The Undercover Soundtrack – Catherine Ryan Howard

‘I was trying to recreate a mood, to write about events with a depth that the passage of time might have made shallow’

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 travel memoirist, novelist and blogger Catherine Ryan Howard @cathryanhoward

Soundtrack by Hans Zimmer, Gustavo Santaolalla, Thomas Newman

This past summer I sat down to write 70,000 words about a three-month backpacking trip I’d taken in Central America in early 2008. I soon found that while it was easy to remember the things we’d done (there was a travel blog, a travel journal, a well-thumbed copy of the Lonely Planet’s Central America on a Shoestring to refer to, a best friend to double-check with and a thousand photos to help jog my memory), I found myself struggling to recall—and so, recreate—exactly how I’d felt.

I turned to music for help.

There were songs we listened to while on the road that would’ve been obvious choices for memory-jogging, but I wasn’t trying to go back in time. (And I also find music with lyrics fatally distracting while writing.) What I was really trying to do was to create an authentic mood in the present similar to the mood I’d been in back then, that would enable me to write about the trip’s events with a depth of feeling that the passage of time might have otherwise made shallow.

And I found the perfect soundtrack—or soundtracks, rather. When you need music to help conjure up a specific feeling (and conjure it up quick), for me, there’s one obvious place to turn: movie soundtracks, which have been written to serve just that purpose.

The pick-up truck

I’m not exactly your typical backpacking gal (or even her third cousin twice removed) as the book’s title—Backpacked: A Reluctant Trip Across Central America—suggests. For the first month I had to bite back a growing desire to pick up my backpack and go home, and an anxiety about the fact that I hadn’t yet. This all changed when, quite by chance, I got to ride in the back of pick-up truck through the stunning highlands of Honduras where I realised how lucky I was to be experiencing such a thing. To help bring back that feeling of pure joy and sudden elation, I listened to Gumption, a piece by Hans Zimmer from The Holiday soundtrack.

For those thirty minutes, I constantly reminded myself that I was backpacking. That I was in Central America. That I was in Honduras. That I was in the back of a pick-up truck, headed to a Las Vegas that didn’t have a strip, climbing up a mountain covered in luscious tropical forest and while enjoying an uninterrupted view of the countryside that expanded with every turn of the wheel.

And I recognised what a privilege it was to experience such a thing, and I could forever consider myself lucky to have done it.

I thought, I am so lucky that I’m here. I’m so glad I came. This was a fantastic idea.

Me, the Starbucks addict.

Me, the five-star hotel devotee.

Me, the reluctant backpacker.

Border crossing

The only true fear I felt during our trip was when for a reason that is still a mystery to us, a bus we were travelling on got mobbed near the Honduran-Nicaraguan border. In the midst of it, our backpacks were stolen from the roof rack. It was hard to write this scene while preserving the confusion I felt while it was happening, to do it without diluting it with facts I’d learned since. Writing this, I listened to Iguazu by Gustavo Santaolalla, from The Insider soundtrack. It creates for me an atmosphere of underlying danger, sinister events that are unfolding quickly, and there’s something about it (the charango, maybe?) that evokes a feeling of a foreign, unfamiliar place.

The ending

We had to come home eventually and when it came time to leave, I became unexpectedly upset. Cruelly our travel plans had our second bus leaving as our first bus pulled into the station, and so our goodbyes to the rest of our six-strong travel group had to be done suddenly, speedily and unexpectedly. I wasn’t at all prepared — for saying goodbye, or for being upset having to. One of the most hauntingly sad pieces of music I know has a suitably sad title: The Letter That Never Came. It’s by Thomas Newman and from the soundtrack to Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. To me, it sounds like sadness with roots: a reflection on the past, a move into a new future, a person changed by the events in between. Perfect, in other words. I put it on repeat the night I wrote the last chapter and by the end—and ‘The End’—I was more upset than I’d be on the day!

It was all a bit like Dorothy at the end of Return to Oz when a stone-faced Ozma cruelly sends her back to Kansas before she’s ready.

Damn that Ozma.

And damn that bus.

