The Undercover Soundtrack – Caroline Smailes

for logo‘True love is a sense of returning home’

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 Caroline Smailes @Caroline_S

Soundtrack by Gaspard Royant, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros

When writing my first four novels, my creative process didn’t involve music. Children shouting, laughing, crying and even dogs barking, then yes I could write. But the minute I played any kind of music I become distracted, lost in the music, unable to commit a word to paper.

Writing The Drowning of Arthur Braxton

Caroline Smailes_photoThen came the creative process of writing The Drowning of Arthur Braxton. To my surprise music became part of the writing method. The difference seemed to be that the book was about music. It was a novel that had music at its very core, it looked at how music could lure, I even found myself considering how music sounded when being played under water.

The novel has a soundtrack through it, a whistle and a singing nymph, thus for me to populate that mysterious place I had to bring background music into the creative equation.

In one of the first scenes I wrote, Arthur Braxton is fleeing with his pants around his ankles from a group of teenagers. He’d been promised sexual fulfilment by the girl of his dreams. However, it was a trick and he found himself exposed, ambushed by a barrage of flashing mobile phones which instantly uploaded  embarrassing images of him to Facebook. The scene ended with him running away, with suicidal thoughts smothering him.

That was the start, it was also when music, for the first time, began to influence the story I was writing.

Have you ever heard a single lyric that inspired you, stopped you in your tracks, and made you catch your breath?

There’s a single line is Gaspard Royant’s Yours‘I’ve got a whole world where you’ll never find me’. This was the line that changed The Drowning of Arthur Braxton. It sneaked into my thought processes as I wrote. I wondered what it would be like if a place existed that could keep a chosen few safe, a place that not everyone could find.

That’s when I started writing about the derelict swimming baths called The Oracle. In the novel, for 16 years, the vast building has been closed. From the signs stuck to the erected fences around The Oracle, it is clear that there is a looming threat. Although it is a listed building, the council has sold it to an American company who are planning to demolish and rebuild. As Arthur is contemplating suicide, he finds himself outside The Oracle and that’s when he hears music – a girl’s voice, singing, the most beautiful singing he has ever heard.

Later, the reader discovers that the singing is from Madora, and later again it is revealed that she lives below the surface of the swimming baths in ‘the otherworld’. A secret world where humans don’t go, a whole other world where people cannot be found.

Would I have ever allowed my creative mind to escape into that other world without Gaspard’s lyric? I honestly don’t know.

Cover_Matt quoteFirst love

I guess that one idea led to me thinking about the concept of home and Arthur Braxton’s lack of home, indeed his need for a home.

When these ideas were forming, I heard Home by Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros. I watched a YouTube video of a performance; it was when the two singers were still in a relationship. The way they interacted, that feeling that no one else in the room mattered, that absorbing of each other, inspired me. I wanted to take that feeling and apply it to a first love, the redemptive magic of that first love. It allowed for a deeper understanding of my characters.

And Home is a happy song, bouncy and full of energy. I like that about it. So, pulling on their lyrics and that overwhelming sense of home being wherever the two people were together, I let the music play and tried to explore the sense of true love being a returning home, a familiarity and safety.

Yet these were the only songs that I could listen to whilst writing.

There was no place in my creative experience for another song. I had compartmentalised these songs into being acceptable, into them being a tool to create. They played on a loop, almost echoes within the room.

So is this a new way of writing, is music my muse?

Sadly not.

My next novel is about The Beatles, I’ve already tried writing to their songs and can’t. Perhaps The Drowning of Arthur Braxton will be my only novel that allows music to aid the creative process. I’ll let you know.

Caroline Smailes lives in the North West of England with her husband and three children. The Drowning of Arthur Braxton is her fifth novel. It is published by The Friday Project and is available in paperback  and eBook. She can be found at her website and on Twitter as @Caroline_S.  

Gaspard Royant lyric quoted with permission.

GIVEAWAY Caroline is excited to give away a print copy of The Drowning of Arthur Braxton to one commenter here. Extra entries if you share this post on Twitter, Facebook, Linked In or G+ – but be sure to leave a note here to let us know that you have!

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  1. #1 by claireking9 on May 15, 2013 - 6:33 am

    Fabulous post, Caroline. It’s really quite magical how a single line in a song can, almost serendipitously find us in the middle of the creative process and take us somewhere we needed to go. I’m glad you’ve experienced that even if only for one book.
    You can write while the kids are shouting and crying? Wow, chapeau!

