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 my guest is the winner of the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA), Rysa Walker @RysaWalker
I write in a house with two frequently noisy kids and a dog that seems to have missed the memo about golden retrievers being a quiet breed. Music is my writing cave in the midst of that chaos. I have several carefully trained Pandora channels that keep me supplied with background music, either instrumentals or songs with lyrics I know so well that they cannot possibly distract me. Instrumental covers of indie rock songs, by groups like The Section Quartet, along with albums I know by heart, like One Man’s Trash by now-defunct 1990s band The Jody Grind — these are the tunes that keep me company on days when I’m editing or revising. While I don’t exactly hate those tasks, they are often tedious and if presented with any plausible excuse, my mind will stray. If I listen to anything with lyrics I don’t know, a phrase will catch my ear, then I have to google it, and then I click on something else that’s bright and shiny. Several hours later, I’m shaking my head trying to figure out where the time went.
On days when I need to actually create something new, however, music isn’t just a cave that shuts out the world. On those days, music is my TARDIS. The right song can evoke memories of events and emotions from my own past, and even take me to times and places I could never actually visit and that’s a vital tool when you write about time traveling historians. Sometimes I use period music to help set the mood while I’m writing, but songs from the era also shine light on the customs, social issues, and pop culture of an era, so it’s always part of my research.
The last third of Timebound, the first book in my Chronos Files series, is set at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair. The Expo was home to the first Ferris wheel, which stood 264 feet high and could carry 60 people in each of the 36 passenger cars. One of those cars was set aside to carry a full band that played songs like Sousa’s Gladiator March as the wheel rotated. A bit farther down the Midway, a Broadway producer named Sol Bloom picked out this iconic tune while an exotic dancer billed as Little Egypt prepared to go on stage. Visitors to the Exposition and the cafes surrounding the fair were also witness to the early work of ragtime great Scott Joplin, whose Maple Leaf Rag would take the world by storm a few years later. A few recordings from the early 1890s are available online, like this very early rendition of Daisy, Daisy, but they’re all rather hard on the ears, so I relied heavily on covers by later artists. I won’t claim that any of those songs from the 1890s is in heavy rotation on my iPod, but they definitely helped me get a feel for the era.
Music is also vital for helping me manage another type of time travel. Timebound is written from the perspective of Kate, who is 17. When I was 17, many moons ago, I existed on a steady diet of pop music and could name every song in the Top 40 most weeks. Thankfully, Kate is not autobiographical. She’s more inclined toward indie artists. This is a very good thing, because otherwise I don’t think we could hang out together. If I’m writing about Kate’s everyday life — school, friends, family — tunes by The Fratellis, Vampire Weekend, and The Shins help me climb inside her head.
There’s one last song I have to mention because I play it every few days—Borrowed Time by A Fine Frenzy. I stumbled upon her album One Cell in the Sea when I was writing the second draft of Timebound, back when it was still called Time’s Twisted Arrow. I love the entire album, but I’m deeply in debt to her for this particular song. The voice, the lyrics and the music all combine magically to pull me into Kate’s reality every time I play Borrowed Time.
Rysa Walker is the author of Timebound, the first book in The Chronos Files series. She grew up on a cattle ranch in the Deep South where the options for entertainment were talking to cows and reading books. On the rare occasion that she gained control of the television, she watched Star Trek and imagined living in the future, on distant planets, or at least in a town big enough to have a stop light. When not writing, she teaches history and government in North Carolina, where she shares an office with her husband, who heroically pays the mortgage each month, and a golden retriever named Lucy. She still doesn’t get control of the TV very often, thanks to two sports-obsessed kids. Find her website here, find the Chronos Files blog here, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter (@RysaWalker).