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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 fiction editor and creative writing teacher Tawnysha Greene @TawnyshaGreene
Soundtrack by Harold Arlen, EY Harburg, Yann Tiersen, Ludovico Einaudi, Michael Nyman, Alexandre Desplat, Hans Zimmer
My narrator is hard of hearing like myself, so many of the scenes including music in A House Made of Stars are ones in which the music is felt rather than heard. For example, the narrator’s cousin earns a part in The Wizard of Oz, and as she practises her songs in her room, the narrator and her deaf sister watch, hands placed on the stereo to feel the rise and fall of the music.
Similarly, as I wrote these scenes, I played Over the Rainbow by Harold Arlen and EY Harburg on my laptop and turned the music up loud, so that I could close my eyes and listen with my hands to feel the same notes the characters in my novel did. This way, I could be closer to my narrator, a girl who struggles through poverty and abuse and who wishes for a better life for her and her family.
While writing the majority of A House Made of Stars, the music I listened to was usually instrumental. One of my favorite musical collections was The Most Beautiful Soundtracks (No. 2), and guided by these songs, my novel began to take shape. The following individual songs from this compilation were especially helpful — Comptine d’un autre été by Yann Tiersen, I Giorni by Ludovico Einaudi, and The Promise by Michael Nyman. The quickness of these pieces, especially The Promise and the way the notes would domino into one another helped me with the pacing of my novel, because I wanted each scene to tumble into the next so that the story’s momentum would be constantly moving forward as the narrator and her family’s situation become more and more dire.
However, in some cases, it was necessary for me to slow down the scene and concentrate on smaller details. My narrator is very observant and what she lacks in hearing, she compensates in what she sees and understands. The song Childhood by Alexandre Desplat played on repeat while I wrote these scenes, and the way the song is composed is appropriate for the realisations the narrator makes during these instances — Childhood is slow with distinct piano keys forcefully played one at a time in a way that causes each note to be almost jarring. Similarly, during the moments in which I chose to listen to this song, the narrator makes discoveries about her family — read in a diary hidden underneath the stairs and glimpsed through the wooden slats of a bedroom closet — moments that are jarring for her as well.
Regardless of the scene, music served as a catalyst for the general mood of A House Made of Stars, and towards the end when I wrote the last act in which the narrator and her family are homeless and starving, I listened to Hans Zimmer’s To Zucchabar. The duduk’s haunting melody is accompanied by isolated drum beats in the background, an interesting progression from the pronounced notes of Childhood, because these notes are more subdued and allow the duduk’s voice-like melody to take center stage. The music is appropriate for this final leg of my narrator’s journey, because she, too, is finally finding her voice and speaking for herself and her family against all odds.
When I wrote the last scene, I did not play just a single song. I played all of them. The compilation of The Most Beautiful Soundtracks (No. 2) sounded in the background as I wrapped up the story with my narrator looking up into the night sky. By then, she was all those songs. She was the drum beats, the piano notes, and the duduk’s melody as she reached for the stars and made them her own.
Tawnysha Greene received her PhD from the University of Tennessee where she currently teaches fiction and poetry writing. She also serves as an assistant fiction editor for Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts and is a regular reader for the Wigleaf Top 50 series. Her work has appeared in PANK Magazine, Bellingham Review, and Necessary Fiction among others. A House Made of Stars is her first novel. Find her on Twitter @TawnyshaGreene, on her website and on Facebook.
GIVEAWAY Tawnysha is excited to sponsor a giveaway of A House Full of Stars. To enter, simply share this post – and then comment here to let us know. The more platforms you share on, the more entries.
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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 Writer Unboxed co-founder Therese Walsh @ThereseWalsh
Soundtrack by Robert Plant, Alison Krauss
I haven’t been shy in admitting that I wrote much of my second novel, The Moon Sisters, in a state of fear. Fear that I wouldn’t be able to finish the draft, that I didn’t have a second book in me, that I’d fail despite — or because of — a two-book contract. But a duo of songs helped root me to characters in my story, and whenever I needed to be reminded that these characters deserved for their tale to be told, I brought up this particular music.
Both songs are from an album featuring Robert Plant and Alison Krauss called Raising Sand. The album is laced with conflicting ideas that somehow work; it’s there even in the notion that rocker Plant and bluegrass star Krauss might make music together. But there’s also balance and ingenuity with the merging of their unique approaches; and if this music lives at the edges, then it fits all the better with my lives-at-the-edges novel and its characters.
