The Undercover Soundtrack – Nicola Morgan

‘If I’m writing fiction there must be music… invasive music to kick me in the heart’

The Undercover Soundtrack is a weekly series by writers who use music as part of their creative process – special pieces that have revealed a character to them, or populated a mysterious place, or enlarged a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by prolific YA novelist Nicola Morgan @nicolamorgan

Soundtracks by Beautiful South, Belle and Sebastian, Coldplay, Franz Ferdinand, The Kaiser Chiefs, Muse, The Police, R.E.M., Sting

Music and I have an odd relationship. If I say “There was no music in my life until I was eleven”, you’ll think I’m being melodramatic or metaphorical. No. My extremely unusual childhood was full of amazing freedoms, but no music. Or rather, we didn’t listen to it at home, ever, and since home was school, I didn’t listen to it at all. There was a school choir and I sang in it, but that, being for chapel, was somewhat narrow in its tastes. Anyway, it wasn’t till I went to boarding-school that music appeared, and by then I lacked the musical parts of my brain. (Confirmed when I tried to learn the oboe as an adult.)

Yet, if I’m writing fiction, there must be music. And I’m pedantic about the choice. It has to be just right for that piece of writing. Once I find the album, I play it over and over. And over. Sometimes I have to play it through headphones because my family shout, “NOOOO!”

A kick in the heart

It’s not background music. It’s not just to block out the real world – though it must do this, too. But it must be more invasive. It needs to kick me in the heart, make me sing – sometimes literally. It needs to take me to a place where fiction dwells and worlds can be created.

What music? The word my family use to describe the music I write fiction to is “anthemic”. They will suggest a new band or album and say to me, “You could write to that.” It must have powerful melody, rhythm and emotion, in both the music and the words. And there must be words. I think as well there must be colour. And music with colour – an aspect of synaesthesia – is something that’s hugely a theme of Mondays are Red.

Losing my religion – in yellow

So, exactly what is on my Undercover Soundtrack? When I was writing The Passionflower Massacre (Hodder, 2005) it was R.E.M., mostly Around the Sun, though in fact I quite wanted to call the book Losing My Religion. R.E.M.’s music is rich and golden, warm and vibrant, mysterious and with odd meaning. And The Passionflower Massacre is a book like that. I think the book is more yellow, more summery than R.E.M., though, but the Around the Sun track is perfect.

Sleepwalking (Hodder 2004) was Sting. Sting and the Police are cold, thin blue, the wail of a heartless future. That’s how Sleepwalking feels to me. The Highwayman’s Footsteps (Walker 2007) was Franz Ferdinand, rich with reds and blues and excitement;  The Highwayman’s Curse (2008) was Franz Ferdinand again and The Kaiser Chiefs, harsh, cruel, jangly, angry, steel grey and blood red with the horror of religious hatred.

Wasted was a strange mixture: Belle and Sebastian, Muse (Uprising – love it!) and Beautiful South. With smatterings of REM again. It’s not a violent book, more thoughtful, and if it had a colour it would be an impossible blue lilac disappearing at all its edges. (For your interest, the main character is a girl with music-colour synaesthesia.)

Everything I want for a dark book

And the novel I’ve just finished, Brutal Eyes, is pure Coldplay – mostly Viva la Vida but with the recent revisions written to Mylo Xyloto, especially the phenomenal Us Against the World and Every Teardrop is a Waterfall. Those two songs are everything I want in music for a dark book. You can hear every rasp of Chris Martin’s breath, every squeak of finger on string. You can hear his eyes close, his shoulders move. It has enormous emotional heart. I’d like to hope it lends some of that to the book. Funnily, Brutal Eyes doesn’t have a colour for me.

What did I write Write to be Published to? Nothing! I couldn’t possibly write non-fiction while listening to music!

Nicola Morgan is an award-winning author, with around 90 published titles, and a growing list of self-published titles. She is well-known to aspiring writers for the honest advice on her blog, Help! I Need a Publisher! and a book – Write to be Published – published by Snowbooks. Notable works include her famously gruesome novel Fleshmarket; the Aventis shortlisted Blame My Brain: The Amazing Teenage Brain Revealed; and Wasted, which was longlisted for the Carnegie Medal and won or was shortlisted for many awards. Mondays are Red was originally published in 2002 and Nicola has now created a new edition for ebook format, including some extra material such as creative writing by school pupils. This time, she is publishing it herself, with the help of her agent. Follow her on Twitter @nicolamorgan

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  1. #1 by L.S. Engler on December 7, 2011 - 1:02 am

    I’ve always wished I could be a more musical author; I find that listening to music while I’m writing unless it’s just a quiet whisper is way too distracting, though many songs have inspired certain pieces. It must be absolutely fantastic to have such a connection between music that moves you and your own work and creation! Thanks for the great post; most of you music choices are some of my favorites.