    • #2 by Caroline Smailes (@Caroline_S) on May 15, 2013 - 8:10 am

      Thanks Claire! And yes, I love noise, silence bothers me. The more noise the better, as long as I can tune out from it. Music makes me sing (badly).

      • #3 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on May 15, 2013 - 8:31 pm

        I love that anecdote about the one line that made lightning strike. And I don’t know how she can write with some of those more ‘natural’ noises either…

  2. #4 by LondonS on May 15, 2013 - 7:10 am

    I’m a massive fan of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros. Lead singer Alex Ebert is also the lead singer for Ima Robot which is totally different to Edward Sharpe but just as brilliant.

    Sharing on Twitter and Facebook to spread the love. x

  3. #7 by Giselle McKenna on May 15, 2013 - 7:49 am

    I’ve only heard good things about Caroline’s latest book so I’d love to confirm what I’ve heard

  4. #9 by Beth Rudetsky on May 15, 2013 - 8:26 am

    This is a beautiful post Caroline. You found “Arthur Braxton” and through a lyric, Arthur found his way to you. I feel that writing lyrics is the way I discover the insides of a character. I ask the character/s questions and they come to life: What do people see when they see you? What would you like them to know about you? What questions go unanswered for you as you go about your daily life? What issue do you think can never be reconciled? It’s a fascinating process getting to know the person you created as the character reveals his/her inner being to you. Thank you for sharing your wonderful post and letting us take a look inside you as a writer.

    • #10 by Caroline Smailes (@Caroline_S) on May 15, 2013 - 9:34 am

      Thanks so much Beth! I love hearing about the creative process where you take a seed and build a character. Your writing process is fascinating!

      • #11 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on May 15, 2013 - 8:34 pm

        Hi Beth! Oh that IS interesting, to hear the questions you ask yourself. And you have a much harder job than novelists do. We don’t have to fit a song structure or be so concise!

  5. #12 by Sylvia TW on May 15, 2013 - 9:16 am

    Alex Ebert (of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros) also records as a solo artist. His song “Truth” is beautiful and haunting — definitely worth seeking out if you don’t already know it.

  6. #14 by david1000words on May 15, 2013 - 9:55 am

    The buzz online certainly makes me want to read The Drowning of Arthur Braxton, so please do bung my name in the pot!

    To comment on the blog post, though, I think I’d find it difficult to write while listening to music. I guess the thing is to find the right music — something that inspires rather than distracts — which you clearly managed to do. Congrats on that!

  7. #16 by Peter Domican on May 15, 2013 - 10:27 am

    I’ve never heard of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros. Beating myself senseless as we speak for this. I’m a great fan of The Polyphonic Spree for songs which are just full of energy.
    I think some lines just resonate with us at certain times for a particular reason.
    If anyone hasn’t read this book, they must. It’s quite brilliant.

    • #17 by Caroline Smailes (@Caroline_S) on May 15, 2013 - 4:43 pm

      It’s all about the right energy for me. Do check them out Pete, and the others that have been suggested in the comments. And, thank you!

  8. #18 by Dan Powell on May 15, 2013 - 11:07 am

    Really enjoyed this insight into the process behind The Drowning of Arthur Braxton. As someone whose writing process is smothered in lashings of music it’s always interesting to hear about how music influences other writers. And my intrigue antenna are tweaking at the idea of a Caroline Smailes novel featuring The Beatles. That’s two of my favourite things right there. I thought your publisher hated the Fab Four though. 🙂

    • #19 by Caroline Smailes (@Caroline_S) on May 15, 2013 - 4:44 pm

      Hats off to you for being able to write to music Dan! And yes, Scott hates The Beatles and this novel isn’t contracted… Nothing like adding layers of stress to my writing process, yes?

      • #20 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on May 15, 2013 - 8:36 pm

        Go for it, Caroline. If you’ve gotta write about the Beatles, you’ve gotta…. I’m sure if my brain was more in gear I’d quote the appropriate lyric. Can anybody help?

