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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 Wayne Clark @Wayne_Clark_1
Soundtrack by Johnny Hodges, Sly and The Family Stone, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie), Frank Sinatra, Lambert Hendriks and Ross, Curtis Mayfield, Freddie Hubbard, Wilson Pickett, The Temptations, Aretha Franklin
As an adolescent with dysfunctional parents, Kit, the protagonist in he & She, had already found an escape in jazz, especially ballads, the cathedral where the hymnal is full of lonely, sad songs from the Great American Song Book (Where Do You Go by Frank Sinatra, Skylark by Aretha Franklin, Body and Soul by Freddie Hubbard). Before he has had any experience in life, Kit equates adult life with these emotions. Experiencing them while listening makes him a grown man, liberated from parents and adolescence.
As Kit ages, he is alone most of the time in his small New York apartment. He is an alcoholic who watches life from the outside. He works at home as a translator and practises alto sax when he thinks no one is listening. As he did as a youth, he spends more time daydreaming about life than living it.
Cold, grey backdrop
I am a music lover and profoundly amateur musician, but I’ve long known that I must treat music with kid gloves because it tends to take over my mood instantly. The right-wrong piece of background music at the dinner table can take me right out of the conversation. For that reason, I never start a writing session with music on. However, early on while writing he & She I chanced upon a YouTube video of a piece I knew well, a Billy Strayhorn composition called Day Dream, played by Johnny Hodges of the Duke Ellington orchestra. It’s not really a video but a succession of black and white photographs of New York streets, strangely devoid for the most part of people. Against that grey, cold backdrop, the wistfulness of Hodges’s playing absolutely nailed for me the way Kit looked at his world.
Realising that, I used Day Dream on several occasions while writing – not so much to help me describe periods when he felt particularly lonely or empty but to apply a patina of disconnect to his experiencing of external situations. He could be telling himself everything was all right, be it about work or a girlfriend, but something was always missing.
Because I found Day Dream useful, I ended up breaking my no-music rule when writing the early sections involving Kit’s best and only friend, his neighbor, LeBron, a professional bass player. LeBron agrees to pass on some of his skills to Kit, and to do that he teaches him to play sax riffs from classic R&B pieces. The possibility of becoming a real musician is exciting to Kit, a dream come true, and I dug up several recordings that Kit would have been thrilled to have taken part in as a sax player. I used these several times while writing to capture his excitement. LeBron the bass player would have chosen these because of the powerful precision of the horn and rhythm sections. These recordings included ones by Sly and The Family Stone (You Can Make It If You Try), Curtis Mayfield (You Can’t Say Nothing) and The Temptations (Papa Was a Rollin’Stone).
As Kit turns 50, he is running on empty and desperate about his life. He tells himself all he wants is to feel truly alive one more time. By chance, he spots an image on the Internet, a beautiful young woman who turns out to be dominatrix. He becomes determined to meet her, and when he does he becomes obsessed. From their first encounter on, he feels joy he’s never felt. Can a man that age feel in love the way a young man, even a teenager, would? That’s what I wanted Kit to feel. I found this tricky to write because I didn’t want him to appear a complete fool. He knows it’s an impossible situation, her being half his age, and him being no longer even capable of having sex, but it feels too good to run away from. This will sound terribly obvious, but I used a song by Wilson Picket to convince me Kit could indeed feel love that way. It’s a Bobby Womack song called I’m In Love. Picket sings that being in love makes him feel like a boy with a brand new toy on Christmas morning. There’s nothing schmaltzy whatsoever about this recording. I was convinced.
There were other pieces that I didn’t listen to while actually writing but, because we never stop writing in our minds, a couple of pieces by Charlie Parker (Parker’s Mood) and Parker with Dizzy Gillespie performing Ko-Ko ended up suggesting dialogue between Kit and LeBron, as did the lyrics by Lambert, Hendriks and Ross for Nothin’s the Same As It Used to Be.
I have to say that using music to help create words is a two-sided coin. The music can take over your writer’s metronome for the good, for a while, but it can also take your writing on a perhaps unwanted side trip. Like anything fragile, handle with care.
Wayne Clark is the author of he & She. Find him at http://www.wayne-clark.com, the Alliance of Independent Authors, Facebook, Twitter as @Wayne_Clark_1, Goodreads, The Independent Author Network, and LinkedIn
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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 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 journalist, writer and editor Dina Santorelli @DinaSantorelli
Full disclosure: I write in total silence. Well, maybe not total silence (I do have three kids), but in an environment that’s veritably music free. While I do things like pay bills or edit copy while listening to my favorite Pandora stations, when it comes to fiction writing my creativity amps up only when the radio is turned down.
