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This week’s guest first conceptualised his novel to the sound of the sea. Waves on rocks, rain against a hood. On a visit to a sea shanty festival, it took a firmer shape as he walked through the streets, hearing snatches of songs about love and loss. It became a novel about people struggling with grief and trying to make sense of it, catalysed by the spacey loops of ambient composers such as William Basinski, and the fragile otherworldliness of Ravel and Debussy. I listened to the entire set early one morning and it was like being pulled into a wild, melancholy dream. He is 2016 Man Booker nominee Wyl Menmuir and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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 medieval literature scholar and metaphysical fantasy writer Alice Degan @ajdegan
Soundtrack by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Maddy Prior, Adele, Sarah Slean, Loreena McKennitt, Squirrel Nut Zippers
Before iTunes, making a mix of music to write to used to be this whole ritual. For me it was one of those great para-writing procrastination activities, like buying notebooks or clearing off your desk. I’d want to carefully select a track to go at the beginning of the CD, which served as a kind of invocation to set the mood as I sat down to write. Often this one would be a song that wasn’t musically appropriate to the setting, but had some apposite lyrics, or related thematically somehow. With From All False Doctrine, which I began after I had started migrating my music library onto my computer, things were a bit different. It was easier to create a soundtrack, which deprived the ritual of some of its distracting power, and it wasn’t necessary to select just one track to open with. Several different songs ended up playing that role of invocation.
Adding to the choir
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was the track that most often functioned as an entry point. It’s an exquisite piece that embroiders on the melody of one of my favourite hymns. It builds slowly and quietly, but reaches a dramatic climax. Listening to Vaughan Williams’s version calls to mind not so much the exact words of the hymn but its general theme and mood: a feeling of inadequacy in the face of greater powers, and a plea to God for the strength to add my own voice to a great choir. That spoke to me as I approached my writing, and it evoked the concerns of my main characters in their different pursuits.
If it’s the life you feel called to, it’s what you should live. If you’ll pardon the expression.’
‘ “Called. “’ He grinned up at her apologetically. “It implies there’s Someone to do the calling.’
‘It’s just a turn of phrase,’ she said sternly.
From All False Doctrine is set in the 1920s, but jazz music isn’t a major feature of the plot, and didn’t help in its creation either. Of course that’s partly due to my own musical tastes. But it’s also partly because the book is set in Toronto, which was still a fairly conservative city in the ’20s, not a hotbed of the kind of social and artistic innovation that we associate with the decade. A jazz soundtrack wouldn’t quite capture the mood of 1925 Toronto as I understand it. My story centres on the worlds of the university and the Anglican Church. My hero, Kit Underhill, is a young Anglo-Catholic priest in the working-class neighbourhood of Earlscourt, an area populated at the time mostly by English immigrants. Elsa Nordqvist, my heroine, is a classics student who has lost her faith in God but believes passionately in her academic calling.
The words to a number of hymns feature in the story, but I didn’t listen to most of these while writing: they’re songs I know from years in the pews, not from recordings. Jesu, lover of my soul, in Maddy Prior’s atypical rendition, was one I did play while writing, though it doesn’t get a mention in the story. Privately, though, I know that my characters like it: I think of it as expressing something of Kit’s spirituality while at the same time evoking Elsa’s Protestant upbringing.
Then there are songs that evoke just the right mood even though the style and lyrics may have no obvious connection to the story. One of those for this book was Adele’s Set Fire to the Rain, which spoke perfectly of the unhappiness of a secondary character, Harriet Spencer, a charismatic young woman who is abandoned by her fiancé. (Come to think of it, she looks a little bit like Adele, especially in that video!) Sarah Slean’s Society Song evokes something of Elsa’s relationship to propriety: it’s a defiant, upbeat song that made a nice contrast to the more contemplative tracks on my list.
Star of the County Down is the shiftless fiancé’s theme. A classic folk song about a determined suitor, it’s also very close in its tune to another hymn, I heard the voice of Jesus say, so it evokes two aspects of this character for me. I have several recordings, but the one I had on the False Doctrine soundtrack was Loreena McKennitt’s rendition from The Wind That Shakes the Barley.
Finally, because of the turn that the story takes towards the end, the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ Hell made it onto the soundtrack.
He reached for her hands and then stopped. ‘At midnight my soul—whatever that may be—is forfeit to that thing and its Master. Do you think I would hesitate to throw you to him, to save myself?’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘You are hesitating right now.’
