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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 writing coach EJ Runyon @EJRunyon
Soundtrack by Thee Midniters, Simon & Garfunkel, Nancy Wilson, Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt, Otis Redding, Consuelo Velazquez, The Righteous Brothers, Hank Williams
A House of Light & Stone, a tale set in the 60s, could easily have used the expected rock ‘n roll music of its day. Instead, I’ve featured a mention in the novel of other songs within the tale of Duffy Chavez. I’ve gone with a local, specific East Los Angeles song, Sad Girl (by Thee Midniters). Then a semi-folk song of the time, April Come She Will (Simon & Garfunkel) and followed with a light jazz tune, How Glad I Am (Nancy Wilson). The music was in my ear as I wrote and ended up in my novel as well.
In Duffy’s world, like in Roz’s work, there are a number of pieces that have special meaning for this character. We move from nostalgia with the Spanish-language songs and into an American sound of more yearnings. It’s with the mention of a Bob Dylan tune , Mr. Tambourine Man where a frisson of change is now in the air around Duffy. This song shows up at a point where we see a bit deeper into her past.
If you give a listen to the songs in this post, you’ll almost be able to write your own novel from them. These tunes tell a tale of their own as a playlist. Beginning with Lo Siento Mi Vida (Linda Ronstadt) and then to I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (Otis Redding), there’s an arc you can follow and a sense of storytelling in the lyrics.
This is what I love the most about writing to music. When lyricists tell us a story, we become readers in our listening. From there, the inspiration for our own work seems a natural progression if you are open to it, just as I was inspired in the case of Duffy’s world.
Thief to belief
Duffy knows she must choose to either be a thief and liar all her life or believe in herself enough to risk using her gifts of imagination and ingenuity for good.
To tell that tale, I began writing by considering what my scene’s mood might be. I would ask myself what in the setting could reflect each mood. And also, month after month through this child’s journey, how do I show the passing of time for her poetically. And music seemed to be the key with music being such a large part of her young life.
And while listening to my own collection of music, Besame Querido (Consuelo Velázquez), Unchained Melody (The Righteous Brothers), Mr Tambourine Man (Bob Dylan), these tunes are the ones I heard as I wrote and that managed to sneak into the novel itself.
In this novel, we follow a year in the life of one young girl. While reading Duffy’s story, one can hear the emotions of the music I listened to while writing. The music underscores a story that’s powerful, dark, and uplifting. As the songs felt to me when I wrote, so they matter to young Duffy as she traverses a year on Elliott Street.
A bit of foreshadowing of the novel’s theme is reflected in Otis Redding’s song ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’. Duffy’s story is a novel about letting go, as well as about our holding onto our pasts.
Songs as signposts
This isn’t a film we watch with those catchy songs we all know to be signposts to a set range of time we can all identify. These signposts are woven into the telling of Duffy’s quest to be a ‘real girl’. They’re used in her tale to serve the scene. The songs within Duffy’s life show her steps along the quest. Duffy is also being taught to play violin during her summer months. One of the joys I had writing those scenes was searching the web for actual lesson books a child might have used during that time and weaving its title into the story.
The lyrics of Simon & Garfunkel’s April Come She Will runs through the year, month by month, as does Duffy’s quest, chapter by chapter, from one Christmas day to the end of the following year. It’s almost as if I’ve planted lyric-based Easter eggs for folks to find if they are knowledgeable of the lyrics of these songs.
Music as character
Duffy’s world is often impoverished. It’s always colourful. Hopefully, it’s also reflected in the use of these tunes throughout my chapters. If there were a theme for A House of Light & Stone, it might be Duffy’s separateness that seems to be reflected with I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry (Hank Williams)
Duffy’s mother spends most of the novel listening to one song over and over. The repetition of the Otis Redding song, and how it affects so many of the characters, makes it seem as if that one song is a character all its own. And in a way, that is why, while not licensing the tune to use its lyrics, I did describe the iconic album cover to a T. This was in the hope that readers familiar to the time would pull in the lyrics on their own, in spite of none being quoted in the book.
EJ Runyon was born and raised in East Los Angeles, California. She now spends her time in Las Cruces, New Mexico. EJ runs the coaching website for writers, Bridge to Story. Her books have garnered rather nice, if few, reviews. She’s currently working on her fourth book, Revision for Beginners, all her releases, including A House of Light & Stone, are from the UK Press, Inspired Quill. Find EJ on Facebook, or Twitter as @EJRunyon and at her author website.
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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 author and creative evangelist Trevor Richardson @theSubtopian
Soundtrack by Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Hank Williams, Bruce Springsteen, The Drive-By Truckers, Deer Tick, Jay Calhoun, Press Black, David Rovics, Cartright, Beatles
All I ever wanted was to be Bob Dylan. Only one problem: I don’t have a musical bone in my body. Writing about music is the closest I have come and it’s worked for me.
My novel, Dystopia Boy: The Unauthorized Files, follows a folk-punk protest singer through a collapsing American economy in the not-too-distant future. Joe Blake and his best friend, Lee Green, front man for their band The Johnny High-Fives, travel the country, playing to tent cities and hobo encampments and earn a fair living. The songs from The Johnny High-Fives included in the book were a combination of original lyrics that I wrote and the songs of various friends I have made during my own travels.
On my own, I wrote lyrics for three songs, Corporate Hun, Protest Nation, inspired by the spoken word riffs of Tom Waits, and Puking Blue that came from absorbing a lot of the post-Yellow Submarine era Beatles songs and ballads from newer bands like Deer Tick and The Drive-By Truckers.
