Undercover Soundtrack

The Undercover Soundtrack – Diana Stevan

for logoThe 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 Diana Stevan @DianaStevan

Soundtrack by Janis Joplin, The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Patsy Cline, Gordon Lightfoot, John Denver, Helen Reddy, Andy Williams, William Warfield, Cat Stevens, Johnny Nash

The Rubber Fence was inspired by my work on a psychiatric ward in 1972 and couldn’t have been written without the songs of that time playing in my head.

Inspired by workplace

I had just graduated with a Master of Social Work in 1972. Dedicated and ambitious, I found myself working on a psych. ward where shock treatment was still taking place. Years later, troubled by what I had seen, I wrote The Rubber Fence.

The Undercover soundtrack Diana Stevan 1My novel is about a psychiatric intern, Dr Joanna Bereza, who finds herself up against a system as stuck as the people it treats. Assigned two patients, Joanna struggles to keep them from getting shock treatment by an arrogant shrink, who happens to be her supervisor. Complicating matters is Sam, one of her fellow interns, who looks like a rock star and is as loose as she is tight. She can’t help but be attracted to him, especially when her relationship with her husband, Michael, is on shaky ground.

Music that speaks of freedom

Because I wanted to immerse myself in the era and recall the emotions that served as the underpinnings of my story, I played 60s and 70s music with lyrics that spoke of freedom, broken ties, and love outside of marriage.

Music that encouraged breaking free served my writing of both the patients’ stories and Joanna’s. The patients in the story are not only trapped in their own misery but also in a system that doesn’t have time nor often the heart for them. Joanna is trapped in a different way. She’s in a crumbling marriage that she doesn’t know how to fix. And she’s working in a system where she has little control.

With Joanna’s unnerving attraction to Sam and the independence he represented, Janis Joplin’s Me and Bobby McGee came to mind.

The Beatles’ Hey Jude sparked my memory when I wrote a scene that takes place in a city park. It’s where Joanna and her husband see all the hippies on the move across country, having the freedom they both long for.  Now, the lyrics of Hey Jude don’t connect directly to what is going on emotionally for Joanna, but it was the song I heard one of the hippies play when I went to that park in the 70s. It brought back the images of all those young people sitting on the grass.

The girls were braless, the shape of their nipples pushing at the rayon fabric of their tie-dyed T-shirts. Peace sign necklaces, long beads, and broad leather wrist wraps signaled the deeper changes ahead.’

Same for music like Simon and Garfunkel’s 59th Street Bridge Song (also known as Feelin Groovy). Hearing that song set the tone for the pub scene, where Joanna goes to relax with her fellow interns. It was also how she needed to feel after struggling with her patients’ progress.

A woman’s plight

And when Joanna worries about her husband Michael and his fidelity, songs Crazy by Patsy Cline, and If You Could Read My Mind by Gordon Lightfoot helped me find both the mood in those settings and Joanna’s internal monologue. It also helped me discover what Michael might’ve been feeling and from that, I could write his behavior and dialogue.

Torn by all that is happening, Joanna’s lost. The lyrics of Helen Reddy’s I Don’t Know How To Love Him  speak to that confusion. Not surprisingly, Joanna wants to check out. I’m Leaving On A Jet Plane by John Denver was the perfect song to capture those exit plans and the emotions that drove the arguments leading up to them.

Writing about Joanna’s shattered hopes of a lasting love was also helped by the music from that tragic film Love Story. Where Do I Begin, so beautifully sung by Andy Williams.

The Undercover Soundtrack Diana Stevan 2As you can imagine, traveling the ups and downs of a relationship with your protagonist, accompanied by music that tugs on the heartstrings, makes for a few tears at the computer.

And for one of Joanna’s patients, Theresa, a young woman, who stopped talking after the birth of her baby, the tune and lyrics of Old Man River, sung by William Warfield, popped into my head when I wrote a group therapy scene. In it, Sam plays the guitar and sings this old lament. Some of the patients join in, but Theresa doesn’t. The significance of the music’s lyrics finds its way into Joanna’s thoughts.

Had Sam consciously chosen this song—one that seemed to speak to Theresa’s condition—or was it one of those synchronous things that happens in life?”

Writing in hope

For the scenes where Joanna begins to see some possibility for change, I used Morning Has Broken by Cat Stevens and I Can See Clearly Now The, The Rain Has Gone  by Johnny Nash. These classic hits underlined for me Joanna’s hope for some kind of resolution, for a rainbow promising a better future.

Rubber Fence ebook coverHelen Reddy’s feminist anthem I Am Woman  gave me the spark to write the scenes where Joanna takes on the head shrink and the medical establishment (all male) over its indiscriminate use of shock treatment.

As I write this, I’m struck by the power of music to soothe, stir up feelings and generate thought. Thank you, Roz, for suggesting I write this post. Music unleashes that inner world, not only of a writer’s characters, but of the writer herself. And what better way to touch a reader than to expose that underbelly.

