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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 bestselling romantic novelist Fiona Walker @fionawalkeruk
If I know I’m not going to be overheard, I sing – in the bath, on long dog walks, and when writing, or more realistically the thinking pauses between writing. This habitual distraction is also creative inspiration. It’s no coincidence that characters sing in many of my books, from my first novel French Relations in which dinner party guests gather around a piano to perform Eric Clapton’s Wonderful Tonight, to my twelfth novel The Love Letter, where my heroine inadvertently finds herself duetting an old Bo Diddley number with her ex boyfriend in the local pub. That song, You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover, is a joyful riot of old-time rhythm and blues that also feeds into the themes of a novel in which characters are not as they first appear, most especially a reclusive writer who hides his identity behind a pen name.
As a romantic novelist with a reputation for raunchy romps, I appreciate Bo Diddley is a far cry from a power ballad, but I once bought The Greatest Love Songs In The World…Ever to listen to when writing passionate scenes – much to my husband’s hilarity – and it was the most awful backing track from which to seek inspiration, like writing on the dance-floor at an over-40s singles night. Most of the music I listen to when I write is white noise, and if I’m on a roll I don’t notice it at all, until that one song sticks, and that’s when inspiration strikes.
When a song connects with a book’s plot, I often play it – and sing it – day and night, and it occasionally even gets woven into the text. This means that I have to be very careful what I listen to when writing. It once cost me almost as much as a new car to gain permission to quote six lines of a Jim Steinman track that I couldn’t get out of my head, after which I not only stopped featuring heroines who were Meatloaf fans, but also monitored my listening habits and now tailor them to each book. I keep a limited number of CDs ripped to my computer, so if I’m not listening to the radio, I’m going through the same albums on a loop, many of them instrumental. The energetic Brazilian guitarist/percussion combo Rodrigo y Gabriela fuelled the first draft of The Love Letter; the sultry Gotan Project added tempo; saxophonist Jan Garbarek injected cool, and I played endless Mozart for jollity and Bach for comfort.
When the rough plot of The Love Letter was in place, that tailor-made compilation changed to vintage Kate Bush, Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, Bjork and Birdy, all inspiring the book’s larger than life characters, comic melodrama and coastal setting, as well as a very long, flirty seduction in a fairytale tower. Yet it was when googling something entirely unconnected that I found the Bo Diddley song that fitted the story so well that I couldn’t stop playing it.
If I hit upon a theme-tune for a plot or its characters, I know I have a secret entrance into the book, and although the album or song itself may never appear on the page, you can guarantee I’ve listened to it hundreds of times when writing certain scenes. One of my novels was written whilst listening to Damien Rice almost non-stop, another to Alison Krauss – and when a romantic hero who always made me think of Christy Moore’s Ride On featured in a sequel 10 years after his first appearance, I only had to listen to the song to find him coming to life again. Although many of these songs get honourable mentions in the books, only the very special few are performed by me and my characters; You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover is still being sung loudly in Worcestershire.
Fiona Walker became a best-selling novelist in her 20s and her books have sold over two million copies worldwide to date. Dubbed ‘The Jilly Cooper of the Cosmo generation’ she is renowned for her large casts, addictive plots and sharp wit. She lives in rural Worcestershire with her partner Sam who is a dressage trainer and their two daughters. Her twelfth novel, The Love Letter, is published by Sphere.Find her on her blog and on Twitter @FionaWalkeruk
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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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- 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'