A gypsy quirk
Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us, sung by Krauss, is the first song that spoke to me, with a gypsy quirk and haunting melody. Its bluegrass spirit complements the setting of the book, West Virginia, where you might indeed hear the bright pluck of a banjo marry with the darker sound of a tensely bowed violin.
This was the perfect anthem for Olivia Moon, who sets off by foot at the beginning of The Moon Sisters to find a will-o-the-wisp light in order to fulfill her dead mother’s dreams. She’ll wander and hop a train and sleep under the stars, stretching personal boundaries that are already plenty different from those around her—especially her sister, Jazz, who has the opposite of a gypsy’s spirit and would rather be in control and safe and left to herself, thankyouverymuch.
It wasn’t just the sound of the music that summoned up Olivia Moon for me; the lyrics were spot on, too. Mmm, don’t you love the poetic weirdness of this? I do. Music, summoned from somewhere unknown. Secrets. The sound of hope. Olivia Moon loves this song. I would venture to say that it’s her favorite. She sways out of time with the music because she’s pondering the sound of hope, even the taste of it. She has synesthesia, a condition whereby her sensory areas are jumbled. She can tell you about coloured letters and the look of a song up above your head, or the way the sun smells like her mother. (She probably won’t want to talk about why she stared at the sun after her mother died and why she’s lacking her central vision, but maybe you’ll pull it out of her before the end of the book.)
The second song that spoke to me, sung by Plant, is called Nothin and immediately called to mind an essential character: a train-hopping drifter named Hobbs. Hobbs hasn’t had an easy life, and this song’s driving blend of eff-you electric guitar, down-home-and-dirty fiddle, and what-ya-gonna-do-about-it tambourine speaks to that. It evokes a damaged person, and if you were to stick a label on Hobbs you might choose that word — damaged. He’d notice that and pat you on the back for your smarts, then send you on your way without hearing an argument.
Motherless Hobbs nodded whenever this song played, and wasn’t one to condemn Olivia’s staring at the sun either, maybe because he understood that bit in the second-to-last verse about how being born is going blind.
The tune itself is dark and uncomfortable and winding, like a train, and feels too personal yet I never could turn away from it. Listening to it helped me to stick with the story, which was just as dark and uncomfortable and winding, and made it just as impossible to turn away from it.
Thank you, Roz, for the chance to share the sound behind the story.
Therese Walsh’s second novel, The Moon Sisters, is published by Crown (Random House). She’s the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Writer Unboxed, a site that’s visited daily by thousands of writers interested in the craft and business of fiction. You can learn more about her and her books on her website, Facebook and Twitter.
GIVEAWAY Therese is giving away a print copy of The Moon Sisters to a commenter here! To enter, leave a comment here, and if you share the post on other social media that counts as extra entries (but don’t forget to note that in your comment on this post)
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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 poet, playwright and physician Wolf Pascoe @WolfPascoe
Music (Roz’s words:) freezes the hurricane.
I find nothing more surprising than sound—all sound, music or otherwise. It goes to a part of the long-ago brain, the brain older than words, older than thought. Directly goes, not passing Go, not collecting $200. In that place, what you find is pure reception.
Breathing for Two is an odd little book, a somewhat lyrical meditation on anaesthesia from the point of view of the anaesthesiologist (that would be me). In its creative heart rest two pieces of music: Planetary Unfolding by Michael Stears, and Orinoco Flow by Enya.
Nothingness fills with metaphor
Most people, when they think about anesthesia (if they think about it at all) think scary thoughts. Perhaps the scariest thought is nothingness, and nothingness, being hard to think about, fills with metaphor.
‘Sail away,’ sings Enya in Orinoco Flow. I would listen to this piece in the O.R. at the start of an anesthetic. It provisioned me with a kind of joy and promise that I wanted to share, though I didn’t, for years, know how.
Planetary Unfolding, a work of genius in my view, is different. Here the metaphors are felt, not stated. At 1:44 into the piece we hear three notes, A,B,C, which repeat for several minutes. Begin at the beginning; travel up the scale, again and again. Jacob’s ladder? The portal to Andromeda? All I know is I am embarking, bound somewhere unsettling and hard to understand. I leave it to you where that is.
