The Undercover Soundtrack – Dave Newell

for logo‘A song that puts me under a spell I dare not break’

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 Southern Gothic literary novelist Dave Newell @davenewell

Soundtrack by Beethoven, Olafur Arnalds, Thayer Sarrano

Can music make a writer a better writer?

daveauthorpiclessI grew up in South Carolina so my literary diet consists of the great Southern Gothic writers like Flannery O’Connor, Edgar Allan Poe, Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams. In addition, local storytellers with little name recognition outside of their own counties introduced me to unique styles. Horrific stories told beautifully are nothing new to me; they’re what I grew up hearing and how I thought storytelling was meant to be.


When I was in elementary school my parents signed me up for ten years of ill-fated piano lessons. Sure, I didn’t miss a lesson, but very little came of those years in terms of musical skill. However, I did learn the importance of the metronome – a steady guide and constant companion that helped me stay as consistent as I was able to. It afforded me the ability to concentrate on other tasks instead of focusing solely on rhythm. I was able to focus on the position of my hands and recall what my teacher had reminded me of. In terms of writing, music is my metronome.

Writers have to perform an incredible amount of mental gymnastics in very tight spaces. Some of the writing comes naturally while much of it is learned and then mastered through practice. For brainstorming I listen to music with lyrics, but when writing I need a guide to pull along my voice, which comes naturally, while I concentrate on practicing what doesn’t – new sentence structures and world-building.

Conspiracy, calm and bitter tension

When writing my book Red Lory I created a small 1950’s town and centered the story on Dr Douglas Howard and the wife of a patient, Mrs King. Her wealthy husband owns a very profitable department store, but his health took a surprising dive, leaving him incapacitated and in a coma-like trance. She appears to be giving up on him in favor of making plans to marry Dr. Howard, who happens to be struggling financially. Many of the scenes take place in the Kings’ library where the doctor and Mrs. King spend hours while her husband fights for his life upstairs in his bedroom.

Theirs is a strange world – a complex environment of conspiracy, calm, and bitter sexual tension. I needed something to keep me in that world, so I went back to the classics. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, a song Mrs King plays on the library piano, became invaluable. I also looped Olafur Arnalds’ album Living Room Songs, using it as my metronome to carry my voice while I concentrated on other things.

Since it was published the book has been produced as an audiobook and is being adapted into a movie. Both producers have remarked on how cinematic the story is, and I owe much of that to the music I listened to. A strong soundtrack helps me paint the story with a finer brush and more vibrant colors.

red-lory-cover-front-ebook-title The lonesome spell

Music isn’t just something I use to allow my voice to carry on and remain consistent; it’s also something I learn from. Songwriters tell stories; they just pack it differently than novelists do. Thayer Sarrano’s Quiet Now Your Bones changed my perception of what’s expected of me as a writer. It’s a lonesome song that puts me under a spell I don’t dare break.

I often associate page-turners with action-packed stories where the turning points are easily identified, and the tension rings the doorbell instead of sneaking up on you. I like to think that I’ve learned how to write tension into a story like she does with her songwriting. By nature of the Southern Gothic genre, readers are expecting strong doses of tension to show up in my stories, and I’m happy to oblige. However, I don’t want my tension to waltz up to the front door and announce itself. I want it – without the reader realizing – to have been sitting beside them the whole time, turning the pages.

Listen for the stories

To me music is something more than background noise. Each, with or without lyrics, is a carefully crafted story. Both Sarrano and Arnalds construct songs with heavy amounts of friction disguised by beautiful melodies. Listen for the stories the artists are trying to tell. Those stories, although kept in the invisible binding of digital formats, are page turners that bring us into their world and teach all along the way.

Dave Newell was born and raised in the Midlands of South Carolina. After graduating in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in Broadcast Journalism, he moved to Greenville, South Carolina where he currently lives with his family. Red Lory is his first novel. Find him online at and on Twitter at @davenewell.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

  1. #1 by Beth Rudetsky on November 14, 2013 - 7:43 am

    What a beautifully written and expressive piece. Thank you Dave. I’m a singer-songwriter and compose and sing original songs for crime-fiction, thriller and suspense author’s novels and book-trailer/videos. I wrote a piece for Roz about my songwriting process for novels and she asked me a great question, “How do you turn an entire novel into one whole song?” It’s a great question because that’s exactly what the songwriting process is…delving deep into a main character and their story, creating lyrics, melodies, a chorus and a bridge along with orchestrating the song for several instruments into a few minutes for the listener that will reflect the emotions, the story and the timbre of the novel. It’s quite a task…but so rewarding.