    • #2 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on December 7, 2011 - 8:02 am

      I used to think I couldn’t write to music because I would pay too much attention to it – until I realised the images it was conjuring and what it was making me invent were actually very useful. Glad you liked the post.

  2. #3 by Olivia on December 7, 2011 - 1:10 am

    I love this post. I really, really do. I don’t have quite the same requirement for music, but sometimes a song gets in my head and it won’t leave until I’ve written a short story for it. Uprising was one of them, so your mention of it made me smile.
    That _need_ to get the images a song invokes in my mind down onto paper is what landed me my first (and only, so far) sale- a novella, based off of an entire album.

    • #4 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on December 7, 2011 - 8:04 am

      Thanks, Olivia! I love seeing what music other authors use – and Nicola is the most thoroughly musical author I’ve had here so far!

  3. #5 by Nicola Morgan on December 7, 2011 - 8:50 am

    Thanks for the comments (and to Roz for inviting me!) “the most thoroughly musical author I’ve had here so far” – wow, you have no idea how strange that feels, because I feel *so* unmusical, because I can’t name/remember tunes or songs, and I can’t make music.

    Olivia – congratulations!

    LS Engler – thanks! Like you and Roz, I used to think I couldn’t write to music. Maybe it’s about finding the right music.

    • #6 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on December 7, 2011 - 3:22 pm

      A pleasure to host you, Nicola – especially as you have brought the biggest collection so far. BTW, I absolutely love the cover of Mondays are Red. Beautiful job.

    • #7 by L.S. Engler on December 7, 2011 - 3:30 pm

      Maybe you’re right on that, too, Nicola! I have to admit, the post got me thinking about whether or not it was the fact that I tend to just put Pandora on random. Your music seemed pretty specific to one or two albums or bands, so I was thinking I should just poke around until I find my own right musical inspiration!

      It would be worth a try, if anything. Having to listen to good music? Ugh, what a chore! : )

      • #8 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on December 7, 2011 - 3:42 pm

        It’s a great way of getting you to the keyboard, isn’t it? ‘No music unless you’re writing…’

  4. #9 by Sally on December 7, 2011 - 12:01 pm

    Wow, how interesting that you didn’t listen to popular music at all until you were older, Nicola. And the synaesthesia aspect is fascinating. Colours (especially yellow and red!) feature quite a bit in my own novel so I could really relate to it.

    • #10 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on December 7, 2011 - 3:20 pm

      Hi Sally! Synaesthesia is one of those conditions that seems invented for creative types, isn’t it? I’ve had it on my ‘to-use’ list for years. Seems you and Nicola got there first, though…

      • #11 by Sally on December 7, 2011 - 5:28 pm

        Oh, no, it’s just Nicola. 🙂 But I too would like to explore synaesthesia at some point.

  5. #12 by Joe Bunting on December 7, 2011 - 1:51 pm

    Great post, Nicola. Man, Belle and Sebastian and Muse together? That certainly is a strange mixture. I like this series, Roz. What a cool angle on writing.

    • #13 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on December 7, 2011 - 3:23 pm

      Hello Joe! Thank you – I’m loving this series too. This week you and I have got the writing art well covered from unusual angles – you with your reading piece and me with the soundtracks. Creatives unite!

  6. #14 by Vaughn Roycroft on December 7, 2011 - 2:36 pm

    I’m with Nicola: while writing there MUST be music, invasive music that kicks me in the heart (love that). I love soaring anthems as well. From the new Coldplay, I’m loving Paradise. The new Florence & the Machine has some soaring, kick in the heart songs, too – Shake It Out and Only if for a Night come to mind. Another group that does a nice job playing with anthemic themes, and building to creshendo, is Elbow, and I’m loving their new album, Build a Rocket Boys, particularly The Birds.

    I often find specific songs for specific scenes, and almost always have a ‘theme song’ for every major character. The theme song for the heroine of my recently completed ms (who was jilted by a charismatic chieftain) is Teeth, by Lisa Hannigan. I swear, my eyes still sting everytime I hear, even after more than 50 plays.

    Roz, I love love love this series (have I said ‘love’ enough in this comment?). So glad I found it. Great choices, Nicola! So happy to hear someone else utilizes music while writing like I do. So many writers say they could never listen as they actually write, and I can’t imagine doing otherwise.

    • #15 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on December 7, 2011 - 3:28 pm

      Vaughn – lovely to see you here again. You always add some great artistes to the mix. Florence? Well who couldn’t love her? She’s musical exultation. That phrase of Nicola’s (‘kick in the heart’) absolutely nails it.

      Elbow’s another of my perennials. Guy Garvie has sung my characters’ hearts in more than one novel.

  7. #16 by Clint Turpen on December 7, 2011 - 3:21 pm

    I’ve long been from the school of “writing in silence,” but after reading this, I want to give music another whirl. I wonder if my mistake has been playing it too quietly, or trying to select “meditative” music.

