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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 publishing blogger and novelist David Gaughran @DavidGaughran
Music has always played an integral part of my writing process. I wrote my first book in restaurants, bars and cafes while traveling the world. These days, I can’t work without something playing in the background. Silence can be deafening sometimes.
I write historical fiction, science fiction, and non-fiction, so specific songs and artists don’t often directly inspire the story. But music is essential for setting the appropriate mood.
My latest book Mercenary is an adventure story on the surface – the story of a guy called Lee Christmas, a colour-blind railroad engineer who became the most famous soldier of fortune in the world. What I wasn’t expecting was to find such tragedy in his life. I must somehow gravitate towards bittersweet stories. My endings don’t tend to wrap everything up neatly and can often leave the reader with more questions than answers, or with mixed feelings about the outcome for the protagonist. I guess that’s because I see the world like that too. Even a life filled with highs doesn’t always get a happy ending.
Pleasure and pain
That tension between emotional pleasure and pain is difficult to capture, but it’s a rich seam for novelists to mine and the best songs do it very well. In fact, you could argue a core philosophy of Motown was to do just that. In many of their signature hits the tune was invariably upbeat but the lyrical content was the opposite. For example, in You Keep Me Hanging On some awful character is stringing Diana Ross along – but she’s so much in love with him that she can’t do anything about it; in fact, she’s begging him to end it because she doesn’t have the requisite strength (and all to a stomping beat).
You can see the same powerful dissonance in many other Motown tracks, like Band of Gold by Freda Payne. It wasn’t something that Motown invented, but it was particularly good at it. I think the idea was to reach people on two different levels. Your toes tap the happy beat, but in a more cerebral or subconscious sense you’re processing the pain being described, adding a heady level of emotional resonance to the whole ensemble.
Strength is weakness
I think that kind of contrast can be very powerful and I tried to tap into it with Mercenary. One of the best pieces of creative writing advice I received was that a character’s greatest strength is also their greatest weakness. So if you have a naturally charismatic and impulsive figure like Lee Christmas, you can really flesh them out by exploring the dark side of those traits. Why are they so impulsive? Are they naturally restless? Is there something unresolved in their past?
Bill Withers considered himself a writer first and a performer second, which you can hear him speak about that in this BBC Archive footage from 1973 before an amazing live version of Grandma’s Hands. I think that the emotional power that Withers conveys comes from the conflict between the pleasure of his memory and the pain that he can never sing this for her.
The song is also authentic. I hate bland bilge-fests like American Idol for innumerable reasons, but primarily because I don’t feel anything when these people perform. When Bessie Smith sings Gimme A Pigfoot (And A Bottle of Beer), or Nina Simone despairs in Mississippi Goddam, or Bobby Gentry pours out her Ode To Billy Joe it makes my arms tingle because they mean it. They’ve lived it.
Dave Van Ronk never sold that many records but we will still be listening to Cocaine in 50 years time, instead of all those vapid ballads from reality show winners that sell millions in a few months before being forgotten forever. And that’s what we’re all doing this for, right? We’re all raging against the dying of the light. We’re all trying to leave our mark on the world, to reach people, to affect them, to tell stories that will be remembered long after we’re gone.
One of my favorite parts of Game of Thrones is when characters are heading into battle – or waiting to be executed – and express hope they will be immortalised in song. There’s no doubt this was an important function of music in a world before photographs and obituaries. And we can see remnants of that urge to immortalise in classic folk like Sixteen Tons, ballads like The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, and even more modern songs like Free Nelson Mandela.
Music can help us achieve this authenticity and emotional resonance in our own work. I listened to Dylan’s Romance in Durango a lot when writing Mercenary. It was perfect for setting the mood for the many scenes where Lee Christmas drank and brawled and flirted in Honduran cantinas. When trying to describe how Lee looked back on his life and was overcome with regret, I had Johnny Cash’s cover of I Hung My Head in the background.
