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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 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.
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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 Wayne Clark @Wayne_Clark_1
Soundtrack by Johnny Hodges, Sly and The Family Stone, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie), Frank Sinatra, Lambert Hendriks and Ross, Curtis Mayfield, Freddie Hubbard, Wilson Pickett, The Temptations, Aretha Franklin
As an adolescent with dysfunctional parents, Kit, the protagonist in he & She, had already found an escape in jazz, especially ballads, the cathedral where the hymnal is full of lonely, sad songs from the Great American Song Book (Where Do You Go by Frank Sinatra, Skylark by Aretha Franklin, Body and Soul by Freddie Hubbard). Before he has had any experience in life, Kit equates adult life with these emotions. Experiencing them while listening makes him a grown man, liberated from parents and adolescence.
As Kit ages, he is alone most of the time in his small New York apartment. He is an alcoholic who watches life from the outside. He works at home as a translator and practises alto sax when he thinks no one is listening. As he did as a youth, he spends more time daydreaming about life than living it.
Cold, grey backdrop
I am a music lover and profoundly amateur musician, but I’ve long known that I must treat music with kid gloves because it tends to take over my mood instantly. The right-wrong piece of background music at the dinner table can take me right out of the conversation. For that reason, I never start a writing session with music on. However, early on while writing he & She I chanced upon a YouTube video of a piece I knew well, a Billy Strayhorn composition called Day Dream, played by Johnny Hodges of the Duke Ellington orchestra. It’s not really a video but a succession of black and white photographs of New York streets, strangely devoid for the most part of people. Against that grey, cold backdrop, the wistfulness of Hodges’s playing absolutely nailed for me the way Kit looked at his world.
Realising that, I used Day Dream on several occasions while writing – not so much to help me describe periods when he felt particularly lonely or empty but to apply a patina of disconnect to his experiencing of external situations. He could be telling himself everything was all right, be it about work or a girlfriend, but something was always missing.
Because I found Day Dream useful, I ended up breaking my no-music rule when writing the early sections involving Kit’s best and only friend, his neighbor, LeBron, a professional bass player. LeBron agrees to pass on some of his skills to Kit, and to do that he teaches him to play sax riffs from classic R&B pieces. The possibility of becoming a real musician is exciting to Kit, a dream come true, and I dug up several recordings that Kit would have been thrilled to have taken part in as a sax player. I used these several times while writing to capture his excitement. LeBron the bass player would have chosen these because of the powerful precision of the horn and rhythm sections. These recordings included ones by Sly and The Family Stone (You Can Make It If You Try), Curtis Mayfield (You Can’t Say Nothing) and The Temptations (Papa Was a Rollin’Stone).
As Kit turns 50, he is running on empty and desperate about his life. He tells himself all he wants is to feel truly alive one more time. By chance, he spots an image on the Internet, a beautiful young woman who turns out to be dominatrix. He becomes determined to meet her, and when he does he becomes obsessed. From their first encounter on, he feels joy he’s never felt. Can a man that age feel in love the way a young man, even a teenager, would? That’s what I wanted Kit to feel. I found this tricky to write because I didn’t want him to appear a complete fool. He knows it’s an impossible situation, her being half his age, and him being no longer even capable of having sex, but it feels too good to run away from. This will sound terribly obvious, but I used a song by Wilson Picket to convince me Kit could indeed feel love that way. It’s a Bobby Womack song called I’m In Love. Picket sings that being in love makes him feel like a boy with a brand new toy on Christmas morning. There’s nothing schmaltzy whatsoever about this recording. I was convinced.
There were other pieces that I didn’t listen to while actually writing but, because we never stop writing in our minds, a couple of pieces by Charlie Parker (Parker’s Mood) and Parker with Dizzy Gillespie performing Ko-Ko ended up suggesting dialogue between Kit and LeBron, as did the lyrics by Lambert, Hendriks and Ross for Nothin’s the Same As It Used to Be.
I have to say that using music to help create words is a two-sided coin. The music can take over your writer’s metronome for the good, for a while, but it can also take your writing on a perhaps unwanted side trip. Like anything fragile, handle with care.
