas with her husband of 30 years, mechanic/ winemaker/ voracious reader Gary Rodgers. Joni’s books and video book reviews can be found at She is the founder of the League of Extraordinary Authors and you can also find her on Twitter @JoniRodgers.

Women-Writing-Women-Box-Set-Cover_finalJPEGsmlLIMITED OFFER Psst… Outside The Box: Women Writing Women is available only until 24 May. 7 full-length novels for £7.99, including My Memories of a Future Life by yours truly. And it vanishes on 24 May.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Chrissie Parker

for logo‘Unending feelings of loss and loneliness’

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 Chrissie Parker @Chrissie_author

Soundtrack by Elena Paprizou, Glykeria, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Charlie Worsham, Massive Attack, Portishead, Jem, The Moxy

I love music, my ipod goes everywhere with me, and I always listen to music when I write. Everything I write ends up with its own playlist, and certain songs on that playlist define the work, and its characters. Among the Olive Groves was no different. Whilst writing it my brain filled with so many songs that I love. They saw me frantically pouring my heart out onto the page, breathing life into it, and for me they have become an integral part of the book that will always remain.

_MG_2415A magical island
Among the Olive Groves centre’s around two women, Elena and Kate, who live in two different periods of time. They are both affected by similar issues; strained relationships, uncertainty in their lives, and outside factors that control and dictate their lives. Even though parts of the book are set in Bristol and Cornwall, the majority is set on the Greek Island of Zakynthos. Αστέρια (Stars), by Elena Paprizou, is a modern Greek song that reminds me of everything I love about Zakynthos; the high cliffs, sweeping beaches, crystal turquoise seas, green mountains and the history of the island. The song binds them together perfectly.
I fell in love with the island when I first visited, it’s a magical place, and it’s the reason I chose to set the book there.

Greek friendship that turns to loneliness
Greek music played a huge part in this book, especially when writing about Elena my Greek war heroine. I listened to many traditional Greek albums writing this book, but one track stood out. Tik Tik Tik by Glykeria is a great up-tempo Greek song, it’s very like Elena’s character happy, feisty and a little mischievous. The Festival in Macherado is full of dancing and Greek tradition, and in that scene Elena longs to dance with Angelos, the man she has become good friends with, but knows that she can’t. Instead they sneak off to the outskirts of town and talk while the sounds of the festival waft around them.

Eventually Elena and Angelos fall in love, but they’re from different backgrounds and know that they will never truly be together. When Angelos’s father forces him into a relationship with another woman. It’s in this moment that Elena realises she is alone and always will be. Sand and Water by Beth Nielsen Chapman, is a hauntingly beautiful song that epitomises Elena’s unending feelings of loss and loneliness. Listening to the song, I see Elena wandering through the olive groves, sitting on the beach or standing on a cliff top staring out at the sea mourning the loss of her one and only true love.

Relationships to last for decades
Love Don’t Die Easy by Charlie Worsham is a song that belongs to Kate and Fletch and their relationship that spans over a decade. Despite spending much of that time apart their relationship remains the same. Hardship and struggles may have defined the people they have become but their love didn’t die and is stronger than ever.

There were times though when I just couldn’t get into Kate or Fletch’s head at all, and wanted to feel closer to them. I thought that maybe listening to music from the area where they lived would help and it did. Protection by Massive Attack, Glory Box by Portishead, and Missing You by Jem, really stood out and became favourites. They reminded me of all the things I love about Bristol, and the West Country. They define the young, life and surf-loving characters.

When the Germans finally capture Elena, Angelos is heartbroken. He feels guilty and wishes that he could have done more to protect her. As he hides in the grass at Keri watching the Germans taunt her, he is completely torn. He desperately wants to save her from their enemy, but knows that if he does he will get arrested or die trying. Save You by The Moxy, was a song that really struck home while writing this scene, so much so that it’s an emotional listen. The equal guilt and fear from the two characters are so present in the music and the lyrics, it’s as if the song is saying exactly what Angelos longs to say to Elena.

Chrissie Parker lives in London with her husband and is a production co-ordinator in the TV, documentary and film industry. Her thriller Integrate was released in October 2013 and her historical novel Among the Olive Groves was released in July 2014. Other written work includes factual articles for the Bristolian newspaper and guest articles for the charities Epilepsy Awareness Squad and Epilepsy Literary Heritage Foundation. Chrissie has also written a book of short stories and poems, one of which was performed at the 100 poems by 100 women event at the Bath International Literary Festival in 2013. Her website is here, her Facebook page is here, her Facebook group is here, her blog is here and she’s on Twitter as @Chrissie_author.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Guy Mankowski

for logo‘Armour and post-punk lullabies’

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 contemporary fiction author Guy Mankowski @Gmankow

Soundtrack by Savages, Manic Street Preachers, David Bowie, New Order, Magazine, Ultravox, Yourcodenameis: milo, Joy Division, Marilyn Manson, El Perro Del Mar

I think music has influenced me in a way that is perhaps unusual. One of my favourite bands, Savages, describes their music as a ‘suit of armour’. I use music to motivate me, empower me, and rouse me into a state of anger that I convert into writing. My favourite album, The Holy Bible by the Manic Street Preachers, contains a set of lyrics which are all about corruption and negativity, and about converting that anger into self-empowerment. During periods of difficulty in my life I’ve returned to that album again and again. The lyrics to my favourite song from it, Faster, capture many of the mantras I live by.

