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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 post is by romance novelist and Novelicious founder Kirsty Greenwood @kirstybooks
Soundtrack by Jeff Buckley, Fairground Attraction, Phoenix, Carole King, John Grant, Grease 2, George Fenton, Color Me Badd, Bobby Helms, Skeeter Davis, Rosemary Clooney, Duke Ellington, Stacey Kent, Best Coast, Stevie Wonder, Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, George Gershwin, Rufus Wainwright, Ella Fitzgerald, Toni Braxton, Ani Difranco
I always intended to have a career in music. Encouraged by musically minded parents, my sisters and I spent much of our teenage time singing in harmony. We were cool that way. Known for our rendition of The Andrews Sisters’ Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, we performed in local pubs, at karaoke, family birthday parties and such. We still get asked to perform Boogie Woogie, but it’s not quite so adorable now we’re in our 30s. At 22 I studied music at college, sang, learned to play the guitar and wrote whimsical/folksy pop songs. I won a ‘Song of the Year’ award and wrote and sang for a local bhangra/pop producer. Music was my everything. Shortly after getting my degree, I was hit with a period of bipolar depression that lasted for over a year. I stopped performing and lost all interest in pursuing music professionally. During my recovery I started to write romantic comedy – writing fiction is remarkably similar in process to writing songs (both crafted in terms of story, rhythm, theme, timbre, pace and texture) – and found it to be hugely enjoyable as well as restorative.
A creative place
I use music to quickly access a creative state, particularly if I’m procrastinating on a book or I’m having a day when I don’t feel like writing jokes. So before a writing session I’ll listen to songs that buoy my spirits, energise and inspire me. Jeff Buckley (Mojo Pin, Vancouver and So Real are all shortcuts to a mood lift), John Grant’s Queen of Denmark album, Carole King’s Tapestry, Eddi Reader, Phoenix, Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, Rufus Wainwright, Ella Fitzgerald, plenty of 80s power ballads and, er, the Grease 2 soundtrack which just straight up makes me laugh.
When deep into writing I love the easy companionship of music, but find anything lyrical too entertaining and end up singing along. I’ll listen to classical music and film instrumentals, particularly Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, George Gershwin and George Fenton, whose You’ve Got Mail soundtrack really helped me to get into a jaunty, ‘romcom’ mind-set for Yours Truly, as well as making me think about Nora Ephron and how I need to try harder.
Back to the 90s
My debut novel, Yours Truly, gave me a legitimate excuse to listen to lots of 90s pop. My leading man, Riley, has a thing for the supremely cheesy band Color Me Badd (they had one hit song, it was called I Wanna Sex You Up), and there’s a sex scene set to Toni Braxton’s extra randy You’re Making Me High. Music was used to bond the main characters, as it does so much in real life. Riley, an amateur musician, sings little off-the-cuff ditties to Natalie in order to woo her, and she is constantly amused by his willingness to expose his 90s pop ‘fanboying’.
I’m now writing my second book. It’s called The Vintage Guide to Love and Romance (published June 2014 with Pan Macmillan) and is the first in a series. One of the central characters, Matilda Beam, is a 77-year-old writer who can’t let go of her 1950s glory days. When my protagonist, Jess, meets Matilda, she’s sitting in a grand, cluttered room, listening to a Bobby Helms record on repeat. I find the melodies of most of his songs melancholy and the hefty reverb used on his voice makes it sound otherwordly and creepy. I wanted to provide a soundtrack for the scene that would give the audience an immediate insight into Matilda’s state of mind and also to freak out the thoroughly modern and lively Jess.
I have a dedicated Spotify playlist for The Vintage Guide to Love and Romance. These are the songs I’ve listened to in order to connect with characters and emotions, or to help me get to the ambience of a scene more clearly. The most often played tracks on there are:
End of the World (Skeeter Davis): Hauntingly beautiful, lonely and lost. A soundtrack for Matilda Beam in 2013.
Sophisticated Lady (Rosemary Clooney, Duke Ellington): Sultry and smoky, this song perfectly embodied the young Matilda Beam as a socialite and writer in the 50s. When I listen to this, I think of her being spun across the dance floor at some fabulous New York party.
Wishin’ and Hopin’ (Ani Difranco): I saw a tongue in cheek video for this song on the opening credits to My Best Friend’s Wedding and it mirrors the way Matilda Beam believes women ought to behave in order to find love. Its ludicrousness always makes me laugh and Ani Difranco’s raspy voice sounds so damn sexy in it.