Wayne Clark is the author of he & She. Find him at http://www.wayne-clark.com, the Alliance of Independent Authors, Facebook, Twitter as @Wayne_Clark_1, Goodreads, The Independent Author Network, and LinkedIn
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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 the winner of the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA), Rysa Walker @RysaWalker
I write in a house with two frequently noisy kids and a dog that seems to have missed the memo about golden retrievers being a quiet breed. Music is my writing cave in the midst of that chaos. I have several carefully trained Pandora channels that keep me supplied with background music, either instrumentals or songs with lyrics I know so well that they cannot possibly distract me. Instrumental covers of indie rock songs, by groups like The Section Quartet, along with albums I know by heart, like One Man’s Trash by now-defunct 1990s band The Jody Grind — these are the tunes that keep me company on days when I’m editing or revising. While I don’t exactly hate those tasks, they are often tedious and if presented with any plausible excuse, my mind will stray. If I listen to anything with lyrics I don’t know, a phrase will catch my ear, then I have to google it, and then I click on something else that’s bright and shiny. Several hours later, I’m shaking my head trying to figure out where the time went.
On days when I need to actually create something new, however, music isn’t just a cave that shuts out the world. On those days, music is my TARDIS. The right song can evoke memories of events and emotions from my own past, and even take me to times and places I could never actually visit and that’s a vital tool when you write about time traveling historians. Sometimes I use period music to help set the mood while I’m writing, but songs from the era also shine light on the customs, social issues, and pop culture of an era, so it’s always part of my research.
The last third of Timebound, the first book in my Chronos Files series, is set at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair. The Expo was home to the first Ferris wheel, which stood 264 feet high and could carry 60 people in each of the 36 passenger cars. One of those cars was set aside to carry a full band that played songs like Sousa’s Gladiator March as the wheel rotated. A bit farther down the Midway, a Broadway producer named Sol Bloom picked out this iconic tune while an exotic dancer billed as Little Egypt prepared to go on stage. Visitors to the Exposition and the cafes surrounding the fair were also witness to the early work of ragtime great Scott Joplin, whose Maple Leaf Rag would take the world by storm a few years later. A few recordings from the early 1890s are available online, like this very early rendition of Daisy, Daisy, but they’re all rather hard on the ears, so I relied heavily on covers by later artists. I won’t claim that any of those songs from the 1890s is in heavy rotation on my iPod, but they definitely helped me get a feel for the era.
Music is also vital for helping me manage another type of time travel. Timebound is written from the perspective of Kate, who is 17. When I was 17, many moons ago, I existed on a steady diet of pop music and could name every song in the Top 40 most weeks. Thankfully, Kate is not autobiographical. She’s more inclined toward indie artists. This is a very good thing, because otherwise I don’t think we could hang out together. If I’m writing about Kate’s everyday life — school, friends, family — tunes by The Fratellis, Vampire Weekend, and The Shins help me climb inside her head.
There’s one last song I have to mention because I play it every few days—Borrowed Time by A Fine Frenzy. I stumbled upon her album One Cell in the Sea when I was writing the second draft of Timebound, back when it was still called Time’s Twisted Arrow. I love the entire album, but I’m deeply in debt to her for this particular song. The voice, the lyrics and the music all combine magically to pull me into Kate’s reality every time I play Borrowed Time.
Rysa Walker is the author of Timebound, the first book in The Chronos Files series. She grew up on a cattle ranch in the Deep South where the options for entertainment were talking to cows and reading books. On the rare occasion that she gained control of the television, she watched Star Trek and imagined living in the future, on distant planets, or at least in a town big enough to have a stop light. When not writing, she teaches history and government in North Carolina, where she shares an office with her husband, who heroically pays the mortgage each month, and a golden retriever named Lucy. She still doesn’t get control of the TV very often, thanks to two sports-obsessed kids. Find her website here, find the Chronos Files blog here, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter (@RysaWalker).
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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.
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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).
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