After I finished the first draft of Breathing for Two, I sent it off with high hopes to a fancy New York editor. I waited a month for the reply, looking forward to a few tweaks that would put a shine on my near-distilled prose. Then her response arrived.
‘It’s too personal,’ she said, and listed ideas for turning the book into something like You and Your Gallbladder.
I was crushed. She was New York, after all; I was St Elsewhere. I sat in my study and thought back to the impulse for the book. I played both pieces of music.
The problem is not that it’s too personal, I reflected. The problem is it’s not personal enough.
Out of nowhere rose the memory of a lecture, long forgotten, that I’d heard in medical school. It concerned a strange affliction called Ondine’s Curse—a condition where the body forgets to breathe during sleep. At the time the idea terrified me. I would begin with that. I had to tell the reader: this is a personal story, a ride worth taking.
I don’t speculate head-on about mysterious things in Breathing for Two. I tell stories which operate alongside of mysteries. I want the questions to be in the pauses between breaths.
After I published, I realized that Breathing for Two itself could never provide the experience I had in creating it. Of course it couldn’t. A book is a literary making after all, a thing of words. But I wanted a way to show the process I’d gone through; better, to regenerate it. What if I put together a trailer, a trailer with music? Maybe that would serve.
But what music? Neither Planetary Unfolding or Orinoco Flow quite fit the rhythm of this new context, to say nothing of the what they would cost to use. Where to turn? With the optimism given only to the uninformed, I composed my own score in Apple Logic. The result, one minute and 20 seconds of images, narration and music, is here: Breathing for Two Trailer.
Does it take you somewhere? I hope so. I leave it to you where that is.
Wolf Pascoe is a poet, playwright, and physician. Breathing for Two, his short, poetic dissection of life at the head of an operating table, is available as an ebook and paperback from Amazon. He blogs about fatherhood and his attempt to get the problem right at Just Add Father. You can find more about his writing at wolfpascoe.com. Contact him on Facebook and Twitter @WolfPascoe.
GIVEAWAY Wolf is excited to give away three e-copies of his book, in all formats. To enter, as ever, leave a comment here, and if you share the post on other social media that counts as extra entries (but don’t forget to note that in your comment on this post)
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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 my guest is debut romantic thriller novelist Stacy Green @StacyGreen26
Thanks so much to Roz for letting me share parts of the soundtrack for my debut novel, Into The Dark. I don’t always write to music, but I tend to turn to it when I’m having trouble getting motivated to write or slogging through a scene that just won’t work.
Into The Dark is a romantic thriller at its heart. The book starts off with a bank robbery in Las Vegas. Two masked men storm the bank, and one only has eyes for branch manager Emilie Davis. SWAT and quick-thinking hostage negotiator Nathan Madigan manage to save Emilie, but her life is sent into a tailspin with the stalker’s dramatic escape.
As I wrote those scenes, I wanted to convey the idea of one person’s determination to possess another. The villain, who becomes known as the Taker, spent months planning his kidnapping of Emilie. He is desperate and traumatised in his own way, and the Taker’s most interesting feature is that he isn’t all bad. He’s far from it, and Death Cab For Cutie’s I Will Possess Your Heart captures his torment perfectly.
The Las Vegas storm drains, known as the tunnels, house more than 200 homeless people at any given time. While most are addicts in various stages of addiction, they are also forgotten human beings just struggling to survive. It’s a way of life that breaks my heart, and one I hope to bring attention to.
The tunnels, although only in a handful of scenes, play a pivotal role in Into The Dark. From the moment I heard it, Jason Mraz’s Halfway Home captured the sadness and isolation the homeless must feel, and it was easy to envision the tunnels scenes when this song played.
At the core of the book is the understated, budding romance between Emilie and Nathan. He’s a SWAT officer, and she is an open case, but he is drawn to her. Because Nathan is driven by a mistake in his past he feels the need to atone for, he considers himself responsible for the Taker’s escape. He sets out to help Emilie, and their forbidden romance is a slow burn throughout the book.
Ray Lamontagne’s Let It Be Me has been Nathan and Emilie’s song from the start, back when I only knew he would do anything to save her, and that they were tied together by their mutual past heartaches.
Thanks again to Roz for having me. If you’re a writer, what music influences you? Readers, do you hear a soundtrack for books when you’re reading?
Stacy Green is fascinated by the workings of the criminal mind and explores true crime on her popular Thriller Thursday posts at her blog, Turning the Page. After earning her degree in journalism, Stacy worked in advertising before becoming a stay-at-home mom to her miracle child. She rediscovered her love of writing and wrote several articles for Women’s Edition Magazine of Cedar Rapids, profiling local businesses, before penning her first novel. Her debut novel, Into the Dark, is published by MuseItUp and available on all digital formats and paperback and is $2.99 for a limited period (use Smashwords coupon Code CF97D. Find her on Facebook and Twitter @StacyGreen26
GIVEAWAY and special contest! Leave a comment for a chance to win a signed print copy of Into The Dark. And sign up for Stacy’s newsletter by January 31st for a chance to have a character named after you in her upcoming Delta Crossroads Series. She says she only contacts subscribers when she has news to benefit them, and they will have exclusive pricing for her upcoming books.
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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 Michael Stutz @MichaelStutz
Writing and music are together, are one. That’s how it’s always been for me — I started to make music at about the same time I began writing, and in perfect synaesthesia they’re both ways of painting out the colors inside me. I have an acoustic in my workoom and most days, when I get up for a sec from the keyboard, I’ll play it — when you’re working on something that takes years to complete, it’s no small exhilaration to grab a guitar and make a new song in like 48 seconds, which I literally do all the time.
My new book Circuits of the Wind is the story of a life — Ray Valentine, a slacker who grows up online. It’s a big, serious, literary history of the net generation, taking place over three decades — from the 70s through to 2000, which is far enough back to be pretty nostalgic now. There’s plenty of music along the way, but the writing itself’s also directly informed by it – often some piece of popular music will haunt a gestating scene, and in the process of writing I’ll pick up on it.
In the beginning, for instance, about 23 pages in, there’s a scene that goes on for a while in what I call a rhapsodic soundmovie – it’s a sweeping vision of Christmastime and what that means to little Raymond in the suburban America of the 70s and 80s. When preparing to write it I’d recalled The Carpenters’ 1978 version of The Christmas Waltz, a song originally written by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn. I knew that somewhere in that world I was trying to capture, this song was playing — and now when I hear it, I think back to that passage.
I love Karen Carpenter. I love her so much, I mean, man, she could sing — what she and her brother were doing so perfectly well was also anachronistically against the whole hulking motion of postmodern culture, and in that sense is just how I feel about my own place in it now.
Styne and Cahn are among the best of the best of those songwriters that make up what they call the great American songbook — to which I’d include Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini, John Blackburn, Johnny Mandel, Mitchell Parish and two dozen more. This stuff’s in my blood thick and for a long while I thought for sure I was going to be one of those guys, until I realised that I needed to go to an emotional space where songs don’t quite reach, where you need long narrative prose to arrive.
But one piece of music needs to be mentioned because it literally sparked the book. The idea for Circuits of the Wind came to me, complete and whole, while listening to this divine recording of Sarah Vaughan and Clifford Brown’s performance of Lullaby of Birdland, written by George Shearing and George David Weiss.
Something unforgettable happened that night, incredible, that showed me the end of the book and everything that led up to it. It was late and I was alone and it was like the whole world around me melted away — I mean I actually saw this, like Allen Ginsberg’s vision of Blake over Manhattan there was this real, physical, external experience of reality bending right back, and everything melting; even my own heartbeat stopped at one point and I saw that not only was the world a big dream but me too, because I’m in it, and therefore I didn’t hold or own anything, not even myself – when Sarah was scatting in the middle of the track I knew that she and I were both fast nothings forever in the same big lonely dream universe.
To think I’d hoped to look into eternity for so long and here suddenly whoah, I was actually doing it, where now a whole book was neatly laid out for me ready to go. It was originally subtitled ‘a ghost story’, which is probably about as much as I can say without giving it all away, and that’s plenty – because after all what’s writing anyway, but us ghosts in here singing?
GIVEAWAY Michael is excited to give away a copy of Circuits of The Wind to anyone who shares this post on Facebook, Google Plus or Twitter – each platform counts as one entry with a maximum of one entry per platform. To let him know, leave a comment here. You can also enter by leaving a comment here! The prize is either a print or an ebook edition – you choose.