This Can’t Be Love (Stacey Kent): The main romantic relationship in The Vintage Guide to Love and Romance is kind of screwball in nature with fast dialogue, disagreements and a touch of slapstick. This charming little song always puts me in mind of that.
Up All Night (Best Coast): I don’t know much about this band, but I stumbled upon this song on YouTube before I began work on the book and immediately felt it was a perfect fit for the character of Jessica Beam. It’s bursting with youthful longing and excess. I listen to this on repeat before working on emotionally charged Jess scenes.
And there you have my Undercover Soundtrack. Thanks so much for having me, Roz!
Kirsty Greenwood is an author of comedy romances, founding editor of Novelicious.com and director of the Novelicious Books imprint. She likes American TV, green clothes, Point Horror, Kristen Wiig and funny stories. She doesn’t like the Ironside theme tune or the phrase ‘nom, nom, nom’. Yours Truly is out now (Pan Macmillan). Find her on Facebook and tweet her on @Kirstybooks
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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 guest is McStorytellers founder, biographer and novelist Brendan Gisby @twistedfoot
It came as a revelation to me. ‘Do you use music in your writing process?’ asked Roz Morris. I didn’t know. I would have to check. I had written a handful of novels and biographies, together with some short stories – well, a mountain of stories, actually. It was amongst the latter that I began my investigations.
It didn’t take me long to partly answer Roz’s question. Yes, I do use music in my writing. Every other story I examined included some sort of musical reference. But what were the references doing there? Crucially, did they actually help in the process of writing the stories? I needed to look more closely at a few examples.
In one of my earliest stories called The Legend, the octogenarian Kate (my great-grandmother) recalls the times when she and her now long-dead husband, Dan, would sing songs to each other, he singing I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen and she Danny Boy. Now, I admit I had no idea whether Kate and Dan, who were both of Irish extraction, ever sang those particular songs, but I do know I had chosen them – two of the finest, most moving Irish ballads ever written – as a way to reinforce the tenderness of the young couple’s love.
Then there’s Up The Indians!, a story about my Irish-born mother’s lifelong love for the underdog. At one point in the story, I compare her actions with those of young Peter O’Loughlin, a character from The Mountains of Mourne, another beautiful Irish ballad, this time, appropriately enough, about émigrés. You see, both Peter and Mum were able to stop the whole street with a wave of their hands, as Mum did one memorable day in the centre of Edinburgh.
Next stop is The Boxer. It’s the summer of 1969, and ruthless bully Johnny Morris (he’s definitely no relation, Roz) is driving in his brand new Daimler Saloon. He’s due to marry the boss’s daughter in two days time, but right now he’s lusting after a waitress called Julie and he’s humming the tune of the latest hit by another Julie – This Wheel’s on Fire, sung by Julie Driscoll. The chorus from that song is then quoted, I’m sure, to emphasise both the thrust of the car’s V8 engine and the burning ambition of its driver.
Fast-forward to the winter of 1970 and The Ballad of Billy G. On the night 19-year-old Billy dies from an overdose of heroin, the narrator imagines what music is blasting from Billy’s stereo: ‘Some satanic licks from Hendrix, maybe. Or Joplin rasping out Summertime.’ Musical references to define a culture, then.
There are other references that help define a mood. Such as when cheery Bill, the silver-haired Lothario in The Race, whistles along to Ella Fitzgerald as she sings Cheek to Cheek. Or when the lovelorn Eugenio in The Exile wanders through a deserted Venice on New Year’s morning, hearing the strains of Vivaldi’s Winter swooping over him.
And there’s one final reference that perhaps defines an era, rather than a mood. It’s found in The Bookie’s Runner, my tribute to my late father: ‘He’s dressed like Frank Sinatra, like a member of the Rat Pack. He’s the bookie’s runner with the lopsided grin, but he’s destined to lose.’
As I said at the beginning, the answer was a revelation to me. But it shouldn’t have been. By placing those musical references throughout my work, I’ve been replaying the soundtrack of my life. I grew up in the 1950s to the sound of those beautiful Irish ballads sung by wonderful Irish tenors like Count John McCormack. I was a schoolboy when Frank Sinatra and others in the Rat Pack dominated popular music in the 1960s. Later that decade, I was another teenager enthralled by a young Bob Dylan. Later still, I was immersed in the drug-fuelled blues of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and many others. Then gradually, grudgingly, I embraced the world of classical music. And Ella Fitzgerald? Man, who could ever forget the voice of an angel?
Brendan Gisby was born in Edinburgh halfway through the 20th century and brought up just along the road in South Queensferry (the Ferry) in the shadow of the world-famous Forth Bridge. Retiring from a business career in 2007, Brendan has devoted himself to writing. To date, he has published three novels, three biographies and several short story collections. Brendan is also the founder of McStorytellers, a website that showcases the work of Scottish-connected short story writers. His own website is Blazes Boylan’s Book Bazaar. You can also find him on Facebook and Twitter @twistedfoot .
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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 journalist and contemporary women’s fiction author Fanny Blake @FannyBlake1
I don’t listen to music when I’m writing. If I did, I’d lose my focus on the words and spin off into whatever I was listening to. However I do use music in my novels as an indicator of character or to set a mood. When I’m thinking about a particular scene or someone’s state of mind, then I spend ages (too long, probably) listening to different tracks, or trawling through Youtube, to check that the pieces I choose are the right fit. Sometimes I play them very softly in the background, because they can transport me into the scene I’m writing, but never loud enough to distract me, and not for long.
Musical taste says so much about someone, as Bea, the central character in What Women Want realises when she hears strains of James Taylor coming from the record player in the holiday cottage where she’s been brought for a weekend. She enters the room to see several LPs that she recognises at a glance strewn on the rag rug: Dory Previn, Fleetwood Mac, Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, The Lovin’ Spoonful, Country Joe, The Byrds and of course Bob Dylan. ‘A record collection speaks volumes about a man, she thought.’ The fact that her new lover has hung on to his vinyl tells us something, but so does his choice of music. He’s a man of a certain vintage who enjoys musical nostalgia, and maybe his taste hasn’t moved on much. Bea immediately recognises that they share a similar musical history, giving them that little extra in common. She feels at home.
In my new novel, Women of a Dangerous Age, the two central characters Ali and Lou have quite different soundtracks to their lives. Lou, a woman in her 50s, has left her husband and is starting a new life on her own. Her passion is for vintage clothes, and she plans to set up a high-end vintage clothing shop called Puttin’ on the Ritz. At work, she listens to the songs I remember so well from the old movies my family used to watch on TV. She gave me the perfect excuse to revisit on Youtube the fabulous song ‘n’ dance numbers of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers or, when she walks home with her ex having had a glass or two too many, of Fred with Judy Garland.
Secret passion for cheese
When her lover takes her to a concert at the Festival Hall to hear Brahms’ Symphony Number 2 in D, Lou is too embarrassed to admit she is ‘a self-confessed unreconstructed schlock chick. Cheesy pop and songs from the shows were more her thing but there was no way she’d confess her secret shame to Sanjeev.’ Instead, when alone in the car, she sings loudly and out of tune to Billy Joel and Dire Straits, and nurses a private passion for one of the band members of Take That. When she receives some shattering personal news, she soldiers through an evening with her children before arriving home and turning to Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven to accompany her misery and a good cry. Ah, the cheap emotionalism of music. Lou’s a woman after my own heart.
However, Ali is cut from another cloth. She is of a classical bent. When her lover is clearly distracted, she chooses one of the ‘most soothing pieces of music she knew’ – Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major. She’s a goldsmith who shares a studio with a silversmith. They listen to Radio 3 in the background all day long. She befriends Lou when they’re on holiday in India. Lou invites her to design some jewellery for her shop and before long Ali is helping her in it. When Lou arrives one afternoon, she finds Ali reading a paperback ‘with something classical at full throttle in the background’. Lou’s immediate reaction is to change the CD for Ella Fitzgerald singing All Through the Night, after all it was ‘her shop, so her mood, and this was definitely more the thing’. Although Ali’s lifestyle is perhaps more unconventional than Lou’s, her taste in music is not and I hope that gives a better indication to the quality of her interior life.
I find that using music in my novels is a way of adding an extra dimension to my characters, and one that can often act as a useful shorthand for the reader.
Novelist and journalist Fanny Blake is also the Books Editor of Woman & Home. Her career has spanned almost every aspect of writing. She was a publisher for many years before becoming an author. She has written best-selling non-fiction, ghost-written several celebrity autobiographies and has written two novels, What Women Want and now, Women of a Dangerous Age which was published last week by Blue Door. She lives at home with her husband, a novelist, an ancient cat that’s young in spirit, and however many of their three sons happen to be at home at the time. She goes to the theatre more than is good for her bank account, loves long country walks and chocolate. Find her on Facebook and on Twitter as @FannyBlake1
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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 comic mystery author Anne R Allen.
Soundtrack by Ella Fitzgerald and Cole Porter
I don’t write with background music, although I do occasionally use a CD of rain or ocean sounds to block neighbourhood noise.