I’m working on a sequel now, and the song I use to get in the mood (this is a slight spoiler) is Sarah Slean’s Angel.
Alice Degan is an academic and novelist who lives in Toronto. She studies and teaches medieval literature, and writes fantasy and something she likes to call metaphysical romance. From All False Doctrine, a supernatural mystery wrapped in a 1920s comedy of manners, is her first published novel. She also has a series of urban fantasy stories involving a collection of misfit otherworldly characters who live above a bakery. You can find her on Twitter as @ajdegan, or on her website.
1920s, Adele, Alice Degan, authors, classical, comedy, comedy of manners, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, False Doctrine, fantasy, folk, invocation, jazz, jazz music, Loreena McKennitt, Maddy Prior, medieval literature, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, Ralph Vaughan Williams, romance, Roz Morris, Sarah Slean, soundtrack, Squirrel Nut Zippers, supernatural, supernatural romance, The Undercover Soundtrack, Thomas Tallis, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music
I find it so interesting how one novel’s soundtrack can absorb so many styles. My guest this week has written a supernatural mystery wrapped up in a 1920s comedy of manners and her soundtrack is a glorious tour of classical, folk and madcap jazz. Even more interesting, she uses Thomas Tallis – as my guest did last week – but with such a different outcome. We all operate in our own key of creativity, which is one of the wonders of this series for me. Anyway, this week you’ll be entering the classical, folky and knock-bones skelly-shaking jazzy world of Alice Degan – and her Undercover Soundtrack.
1020s, Alice Degan, authors, classical, comedy, comedy of manners, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, fantasy, folk, jazz, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, romance, Roz Morris, soundtrack, supernatural, supernatural romance, The Undercover Soundtrack, Thomas Tallis, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music
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 women’s fiction writer Anne Stormont @WriteAnne
Soundtrack by Rufus Wainwright, Tom Baxter, Van Morrison, Elbow, Cat Power, Neil Diamond, Louis Armstrong, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, Don Maclean, Military Wives, Blair Douglas, Greg Laswell, Bat for Lashes, Ungar and Mason
It took me almost a decade to write and publish Change of Life. It was a brush with mortality following my diagnosis with ovarian cancer in 1998, and an Arvon Foundation writing course that finally spurred me into getting my writing act together. And so, while teaching full time and putting the finishing touches to my fledgling adult children, I began.
I love music. I have eclectic tastes, from musicals, to Scottish traditional, through hard rock, and classical to contemporary. I’ve always had a soundtrack running in the background. I studied for high school and university exams with 1960s and 70s rock and pop in the background. I got through my cancer treatment to a background of songs by the Lighthouse Family and others, put together by my daughter on a mixtape – remember those?
And it has continued to be music that provides me with focus. While I’m writing, even if I’m not consciously hearing it, it’s on and it keeps me in the zone. It’s very much a mood thing for me. Much like inhaling a reminiscence-filled scent, a few bars of the right music and I’m transported.
Change of Life has two main characters, husband and wife, Tom and Rosie. The narration is in first person and Tom and Rosie take it in turns to tell their story.
Tom, being male, was a challenge to write, but it was one I relished. To get into his head it was Rufus Wainwright’s Do I Disappoint You, Tom Baxter’s My Declaration and Van Morrison’s Have I Told You Lately that did it. Tom betrays Rosie’s trust and, when their resulting separation after more than 20 years of marriage, and Rosie’s diagnosis with breast cancer threaten to rob him of his wife forever, he has to do a lot of soul-searching and face up to some difficult truths. These tracks captured both Tom’s anger and his yearning. They helped keep me ‘in character’ and to tap into the appropriate emotions.
Making the switch to Rosie’s head was helped by Elbow’s Grounds For Divorce, Cat Power’s Woman Left Lonely and Neil Diamond’s You Don’t Bring Me Flowers. She also experiences anger and yearning, but this is overlaid with the fear that her cancer may kill her. When writing these darker passages it was Louis Armstrong singing We Have All The Time In The World that helped me bring out the poignancy of her situation.
Then as the story came towards its conclusion, it was If You Want Me by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, along with And I Love You So by Don Maclean that kept me focussed and at the right emotional temperature.
