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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by award-winning crime writer Terrence McCauley @tmccauley_nyc
People who know me or have read my work may be surprised by how much music influences my writing. I don’t listen to music when I write or even edit, but at other times, a chance song on the radio or browsing the musical selection on my phone can help spark an idea for a scene or an entire story line.
The best examples are the novels I’ve written. The first – Prohibition – is a crime novel set in 1930 with an opening scene of the protagonist stalking someone through the cold, lonely streets of New York City. One could be forgiven for believing that scene was inspired by any number of noir movies – of which I am a huge fan – but in this case, they’d be wrong. The opening scene was inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s song Murder Incorporated. When I heard that song for the first time, the drum beats that open the song reminded me of footsteps echoing on an empty street as someone is fleeing for their life. The sax sounded like car horns blaring past the unfortunate man now on the run.
The ending of the novel (which I won’t give away here) was inspired by 3 Doors Down’s Love Me When I’m Gone, a mournful tune that fit the ending of the book rather nicely.
Hard luck cases
My novella Fight Card: Against the Ropes is a prequel to Prohibition and details the protagonist’s boxing career before he became a mob enforcer. The protagonist – Quinn – has always had his own soundtrack in my mind that was different from the over all soundtrack of whatever story in which he appears. In Against The Ropes, Quinn’s soundtrack comes to the fore: Everlast’s What It’s Like is a song about hard luck hard cases, a description that fits the Quinn character nicely. The ending of the book, where Quinn accepts the inevitable end of his boxing career and agrees to become an enforcer for the very men who have ruined his career, was inspired by the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil. The crafty, patient villainy of the song seemed appropriate for Quinn’s acquiescence of a life of crime.
The third book I have out now, Slow Burn by Noir Nation Books, is also set in 1930s New York, but the protagonist is a police detective named Charlie Doherty. He’s a corrupt, impure Tammany Hall hack and a man whose life is on a downward spiral. His wife left him, his career is ending in ignominy and he’s running out of reasons to get up in the morning. The melancholy, yet strong song Better than Me by Hinder suited Doherty well and I wrote the story with that tune in mind. Some people who have read Slow Burn think Dean Martin’s Ain’t That a Kick in the Head inspired the ending. But I thought of a more triumphant, slightly cocky song. How You Like Me Now by The Heavy worked best and it gave me inspiration for the ending scenes.
Music doesn’t only influence the beginning and ends of my books. I also draw inspiration from music for other types of scenes I write. For more sentimental scenes, I listen to the theme from The Shawshank Redemption soundtrack or Now We Are Free by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard from the Gladiator soundtrack. The Band Perry’s If I Die Young inspired me to write a few scenes for a western I’m working on now called The Devil’s Cut.
My work tends to have a lot of violence and action, and music plays a role in my crafting of those scenes as well. House of Pain’s Jump Around as well as Rob Zombie’s Super Charger Heaven have hard, edgy, fast-moving tempos that get the juices flowing and help me create scenes that pop.
Terrence P. McCauley is an award winning crime writer. His latest novel, Slow Burn, is currently available in e-book format from Noir Nation Books on Amazon. His other books Prohibition, published by Airship 27, and Fight Card: Against the Ropes (Fight Card Books) are also available on Amazon. His website is here and you can follow him on Twitter @tmccauley_nyc and Facebook.
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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by Kim Wright, author of Love In Mid Air
For some reason, I’ve always had a penchant for songs that sound upbeat on the surface but that have, when you stop to listen, dark or menacing lyrics. When I was writing Love in Mid Air, I listened to Nick Lowe’s Cruel to Be Kind and I also liked Kryptonite by 3 Doors Down. It makes sense, because the novel is about a woman who seems to have the perfect life, but who has this sarcastic, discontent, wounded inner voice.
