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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
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My guest this week says she always begins a project by assembling a sequence of music tracks. To start with, she notices every word and note, but after a while they settle into a familiar environment – a mental writing room that claims her attention and tells her it’s time to immerse. The novel she’ll be sharing with us is set in 1938, so her soundtrack is a mix of her own favourite contemporary songs to help capture the mood, and then a lot of material from the period of her story to conjure the historical period. She is NYT bestselling thriller author Rebecca Cantrell, and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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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 Birgitte Rasine @Birgitte_Rasine
When I was in middle school, I remember proudly thinking I would be one of the world’s few teenagers completely unaffected by rock-n-roll.
That was, thankfully, a nanoblip in my life.
I live and breathe music. I’m trying to be really good in this lifetime so that in the next one I get to go on stage and sing. In this lifetime, I’m a writer. But that doesn’t stop me from appreciating music—on the contrary – as I said in this post on Joe Bunting’s The Write Practice. In all of my literary career, I have not written a single story or book without piping the raw power of song through my veins.
I should cacao
My latest work, a historical fiction novel for young readers about the story of cacao, was written with a playlist you’re not likely to see anywhere else. What could Lana Del Rey, Cirque du Soleil, and Manish Vyas possibly have in common?
They all flow directly into the marrow of the soul, through the ancestral stem of the brain. They all color the fierce romance (as I also said on The Write Practice) that is human existence. That, and they’re the musical backbone of my novel.
Set in contemporary Guatemala, the story is about a young American boy and his bee researcher dad and mum visiting an ecological research station (also known as a forest garden). There, our protagonist meets an enigmatic Maya girl his own age who introduces him to the wonders and mysteries of the rainforest, of growing and making chocolate… and an ancient cacao tree that neither one of them will ever forget. Intertwined into the narrative is a wild blend of Mesoamerican mythology, botanical and natural science facts, and flights of fantasy that make history soar to life.
Because my characters spend so much time in the jungle and the cacao grove, I needed the musical expression of the soul of the rainforest, of ancient plants and the cycles of life and death. I needed to be able to write passages like
He could see eyes everywhere; he could hear the breathing of a million different animals, birds, and insects; he could feel the living rhythms of the rainforest shifting from the energies of the day to those of the night. Nervous but thrilled to the marrow of his soul, he could feel all of his senses open up like the wide petals of an orchid: his skin electrified at the slightest brush of a leaf or wing of a passing insect, his pupils dilated to capture the luminescent pollen of the moon and stars filtering through the canopy, his ears tuned to the full range of chirps, clicks, sighs, drips, footsteps, and scratches, of the slitherings of scaled bodies, the flutterings of wings small and large, the stalkings of silent claws through the undergrowth. Body and soul surrendered to the jungle, and fear had to take a back seat.
For all of his hi-tech gear, Max felt completely naked in the darkness of the jungle.
A thousand plays
With the exception of the three Cirque du Soleil tracks, which only came in at the end of the book, I played the soundtrack over and over and OVER again while I wrote, probably a thousand times. I listened to them individually looped or in certain groupings, at certain points in the narrative. Lana Del Rey’s warm amber ballads stood by the characters during times of tension and uncertainty, supporting them in their deepest emotions, their rawest moments. For passages describing the rainforest, the cacao grove, and other physical surroundings, the instrumental pieces (Manish Vyas, Desert Dwellers, Professor Trance, Kimba Arem) painted a rich sensual background. Whenever I had to stay in a certain emotional state, I’d loop a song until the scene was done.
As inevitably happens, repetition paired with alignment creates active memory. Just as your body embeds certain movements into muscle memory when you practise a dance number, so your mind instantly drops you into the world you’ve taught it to associate with a certain song. For a writer, that’s gold. You don’t need a specific setting to write. You don’t need a certain time of day. You don’t need your lucky necklace or those sexy boots. None of that. All you need is your music and your mind. I wrote in cafés, on my sofa, in my bed, at the pool, in my car (parked, no worries!).
Riding the intense wave of concentration these songs swelled for me, I completed the novel, from initial research to final manuscript, in about six months, despite the constant and unavoidable forced pauses in writing courtesy of my toddler, clients, domestic responsibilities, and sleep. During the holidays, I endured two weeks of an excruciating sinus infection — but I soldiered on, writing each day, Manish Vyas et al flexing my pain and fatigue into a near trance-like state of focus.