        • #21 by Caroline Smailes (@Caroline_S) on May 16, 2013 - 1:49 pm

          I am tempted by ‘Paperback Writer’, but I think I’ve played Beatles Rockband too often and sing far too loudly whenever I hear one of their songs. It’s so distracting, but I’ll try…

          • #22 by Beth Rudetsky on May 16, 2013 - 7:28 pm

            Hi Caroline, I think this lyrics and song is so powerful from John Lennon’s haunting and mysterious “Number 9 Dream”. Lyric:
            …”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rDP4ABxZnDI

            • #23 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on May 18, 2013 - 7:43 am

              Beth, that is one of my favourite songs. Love it! (Unfortunately I had to edit out your lyric quote because I can get in copyright trouble) But thanks for the reminder. I haven’t listened to that song for ages.

  9. #24 by jumpingfromcliffs on May 15, 2013 - 12:29 pm

    I don’t think I shall ever look at an abandoned building in the same way again; I love the concept of the novel. And it’s interesting that you can write to these particular songs; I still find that even though music plays a part in my writing, I can’t listen and write at the same time. The songs spark off ideas and images of whole scenes, then I need silence to write them..

    • #25 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on May 15, 2013 - 8:36 pm

      I love that idea of the abandoned building as well. And a swimming pool, full of pipes and strange structures… definitely a frisson there.

    • #26 by Caroline Smailes (@Caroline_S) on May 16, 2013 - 1:51 pm

      I was taken to a building (which became where the novel is set), Victoria Baths in Manchester. I fell in love with the space, walking around the the rusty pipes below the pool made me shiver with anticipation!

  10. #28 by Janet Muirhead Hill on May 18, 2013 - 11:46 am

    I love your post. One thing I haven’t tried in the creative process is listening to music as I write. I may try it as I rewrite, and I definitely will share this idea with those who take my writing classes. I’m giving workshops on both fiction writing and memoir writing this summer. With your permission I’ll share your ideas with them. Acknowledging you, of course. I’m sharing this on twitter and facebook. Thanks for your insights.

    • #29 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on May 19, 2013 - 6:14 pm

      Thanks, Janet! I’ve found a lot of writers like to use music, and in such different ways. Do send your students here – each week I host a writer who shares the secrets of their Undercover Soundtracks. It started when I wrote about using music in my own work, and blossomed into a series.

    • #30 by Caroline Smailes (@Caroline_S) on May 21, 2013 - 4:15 pm

      Hi Janet, that all sounds perfect and very kind. Thank you!

  11. #31 by Andy (@DecodingStatic) on May 18, 2013 - 1:00 pm

    I like the sound of this, especially the derelict oracle. I am a big fan of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, we had them playing at our wedding, not the band sadly! Great songs for happy occasions! I think how music earworms does change where we may go on the page and it is great to see it may have taken you somewhere different.

    • #32 by Caroline Smailes (@Caroline_S) on May 21, 2013 - 4:17 pm

      Perfect wedding music, I do believe! You could try Gaspard Royant too – it’s all about positive energy for me. Thanks for your comment!

      • #33 by Andy (@DecodingStatic) on May 22, 2013 - 8:14 pm

        Cheers for the tip, will give them a listen.Good timing as looking for upbeat music as I have a tendency to go towards expressions of sadness.

  12. #34 by Kath on June 13, 2013 - 5:19 pm

    I’d never heard of either of these artists before you mentioned them as some of the inspiration towards Arthur Braxton but I can see why a single line can tap into what you or your character is feeling. I either write in silence or while listening to movie soundtracks – without lyrics, so I won’t sing along! But for inspiration, in life or writing, song lyrics are incredibly important to me, and spark off all kinds of stories and journal jottings, so it’s fascinating to hear what they sparked off in you.
    I’ve just listened to the two tracks and I’ll play them again when I read Arthur Braxton, which is about to bubble to the surface of my TBR pile very soon.

    • #35 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on June 14, 2013 - 11:47 am

      Hi Kath! Glad you managed to make it here. I find music is so important in my work. One of my favourite things is to go for a run with a soundtrack on my MP3 player and a story problem to solve. There will usually be a serendipitous moment when a lyric, chord progression or the timbre of a singer’s voice will reveal something I hadn’t thought of before.
      I particularly love the video by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes for the reasons that Caroline said – the way the singers are totally wrapped up in each other and no one else exists. It’s like a chain of associations – first there was the song/video, then Caroline’s response, then me responding to the special thing it told her and feeling I’ve glimpsed the soul of a book.
      Thanks for dropping by! We do this every week.

  1. ‘True love is a sense of returning home’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Caroline Smailes | Nail Your Novel

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