Now before you start wondering, What the heck is this fraud doing penning a guest post for the Undercover Soundtrack, you should know that although I don’t write with music playing, my writing is fueled by songs and lyrics just the same, particularly in the following three ways.
For better or worse, my writing process is one of perpetual breaks – periods of furious keyboard tapping followed by periods of drought, or perhaps pause is the better word. Many times during a writing session my momentum will come to a crashing halt, and it is during these periods of inactivity when self-doubt tends to rear its ugly head: I’m not good enough. Who’s going to care about this story? Why am I bothering?
And while I have been known to take a walk, a shower, and do all kinds of things to get past this kind of “block,” one thing that almost always does the trick is my go-to soundtrack of inspirational songs. There are many of them that I’ve compiled over the years, performed by all kinds of artistes in all kinds of categories. What I find is that often the artiste or song doesn’t matter; rather, it’s the intention, or the message of the song, or sometimes it’s just the title or a meaning that I, alone, have infused into it that’s important to me. Here’s a quick list of some of my stand-bys:
- Keep Holding On by Avril Lavigne
- Fix You by Coldplay (this song undoubtedly made the list because of a very touching and inspirational weight-loss video posted on YouTube)
- The Climb by Miley Cyrus
- It’s a Miracle and Looks Like We Made It by Barry Manilow
- Defying Gravity from the Wicked original Broadway cast soundtrack
- Freak Flag from the Shrek original Broadway cast soundtrack
- I Dreamed a Dream, sung by Susan Boyle (what better lesson in triumph than Susan Boyle’s rendition of I Dreamed a Dream on Britain’s Got Talent?)
Baby Grand is a contemporary thriller, which means one very important aspect of the book is its pacing. I was very conscious of keeping a certain pace – almost like a perpetual drum beat – throughout the writing of the novel and then ratcheting things up toward the end, as if riding a train that was traveling fast and suddenly accelerates until it is speeding out of control. And because writing a novel is all about stopping and starting and picking up where you left off, I found there were times I needed some zippy songs to get my toes a-tapping and to return me to that ‘train’ mindset, particularly for the chase scenes that are inherent to most thrillers, Baby Grand included. Here are two of the many songs I’ve turned to in order to help me keep readers alert and on the edge of their seats (interestingly, these both come from films):
- Holding Out for a Hero by Bonnie Tyler and featured in Footloose (this one, I find, is particularly useful for chase scenes – is there anyone out there who doesn’t visualize Kevin Bacon with his shoelace caught on a tractor pedal during this song?)
- Neutron Dance by The Pointer Sisters and featured in Beverly Hills Cop
Occasionally, I’ll use music to help me get into the mind of a character. I also use movie clips for this purpose, particularly when a character is loosely based on the physicality of an actor. I did this for Baby Grand’s villain Don Bailino (whose appearance is based on a younger Robert De Niro), a handsome, charismatic ex-war hero/successful businessman in his late 40s. Bailino hails from Brooklyn, and having grown up around Brooklynites my entire life, when writing Bailino’s scenes I tended to channel lots of family favorites from the 1950s , 1960s and 1970s, such as Frankie Valli or Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin (who happens to be the person I was named after—my parents were big fans):
- Swearin’ to God and My Eyes Adored You by Frankie Valli
- Luck Be a Lady and The Lady Is a Tramp by Frank Sinatra
- Mambo Italiano and Ain’t That a Kick in the Head by Dean Martin
I call these songs ‘the soundtrack of my grandparents’ and they stir up in me fond memories of summer vacations spent shopping on Nostrand Avenue or at Kings Plaza and playing at the Buddies Arcade. I think in this case, though, it’s not necessarily the songs that inspire, but the memories that they invoke.
In the end, whether it is inspirational or helps me develop a scene or character, music enables me to reach a deeper understanding of myself in some way. And from there, I am able to find the confidence to explore a deeper understanding of my characters and of my story and the courage to fight through another round of that ominous self-doubt. Cue Theme from Rocky.
A freelance writer for over 15 years, Dina Santorelli has written for Newsday, First for Women and CNNMoney.com, among other publications. She served as the ‘with’ writer for the well-received Good Girls Don’t Get Fat and most recently contributed to Bully, the companion book to the acclaimed film. Dina is the Executive Editor of Salute and Family magazines for which she has interviewed many celebrities, including James Gandolfini, Tim McGraw, Angela Bassett, Mario Lopez, Gary Sinise and Kevin Bacon. You can follow Dina on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, Pinterest, and on her blog. Baby Grand, her first novel, is available on Amazon.
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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 2011-2016. Nothing may be reproduced without my express permission in writing beforehand. Photography: Bonnie Schupp Photography, gcg2009 and Roz Morris
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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'