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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 mystery and thriller novelist (and musician) Timothy Hallinan @TimHallinan
I could not write without music.
With more than 7,000 tracks on my hard drive and the best pair of earbuds money can buy, I can create a distraction-free workspace anywhere in the world. That’s necessary because I like to write in public, usually in coffee-shops, where there’s already caffeine in the air and I can look up and steal a face whenever I need one.
I work to playlists with different qualities, most of them 400-1,000 songs long. (My current all-purpose playlist has 1,356 songs on it, heavy on Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand, Jon Fratelli, Emmylou Harris, Mindy Smith, Lindi Ortega, Over the Rhine, etc.) Generally, music seals me off from distraction, provides a source of energy, and, depending on what I’m writing and the playlist I’ve chosen, an actual entry point to certain emotions and even imagery.
I virtually never write without those earphones plugged in. (I’m listening to Jack’s Mannequin right now.) About half the time I work to the all-purpose playlist, which changes all the time as I add new stuff and yank the old. But occasionally a piece of music will emerge and take over the writing of a book.
In my fourth Poke Rafferty novel, The Queen of Patpong, a young woman has leapt from a boat into the dark Andaman Sea near three large rocks called The Sisters. It’s the middle of the night, rain is pouring down, and the water bristles with sea-wasps, a particularly lethal jellyfish. The man in the boat has brought her there specifically to kill her. This is the turning point of the book, and it became the longest action scene I’ve ever written. A few pages in, Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand kicked in, and I immediately put it on a loop. I wrote to it for several days. In the acknowledgments at the end of the book, I wrote:
the chapter when Rose is in the water was written mostly to Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, a piece of music that’s got dark water running all the way through it.
I mention the music I use most at the close of practically every book, and many, many people have emailed me to suggest new artistes. I get a lot of good music that way.
The forthcoming Rafferty book, For The Dead, is largely about a 13-year-old girl having her carefully constructed and entirely fictional identity ripped from her, revealing her to the kids in her exclusive school as a former street child who’s befriended them under false pretences. Much of it was written to Tegan and Sara, who create great, hooky, irresistible rock about girls and young women. They were the primary soundtrack for Miaow’s sections of the story.
But early in the writing process, I began to listen to Fun., and their music crystallized certain aspects of Miaow’s story. At the beginning of the book a phrase from a Fun. song called Benson Hedges, We all float until we sink, keeps running through her mind, and that also song provided the titles of the first two sections of the book: We All Float . . . and . . . Until We Sink. The third section is Drowning Girls, which is a lyric I actually misheard, but there was no way to drop it because it worked so well, and the fourth section is Aim and Ignite, which is the title of a Fun. album.
Finally, in the new Junior Bender book (due out July 2), The Fame Thief, Junior is hired to find out who destroyed the career (and the life) of a young actress in 1950. The central section of the book departs from Junior’s first-person to take us back to the 40s and the early 50s, and for this section I listened to pop music from the day, which had a real impact on both the dialogue and the visual landscape.
If anyone who reads this has some recommendations for me, please comment below or email me at email@example.com And thanks in advance.
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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 post is by Jessica Thompson @JThompsonauthor
Music greatly affects my writing and levels of inspiration.
This is something I only realised recently, when completing my second novel. I found myself thinking about how often I was listening to music while creating it, and how I experience such a variety of emotions as a result of lyrics and melodies. A song alone can be enough to make me want to rush to my laptop and get writing.
I’ve always been into music, and I’m a singer myself. While I was always encouraged to write, music was a massive part of my childhood whether it was classical or soul. My dad, whose taste is rather more traditional, found himself liking some of my teenage musical interests including Kanye West and Jay Z, and I was constantly surrounded by Classic FM whether it was on the kitchen radio or in the car.
It isn’t a surprise that music now ties in so deeply to my biggest passion – writing. What I find so helpful when considering plots, characters and emotions is the imagery in music. When I listen to songs, I imagine in detail the feelings that are being put across. Lyrics, like the words in novels, bring about a cocktail of sometimes very strong visual imagery.
John Legend has always been a huge musical influence of mine, so as well as listening to his music when I wrote my first novel This is a Love Story, I also decided to directly include him in the storyline itself.
Hopelessly in love
While This is a Love Story, isn’t a true story, it is naturally an extensive collage of things I’ve seen, heard and experienced in my life. When I was about 20 years-old I saw John Legend live in London, and it was an unforgettable gig. Having listened to Legend’s debut album Get Lifted so many times it was probably imprinted note for note in my brain, I was thrilled when my boyfriend at the time took me to see him.
I was hopelessly in love when I went to this concert, and so it helped me to summon up the emotions I needed to pour into This is a Love Story, which takes a youthful look at love and all its complications and emotions.
I loved writing this scene and had so much fun with it. I could have chosen other artistes, but it made sense to draw from an experience I’d known so well. I wanted to portray the dimness of the room, and the electricity everyone felt when he started to sing.
While I refrained from telling readers which song he was performing in the closing part of that scene, I imagine it to be So High, but almost any song from the whole Get Lifted album would have worked perfectly for it.
Legend’s songs are not only deeply romantic, but fun too, and I decided this would be perfect to incorporate into my first book.
While writing This is a Love Story I was influenced by quite a lot of other music too. I was really into Ellie Goulding’s debut album Lights, and I think looking back, I incorporated a lot of the sweetness in Ellie’s lyrics and stage personality into Sienna.
People who come and go
Sienna’s young, fairly naïve, but essentially a good person inside and out. She struggles to gather the guts or the confidence to go after the man she loves. I see a lot of how she feels about Nick in the track Starry Eyed. She’s also pretty cynical in many ways, and Under the sheets made me think about her romantic life, the people who came in and out of it and the kind of hopeless frustration in the way they never quite measure up to Nick.