At the end, when I was on the last chapter, my brain needed a break. Yet I couldn’t take a break—I needed to deliver the book to my publisher; I was already past my original deadline. One night, my family tucked blissfully into bed, I allowed myself the guilty pleasure of drifting away from my MS Word manuscript and onto the web pages of Cirque du Soleil. I’d gotten tickets to Amaluna with my daughter and stumbled across the soundtrack to Totem, another Cirque show we’d gone to see a few years prior. The throbbing native American rhythms of Onta and Kunda Tayé soaked into my veins, pumping the critical end of the storyline with new vigour.
But there are two other songs that carry the very DNA of the storyline, that I haven’t revealed yet. A book has to stay quiet and sacred until the day of its birth. And so it is with its primary songs. Stay tuned…
Birgitte Rasine is the author of numerous works, including The Serpent and the Jaguar, Verse in Arabic, Confession and The Seventh Crane. Her upcoming novel about the history of chocolate will be released by new educational publisher Zoozil (check them out on Facebook and Twitter) later this year. Be the first to know when it’s out — and what the novel’s two headline songs are: sign up for Birgitte’s eletter, The Muse. Aside from wishing she were an opera singer, Birgitte did actually lend her body — if not her voice — to music: she has danced flamenco, tango, salsa, the swing, the waltz and the hustle to name a few of her faves. She can still tear up the floor if she can manage to get away on an evening. You can follow Birgitte on Twitter, Google +, Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest. Or you can just become blissfully lost in her online visual soundtrack, er, website.
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Once upon a time, a schoolgirl resolved to never be a slave to music. She says she is glad this promise never lasted, because she cannot imagine having a creative life without music to guide and inspire her. Her latest work is a historical novel for young readers about the story of cacao, and features a heady soundtrack of Lana Del Rey, Cirque du Soleil and Manish Vyas. She is multipublished author Birgitte Rasine and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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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 YA fantasy author John Dutton @JohnBDutton
Creating a work of art is usually stochastic; a combination of logical planning and inspired randomness. A novelist needs to wobble across this stochastic tightrope from blank page to finished text.
Original, unexpected ideas come from a variety of sources. Dreams, alcohol and drugs fueled writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William S. Boroughs. As for myself (and in the words of the great Meat Loaf) two out of three ain’t bad. The odd pint of Guinness has certainly helped my out of writer’s rut. And so have the even pints. Of course I would never take drugs as they are illegal, but fortunately dreaming is still allowed. I’m currently writing a trilogy of young adult novels like everyone else, and I even woke up one morning with the title of the second novel, Starley’s Rust, in my head.
But there’s another way to get those creative juices flowing, and that’s music. Either melody or lyrics can be inspirational. When I needed to write the introduction of a major character in book one of the trilogy, I was driving one morning with my iPod set to random. A song came on (I honestly don’t remember which one) but it may have been Simon and Garfunkel’s Hazy Shade of Winter. Suddenly the idea came to me to write this character introduction.
The Friday I met Aranara was a cold, cold day. My hometown of Lancaster, Wisconsin is in some kind of microclimate and we rarely got snow, even in the middle of winter, so I wasn’t expecting the betrayal that lurked in the air that early October in New York City.
When I wrote this atmospheric paragraph it was the middle of summer, so it was directly inspired by the song I was listening to. But my aural surroundings have to be just right for it to help my writing. I often write in a particular café here in Montreal where the music is good (in other words, I enjoy the songs they play) and not too loud. When I go to a café closer to home for various reasons I’m quickly reminded how hard it is to get this balance right by the annoying FM pap that blasts every good idea out of my mind before it can reach the keyboard.
Atmosphere for nowhere
Sometimes an entire album can create an atmosphere in your mind that helps you get inside the head of a character you are writing. This was the case for me when I wrote my (as yet unproduced) screenplay Rd 2 Nowhere. Originally inspired by the title of an amazingly atmospheric 1985 hit by the Talking Heads, this movie features a teenage girl who is uprooted from her Montreal home when her mother dies, finding herself in a medium-sized town where nothing much seems to happen. Of course, things do happen! The main character, Jen, is overtaken by grief-fueled ennui, and takes to hanging out with a bunch of kids at a makeshift skate park where an unfinished highway ends abruptly at a river. Her mental state and attitude towards others was perfectly reflected by the music of Arcade Fire’s albums Funeral and The Suburbs. As Jen’s mind found ways to escape her dull everyday reality (her everydull realiday?) I was listening to songs like Neighbourhood 1 (Tunnels) from Funeral and The Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains). It’s not necessarily easy for a male writer in his 40s to get inside the head of a teenage girl, so I’m forever grateful to the helping hand my muse received from my local heroes.