Manic energy and heartbreak
I read somewhere that there’s only one theme in literature, which is ‘Things are not what they seem’. Maybe it’s not the only theme in literature, but it’s a good one, which might be why I like songs where the melody and the lyrics don’t quite match. Lately I’ve fallen in love with Valerie by Amy Winehouse, especially the live version. It’s the epitome of using manic energy to cover up heartbreak and it punches me smack in the gut every time I hear it.
In my head, my heroine Elyse had a theme song, which was The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes by Elvis Costello. It seemed to speak to Elyse’s obsession with turning 40 and her sense that time was running out – and the fact she’s so determined to seize life that she’s almost prepared to make a pact with the devil. The reference never made it into the book, but I’m working on the sequel now, which is told from the point of view of Elyse’s best friend Kelly, and there’s a scene where Kelly comes downstairs one morning and finds Elyse in the kitchen frying eggs and singing the Costello song.
For the wicked scenes
Sex scenes require something really different. Usually I write them in public spaces, like a Starbucks or sushi bar, and I have absolutely no theory on that one. Having a crowd around me seems to break down my inhibitions, although I worry sometimes that I’ll leave my laptop to go to the bathroom and come back to find I’ve been arrested on some sort of morals charge. When I’m home I play either Wicked Game by Chris Isaak – who I met one time and, incidentally, he’s just as hot as his song – or, if the scene calls for something more domestic or tender, Warm Love by Van Morrison. Van Morrison might be a patron saint for writers in general. His lyrics are terrific.
When I was doing a lot of magazine writing, we always worked way ahead of schedule – I was writing articles about the dangers of sunburns in December and tips for New Year’s entertaining in July. Music was a way for me to trick myself into the seasonal switch. In Love in Mid Air, Elyse throws a big Christmas party and I was working on that scene down at my mom’s beach house in the dead of summer. I specifically remember listening to Diana Krall singing Sleigh Ride one afternoon while I was walking my dog on the beach and it was like 100 degrees.
Headspace and rituals
It’s funny how often writers use these weird little tricks to get themselves into a certain headspace- to reset their thoughts to another place or time or mood. Developing rituals around your writing seems to be a key part of the job and I’ve often thought that the writers who claim they never get blocked are those who have created very specific signals to their subconscious that say ‘Sit down and shut up, because it’s now time to write’. Music can be a big part of this; it’s like a shortcut between certain parts of the brain.
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- The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where writers - and occasionally other arty folk - reveal how music shapes their work.
- It began as a companion to my first novel, My Memories of a Future Life, and now thrives as a creative salon in its own right. Pull on your headphones and join us.
- If you're curious about the novel that started it all, click the image below.
Kobo featured book, London Book Fair 2013
Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Independent Fiction, Awesome Indies 2013
Underground Book Reviews Top Summer Read 2012
League of Extraordinary Authors Top 10 Indie Elite 2012
Multi-Story Pick of the Month March and October 2012
Alliance of Independent Authors Book of the Month, January 2013
Email merozmorriswriter at gmail dot com
- All content copyright Roz Morris 2011-2021. Nothing may be reproduced without my express permission in writing beforehand. Photography: Bonnie Schupp Photography, gcg2009 and Roz Morris
What is The Undercover Soundtrack?Sleeve notes here
For the soundtrack of My Memories of a Future Life, you'll need Chopin's Sonata in B Minor, Rachmaninov preludes, lashings of Grieg's piano concerto in A minor and The Clash's Rock the Kasbah (they go together well).
You'll also need Samuel Barber's Dover Beach on piano, although that doesn't actually exist so do the best you can.
And the novel's undercover pieces. You can find them here
- What's on their soundtracks? Zip down to the footer and you can search by artiste or composer. See who shares your taste in inspirational music
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- 'My Memories of a Future Life is a poignant story steeped with melancholy, edged with a desperate hope, and twisted throughout with darkness and humor'
- 'Some of the sharpest writing I've read in a long while'
- 'The feel of a modern-day witch trial with a tense romance'
- 'Clever when you think about it afterwards; haunting and engrossing while you're reading'