The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where 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 supernatural historical thriller writer Gwendolyn Womack @Gwen_Womack
Soundtrack by Phil Thornton, Gerald Jay Markoe, Dead Can Dance, Lana Ross, Caryl James Thompson, Mikael Sapin, Nigel Stanford, James Wood
Music is a wonderful companion while writing. I’ve often found writing to the right song can help deepen a scene, kick start the solution to a problem, or spawn a new idea. Sometimes before I sit down to write, I’ll search for over an hour sampling songs on iTunes, YouTube and the internet to find what I’m looking for. I don’t even know what that is until I’ve heard it. All I know is it has to be the perfect song to evoke the emotional state I’m trying to capture. Does it conjure a specific time or place? create a doorway to a culture? help foster the emotions I want my character to be feeling? —or me to feel as I write? The reason for the song constantly changes.
Once I find the perfect song, sometimes I’ll loop it for days while I’m writing. Looping helps to create a flow so there is no interruption in my train of thought. I’ve also found in general the music needs to be instrumental, otherwise the lyrics become a distraction.
Knowing I would want to share my playlist for my second novel, I kept close track of the songs. The Fortune Teller is a romantic thriller that revolves around an ancient manuscript and the world’s first Tarot cards. The novel alternates between present day and the manuscript’s story, which is both a memoir and a prophecy spanning 2000 years. Because the memoir journeys to different lands and lifetimes as it moves forward in time, the music I chose to listen to changed dramatically as well. When I finished the novel the entire playlist was quite extensive, but I’d like to highlight the songs and albums that were a driving force while I wrote.
For the memoir, which begins in Alexandria, Egypt, I listened to the album Pharaoh by Phil Thornton, which evoked the perfect setting. As I wrote scenes taking place in the secret vaults of the great Library of Alexandria I looped this song: Meditation Music of Ancient Egypt by Gerald Jay Markoe. The song felt like a time machine taking me to those underground chambers.
During the memoir chapters I also wrote a lot to Dead Can Dance, one of my favorite groups. The memoir was written by an ancient seer and she conjures her own magic and mystery as she tells her story. I found Dead Can Dance perfectly tapped into that world. I listened to the album Toward The Within and favored tracks #2 – Persian Love Song, #4 Yulunga, #5 Piece for Solo Flute, and #14 Sanvean for weeks as I wrote her memoir on seeing the future.
I’ve also found film soundtracks can be a wonderful resource to find the perfect instrumental song. A prime example is in the memoir when the story reached Milan in the 1400s, I listened to specific tracks from the soundtrack to Dangerous Beauty. Although the film takes place in 16th-century Venice, the music still helped strike the setting in my mind for that chapter.
When the memoir moved to the Russian Revolution and then onto World War II, I was playing Lana Ross nonstop. Lana Ross was a lucky find on one of my internet hunts. She is a guitar soloist who has an album of Jewish folk music that is exquisite. I also listened to this theme song repeatedly from the documentary The Lady In Number 6, played by Caryl James Thompson. The poignancy of this song just swept me away and captured an essence I was looking for while trying to write about the war. I highly recommend watching the documentary too. It follows the story of the world’s oldest pianist and Holocaust survivor.
For the present day storyline of Semele Cavnow, who is attempting to unravel the mystery behind the ancient manuscript, there were three key albums I listened to: Far Away by Mikael Sapin, Solar Echoes by Nigel Stanford, and Pure Ceremony by James Wood.
Far Away is some of the most heartrending piano music I’ve ever heard and I remember looping it on a long plane ride I took and writing several scenes for Semele. After that I just kept going back to the music for her. There was an emotional aspect that it captured—a sadness, a longing.
For Solar Echoes, I remember my favorite track being Dark Sun, though I am a super fan of Nigel’s and all his songs. But Dark Sun captured the energy of Semele’s quest. The story is ultimately a thriller and Semele is on a journey to find answers, and this song has a driving quality. I listened to it a lot as I wrote the last chapters with Semele traveling across Europe.
And the third album, Pure Ceremony by James Wood, is phenomenal singing drum music. My favorite track was Timebomb which I looped too many times to count as the story’s supernatural elements came to the fore. There is some bending of time in the novel and Timebomb was the song I wrote the majority of those scenes to. (I also thought the title of the song could not have been more appropriate.)
Those are the main pieces to the musical puzzle that helped shaped The Fortune Teller. It’s quite wonderful to look back on the playlist and remember what I wrote to the songs. If I could send each artist a Book Valentine I would.
Gwendolyn Womack writes romantic thrillers that explore a spectrum of metaphysical subjects. Her debut novel, The Memory Painter, published by Macmillan/ Picador, was an RWA Prism Award winner and Indie Next Pick. Her second novel is The Fortune Teller. Gwendolyn lives in LA and paints as a hobby. Find out more at her website and watch The Fortune Teller and The Memory Painter book trailers on YouTube. Tweet her as @Gwen_Womack