I’m clearly more influenced by the lyrics of rock and pop songs than by classical or jazz music. It’s amazing how a random word in a song can trigger a chain reaction of mental associations.
Start making sense
Sometimes you’re writing something and you hear a song that you can actually incorporate into your work. One of my novels is called The New Sense. It’s an epistemology-themed epistolary mystery (which might explain its failure to attract readers as effectively as a YA fantasy) and one of the main characters claims to have, yes, a new sense that other humans don’t possess. I originally published the novel in the form of a blog, posting it ‘live’ in serial fashion every day or so. Since it deals with the issue of how we know what we think we know to be true, it was very important for me to make the blog as believable as possible. I must have accomplished this, because the fictional writer of the blog soon began to receive emails from real people who thought that she was also real and her story true.
I decided to continue the fiction-reality mashup by creating fictional emails from made-up people to post alongside the real ones. And that’s when I heard the Blondie song (I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear. It contains a line about a person using an extra sense when playing cards. My character actually funds his lifestyle by using his sense to win at cards in the Montreal casino, so I used this line in a fictional reader email.
And sometimes music can be simply a source of fun that gets the mind working and creative juices flowing. I’ve been a fan of both the BBC sci-fi show Doctor Who and popular pop-rock combo The Beatles since I was very young. My commercial writing self has recently been hired to write the new Cirque du Soleil website and I’ve been researching their shows, including one called The Beatles LOVE that is performed permanently in Las Vegas. My sudden re-immersion in the Fab Four’s music combined with Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary clearly sparked something in a strange corner of my mind, because I came up with the idea to create a Dalek-Beatles mixtape (the Daleks being the Doctor’s arch enemies).
For a day or two I had a permanent semi-smile on my face as I re-imagined Beatles classics as performed by evil Daleks. The resulting mix tape insert card is here for your enjoyment. You may then exterminate it from your mind if you like.
After graduating from film school in London, John emigrated to Montreal in 1987, where he still lives with his two young children and their even younger goldfish. He spent over a decade as a music TV director before moving into the advertising industry as an award-winning copywriter and translator. In parallel to his corporate work, John has written novels, short stories, blogs, screenplays and a stage play. He is currently writing a trilogy of young adult novels under the pen name JB Dutton, the first of which, Silent Symmetry, was published in early 2013 and features neither vampires, zombies nor wizards. John speaks four languages and has been married three times in three different countries in three different decades. Find his blog here, get his Facebook page here, and tweet him as @johnbdutton
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My guest this week says that when he writes he chooses his aural environment carefully. There’s a cafe in his native Montreal that plays just the right music: not too loud, not too unfamiliar; exactly right for random creative loosening. He attributes one of his major characters to a chance playing of Simon & Garfunkel’s Hazy Shade on Winter while he was driving on a midsummer day – the sudden meteorological transformation was exactly what he needed to start creating this pivotal player. He is YA writer John Dutton, and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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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 the winner of the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA), Rysa Walker @RysaWalker
I write in a house with two frequently noisy kids and a dog that seems to have missed the memo about golden retrievers being a quiet breed. Music is my writing cave in the midst of that chaos. I have several carefully trained Pandora channels that keep me supplied with background music, either instrumentals or songs with lyrics I know so well that they cannot possibly distract me. Instrumental covers of indie rock songs, by groups like The Section Quartet, along with albums I know by heart, like One Man’s Trash by now-defunct 1990s band The Jody Grind — these are the tunes that keep me company on days when I’m editing or revising. While I don’t exactly hate those tasks, they are often tedious and if presented with any plausible excuse, my mind will stray. If I listen to anything with lyrics I don’t know, a phrase will catch my ear, then I have to google it, and then I click on something else that’s bright and shiny. Several hours later, I’m shaking my head trying to figure out where the time went.
On days when I need to actually create something new, however, music isn’t just a cave that shuts out the world. On those days, music is my TARDIS. The right song can evoke memories of events and emotions from my own past, and even take me to times and places I could never actually visit and that’s a vital tool when you write about time traveling historians. Sometimes I use period music to help set the mood while I’m writing, but songs from the era also shine light on the customs, social issues, and pop culture of an era, so it’s always part of my research.
