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 historical action/adventure novelist Dianne Greenlay @DianneGreenlay
Soundtrack by Carl Orff, Dvorak, Poitin, Immediate Music, Samuel Barber, Moby
Quintspinner – A Pirate’s Quest is an adventure set in the pirate-infested waters of the West Indies, 1717. The story opens with William, a young man who is searching for his older brother and his father, both of whom have not returned from the pub the night before. When I write, I usually have a scene playing out like a movie in my head and I know that my word choice is strongly influenced by background music.
Therefore, wanting this first scene to be one of ominous and rising tension in the chill of the pre-dawn semi-darkness, I listened to Carl Orff: Carmina Burana, O Fortuna. It provided the perfect musical setting for the sense of building panic which begins in Chapter One and which peaks in an unexpected incident at the end of Chapter Two. And like the title of the music, with that incident, William’s fortune is about to change forever.
My main protagonist – Tess Willoughby – a young woman from a privileged home in London, is the daughter of a well-to-do physician, who unexpectedly witnesses the murder of an old seer. Coming into possession of the dead woman’s odd ring – an ancient Spinner ring, known by the locals as the Ring of Prophesy, she is wrongly accused by her father of having stolen the ring, and soon, by her father’s arrangement for the family, she becomes an unwilling passenger on a merchant ship bound for Port Royal, Jamaica.
For Tess, this is the beginning of a coming-of-age nightmare unfolding in a world that is completely foreign from everything that she knows. The daring sea journey begins, and Dvorak’s Fourth Movement from The New World Symphony painted the background for me as I captured the events along the brave, yet hazardous journey.
There will be dancing
William, meanwhile, also finds himself on board a ship and at the mercy of a sea-hardened captain and crew. In my research about the lives of sailors and pirates in the eighteenth century, I’d read that dance was a way in which the sailors coped with boredom at sea, and presumably, I thought, the copious amounts of grog that they drank gave their feet wings, if not rhythm. Dance was an activity of fellowship, and at times, a competition and a way of showing off.
The challenge given to William by his captain is to provide an evening of entertainment that is meant to lower the dangerous level of mounting tension between two acrimonious sailing crews forced to share one ship. The song, The Congress Reel, is an old Irish reel meant for the flute, fiddle and drum. That was a perfect, almost mandatory accompaniment for writing this scene, as those were the instruments that would have been available to the crew members. Although there are many versions of The Congress Reel, the frenzied tempo as used here by Poitin was just as I envisioned the sailors’ dance to be sounding like.
As I wrote the dance scene, the music filled my head and, spurred on by the song’s rhythm, my typing fingers flew over the keyboard. I could feel the sailors’ tensions dissolving and much to my surprise, during this dance scene, Mrs Hanley, another favorite character – a cheeky, middle-aged woman – showed an unexpected flirtatious side to her that came to have great significance in the plot later on.
A rhythmic splash
A pivotal point in the story is the sea battle in which the merchant ship that Tess and William are sailing upon is overtaken by a brutal pirate crew. The pirate ship’s approach is one of stealth until the last moment:
There it is again! A rhythmical splash, not unlike the ocean’s melody, a soft regular swish as their ship sliced through its surface, but this sound lagged ever so slightly, as though it were a half a beat behind their own.
And then it hit him. At first it was just an uncertain whiff. A faint tendril of pernicious stench, full of human decay, rot, and unwashed flesh. His nostrils flared involuntarily and he swallowed back his stomach’s attempt to empty.
William’s heart began to pound so hard in his chest that it felt as though it was knocking the air right out of him. He whirled on Smith. “Sound the alarm!” he hissed.
I needed some commanding music as explosive as the desperation of the life-and-death ensuing battle that I was next writing. To me, there is nothing more powerful than a full orchestra backing an enormous choir singing in Latin and Immediate Music’s Lacrimosa provided that. I could hear the roar of cannon firing, could smell the gunpowder, could feel the burn of the salty sea spray on my lips and in my eyes, and could hear the courageous screams of the men in battle, as the details appeared on my computer screen.
Further into the story, I was writing a softer scene in which characters and readers alike were forced to say a sad farewell to Da’, William’s much beloved father. Adagio For Strings by Samuel Barber played in the background, bringing me to tears as I wrote. I believe that my choice of words touched my readers as deeply, as I have since received comments from readers such as this: ‘This book kept me on the edge of my seat. It even made me cry.’
However, not all is heart pounding action or melancholy in Quintspinner. A happy ending is my preferred ingredient for every successful story and this tale is interspersed with laughter, folk wisdom generously and wryly doled out by Mrs Hanley, and life lessons gained by all. As I was wrapping things up, I needed to hear something that was upbeat but not frilly, and yet something that hinted to me that the story was not quite finished, that there would be much more adventure brewing in Tess’s and William’s future, and I composed my last few chapters while gaining inspiration from the urgency of the beat and melody of Extreme Ways by Moby (which has since been chosen to be the closing theme music for the Bourne movies).
All in all, these music pieces transported me to a magical time and place and provided me with the vivid images and emotions that I needed to capture the story. Music was indeed the magical ingredient.
Dianne Greenlay is a debut author. Her historical action/adventure Quintspinner series has proven to be wildly popular with readers on Wattpad. Greenlay is also the author of The Camping Guy, which is available as both a short story and a one-act comedy (live theater script). Although she lives most of the year on the land-locked Canadian prairies, Greenlay enjoys traveling and frequently can be found in tropical climates hiking, cave spelunking, snorkeling, and sailing while researching historical sites in preparation for her writing. Her website is here, and you can also find her on Facebook and Twitter @DianneGreenlay.Dianne is a member of the League of Extraordinary Authors.