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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 Ruby Barnes @Ruby_Barnes
I listen to music for its mood-influencing properties. Being partially deaf, it’s sometimes difficult to hear lyrics clearly but the cadence and key modify my state of mind and the tone of my writing. In the case of The Baptist, a psychological thriller, it was a mixture of the sublime (Melody Gardot’s My One and Only Thrill ) and the ridiculous (Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads) that led me through the plotting maze of dual serial killers.
John Baptist is motivated by his religious mania. He recognises the devil’s emissaries by their red halo and his method of murder involves drowning. His partner in crime, both in the asylum and later on the loose in rural Ireland, is Mary and her alter-ego Alice. Mary / Alice is just plain bonkers. Being a pantser when it comes to plotting and planning, I had a general storyline in my mind but was struggling with two aspects of the story; how could I differentiate this latter day Bonnie and Clyde from each other, and how best to depict lunatics in love?
My writer’s office was the train, three hours a day in a crowded carriage. I used ear buds to cut out the ambient disturbance and listen to mood music. I could even decipher the lyrics by programming the graphic equaliser on my Walkman. Where the Wild Roses Grow was my mental image for John’s style of murder; he drowns his brother in a bathtub within the first chapter. It’s a cheesy video with tiny Kylie Minogue and the astoundingly ugly Nick Cave, but a caring and thoughtful murder, if you will. Everything makes sense to John as he cleanses a path for the second coming.
The Murder Ballads album had long been a favourite and I began to realise there were two distinct styles of song on the album; controlled and sinister versus frenzied. The former were murderers still on the loose and the latter were doomed to capture. So it came to me that John would survive to serve his higher purpose and Mary / Alice would display all the self-destructive craziness of Lottie in The Curse of Millhaven. The juvenile serial killer of that song was firmly in my mind as Alice despatched Charles with a sword, the herd of sheep with an axe and attacked a family with her antique dagger. She was the female embodiment of Stagger Lee. In contrast, John moved on from his first drowning (for which he was committed to the asylum) to more controlled and undetectable murders. Richard Slade from The Kindness of Strangers was the type of subtly persuasive and calculating killer John became.
But what of love? At times on the train the Murder Ballads became too much, especially if I was mumbling along to the parental advisory lyrics of Stagger Lee and getting dagger looks from the other passengers. I needed to chill, to zone out, and so did John and Alice. Melody Gardot’s My One and Only Thrill was the perfect panacea. Then, one evening at home, the title track was playing just before the kids’ bedtime and my five-year-old came into the room to complain that those minor strings wrapped around the sweet lyrics were ‘scary music’ and gave him nightmares. It was a perfect analogy for loony Alice’s passionate and obsessive love for John.
My One and Only Thrill became the mainstay for The Baptist from then on. Our Love is Easy was the anthem for their sojourn out west. There were breakthroughs of Nick Cave again as the couple’s undulating madness coincided and peaked; they pushed the obnoxious fat tourists off the Cliffs of Moher while I listened to the mammoth O’Malley’s Bar.
Back in their manor house stacked with victims’ bodies, Alice’s attack on John with a sword while high on drugs made him realise it was always only just a little game to her (Melody Gardot’s Baby I’m a Fool). John started to disengage from their relationship and the novel moved towards its climax.
Some authors prefer a silent environment for creativity. Me, I’m researching just what sort of musical craziness I need to guide me safely through the sequel to The Baptist.
Ruby Barnes has lived in the Shires, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and the Swiss Alps. He writes about misfits, rogues and psychopaths in novels called Peril, The Baptist, The Crucible and other works. His writing is dedicated to the memory of his late grandfather Robert ‘Ruby’ Barnes. Find him on Twitter @Ruby_Barnes and on his blog.
GIVEAWAY! Ruby is excited to give away one ebook copy of The Baptist to a commenter on this post. Scribble him a note for a chance to win.
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Originally, My Memories of a Future Life was released as four 25,000-word novellas – The Red Season, Rachmaninov and Ruin, Like Ruby and The Storm. Tonight and tomorrow – or depending on your time zone perhaps a bit of both – I’m giving away Kindle copies of The Red Season to mark World Book Night.
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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 2011-2022. 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
- 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'