The last third of Timebound, the first book in my Chronos Files series, is set at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair. The Expo was home to the first Ferris wheel, which stood 264 feet high and could carry 60 people in each of the 36 passenger cars. One of those cars was set aside to carry a full band that played songs like Sousa’s Gladiator March as the wheel rotated. A bit farther down the Midway, a Broadway producer named Sol Bloom picked out this iconic tune while an exotic dancer billed as Little Egypt prepared to go on stage. Visitors to the Exposition and the cafes surrounding the fair were also witness to the early work of ragtime great Scott Joplin, whose Maple Leaf Rag would take the world by storm a few years later. A few recordings from the early 1890s are available online, like this very early rendition of Daisy, Daisy, but they’re all rather hard on the ears, so I relied heavily on covers by later artists. I won’t claim that any of those songs from the 1890s is in heavy rotation on my iPod, but they definitely helped me get a feel for the era.
Music is also vital for helping me manage another type of time travel. Timebound is written from the perspective of Kate, who is 17. When I was 17, many moons ago, I existed on a steady diet of pop music and could name every song in the Top 40 most weeks. Thankfully, Kate is not autobiographical. She’s more inclined toward indie artists. This is a very good thing, because otherwise I don’t think we could hang out together. If I’m writing about Kate’s everyday life — school, friends, family — tunes by The Fratellis, Vampire Weekend, and The Shins help me climb inside her head.
There’s one last song I have to mention because I play it every few days—Borrowed Time by A Fine Frenzy. I stumbled upon her album One Cell in the Sea when I was writing the second draft of Timebound, back when it was still called Time’s Twisted Arrow. I love the entire album, but I’m deeply in debt to her for this particular song. The voice, the lyrics and the music all combine magically to pull me into Kate’s reality every time I play Borrowed Time.
Rysa Walker is the author of Timebound, the first book in The Chronos Files series. She grew up on a cattle ranch in the Deep South where the options for entertainment were talking to cows and reading books. On the rare occasion that she gained control of the television, she watched Star Trek and imagined living in the future, on distant planets, or at least in a town big enough to have a stop light. When not writing, she teaches history and government in North Carolina, where she shares an office with her husband, who heroically pays the mortgage each month, and a golden retriever named Lucy. She still doesn’t get control of the TV very often, thanks to two sports-obsessed kids. Find her website here, find the Chronos Files blog here, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter (@RysaWalker).
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I am so delighted my guest this week writes to music. She’s the winner of the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) with a story of genetically enabled time travel, death threats and romance. She says music is her writing cave and time machine, shutting out the modern chaos of family life, rewinding her to times in her own past and conjuring up periods like the 1893 Columbian Exposition. She is Rysa Walker and she’ll be here on Wednesday with the Undercover Soundtrack to Timebound.
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My guest this week says she writes about love and hope – and that her writing is in thrall to songs about finding or losing love. She describes her novels as urban fantasy for anyone who longs to discover they are extraordinary, and her musical companions are a soulful, heartfelt ensemble – Joni Mitchell, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Leonard Cohen. She is Kim Cleary, she has published her first novel Path Unchosen, and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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- 'Constant murmur of pouring rain, piano chords and a stormy sea'
- 'A spellbindingly good yarn'
- 'Simple, beautiful - gripping'
- 'So original it's in a class of its own'
Kobo featured book, London Book Fair 2013
Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Independent Fiction, Awesome Indies 2013
Underground Book Reviews Top Summer Read 2012
League of Extraordinary Authors Top 10 Indie Elite 2012
Multi-Story Pick of the Month March and October 2012
Alliance of Independent Authors Book of the Month, January 2013
- Carol is a concert pianist until an injury threatens her career. Desperate for a cure she discovers her future incarnation - or is he a psychological figment? And can he help her recover?
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What is The Undercover Soundtrack?Sleeve notes here
For the soundtrack of My Memories of a Future Life, you'll need Chopin's Sonata in B Minor, Rachmaninov preludes, lashings of Grieg's piano concerto in A minor and The Clash's Rock the Kasbah (they go together well).
You'll also need Samuel Barber's Dover Beach on piano, although that doesn't actually exist so do the best you can.
And the novel's undercover pieces. You can find them here
- What's on their soundtracks? Zip down to the footer and you can search by artiste or composer. See who shares your taste in inspirational music
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- 'My Memories of a Future Life is a poignant story steeped with melancholy, edged with a desperate hope, and twisted throughout with darkness and humor'
- 'Some of the sharpest writing I've read in a long while'
- 'The feel of a modern-day witch trial with a tense romance'
- 'Clever when you think about it afterwards; haunting and engrossing while you're reading'