Guy MankowskiI first wanted to write How I Left The National Grid to capture, in writing, that feeling that music gave me. The mind-set of Savages and The Manics influenced my main character, the singer Robert Wardner, who uses his music to escape the bleakness of his surroundings. But the novel itself was written using various other non-lullabies.

The novel is comprised of two narratives- one, set in the 80s, following Robert Wardner’s rise and fall. The other, set in 2012, as a journalist called Sam tries to track Wardner down for a commissioned book. Whilst spending time in Manchester to research the post-punk scene I was struck by how many times the city has been bulldozed and regenerated in the last few decades. To me, the fragile, futuristic synths in New Order’s music worked as a metaphor for the fragile, futuristic living complexes that have sprouted in recent years. I felt the texture of New Order’s brittle guitars and undulating keyboard lines during the long, searching city walks I took. They inspired Sam’s more hopeful moments in his journey. I think that New Order used synths to evoke a future that then seemed impossibly utopian, given their grim surroundings in urban Manchester.

Aural utopias

In the novel Wardner fronts a band called The National Grid, who similarly try to create aural utopias on record, using whatever instruments they can lay their hands on. Magazine’s album Definitive Gaze and Ultravox’s Astradyne seemed to me the two records that had gone closest to achieving that. Neither are pristine, but their flaws make them all the most charming.
At the start of the novel Sam, and his girlfriend Elsa, are genuinely in thrall of futuristic visions about communal living, having just moved into a luxury apartment block. During the writing of these scenes I played I’m Leaving by Yourcodenameis: Milo again and again. The hard surfaces and polished textures of the song, along with singer Paul Mullen’s lyrics about living in a complex, were very evocative.

David Bowie has been quoted as the godfather of post-punk, and so perhaps fittingly his album Low was incredibly important in the creation of the book. Not least because in one scene, like in the song Always Crashing In The Same Car we see a character driving menacingly around a hotel car park, faster and faster, until a crash seems unavoidable.

How I Left the National Grid - Book ImageBrutalist surfaces

During his car journey to Manchester’s sink estates, in pursuit of Wardner, Sam listens to Joy Division’s Disorder, and he acknowledges the hard interiors of their song, as uncompromising as the unyielding, Brutalist surfaces around him. At other times he doesn’t skirt around cities, but is taken into the dark heart of them. In the scene in which his hunt takes him to a debauched London nightclub I had Marilyn Manson’s Great Big White World play in the background in the prose. The song has a synthetic, artificial, glossy feel to it, as if the arrangement is cased in Lucite. The song felt as Ballardian as the modern nightclub environment. I also used El Perro Del Mar’s Dark Night again and again as muzak during the writing of one scene in which a character experiences a comedown. The lulled vocals and the incessant repetition of that song are somehow addictive, and capture the atmosphere perfectly. This novel could not have been written without the push that such songs gave me.

Guy Mankowski was raised on the Isle of Wight. He was singer in Alba Nova, a band who were described by Gigwise as ‘mythical and evocative’. He trained as a psychologist at the Royal Hospital for Neurodisability in London. The first draft of his debut novel, The Intimates, was written when he was 21 and was chosen as a ‘must-read’ title by New Writing North’s Read Regional campaign. His second novel, Letters from Yelena, was researched in the world of Russian ballet. He was one of the first English people to be given access to The Vaganova Academy, perhaps the most prestigious ballet school in the world. The novel was adapted for the stage and used in GCSE training material by Osiris Educational. How I Left The National Grid was written after a creative writing PhD at Northumbria University under the supervision of Booker nominee Dr Andrew Crumey, and is published by Zer0 Books. Guy’s website is here, his Facebook page is here and you can tweet him on @Gmankow.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Scott D Southard

for logo‘Demons, frustrations and betrayal’

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 Scott D Southard @SDSouthard

Soundtrack by Fiona Apple

Music can be like little time capsules. For some, they may return you to younger days, for me they return me to books. Whenever I take on a project, my creative psyche demands that I find the right soundtrack for it. And if I don’t, I might as well kiss that creative spirit goodbye. They flounder, gasping and dying like a fish out of water.

author-pic-scott-d-southardWhen I began work on my novel Permanent Spring Showers I knew I was doing something a little odd. It was a book very loosely based on a screenplay I had written years earlier, but this was going to be a very different work, not an easy adaptation. Also, I was going to present it chapter by chapter on my site. I liked to call it then a book in real time since you could enjoy the book and witness the creation of it as well. Yet, it was even more than that. Since I wasn’t bogging myself down in thoughts of sales, agents, and publishers, I was opening the door for sheer possibility. I could do anything, only limited by my own imagination.