    • #2 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on November 15, 2013 - 9:42 pm

      Beth – lovely to see you as always! Your perspective is always so interesting and here we’ve come full circle: songs inspiring Dave to be more concise, and you appearing to represent the songwriting quarter. I feel you’re our resident musician 🙂

      • #3 by Beth Rudetsky on November 16, 2013 - 1:57 am

        Thanks Roz. It’s very interesting and thought-provoking for me to read how an author creates a relationship in his/her writing with the impact of music on the story and characters in their novel. I’ve felt for a long time that the two go together, especially since I write my own lyrics in my songs and must make them concise and ‘sing’ the character’s dilemma(s) and resonate for a reader of the author’s novel and to a listener of the song. It works on dual levels. And thank you for the honor of being called your resident musician!

    • #4 by Dave Newell (@davenewell) on November 18, 2013 - 6:05 pm

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Beth! The power of music is a wonderful thing isn’t it? It translates so seamlessly into countless lives, speaking to their specific needs. It’s a special talent you have to create it. Following the links I found demos of your music – congrats on finding your niche in the market. I didn’t realize musicians were out there specifically for book trailers.

      The challenge I give myself (and perhaps I should have talked about this in the post as well) is to find a song that’s at the heart of the story. Once I’ve found it I do the opposite of what you do and try to expand the idea instead of compressing it. Equally difficult tasks. Obviously the idea of each song is different with each individual interpretation. With me, the ideas in songs run through the Southern Gothic filter. Thanks again for the comment!

      • #5 by Beth Rudetsky on November 18, 2013 - 7:18 pm

        Dave, it’s fascinating to me what you do. Thank you for checking out my music. I created this new niche of composing, singing and arranging original songs for authors because I feel that just as a film features an original song that reflects the story and the emotions of the character(s), that an author’s novel deserves one too. I compose music for author’s trailers in a variety of styles based upon the genre of the novel and the feel of what the author is looking for to express it.

  2. #6 by writersblock1966 on November 17, 2013 - 2:19 am

    Wow, you’ve certainly opened up a whole new side to writing that I was not in tune with. Or maybe I was, but just not listening. I write better with music in the background and it helps me move my story or poetry along. Of course, it all depends on what I’m writing at that moment. Thanks for sharing, I enjoyed reading this!

    • #7 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on November 17, 2013 - 8:39 am

      Lovely to meet you, Yvonne. We do this every week, with writers of all genres and disciplines. Some describe the plot and characters to an inner soundtrack, some probe into the very essence of their identity on the page and the creative process. All are candid and always interesting. Do visit again.

    • #8 by Dave Newell (@davenewell) on November 18, 2013 - 6:12 pm

      It’s funny you specifically mention what you’re listening to depends on what you’re writing – I’ve scrapped chapters after realizing I had the exact wrong music on in the background. What was supposed to be a softer scene instead reflected the rock music I’d had on. Big mistake. I will say though I enjoy writing the more tense scenes with very soft music; the juxtaposition of emotions (tense scene versus calm and beautiful voice) helps me produce an interesting dynamic. Thanks for the comment and encouragement!

  3. #9 by philipparees on November 18, 2013 - 12:04 pm

    Thank you for a new discovery… Olafur Arnalds music…this is an enviable writer’s entry into immediate filmic success…the book seems (from the blurb) to bristle with Tennessee William’s tensions! A very interesting and well written post that evokes so many American small town obsessions. Clearly another for the list.

    • #10 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on November 18, 2013 - 6:04 pm

      Philippa, there’s something about Olafur Arnalds that really ensnares the creative mind. When I’ve been working on The Mountains Novel I’ve played Living Room Songs 10 times on repeat. And I seem to get on well with the work of writers who love him too!

    • #11 by Dave Newell (@davenewell) on November 18, 2013 - 6:15 pm

      I can’t recommend Arnalds’ music enough. If you get the chance, find the KEXP concert of his on YouTube; it’s fun to see the personality behind the music, and he’s a good storyteller.

      Also, it just struck me that I need a nickname as cool as Tennessee.

  1. ‘Horrific stories beautifully told’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Dave Newell | Nail Your Novel
  2. Social media: a message in a bottle | Nail Your Novel

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: