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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’s guest is playwright, actor and award-winning author Jason Hewitt @jasonhewitt123
Soundtrack by Fritz Kreisler, Manuel Ponce, Schubert, JS Bach, Gustav Mahler, Benny Goodman, Erskine Hawkins, Flanagan & Allen, Johann Johannsson,James Newton Howard, Philip Glass, Dvorak, Max Richter
Whenever I give a talk about writing I usually start by making a comparison between music and literature, saying that in my mind writing a novel is the literary equivalent to composing a symphony. It’s an analogy that was certainly apt when writing The Dynamite Room, a novel set in 1940, and in which music pervades the whole narrative, not least because two of the main characters are trained musicians.
I’d written fiction before but never a novel in which music flavoured the story so intensely, and as I started to fumble my way through a first draft I began looking for links between the processes of composing music and writing fiction. My protagonists, Heiden and eleven-year old Lydia, might be my lead instruments (first violin and piano perhaps) but they are nothing without the support of the other characters that swill in and out of the story like horns, clarinets and flutes. Like a symphony my novel is split into movements (or five days in this case); backstories, plotlines, and recurring motifs thread in and out like returning musical themes, ever word placed like a note. I even plotted out the crescendos on a piece of paper, marking them on my literary score along with where each character (my instruments) swept in and then left.
Heiden is a Nazi soldier but music is so engrained within him that much of his pre-war memories revolve around it or his relationship with Eva, a gifted violinist. As the novel is partly told from Heiden’s viewpoint I felt that I needed to submerge myself into his world as much as I could, to familiarise myself with the classical pieces that were important to him so that those pieces that he and Eva loved lived within me as much as him.
For that reason Fritz Kreisler’s Liebesleid, Manuel Ponce’s Estrellita and Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria were played on constant rotation so that they soaked into every scene the characters featured in as I wrote. From the moment we first encounter Eva, through a memory, she is engulfed in sound – JS Bach’s Violin Concerto in E – while tracks like Gustav Mahler’s Adagietto from Symphony No. 5 not only would have been embedded within Heiden’s repertoire but also helped me to conjure the blistering hot July of 1940 – it’s a piece that smoulders like the heat.
If he shut his eyes he could hear it, the Concerto swelling to fill the template of the metronome’s beat, the auditorium reverberating to its ornate rafters in that glorious wash of sound.’
To immerse myself in the period I would start my writing days by listening to 1940s hits. Benny Goodman’s Let’s Dance and Erskine Hawkins’ Tuxedo Junction are almost synonymous with the times and helped me create the atmosphere of some of the lighter moments and the memories that Lydia has of the house where ghosts of music long silent still swill through the rooms. I like to think she would have danced around to Flanagan & Allen’s Run Rabbit Run but to Heiden the wartime radio hit holds a much darker significance.
To help me find the essence of my main characters I also chose an individual ‘theme track’ for them – a piece that epitomised them in my mind. For Lydia it was Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Theme from And in the Endless Pause There Came the Sound of Bees. It evokes Lydia’s wide-eyed innocence, particularly when we first meet her on a hot day, the piece very aptly ending in a storm.
For Heiden I needed something more robust, filled with the same vigour, resilience and desperation that he is. I chose Nothing is Impossible by James Newton Howard (from the film Defiance). There is a sense of endless endurance to it that reminded me of him battling through the blizzards of Norway, a lone violin struggling through the torrent of other strings.
Eva’s piece is the Violin Concerto, 2nd Movement by Philip Glass. There’s a simplicity to it that mirrors her moral position and yet becomes increasingly complex until it finally breaks free into its stomach-churning midsection then swills away again. Combined, these pieces hold the balance between my characters. If I ever lost sense of who one of them was I would play the track and they would come alive again, as if everything about them was held within these notes.
She always wrote on lined paper, each letter placed like a note, whole sentences plotted out like lines of music. He could sing the words if he wanted to, he could hear the song of them playing in his head.’
In my new novel Devastation Road, music takes a back seat, but as the story is about the immediate aftermath of war it seemed right that the musical influences I’d established in The Dynamite Room still echo through.
The early chapters are set in Czechoslovakia and have a dreamlike atmosphere as Owen wanders through a landscape that he cannot remember. Dvořák was greatly influenced by Bohemian Forest Music and his Silent Woods became the soundtrack for my opening scenes. Flutes come in like trilling birds while the slow descent of notes sound like Owen’s trudge as he traverses the Bohemian forests himself, the surge and fall of the music mimicking the densely-wooded slopes.
As the story progressed, though, I found myself needing something more and discovered it in Max Richter’s After Gunther’s Death (from Lore). The two-note rhythm of the piano echo the stumble of Owen’s feet as he makes his journey across Europe, only then for the violin (like Janek) and then the cello (like Irena) to join him, the three of them sweeping along together, somehow pulling each other through. It’s a piece that – like my novel I hope – is tragic and yet filled with heart.
Jason Hewitt is an author, playwright and actor. His debut novel The Dynamite Room (Simon & Schuster 2014) was longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize and the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award. His second novel Devastation Road (Scribner 2015) was published in July. After a successful run at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe his play Claustrophobia makes its London debut at The Hope Theatre, London (Nov 17-Dec 5 2015). For the full Youtube playlist that accompanies The Dynamite Room please visit his website. You can also find him on Facebook and Twitter @jasonhewitt123
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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 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 award-winning novelist and incorrigible genre hopper @GGVandagriff GG Vandagriff
Right next to my love of writing is my love of music. In fact, as I look at my novels, I find that music is inescapably woven through them. I take my literary cues from the music I listen to.
Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major was the inspiration behind my women’s fiction: Pieces of Paris. My heroine, Annalisse, is stuck in the Missouri Ozarks with her quixotic husband who thinks he has found the Garden of Eden. However, she grew up on a farm and knows that a farm is just a farm. She is overcome by PTSD and finds herself immersed in flashbacks of another life her husband knows nothing about.
Before that life ended tragically (thus causing her to bury the memories deeply), she was a concert pianist (Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto and Chopin’s etudes figure here). More importantly, she was passionately in love with a brilliant violinist consumed by the Tchaikovsky.
In creating that character, I also became consumed – both with him and with that amazingly complex composition. I played it as I wrote, and Jules became one of my most memorable characters. The concerto is vastly yearning, longing for resolution. Jules’s character development traced the concerto’s. In the same way, as I wrote this book during my 25-year apprenticeship, I was yearning for the completion that only writing could give me. I was stretching, as the violinist stretches in this composition. It was plainly the soundtrack for my literary life.
In my most recent book, The Only Way to Paradise, a tale of four women who find hope and healing in Italy, two of my ‘crazy ladies’ are violinists. Arthritis has stricken Georgia, ending her career as a violin sensation. The Mendelssohn Violin Concerto was her signature piece, and she played it ‘like silk’. As I wrote of Georgia and her memories, I played the concerto as my soundtrack. When she thinks she wants to end her life, she hears through her window in Florence, the sound of the Dvorak violin concerto played by an anonymous virtuoso. The Slavic melody of the music echoes her mood, but saves her life. The violinist turns out to be one of her companions, whom she undertakes to mentor.
It is one of life’s great ironies that I understand music, but cannot play a note, nor even read it! However, I cannot live without it. Now, as I write a frothy romance, I am listening to a lot of Bach and Puccini Arias. Except for the duel scene—that is accompanied by Shostakovich’s uber-dramatic Fifth Symphony!
GG Vandagriff is the author of 12 books and an inveterate genre hopper. She has a series of five mysteries, two suspense novels, one award-winning historical epic, two novels of women’s fiction, and two non-fiction. She is also a journalist, writing for an on-line magazine and Deseret News. Educated at Stanford, she studied music at Stanford-in-Austria. Her latest book is another genre hop into romance, The Duke’s Undoing. Find her on Twitter, her website and her blog.
authors, Chopin, classical pianists, classical piano, contemporary fiction, contemporary women's fiction, Desert Island Discs, drama, Dvorak, entertainment, GG Vandagriff, JS Bach, literature, Mendelssohn, Missouri, music, music for writers, music for writing, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Paris, piano, Pieces of Paris, playlist for writers, Rachmaninoff, reincarnation, Roz Morris, second piano concerto, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, The Only Way To Paradise, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, violin, Women's fiction, writers, writing, 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.
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'