Diana Stevan has worked as a clinical social worker, model, professional actress and writer-broadcaster for CBC Television’s Sports Journal in Vancouver, Canada. In later years, she wrote three screenplays, two novels—A Cry From The Deep, a romantic adventure, and The Rubber Fence, psychological fiction—a  novelette, The Blue Nightgown—short stories, poetry, a stage play and some children’s books. She’s published articles in newspapers and poetry in a UK journal. She is currently working on her grandmother’s story, set in Russia during World War I. Diana lives on Vancouver Island in British Columbia with her husband, Robert. Find her on her website, Facebook and Twitter @DianaStevan

Undercover Soundtrack

The Undercover Soundtrack – Liz Fisher-Frank

for logo‘Music without words explains the terror of the people’

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 debut novelist Liz Fisher-Frank @LizFisherFrank

Soundtrack by Chris Rea, Lucy Rose, Cat Stevens, Michael Kamen, Freddie Mercury, Montserrat Cabelle

I’ve been a lawyer for many years. I’ve had a fairly unusual legal career as for much of it, I specialised in representing teenagers in care. I’d regularly go out to foster placements and children’s homes to meet with my clients and take instructions. Often there could be problems around contact with family and/or siblings or maybe concerns about placements, where homes were not working out. Christmas always made me think about my clients, particularly those living in children’s homes, as no matter how hard people try, for some children, Christmas Day, family, presents, sacks, dinner, TV is  quite a different experience to that which many children have.


Driving Home for Christmas by Chris Rea – although this is not my favourite Christmas song by a long shot – makes me think of families at Christmas time. You can’t argue with a good power ballad and it’s no wonder that this song is such a yuletide favourite, topping Christmas playlists up and down the country. But it’s Lucy Rose’s amazing cover that helped me understand my two central characters. Her haunting voice in this pared-down version brings to mind those children and young people whose family life is so very different. In Losing Agir, my two key characters, Alice (a 15-year-old from the UK who is in care) and Agir (a 16-year-old Kurdish boy smuggled into the UK) have both faced family loss, separation and tragedy and this factor somehow unites them despite their very different cultural backgrounds.

School life

Alice, a teenager wanting to fit in at school, pretends to like the music the popular girls are into but secretly, would listen to something with more meaning. Alice reads and loves the classics – a copy of Wuthering Heights plays a important role in linking Alice and Agir. I decided Alice would listen to songs and really think about the poetry of their words – the simplicity of Cat Stevens’s Morning has Broken would give her the message that although difficult, life goes on and tomorrow is another day.

A village torn apart

My book starts at the violent destruction of the Kurdish village of Ormanici, which was situated in the mountains of South-East Turkey. The village was destroyed by Turkish soldiers in the 1990s and formed the basis of a human rights case which was later taken to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. It is the story of the villagers, who won their case, which inspired me to write. My story starts as the soldiers attack the village and Agir and his family, along with the rest of the villagers, are pulled from their home at gunpoint. This part of my book is, I hope, dramatic. Livestock are shot, homes are burned to the ground, families are pulled apart, women scream, men are dragged away and forced to lie blindfolded, face down in the snow. Having read the case transcript and written the story, this scene is about emotive music, where music, without words, far better explains the terror of the people. I found the mood I was looking for in Michael Kamen’s soundtrack to Band of Brothers.

LOSING AGIRThe vital clue

From the dramatic areas to the developing love story between my characters, my ideas, plotlines and characterisation are largely affected by my thinking time which for me, works best when I am running. Since I’ve been writing, I’ve had various moments of getting stuck and for some reason, Freddie Mercury somehow seems to get me past it. In Losing Agir, I was struggling to work out how Alice, a young person lacking confidence, would connect the ‘bad’ characters to enable her then to smash a child smuggling ring. I can remember the moment as I was running with Barcelona gently starting in my iPod. I’d been thinking and thinking about how I could tie the story together. But as the song began to build, my thoughts did too. Then, as Freddie and Montserrat Caballe reached the final ‘Barcelona,’ an idea which had been gathering somewhere in the background burst at high speed into my head. As the very distinctive bells signified the end of the track, I stopped, almost expecting to see fireworks at the realisation that I could possibly make my story work. Muttering a thankful ‘yesssss,’ and ignoring the awkward glances of a couple out walking their poodle, I then carried on my way.

Liz Fisher-Frank has for many years worked as a children’s rights lawyer.  Specialising in representing teenagers in care, Liz has also campaigned to improve information about and access to law and rights. Drawing on these themes, Liz’s first book, Losing Agir, is a teen thriller published by Red Lion Books and is the story of two young people from different cultures and backgrounds who unite to seek justice.  For more information see www.lizfisherfrank.com, read her blog or follow her on twitter at @lizfisherfrank and facebook.