Novelists have so much space to play with that they often try and squeeze in too much. But the more visceral power of music shows us that, sometimes, what you leave out is even more important.
We have this huge canvas – 400 pages where we try and make the reader feel something by the end. But the economy that great songwriters practice is astounding – they can break someone’s heart in three minutes flat, all while trying to shape their narrative around a tune!
Sometimes I feel like I’m trying to balance a spoon on my nose while they’re juggling chainsaws.
David Gaughran is an Irish author, living in Prague, who spends most of his time traveling the world, collecting stories. You can see his books on Amazon here, his blog is here, and you can follow him on Twitter here. Mercenary is out now, and you can sign up to his mailing list here to get an email when it’s out.
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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 YA author Laura Pauling @laurapauling
To quote Randy Jackson from American Idol: ‘The transference of emotion is what the audience wants.’
Readers more than anything want to feel what we’re feeling when we put our hearts into a story. Whether it’s heartbreak, humour, revenge, sorrow…etc. And sometimes listening to the right kind of music, a certain song that pushes my heart to its limit, can transfer over to my writing.
Stories at your fingertips
So when I was writing A Spy Like Me, I took into account that this was a fun, suspenseful story. I listened to Taylor Swift a lot. Her teenage voice and lyrics pumped into my ears while the story poured out through my fingertips. And it really helped lift my mood and emotions to where they needed to be.
A Spy Like Me is about change. Seventeen-year-old Savvy is uprooted from her home and moved to Paris, France. She lives with her dad and misses her mom. But sometimes change is what we need to find the answers. And that holds true for Savvy. Here’s Taylor’s song, Change. One of many I listened to.
The whole story, Savvy fights for knowledge. She’s tired of the lies and strikes out to find the truth…by – you guessed it – spying! But through the chaos and danger, sometimes, she wouldn’t mind going back to before it all began, when her mom lived at home and they were a family. Here’s Taylor’s song, Back to December.
Of course, living with a teenage daughter helps; and together, we’re putting together a great playlist for this spy trilogy. Kelly Clarkson: Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill you) and Break Away; Colbie Caillat: Brighter than the Sun, Natasha Bedingfield: Pocketful of Sunshine
That’s just the start. But I’ll stop there. Just watching these videos and listening to the tones and the themes give me goose bumps. Like they were written for Savvy and what she’s experiencing.
Not about the lyrics
Sometimes it’s not the lyrics of a song that match my story, but the emotion. And that’s what writing comes down to: how well the author captures the emotion behind the story. For example, Christina Perri’s Jar of Hearts: a hugely popular song. It was the sound and tone of this song. It moved me. It’s filled with this aching emotion that drives me to write. It still does when I hear it. I have yet to act on it. Someday…
Why did Adele win the Grammy? She was just singing a song about a guy breaking up with her and wishing him the best. There are countless songs like that from the past, in the present and in the future. But her big time emotion transferred to her audience. The incredible unique voice helps too. Listen to Adele sharing about Someone Like You and singing it in her home. Incredible.
Emotion on the page
In all my writing, whether a fun spy adventure in Paris or not, I strive for that emotion to come across on the page and to my readers. I will work toward that every time I sit down to write. And I’ll keep doing it.
It’s funny. I accepted Roz’s invitation to guest post on this series but waited days to write it. I knew what I wanted to say but I wasn’t sure how to approach it. It wasn’t until tonight, watching American Idol and hearing Randy say, ‘transference of emotion’ that it all came together. Why I listen to music when I write (not when I edit). Why I find songs that fit the tone and style of my writing. And why as a writer I learn so much about storytelling from listening to a heartfelt song.
Thanks for having me, Roz. It’s an honour.
Laura Pauling writes about spies, murder and mystery. Her debut novel, A Spy Like Me, is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords and her blog is here. Visit her blog before May 25 for a Spies, Murder and Mystery Marathon with guest posts and free giveaways.
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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'