For my new novel Displacement, it was mainly the Military Wives album In My Dreams that helped me set the tone. Again there are two main characters, Rachel and Jack. Two very different characters, both with their own demons, they meet in dramatic circumstances on the Isle of Skye. Rosie, a sheep farmer and writer of children’s books, is grieving for her dead soldier son, and retired policeman, Jack, is facing up to some difficult truths about himself. They begin an unlikely friendship. The story is set on Skye and in the completely contrasting, but no less dramatic landscape of Israel/ Palestine. The Soldier’s Lullaby and Sonamarg by Skye musician Blair Douglas also featured in supporting roles, as did Your Ghost by Greg Laswell. This last one captured Jack’s longing and conflict perfectly. I should also mention Wilderness by Bat for Lashes, which perfectly reflects both the natural wilderness of Skye and the Middle East and the inner wilderness of the two main characters. And finally, the Ashkovan Farewell by Ungar and Mason was the one track that broke through any resistance I felt when I came to the desk to write this novel. It just led me straight in. What more can a writer ask of their musical soundtrack?
Anne lives in the Scottish Hebrides. She can be a subversive old bat, but she maintains a kind heart. She’s about to take early retirement after 36 years as a primary school teacher. Her stories are about and for the sometimes invisible women; the 1960s feminists; women in their late 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond; thinking, feeling, loving, intelligent women. There is a strong element of romance in her books, but she’s resistant to the restrictive ‘romantic fiction’ label as she likes to think there’s more to her novels than just romance. Her first novel, Change of Life, is about to be republished under her own imprint Rowan Russell Books and, her second novel, Displacement, is due to be published at the end of May. Her work-in-progress is a children’s novel called The Silver Locket and is scheduled for release in the summer. Anne tweets as @writeanne and she blogs at http://putitinwriting.me She also writes for Words With Jam and is a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors.
Anne Stormont, Arvon Foundation, authors, Bat for Lashes, Blair Douglas, Cat Power, Change of Life, classical, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, Don Maclean, drama, Elbow, entertainment, Glen Hansard, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, Greg Laswell, hard rock, Lighthouse Family, Louis Armstrong, main characters, Marketa Irglova, Military Wives, mixtape, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Neil Diamond, ovarian cancer, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, Rufus Wainwright, Scottish traditional, The Soldier, The Undercover Soundtrack, Tom Baxter, undercover soundtrack, Ungar and Mason, Van Morrison, Women Writers, Women's fiction, women's fiction writer, writers, writing, writing to music
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’s post is by US National Book Award winner William Alexander @williealex
Both of my novels, Goblin Secrets and Ghoulish Song, are set in the same city and unfold at the very same time. They also share a soundtrack. The first is about a goblin theatre troupe. The second is about a girl who loses her shadow and becomes a musician.
First let me tell you a bit about this shared setting. Zombay is a playfully broken place, its pieces repurposed and cobbled together. The noise of and voice of this city clanks and clamors. One single bridge — the Fiddleway — connects two halves of the city (barely), and various musicians play at all hours to keep that bridge from falling over.
Luce Strumgut the sailor explains how and why in Ghoulish Song:
“You can shape music to reshape the world, just as words do in charms and curses. Sailors learned that first.” Luce proudly tapped the tip of her nose with one finger. “We sang chanties to the rhythm of oar and hoisted sail. It’s madness to trust your own weight to a bit of bark adrift on water. It’s only ever possible to face up to that madness with a song. So we made the music necessary to hold a barge together—or a bridge. The madness of the bridge, of walking and living and building whole houses high above the River, is only possible with many songs. You can hold anything together with the proper tune—or you can tear it apart.”
Two albums in particular helped me map out my city and hold it together.
First I used Real Gone by Tom Waits. I often started a writing session with Hoist that Rag. It’s a working song, a sailor’s song, and it has an urgency and a clanking, jangling rhythm that I found especially useful.
Once Tom forced me awake and growled at me until I started working the album would fade into background noise. That’s no criticism of its quality. All of Real Gone rewards close listening, but the songs didn’t seem to mind humming and muttering between themselves while I mostly ignored them and went about my writing business. There’s one track I couldn’t ever ignore, though: How’s it gonna end? Every time it came up I would write faster. Tom needed to know the ending, and so did I.
Lyrics can be distracting, though, and the stories told and hinted at in the rest of How’s it Gonna End don’t really match up with the stories I was working on. The other album I had set to endless repeat was Zoe Keating’s Into the Trees—an absolutely gorgeous album, played by a single cellist looping and accompanying herself. Keating composes ideal soundtracks for dark fairy tales. You can stream the tracks from her site, but pay particular attention to Optimist.