My search for The Johnny-High Fives’ style led to me listening to four songs at once while drinking a fair amount of coffee. On my record player was Springsteen’s Born in the USA, my PS3 was playing the Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home, and my laptop had two windows open that blasted Tom Waits’s Rain Dogs and Deer Tick’s War Elephant. I was looking for a connective tissue between these different sounds. The noise finally peaked, like that rare moment when you are sitting at a traffic light and your blinker momentarily syncs with the blinker of the car ahead of you. That was when I wrote it.
Gather round, you Corporate Huns, I’ll show you the death of your future sons.
The words just flowed from there and I had found how I wanted The Johnny High-Fives to sound: a hybridisation of folk and punk. I first encountered this sound while living in Denton, Texas, with an old friend who had a band called Cartright. Cartright had this dirty, gritty vibe like The Ramones, Bob Dylan, and Thelonious Monk poured their collective DNA into a whiskey bottle and shook.
Interestingly enough, the band’s name, The Johnny High-Fives, actually came from a night with the Cartright boys. Ben, the band’s leader, and some other guys were trying to determine the name of their new band. At the time, Ben was going by the pseudonym Ben Cartright, and they had been using that same moniker as their band name as a kind of placeholder, but Ben thought they needed something flashier.
As we sat around tossing out random combinations of words and phrases, this guy named John started adding ‘high fives’ to everything that was said.
It was pretty funny and, when it came time to name my band, the only voice I heard was John and his ‘high fives’. There it was, The Johnny High-Fives. Incidentally, Cartright wound up remaining Cartright, and they’re still performing to this day.
Then there was this trip to New York I took with my brother, Kevin, and my friend Jay Calhoun. We had only known each other a couple of months at the time, but Jay needed to get to Omaha from Texas for a gig and Kevin and I needed some extra cash for the road. We agreed to drive Jay to Omaha if he could help pay for gas.
Jay and I were both smokers but Kevin was not. It was Kevin’s car and he didn’t want it to stink of smoke, so we wound up smoking outside while he waited in the car.
A peak moment in my friendship with Jay came when Kevin shouted from inside the car, ‘Will you guys hurry up? If it weren’t for you I could be in New York by now.’
Realizing that if either of us had been the only smoker on this trip, things might have been very different, Jay said, ‘I’m glad you smoke…’
I started to say something generic like, ‘Yeah,’ but Jay shouts, ‘Cause I wanna see you die!’
That became the joke of the trip, eventually even bringing Kevin into it. Some years later, Jay sent me a new song of his which he had called Smoke or I Wanna See You Die. This, of course, had to be added to the repertoire of The Johnny High-Fives and Jay wholeheartedly agreed.
Through my wife, Erin, who was my girlfriend at the time, I met a young Maryland guitar player named Cody Finkner. His old band, Press Black, had a tune inspired by the movie They Live. I went and watched the movie, referenced Roddy Piper’s famous improv line ‘I am here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubblegum’ in Dystopia Boy, and asked Cody if I could include They Live as a Johnny High-Fives song and he happily accepted.
After I got published by Montag Press, my editor asked me if I was familiar with the music of David Rovics, a Portland folk singer. David and I exchanged a few emails and I included Rovics’ song Strike a Blow Against the Empire in the novel.
Music also helps me get ideas.
When I listen to Tom Waits I can feel my own brain chemistry changing. I see reality through the purple smoke of a post-Apocalyptic carnival. I feel the vibrations of my surroundings coming together like a vivid dream, both exciting and uncomfortable, and suddenly I just have to write.
Listening to Bob Dylan is like talking to a mentor. When I put on a Dylan track, I almost always wind up with a piece of writing. While listening to Blood on the Tracks, I became obsessed with the song Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts. I knew there was something in there to be sussed out, but I couldn’t quite find it. Then I noticed a little moment where Lily takes her dress off and hides it away. It wasn’t much, but there was something about the gentleness in it that led to Joe and his childhood crush, Audrey, having a pretend wedding that gets broken up by Audrey’s overprotective father. Afterward, Audrey takes the night shirt she wore as her wedding dress, folds it neatly and tucks it in the bottom of her toy chest where it would remain for years.
Another song, Tangled Up in Blue, has a verse where a guy meets a girl in a topless place which inspired me to write Joe’s encounter with Audrey at a Portland strip club later in the story.
The Hank Williams song Lost Highway also became a refrain through one of Joe’s recurring dreams. The biblical imagery of the song meshed so perfectly that the dream became the Lost Highway itself.
Adding it all together makes me realize I can’t be Bob Dylan, but somewhere between the darkness of old country, the poetry of folk, and the spirit of rock and roll I found an intersection. That is where I find my stories.
Trevor D. Richardson is the founder of The Subtopian, a regular writer and editor for the magazine, and the author of American Bastards, Honeysuckle & Irony, and Dystopia Boy. A west coast man by birth, Trevor was brought up in Texas and has since ventured back west and put down roots in Portland, Oregon. He has devoted his writing career to helping others find success by forming friendships and working relationships with other writers and artists. Trevor looks for ways to reach across media to other types of creative people to find that place where music, visual art, and literature intersect and is dedicated to creating a new market where new voices can thrive without sacrificing quality or principles. Find him on Facebook, on Twitter @theSubtopian and on his website.
America, authors, Beatles, Ben Cartright, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Cartright, David Rovics, Deer Tick, Desert Island Discs, drama, dystopia, Dystopia Boy: The Unauthorized Files, entertainment, folk, folk-punk, Hank Williams, Jay Calhoun, Joe Blake, Johnny High-Fives, Lee Green, main character, male writers, Montag Press, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, near-future, playlist for writers, post-apocalyptic, Press Black, protest singer, protest songs, punk, Roz Morris, The Drive-By Truckers, The Ramones, The Undercover Soundtrack, Thelonious Monk, They Live, Tom Waits, Trevor Richardson, undercover soundtrack, writers, writing, writing to music
- 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'