It was so creatively exhilarating to throw off the shackles that so many of us feel when creating. And, adding in the danger that I could screw it up at any moment (for everyone to see) was just as thrilling. I was playing with literary fire. Luckily, I never felt alone in the flames.

The Muse Behind the Story

Around the time I began work on my little literary experiment, Fiona Apple had released her CD The Idler Wheel…. It’s a different kind of CD for Apple, losing her big production feel that she used to have working with Jon Brion, now simply just a piano and drums. And sometimes the piano is only keeping tempo to her singing. This put her lyrics and voice solely in the front. It gives the album almost the feeling of a therapy session as Apple deals with her demons and frustrations in each song. When she screams, she screams from her soul. You would have to be a cold person indeed not to feel it.

Permanent Spring Showers begins with an affair, a betrayal.

After discovering her husband’s affair, Dr Rebecca Stanley-Wilson has one of her own. The problem is her drunken one-night stand was with an upcoming painter named Vince. That evening inspires one of the greatest works of art, capturing the world’s attention by storm. The book is about each of the people tied to that painting and that spring of its creation. Some are lovers, some are writers, all are a little broken.

Characters breathing in the songs

I see my characters throughout Apple’s CD. Putting on the CD, doesn’t just take me back to when I was writing the work, it reintroduces me to old friends.

Let me give you an example. One character is an experimental author named Jenn Gane. Her dream is to make a new literary genre, and to accomplish that she needs an unsuspecting victim/character. Poor Steve doesn’t realise how much his life and heart is being manipulated by Jenn. Jenn is the song Daredevil with lyrics about taking from others and not worrying at all about the consequences, especially to the other individual

What about the pure creative energy of Vince? For me that is the vibe of the last song Hot Knife. In the song Apple seems to sing about obsession, but the song grows and grows as her voice multiples into different personalities almost all overcome by passions. I like to imagine that is what it is like in Vince’s head when he is creating, with the unrelenting beat of the timpani driving him forever forward.

And listen to that piano line in Left Alone. That right there is the mind of the character of Steve captured in song. In Steve’s story, he came home to find his girlfriend had moved out, leaving the apartment a mess and no note. Finding her and discovering why she left is Steve’s main focus and until it happens he is almost in a panic just like the song. Lost in hopeless and anxious energy.

I could go on and on… The fact is I needed this CD, my book demanded it, and I was lucky to find it.

CoverThe unknown soundtrack

I used to dream of the idea of collaborating on a novel with a musician, having a CD to accompany the work, both complementing each other. The funny thing is with Permanent Spring Showers, I seemed to have accomplished that with Fiona Apple. She just has no idea I did. My dream is that someday she will discover the book (and she won’t mind).

Fiona Apple seems to demand your attention throughout her CD, definitely making an album that is never merely background noise. Her heart is in every song, soaring and breaking. I like to think that each of my characters do that as well in Permanent Spring Showers.

Scott D. Southard is the author of A Jane Austen Daydream, Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare, My Problem With Doors, Megan, 3 Days in Rome and Me Stuff. His eclectic writing has also found its way into radio, as Scott was the creator of the radio comedy series The Dante Experience. The production was honored with the Golden Headset Award for Best MultiCast Audio and the Silver Ogle Award for Best Fantasy Audio Production. Scott received his Master’s in writing from the University of Southern California. Scott can be found on the internet via his writing blog The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard where he writes on topics ranging from writing, art, books, TV, writing, parenting, life, movies, and writing. He even shares original fiction on the site. Scott is also the fiction book reviewer for WKAR’s daily radio show Current State.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Debbie Moon

for logo‘Music for the Revolution’

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 novelist, radio dramatist and BAFTA-winning screenwriter and Wolfblood creator Debbie Moon @DebbieBMoon

Soundtrack by Gustavo Dudamel, Michael Giacchino, Gustav Holst, George Butterworth

Music is important when I’m in the early stages of creating a screen story – it helps me establish the mood of scenes, create character, and finalise the tone of the wider world of the story. At the moment, I’m working on an action-adventure screenplay set during the Russian Revolution – think Indiana Jones meets Doctor Zhivago! – and capturing exactly the right tone is going to be crucial.