Take a moment to imagine both Tom Waits and Zoe Keating guest-starring on The Muppet Show. That sense of unsettling playfulness is pretty much what I was aiming for. If I hit the mark, then I owe it to those two musicians.
William Alexander won the US National Book Award for his first novel, Goblin Secrets, and the Earphones award for his narration of the audiobook. His second novel, Ghoulish Song, just came out. He read the audiobook for that, too. Will studied theatre and folklore at Oberlin College, English at the University of Vermont, and creative writing at the Clarion Workshop. He lives in the Twin Cities, right in the middle of the States. Find him online at goblinsecrets.com and on Twitter under @williealex.
Brief hiatus: The Undercover Soundtrack is taking a short break and will be back in two weeks’ time on 13 November. See you then!
authors, cello, classical, Desert Island Discs, drama, Earphones award, entertainment, fantasy, Ghoulish, Ghoulish Song, ghouls, Goblin Secrets, goblins, Halloween, male writers, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, soundtrack, The Undercover Soundtrack, Tom Waits, undercover soundtrack, US National Book Award, William Alexander, writers, writing, writing to music, Zoe Keating
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’s post is by fantasy author and self-publishing zealot Ben Galley @BenGalley
Music. It has always ruled my life. From getting up to falling asleep, I do so accompanied by music.
Where did such an obsession with music come from? That’s a good question. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had this preoccupation with the idea of a soundtrack to life. Let’s be honest – we’ve all pretended, or at least felt, that our lives were a movie at one point in our lives. It’s in this way that I use music. I’ve always been a huge fan of movies and the cinema (media from which I’ve drawn plenty of inspiration from in the past) and for some reason I’ve always paid a massive amount of attention to the soundtrack. Soundtracks can add a whole new level of punch to a scene – it could be emotion, tension, or action, music simply has the ability to add more. That’s why I use music to mark occasions, or to cheer me up or chill me out. I cook to it. I clean to it, I exercise to it, and of course, I write to it. And that’s where the involvement goes a little deeper.
Intriguingly, my obsession with music once usurped by dream of being a writer. In 2006, aged only 17, I swapped that dream for two years of studying bass guitar and music at the Academy of Contemporary Music (ACM). It was brilliant fun. Those two years expanded my musical horizon immensely, and as such I began to look into a career in music, performing and touring. Sad thing was, nothing ever really took off. It was difficult. Tough. I felt I had missed the train somewhat. And so, whilst working a succession of meaningless jobs in bars, restaurants, and pubs, I decided it was time to start writing again – to get back that original dream of being a writer.
I first started writing my debut fantasy novel The Written in 2009. Although music was as ubiquitous in my life then as it is now, I quickly discovered something new – a way to take music and use it to fuel writing. I found that writing to music didn’t just help evoke emotion, but it also seemed to affect my pace, my focus, my drive, even the direction of the story itself. It suddenly grew from an accompaniment and a soundtrack to a force. Let me explain more.
I’d written books before, aged 11 and 12 (three terribly written novels that will never see the light of day) but I’d never used music to write before. As I learned more about my book and the series, I also learnt how music could help, testing it against how my tastes and playlist had expanded with age and ACM. This is how I learnt how to make my own private (or underground!) soundtrack for the scenes I was writing.
Getting back into writing and launching into an epic series was tough. Enter rock and metal. Two genres that can curl your fingers into fists, and make grim, determined slits of your eyes. Whatever mood I was in, music ignited my drive, helping me to get stuck and in and overcome those hard initial pages. These were my ‘Come on! Get on with the bloody thing!’ tracks. The main tracks that helped me do this are Dig by Incubus (a calmer track in this genre), Maggie’s Farm by the indomitable Rage Against the Machine, Kings and Queens by 30 Seconds to Mars, and Empire by Alpines.
