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The Undercover Soundtrack – Erika Marks

The Undercover Soundtrack is a weekly series by writers who use music as part of their creative process – special pieces that have revealed a character to them, or populated a mysterious place, or enlarged a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by contemporary fiction author Erika Marks

Soundtrack by Billie Holiday

There’s no question music plays a big part in my writing process, and since my novel Little Gale Gumbo featured a woman from New Orleans who loves jazz, I knew I would have a grand time building a soundtrack for the manuscript.

There was one scene in particular where the element of music was especially crucial.

Upon leaving New Orleans with her two teenage daughters, determined to start over, Camille arrives on a small island off the coast of Maine and rents an in-law apartment above the attached barn of a divorced islander, Ben, and his teenage son. Shortly after, Ben learns the first snow of the season is forecast and comes to Camille’s apartment bearing extra blankets. She invites him in.

The scene that follows is an unabashedly romantic one. It’s late in the evening. Ben and Camille’s kids are asleep, and now they are alone together. In thanks for the blankets, Camille trims Ben’s hair while one of her jazz records plays in the background. There’s no question it’s a seduction scene. But Ben is being seduced by Camille through the senses, and it needed to be clear to the reader from the moment Ben steps into her apartment that he’s stepped into another world.

It had to be you

To make this transition convincing, I knew I had to reveal who Camille was to Ben—the reader already has a strong sense at this point in the story, but for Ben, this is really the first opportunity for him to see Camille truly in her element, alone with her passions, which are jazz music and her love of cooking. So as I wrote the scene, I wanted to have the same experience that Ben would have. The same slow appreciation for a piece of music in the background, not too loud, but so distinctive, so rich and full-bodied, and such a contrast to the stark, reserved landscape he knows, that I—and the reader—couldn’t help but be swept into Camille’s world in that moment too.

In the scene I mention how the record plays “the smoky wail of a trumpet, the pluck and purr of a standing bass” so I knew I wanted the soundtrack to be soft, moody, lulling. I also knew that Camille loved Billie Holiday best of all, so while I wrote the scene, I played only Billie, in particular It Had To Be You and I’ll Be Seeing You, which elicited every bit of the smoldering attraction that had been building between Ben and Camille from the moment she arrived on his doorstep.

So, did the music work its magic on my characters as well as it did on me as a writer?

Come now. It’s Billie Holiday. What do you think?

Erika Marks is a native New Englander who was raised in Maine and has worked as an illustrator, cake decorator, and carpenter. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her husband, a native New Orleanian, their two daughters, and their dog. Find her on Twitter as @ErikaMarksAuthr

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