When I was writing Sherwood Ltd. which is set in the soggy English Midlands—I often put on a CD of rainstorm sounds to conjure my memories of living in a 200-year-old warehouse in rainy Lincolnshire. An epic flood figures strongly in the plot. I don’t know if that CD is to blame, but I’m sure it gave some inspiration.
His own jazz age
But when I was brainstorming ideas for my Hollywood mystery, The Gatsby Game, I often listened to big band jazz, especially Cole Porter tunes. The anti-hero, Alistair, is a charming, self-destructive loser who tries to live as if he’s a character in a Fitzgerald novel. Although the story is set in the 1970s, Alistair inhabits his own private, imaginary Jazz Age.
The character was inspired by David Whiting, a man I knew in college—who died mysteriously on the set of a Burt Reynolds movie. The mystery of David’s death has never been solved, but I’ve always had a theory of how it might have happened.
I was finally inspired to write about it last year, when I was going through some old college papers and found an ancient note David had left in my dorm room one night, hidden under my pillow. It said, ‘While you were out, you had a visitor…wearing spats, and a straw boater, perhaps, and humming a Cole Porter tune…maybe the ghost of Jay Gatsby?’
It brought a vivid memory of David. He was always humming those tunes—so completely anachronistic in the days of psychedelic rock and roll. David’s image came to me in perfect clarity—with all his theatrical charm, narcissism, and the tragic pain that always showed just under the surface.
That was when I knew I had to write his story—and listening to Cole Porter helped me keep in touch with the memories.
I think the greatest recording of the Cole Porter songbook is Ella Fitzgerald’s iconic Verve recording from 1956. I played it a lot while I was writing The Gatsby Game.
The music itself appears in several scenes. When the narrator, Nicky Conway (yeah, a little homage to Fitzgerald’s Nick Carroway there) first meets Alistair, she finds him charming but evasive. He’s constantly bursting into song to avoid conversation. As he drives her away from her Bryn Mawr dorm to who-knows-where, he responds to each of her questions by singing another line from You’re the Top—appearing to compliment her while he’s bullying her into silence.
Later, when she introduces him to her über-wealthy relatives, she finds Alistair romancing her (very married) aunt to the tune of Begin the Beguine. Throughout the story, Nicky is never quite sure how much Beguining Alistair got up to with her aunt—and/or if some Beguining went on with her uncle as well.
Alistair often retreats into silliness, making clever puns and wordplay to avoid real communication. I imagine him as one of the ‘silly gigolos’ Cole Porter talks about in Anything Goes. I could also imagine Alistair responding to Nicky’s pleas for more intimacy with the line from It’s Too Darn Hot: ‘Mr. Pants, for romance, with his cutie pie, is not.’
As I played that 1950s recording, I realized it might have been a favorite of Alistair’s mother, whom I imagined as a kind of high-class hooker. Alistair’s primary relationship is always his love/hate enmeshment with his mother—whom he calls ‘the Gorgon’.
It’s delectable, it’s delerious, it’s de-limit
She made him into her surrogate partner whenever she was between ’employers’, which is why he dresses and behaves like a member of her generation instead of his own. The rest of the time, she abandoned him in expensive boarding schools where he rubbed elbows with the children of the glittering ultra-rich Fitzgerald and Cole Porter wrote about—perhaps triggering Alistair’s compulsive social climbing.
In the end, the Gorgon doesn’t even pay for Alistair’s funeral, so he becomes a tragic figure in spite of the shallow Cole Porter-character persona he invented for himself. The honest, direct perfection of Ella Fitzgerald’s voice combined with the brilliant silliness of Porter’s lyrics conveys to me that same tragicomic reality.
Anne R. Allen is the author of five comic mysteries debuting in 2011 with two publishers: Popcorn Press and Mark Williams international Digital Publishing.— Food of Love (September 2011) The Gatsby Game (October 2011 – and now available on Nook as well as Kindle) Ghostwriters in the Sky (October 2011) Sherwood Ltd (December 2011) and The Best Revenge (December 2011) She is also working on a self-help guide for writers with Pay It Forward author Catherine Ryan Hyde. Anne has a blog for writers at http://annerallen.blogspot.com, where she blogs with NYT bestselling author, Ruth Harris. She can be found on Twitter as @annerallen
Anne R Allen, authors, big band, big band jazz, Cole Porter, comic mystery, Desert Island Discs, Ella Fitzgerald, jazz, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Mystery, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, Sherwood Ltd, soundtracks, The Gatsby Game, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, writers
- 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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- All content copyright Roz Morris 2011-2023. 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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