Fights and cold landscapes
Fight scenes featured prominently in the first few chapters of my book, interspersed with sections setting the scene of the cold, vastness of my world, Emaneska. I constantly switched from rock, metal, and electronica, to softer genres: classical, soundscape, or original film soundtracks. The latter worked particularly well – composer Ludovico Einaudi gave softness to the calmer scenes, pause and mystery too. I Giorni and Monday are some of his finest tracks. Film composer Thomas Newman helped too, with the soundtracks to American Beauty and Shawshank Redemption. Using soundtrack music really helped. It was lyric-less so I could tune it out or in when I wanted to. Primarily though, it brought back memories of film scenes, and the dialogue, action, and mood used within them. This in turn helped me refine my scene-setting skills. Another score for music! Pardon the pun…
One thing I did find was that I would occasionally get bogged down by dialogue and the need to impart information to the reader. To help, I used what I called ‘swagger tracks’ – songs that I used to pump confidence and life into these sections. I believe that confidence can be felt through writing. Just as in social situations where the need to appear confident is important, I believe that writing is no different. Readers need to feel like they are in the hands of a confident story-teller. I call this swagger. Two particular swagger tracks for me are Radioactive by Imagine Dragons, or Miami by Foals.
Music also helped me to apply tempo and pace to exciting scenes. Rock, metal, and upbeat soundscape tracks, such as Staralfur by Sigur Ròs, once again helped. I also used a lot of electronic music, particularly dubstep. For those of you not familiar with dubstep, it can be frenetic and hardcore, more noise than anything, but I love it. It’s no-holds barred production and sampling. A good example of a track I used is Skrillex’s First of the Year – Equinox. Bonfire by Knife Party is also very good. One track in particular is My Obsession by Killswitch Engage. I found myself slowing and speeding up along to the pace of these songs as I wrote. I believe this approach helped me vary the pace of my scenes, making for more interesting, perhaps even more organic, writing.
And lastly, the finale. I needed something softer, for the calm after the storm. For my main character, Farden, he needed a moment sat atop a snowy peak, staring down onto his city. A moment of reflection. What was my send off? It was Sæglópur by Sigur Ròs. Beautiful song. (Fast forward to 1.50.)
Overall, I’ve found that when I’m writing, music becomes a tool. It helps me focus, helps me keep those fingers moving. I’ve learnt to feed off its pace and passion, off its confidence, off that unquantifiable ‘oomph’, off its conveyed emotion. When I’m writing, music becomes less of my own soundtrack, and becomes more the soundtrack to whatever world I’m building, hopefully enriching it. And that’s my undercover soundtrack!
At 25, Ben Galley is a young self-published author from sunny England. He is the author of the epic and gritty fantasy series – The Emaneska Series. He has released four books to date, and doesn’t intend to stop any time soon. Ben is also incredibly zealous about inspiring other authors and writers. He runs the advice site Shelf Help, where he offers advice and services for writing, publishing, and marketing. Ben is also the co-founder and director of indie-only eBook store Libiro. Ben can be found being loquacious and attempting to be witty on Twitter (@BenGalley) or at www.bengalley.com.
30 Seconds to Mars, Alpines, American Beauty, authors, Ben Galley, classical, Desert Island Discs, drama, dubstep, electronica, entertainment, epic fantasy, fantasy, film soundtracks, Foals, how to build a fantasy world, Imagine Dragons, Incubus, Killswitch Engage, Knife Party, Libiro, Ludovico Einaudi, male writers, metal, music, music for writers, music for writing, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Pale Kings, playlist for writers, Rage Against the Machine, rock, Roz Morris, self-publishing, Shawshank Redemption, Shelf Help, Sigur Ros, Skrillex, The Emaneska Series, The Undercover Soundtrack, The Written, Thomas Newman, undercover soundtrack, writers, writing, writing to music
My guest this week grew up on classical music. Childhood piano lessons inspired her latest novel, Feral Youth, about the relationship between a troubled teenager and a piano teacher. One pivotal scene came while she was listening to Wagner; the surging music seemed to insist she create a dramatic bonding moment between her two principals. She herself is no stranger to drama; she made her name with a semi-autobiographical novel about life in London’s Square Mile, then famously went indie because her publisher, HarperCollins, tried to brand her books as chick-lit. She is Polly Courtney and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
Childhood piano lessons, classical, classical music, classical piano, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, Feral Youth, grime, HarperCollins, literary fiction, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, pianists, piano teacher, pivotal scene, playlist for writers, Polly Courtney, Roz Morris, The Undercover Soundtrack, troubled teenager, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, writing to music
- 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.
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Underground Book Reviews Top Summer Read 2012
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Multi-Story Pick of the Month March and October 2012
Alliance of Independent Authors Book of the Month, January 2013
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- 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
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