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 horror and thriller writer Will Overby @Will_Overby
I have never understood how anyone can write in total silence. Call me crazy, but there’s something about writing to music that frees up the flow of thought, that takes my mind to places I wouldn’t ordinarily visit, that presents me with sudden, surprising inspiration.
I first noticed this back in 1984. I had just graduated high school and I was working on what would turn out to be my first completed novel, August. That summer I purchased Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA and listened to it most days when I was writing. As the weeks went by, I quickly realized that it was becoming a soundtrack of sorts to the book. Songs like Downbound Train and I’m On Fire helped me add a particularly gritty feel to the character of Brian DeCanto and gave him a depth I couldn’t have achieved otherwise.
This was a revelation. Subsequent stories and novels continued to have soundtracks, including a never-to-be-published young adult novel inspired completely by the music of U2. Back in the day I would make mix tapes to play while writing. I still have a couple of those tapes, and it’s really interesting to go back now and see what inspired me 15 and 20 years ago. Nowadays I just cue up a playlist on my computer, and I can add and delete selections at my whim.
While writing this post I’m listening to the music I used for inspiration while working on my novel The Island. In this story two friends, Sarah and Amy, travel to a Caribbean island for a getaway but end up being caught up in a vodou cult complete with zombie rituals and mysterious disappearances. There is also a touch of romance, as Amy falls for a local tour-boat operator, David.
When first developing this book, I would often listen to the type of music I imagined the characters would enjoy. Sarah and her fiancé, for instance, are into big band music, so much of her characterization involved immersing myself in songs like Goody Goody by Benny Goodman. David, on the other hand, collects vinyl records and is especially fond of 50s jazz; John Coltrane seems to be his favorite for reflection, but as his and Amy’s love affair blossomed, I found myself drawn to sultry numbers by Julie London like I’m in the Mood for Love to accentuate their growing sexual attraction.
When it came to the meat of the book, I relied on instrumental pieces – both modern classical and film soundtracks – for inspiration. The zombie ritual near the end of the book, for example, is set to Kryzysztof Penderecki’s Polymorphia – a creepier piece of music I’ve never heard; you can almost feel skeletal fingers closing in around your throat as the pizzicato strings play a frenetic path up and down the scale. Likewise, his The Dream of Jacob was sometimes set to repeat when I needed a feel of dread and unease. For scenes early in the book when Sarah is having hallucinations and nightmares, Gyorgy Ligeti’s Lontano wonderfully portrays the outward appearance of calm while panic and horror gnaw inside.
No music was a greater inspiration, though, than Brett Rosenberg’s soundtrack to the 2006 film, Half Light. While the more horrific music seemed to mirror some of the Penderecki pieces to great effect, the quieter more melodic passages were fantastic in helping me round out the character of Sarah. The heart-rending solo violin selection Girl in the Storm, for example, perfectly captures Sarah’s sense of loss and loneliness.
For those of us writers who use it, music can be a great motivator. I know if I’m having trouble getting in the mood of the story I can turn on the book’s playlist and the thoughts start flowing again. If you happen to be one of those who can’t write with the distraction of music, I urge you to try listening to some pieces to set your mood before you write. You may just be surprised at what springs into your mind. And onto your page.
Will Overby has spent 30 years in the boardrooms and glass offices of retail banking. Between dodging mergers and drafting policies he publishes novels. He and his wife live far from the corporate world in rural western Kentucky. They have two grown children, a dog, and a menagerie of cats. A graduate of Indiana University, Will is an avid Hoosiers football fan. Connect with Will on his website, www.willoverby.com, on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.