So what am I listening to for this as-yet-untitled project, and why?


Our protagonist, Zoyah, is first described like this:

She’s been called a thief, a spy, a witch and an adventuress, but that barely scratches the surface. If the word had been invented yet, she’d probably call herself a superhero.’

Europe in 1917 is still very much a man’s world, but Zoyah knows how to use that to her advantage. So the piece of music that most remind me of her is Gustavo Dudamel’s Danzon No 2 from the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra.
Not the the right historical period or the right continent, but it feels like her – daring, playful, and smarter than you first think.

The Revolution will be musicalised

Sometimes the best music for writing screenplays to is film scores. After all, they’re all about mood too. To capture the chaos and the sense of hope and joy that the Revolution brought to Russia, I spent a lot of time listening to historic recordings by the Red Army Choir.

But my favourite piece to evoke the ‘new’ Russia is still the punningly-named Kremlin With Anticipation from Michael Giacchino’s music to Mission: ImpossibleGhost Protocol.

When Zoyah and her sidekick Sebi are recruited by the communist secret police to tackle a supernatural threat, I imagine them being marched into the awe-inspiring, intimidating palace of the Kremlin to the strains of something like this…

Things are always worse than the protagonist thinks

The thing that surprised me most while researching this project was the discovery that the Revolution was far from clear-cut. Rival left-wingers struggled for control in the halls of power and in the fields and factories – on top of civil war between ‘Reds’ and ‘Whites’, with the outcome far from certain in a nation exhausted by the First World War.

As Zoyah and Sebi return to the countryside they grew up in and see the devastation hunger, war and anti-capitalist purges have wrought, I resort to my collection of English string music – perhaps the Nocturne from Holst’s A Moorside Suite. It’s both beautiful and sad in that way that folk music often is, capturing the charm and the harshness of rural life the world over.

Spooky stuff

But no good action-adventure is complete without magic and the supernatural! Zoyah and Sebi have been tasked to recover a specific object that was lost during the Revolution, one that – whether the rationalist Reds believe it or not – is vital to the continued existence of Russia. As they pursue it across the war-torn country, they start to get glimpses of the mastermind behind the theft – who may or may not be a mythical bogeyman known as Koschei…

Koschei is a tough character to convey on paper, or in music – part dark wizard, part dirty old man, comical and yet immensely dangerous.
Thanks to a classical music radio station, I stumbled across a great album of Chinese piano music, and the way it references classical piano while still being very much its own things seems perfect for Koschei. I’ll go for Red Lilies Crimson And Bright, perhaps, as played by Yin Chengzong.

Everyone has a weakness

No dramatic character is worth writing about unless they have a weakness or a flaw – because a flaw needs to be overcome, and that means change. As we know from our own lives, changing who you are is the most difficult thing in the world, and that’s why we admire characters who overcome their weaknesses to survive and thrive.

Developing Zoyah’s character flaw, I was thinking about Indiana Jones, who, in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, goes from not believing in the supernatural to realising the Ark’s power and treating it with respect, thus surviving where the villains do not.

Zoyah is the opposite of Dr Jones – she believes so passionately in the supernatural that her the ‘real’ world is slightly unreal. As long-suffering Sebi puts it when he finally snaps:

These are real people feeling real hunger, real cold, real pain, and I don’t think you even see them. All that’s real to you is the tantalizing glint of magic just out of reach.’

FallingUntil Zoyah resets her priorities – including facing up to the unresolved feelings she and Sebi have for one another – she’s never going to be able to stop the bad guy and save Russia. And this calls for some romantic music! It’s back to early 20th Century English music for George Butterworth’s The Banks Of Green Willow, a lyrical triumph from a composer killed in battle about the time the film is set, and perfect for a realisation of true love just before the big all-action finale…

Debbie Moon is a BAFTA-winning writer for film and television. She’s the creator of the children’s supernatural series Wolfblood, which shows in almost 40 countries around the world, and has a number of film and television projects in development. She has also written a novel, Falling, short stories, and a radio play. Her blog is here and you can also find her on Facebook and Twitter @DebbieBMoon

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Davina Blake

for logo‘Music is the undertow to what I am writing’

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.

Deborah-Swift (1)

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.

Gallows humour

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.

02_Past-Encounters-682x1024Strangely, 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!

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‘Music is the undertow to what I am writing’ – Davina Blake

for logoMy 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.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Debbie Bennett

for logo‘A sequence of notes can transport you to a time and place’

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.

DB_011006075So 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.

Fateful meeting

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

Also in Hamelin’s Child, we have street-kid Lee. He’s Soul Asylum’s Runaway Train or Bon Jovi’s Someday I’ll be Saturday Night. A life out of control on a one-way trip to self-destruction.

‘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.

RATLINEx2700In 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

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