A number of indie bands helped me form Nick’s character – a young man, with a lot of mischief, silliness and confusion in him. I think your 20s are a pretty turbulent time, and a constant battle of whether you should be out partying until the sun comes up, or whether you should be chasing after someone you really like. There’s pressure from lots of different angles and everyone seems to have a different idea about where your priorities should be. Indie music really encapsulates that, with the wildness of it tied in with heart-wrenching romance. Cancel on Me by Bombay Bicycle Club is the song that reminds me most of Nick, there’s cynicism there, but also real vulnerability.
Jessica Thompson is an author and freelance journalist living in north London. She also works part time in communications for a children’s hospice. In her spare time she likes to run and has also sung in a variety of projects including two bands. Jess is 25 years old, and was born in Keighley, Yorkshire. This is a Love Story is published by Coronet and you can contact Jess on Twitter @JThompsonauthor
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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 multi-award-winning author and New York Times bestselling author Catherynne M Valente @catvalente
Soundtrack by Carl Sagan featuring Symphony of Science, Loreen, Ke$ha, Milla Jovovich, Yann Tiersen, Florence + the Machine, Mumford and Sons, The Decemberists, Anais Mitchell, Orenda Fink, Anna Ternheim, Pogo, Sufjan Stevens, Nobuo Uematsu, Tom Waits, Seanan McGuire, Andrew Bird, Circus Contraption, Antje Duvekot, The Innocence Mission, Rilo Kiley, Jason Webley, Neutral Milk Hotel, DJ Earworm, Ru Paul, Lady Gaga, S.J. Tucker
Exeunt on a leopard
Music and Fairyland go hand in hand. I can’t write without music – it’s an intimate part of my process. So often I start a novel by making a playlist for it, songs that say something about the subject and have a beat conducive to writing. Anything too aggressive and I get distracted, too soft and gentle and I get sleepy. There’s very much a sweet spot to find! With the Fairyland novels, the playlist is called Exeunt on a Leopard and it evolves with every book.
Fairyland is a novel about travel and magic, about growing up, about figuring out the world is a more complicated place than you thought. It’s whimsical but it has a bite. A lot of the songs I like to listen to seem like they could be sung in the voice of my protagonist, September, who is carried away from her home in Nebraska by the Green Wind (who rides a Leopard) and finds her way to Fairyland, a kingdom full of wyverns, witches, marauding herds of wild bicycles, and a very wicked Marquess who has inflicted some very human cruelties on the magical world. Fairyland is both an adventure story and a prodding—sometimes gentle, sometimes sharp—of the whole tradition of children’s literature. So I look for clever, lyrical music with a twinge of melancholy – all stories about fairies have a little melancholy in them.
Song to start the muse
I start out every writing day with Symphony of Science’s gorgeous song A Glorious Dawn. It makes me feel so optimistic about the world! After that, the heavy hitters are Florence + the Machine’s new album Ceremonials, Mumford and Sons’s Sigh No More, The Decemberists’ Her Majesty and Picaresque, Anais Mitchell’s folklore opera Hadestown, Orenda Fink’s Invisible Ones, Anna Ternheim, especially Shoreline, which seemed to be just written for September, Pogo’s Alice songs, Sufjan Stevens’s Illinoise and Michigan albums, Nobuo Uematsu’s phenomenal soundtrack to Final Fantasy VII and VIII, Tom Waits’s sad and sweet musical version of Allen Ginsberg’s poem America, Seanan McGuire’s Hugo-nominated album Wicked Girls, the title track of which actually makes a quick, subtle cameo in the climactic scene of the novel, Andrew Bird’s Scythian Empire, Circus Contraption’s melancholy carnival album Grand American Traveling Dime Museum, Antje Duvekot’s Black Annis, Yann Tiersen’s fabulous music wherever I find it, The Innocence Mission for a little early 90s awesomeness, Rilo Kiley, Milla Jovovich’s surprisingly lovely song Clock, Jason Webley’s Ways to Love, Neutral Milk Hotel’s King of Carrot Flowers and In an Aeroplane Over the Sea.
When writing scenes heavy on action, I will admit with only a little blushing that I like some cheesy club pop music – DJ Earworm’s mashups that remind you how meaning can be so fluid, Ru Paul’s Glamazon, Lady Gaga’s Fame Monster album, Ke$ha’s Tik Tok (there’s a strong clock theme in Fairyland!) and I’m completely in love with Loreen’s Eurovision winner Euphoria as I’m working on the third book in the Fairyland series. Sometimes the silly stuff makes me feel free to be ridiculous and whimsical in my work–not everything has to be serious and elegant all the time. This is an important lesson for a fantasy writer, I think.
Finally, I can’t talk about Fairyland and music without mentioning S.J. Tucker. She’s an extraordinary singer, and I have her last two albums Sirens and Mischief on a loop when working. But she’s also done three albums based on my books, and a fourth, based on Fairyland, will be coming out soon. So I listen to September’s Rhyme and Wonders quite a bit–they remind me what I mean to say with my books, and why I started this whole crazy business to begin with.
Catherynne M. Valente is the New York Times bestselling author of over a dozen works of fiction and poetry, including Palimpsest, the Orphan’s Tales series, Deathless, and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Own Making. She is the winner of the Andre Norton Award, the Tiptree Award, the Mythopoeic Award and the Lambda Award. She has been nominated for the Hugo, Locus, World Fantasy, and Nebula Awards. She lives on an island off the coast of Maine with her partner, two dogs, and enormous cat. She blogs at yuki-onna.livejournal.com and tweets @catvalente
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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'