We did our best to run around to everyone with a hug and a goodbye, but it was a quick scramble, and we needed to get on the bus, like, five minutes ago. We waved over our shoulders as we ran onto it, and grabbed two seats at the back.

The last we saw of our little group was Dan, sitting on everyone else’s backpacks in the bed of the pick-up, a half-smile, half-smirk on his face, waving to us as our bus pulled away.

As the scene faded from the view, Sheelagh and I turned away from the windows.

And started to cry.

Catherine Ryan Howard is a writer, blogger and self-publisher from Cork, Ireland. She is the author of two travel memoirs (Mousetrapped and Backpacked), a novel (Results Not Typical) and a ‘sane person’s guide to self-publishing’ (Self-Printed). She can usually be found dividing her time between the desk and the sofa, on Twitter at @cathryanhoward or blogging on

And incidentally, in this festive season you can get episode 1 of My Memories of a Future Life for free on Kindle – but hurry to the Kindle store right now as the offer vanishes after December 30…

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  1. #1 by Vaughn Roycroft on December 28, 2011 - 2:28 pm

    I agree, Catherine–soundtracks are so often perfect because they are written to enhance a visual. And, to quote Jack Black’s character in The Holiday, “Hans is the man.” I write historical fantasy set in ancient Rome, so the Gladiator soundtrack is a staple–Hans and Lisa Gerrard is an unbeatable combo in my genre. Also love his work on the King Arthur soundtrack. Gumption seems perfect for, “Me, the reluctant backpacker.” (Love the passage here.)

    I’m new to Santaolalla, but am loving Iguazu–haunting and edgy at once, almost jangling at its core. Sounds perfect for the veiled unease of the border crossing.

    I made the mistake of listening to the Newman piece while I read your accompanying excerpt, and was rewarded with stinging eyes. So thanks for that. 😉 (Double love for this passage. Very evocative words and music.)

    Wonderful examples, Catherine! You did it again, Roz. Another great guest! My writing music files keep growing thanks to this wonderful series.

    • #2 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on December 28, 2011 - 7:23 pm

      Hi Vaughn! My files keep growing too. I’m sure I saw an extra on a DVD of Hans Zimmer scoring a scene from a film. Can’t for the life of me remember which one it was, but watching how he brought the visuals to life was glorious. I loved the way Catherine used them in this piece too!

  2. #3 by Heather Mitchell on December 29, 2011 - 11:08 am

    Great choices – Hans Zimmer is the best for atmosphere. Writing short stories in the 90s, I used his soundtrack from Green Card for each one. It felt as though I couldn’t write a word until that first track played. I think it’s Subway Drums.

    For the recent 1st draft of novel, in it went again to get me started – and it worked. Over that month, I went on to Gladiator, The Pacific and soundtrack from Band if Brothers. At some emotional/high tension/dramatic points, there was Rodrigo’s Concerto de Aranjuez.

    One of those writers madly distracted by too many words on a soundtrack, those suited both me and my story.

    The book sounds fun. Good luck with it and I’ll buy it. It may offer a clue as to how my daughter and son spent their time in S. America two summers back.

    • #4 by Heather Mitchell on December 29, 2011 - 11:09 am

      Of not if…

      • #5 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on December 29, 2011 - 11:24 am

        Another of my favourite soundtrack composers is Vangelis. Oh, and Danny Elfman.
        Love your icon, Heather! Very retro.

        • #6 by Heather Mitchell on December 29, 2011 - 12:22 pm

          Oooh, yes, Vangelis, of course. Thanks re icon. If you had your teen years in the 70s, your possessions have retro leanings, I find. That race car is family to us – Paul’s had it 25 years and it features in my current WIP. Your piano, my car. Joanna Harris’s Shed next? 🙂

          • #7 by Heather Mitchell on December 29, 2011 - 12:45 pm

            Duh! And not forgetting Catherine’s backpack, hijacked or not!

  3. #8 by Bianca M on October 23, 2021 - 4:47 am

    Veery creative post

  1. ‘To write about events with a depth that the passage of time might have made shallow’ – Catherine Ryan Howard « Nail Your Novel
  2. Should you change your book’s cover? Tips for success | Nail Your Novel

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