    Today is Day 27 of a “30 days of short-shorts” challenge I set for myself. I’ll try it this evening. Just blast myself into oblivion while I write. I love Belle and Sebastian, but they can get a bit pastoral at times. Maybe for this experiment I need something more visceral. “Exile on Main St” or the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

    That’s it. Tonight’s story will be written under the influence of “Birds of Fire.”

    Thank you for this. Fascinating.

  8. #18 by Paul R. Drewfs on December 7, 2011 - 3:30 pm

    First Nicola takes me straight back to school on concepts like “synesthesia” and “Anthemia”: way cool. Then she uses those tasty bits of conceptual “heart kicking” to lure me into the “place where fiction dwells and worlds can be created.” This delightfully clever lady is edgy scary: I think she knows her readers better than we know ourselves. Can any author possibly possess a more powerful attractor: uh-uh. Thanks for changing me: I needed a good middle of the week transformation. I quicked-clicked to “follow” Nicola’s tweets before I even finished reading the interview.

    • #19 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on December 7, 2011 - 3:46 pm

      Hi Paul – synaesthesia is a winner for writers, isn’t it? Thought you’d like this piece. Thanks for joining the party, as always!

  9. #20 by Nicola Morgan on December 7, 2011 - 3:59 pm

    Wow, lovely comments from lovely people I’ve never met, either in person or in the ether! You’ve made my day. “delightfully clever” and “edgy scary” – oh oh oh! Kicked in the heart with that but also grinning.

    And thanks for the Elbow idea – I’ve heard something of theirs (of course, I can’t remember what) and remember very liking it. Luckily, I have a husband who can name names and remember lyrics and titles, so I’ll just go and tap his memory and ask for something by Elbow for Christmas.

    Clint, you said, “I wonder if my mistake has been playing it too quietly, or trying to select “meditative” music” – I think that could be it. It’s counter-intuitive to think it needs to be loud, but maybe it does for you as it does for me and some of the others.

    Unfortunately, I have a plumber in the house and i REALLY want to drown his noises but if I do he’ll think I am playing instead of working.

    Thanks again, everyone, and Roz.

  10. #21 by Marguerite Kaye on December 10, 2011 - 10:57 am

    What a fab post, and so much of what you listen to I love too. I need music to write too, but not to listen to when I actually write, which I need complete silence for. I always have a song or a few lines from a song that are the ‘essence’ of whatever book I’m working on (I’m one of those people who remembers every lyric, used to think I would have walked pop quiz – showing age now). I love Elbow, I think they write seriously romantic songs in a seriously different way, and they’ve been key in my last couple of books. Same with the Cure (showing age again!), romantic poetry with music.

    As always Nicola, you made me think. I hope your plumber wasn’t too disrupting.

    • #22 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on December 10, 2011 - 7:11 pm

      Marguerite, I also find a song helps nail the essence of a scene or a character. I get most of my epiphanies while driving, when I surf the radio channels for something to clarify the tangled story problems in my head. Thanks for dropping by!

  11. #23 by Michelle MacEwan on December 12, 2011 - 6:39 am

    Thanks Roz and Nicola! I totally agree with Nicola about writing to music when she says, ‘It needs to take me to a place where fiction dwells and worlds can be created.’

    Writing to music is wonderful. I also love driving to music. Where I live involves driving if I want to go any where other than the beach. Whichever direction I go there is rainforest and coast which, combined with music, gives me lots of inspiration for my WIP. Having the iPod on shuffle often has the ‘invasive kick’ effect. A song, out of the blue, that I would not usually listen to bursts on and evokes an entire scene in my minds eye…. I have had to train myself to pull over and write things down.

    There is nothing better than to discover something new, a melody and an incredible voice that grabs hold of my heart, and the heart of a character, and won’t let go.

    Right now I am listening to One Eskimo’s Amazing, Lisa Gerrard’s evocative themes, Cold Play & several of the older U2 albums.

    At times, the music of nature is just perfect for me. Where I live there is an incredible variety of birds. Bird song, the sound of the wind and the pounding surf of the Southern Ocean ( or north Atlantic depending on which home I am in ) creates the most wonderful and atmospheric music. The ancient Irish knew that the music of nature is the music of the Otherworld and it can weave it’s spell around me while I write. There are many times though when my characters want music of the recorded ilk pumping through their veins and like Nicola, it has to be exactly right. Otherwise the magic isn’t there. When it is perfect it creates an energy that carries through the writing – a life force that fuels the energy.

    I have also have some new artists to check out after reading this!

    • #24 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on December 12, 2011 - 9:03 pm

      Ah the wonder of randomness, Michelle! I like the radio for that reason, although I do a lot of channel hopping. But the song that pops out of the ether and suddenly has something to say about your WIP is like gold. Love that name ‘One Eskimo’ – now you’re mentioned you use it as writing music I might have to check it out.

  1. ‘If I’m writing fiction there must be music… invasive music to kick me in the heart’ – Nicola Morgan on The Undercover Soundtrack « Nail Your Novel

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