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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 open a secret channel to understand a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s guest is multi-award-winning children’s fantasy author Susan Price @priceclan
Soundtrack by Pavel Chesnokov, the Cantus Sacred Music Ensemble, The Orthodox Singers’ Male Choir, June Tabor, Steeleye Span, Orlando Gibbons, the King’s Singers, Pierrot Lunaire, Jan Garbarek, Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble, Tim Wong, Benjamin Britten
Music doesn’t help me understand my characters, or set the mood for a particular scene. I don’t need, for instance, martial music to write a martial scene. Instead, for me, the music seems to set the atmosphere, or time-frame, of the whole book. I can’t write a scene set in the past to poppy dance-music, because the music insistently reminds me of my own time and drags me back to it. I find it equally hard to write contemporary scenes while listening to music from the past. If Mozart is playing, my characters shrug off their jeans and trainers and slip into knee-britches and powdered wigs.
My Ghost World sequence (Ghost Drum, Ghost Song and Ghost Dance) is set in a fantasy Czarist Russia. I wanted these books to be fantastical, frightening and beautiful, with the brilliant jewel colours of Russian folk-art set against intense darkness and cold. While writing them I surrounded myself with postcards of Russian art, and played chants like this one on repeat.
The beautiful swaying voices, with their deep, dark bass notes took me into the vast, dark pine forests of Russian folk-tale, to Northern darkness and cold. Listening again, as I write this blog, I feel the visceral thrill and shiver this music always gives me.
The music and art served the same purpose: bringing together and concentrating all my disparate imaginings. Looking at a Bilibin forest, listening to an Orthodox chant, I was there, in my imagination’s world. This piece, with the Basso Profundo, sounds like the Russian Bear singing.
Past, present and Borders
It is always time and place with me. My Sterkarm novels have scenes set both in the past and in the 21st Century, but the heart of the novels, for me, were the scenes in the 16th century Scottish borders. I read about the reivers and their way of life, I visited the Borders, but to bring it all together and put me there, I played Border Ballads, which I’ve loved since a teenager. Here’s the wonderful June Tabor with her thrilling Clerk Sanders. The final, long-drawn note always raises my hair. It rings like a glass. It’s all there – love, hatred, jealousy, horror, revenge.
I listened to Steeleye Span a lot too. Even though they used electric instruments, I always felt they captured the spirit of many of these old songs better than many who tried too hard to be strictly traditional. Here’s their Wife of Usher’s Well, a tale of life, death, ghosts and maternal love.
Hits of the 16th
I wrote Christopher Uptake, set in the 16th century, to the smash hits of Christopher’s day, such as The Silver Swan, sung here by the King’s Singers. (And its closing couplet, ‘More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise,’ seems appropriate for Christopher too.)
Poor old Keats reviewed plays in order to get a free pass to theatres so he could hear the playing of professional musicians. We’re spoiled today – we can hear excellent musicians any time we casually turn on the radio. Not only musicians of our own day either, but those long dead, and music played in the style of centuries past.
The far future
But what to play when writing something set in the far future, such as my Odin’s Voice trilogy? I found myself seeking out music that, to me, sounded strange and futuristic, and helped me expand my ideas to include all the weird and wonderful possibilities of nano-technology and space-elevators. More musically educated people might find my choices rather old-fashioned, but they worked for me.
First is Moonstruck Pieirrot, or Pierrot Lunaire. ‘What the hell did I just listen to?’ asks a YouTube commentator. I can’t say that I love it, but it’s extraordinary. I remember first hearing it. I was vacuuming during the early hours, while half-listening to the Open University’s educational programmes. This began, and I switched off the vacumn to hear it. I remained on one leg, spellbound, throughout. Didn’t like it, exactly, but couldn’t stop listening.
I am fonder of this by Jan Gabarek and the Hilliard Ensemble. I find it chill, eerie, beautiful and strange – but instead of evoking deep, dark forests, it evokes, for me, the vast dark emptiness of space and the future, where who knows what might be possible? Oberon’s song from Britten’s Midsummer’s Night Dream has the same effect on me. It may have been written in the 20th century, as Britten’s response to Shakespeare’s 16th century play, but its eerie otherworldliness, for me, suggests space – perhaps the music of the spheres?
In 1973, Susan Price‘s father signed a contract with Faber for her first book, The Devil’s Piper. She was under-age, at 16, and couldn’t legally sign it herself. She has earned her living by writing and lecturing ever since. Her best known books are The Ghost Drum, which won the Carnegie Medal, and is available as an e-book, and The Sterkarm Handshake, which won the Guardian prize. She has a blog and is also a founder member of the group Do Authors Dream of Electric Books (aka Authors Electric), and she tweets as @priceclan.
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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 2011-2022. 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'