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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 Steven A McKay @SA_McKay
Music has been a big part of my life ever since I was a teenager and I discovered hard rock and heavy metal. Now, more than 20 years later I still have music playing constantly, from the moment I get into the car for work in the morning to when I go to bed at night with my earphones in and Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick or A Passion Play turned up loud.
Obviously then, music would be heavily involved in the creation of my two novels, Wolf’s Head and The Wolf and the Raven which are my take on the Robin Hood legend. All the familiar characters are there: Little John, Will Scarlet, Sir Richard-at-Lee etc but, in setting the books in early 14th century Yorkshire rather than 12th century Nottingham and telling it using a modern, adult style, I’d like to think I’ve taken a fresh new approach to what is a well-known legend. Music has played a massive part in that process.
For me, it’s not as simple as sticking on an Iron Maiden CD and sitting down to fire off a couple of thousand words. Sure, Maiden, Metallica, Megadeth, Def Leppard etc are all bands I love but the problem is I’m also a lead guitarist with a rudimentary skill in drumming and bass playing and for a while I was also singing when my band-mate and I got together with acoustic guitars to jam Led Zeppelin and the like. So, if I sit down to write with a hard rock or traditional metal song on, the writing goes out the window because I end up tapping my feet, singing along in my head and, eventually, I’ll just get up and plug in one of my guitars to pretend I’m Eddie Van Halen or Slash. Yes, in front of the mirror!
Waterfalls and white noise
Many people like to meditate to the sounds of waterfalls or waves or soft rain – white noise basically. It allows the mind to focus and blocks out any distractions from the outside world. When I write my books I like to try and capture a similar, almost ritualistic state of mind, where I can lose myself completely in the scenes I’m creating. A song like Def Leppard’s Pour Some Sugar On Me or Iron Maiden’s Run To The Hills, as much as I like them, have such strong melodies, big choruses and are just so damn catchy that they’re completely useless for this purpose.
That’s where something a little more extreme comes in. Black metal. My novels are both set in the early 14th century, and a lot of black metal bands come from Scandinavia, where they try to recapture the essence of those Dark Medieval Times (a Satyricon album title). The music, to most listeners, is just noise. There’s little, if any melody, the drumming is often ludicrously fast and the vocals are akin to tortured screams. Lovely! That’s just what I need – you’re not likely to find yourself tapping your feet or trying to sing along to something like Havenless by Enslaved. But when you’re writing a scene about outlaws in the forests of Yorkshire sitting around a camp-fire at night, drinking ale and telling tales there’s nothing better than this song to help you invoke just the right atmosphere.
Similarly, my novels have a lot of (hopefully not gratuitous) violence in them, from one-on-one duels to the death to full-scale battles. Playing something like Bon Jovi’s You Give Love A Bad Name just isn’t going to do it, right? But Slaying the Prophets ov Isa (closer to death metal than black metal) by Behemoth will:
Crafting a novel isn’t all about the writing though. Certain songs, and the artist’s live performance of them, often strike a chord within us that eventually comes out in a scene. In Wolf’s Head a couple of my characters performed while pretending to be strolling minstrels. Anyone that knows me will understand exactly where that idea came from: Jethro Tull and, in particular the song Minstrel In The Gallery. Something about Tull’s music just reeks of “merry olde England” (despite the fact Ian Anderson is, like me, a Scotsman) and, while I can’t write while listening to them for the reasons described above, I DO get many of my best ideas for plot-lines while listening to them, since I have them playing in the background for most of my days.
While I’m on the subject of Tull I should mention another great folk-rock band with a flair for music inspired by the middle-ages: Fairport Convention. On their 1969 album Liege and Lief they recorded a version of the traditional song Matty Groves. I lifted the name and used it for one of the characters in my books. A reader asked if it was the same person. Maybe it is…
That’s the creating and actual writing out of the way then – what about editing and, indeed, this piece you’re reading now? Well, editing and blog writing requires much less of a shift in consciousness: there’s no need to completely lose yourself within what you’re doing. No need to allow your muse to wholly consume you. For that reason, I can listen to things with a little more groove, a little more melody and maybe even a few hooks. Like Death’s Pull the Plug, which is what I’m listening to right now (probably best not to sing along though).
Being a musician myself has come in handy when creating video trailers for my books. For Wolf’s Head I used a piece I wrote on the mandolin while The Wolf and the Raven features an Iron Maiden knock-off I wrote in my head pounding the streets of Glasgow as a meter reader. Thank you for reading (and listening)!
Steven A McKay was born in 1977, near Glasgow. He lives in Old Kilpatrick with his wife and two young children. After obtaining a Bachelor of Arts degree he decided to follow a lifelong ambition and write a novel. He plays lead/acoustic guitars (and occasional bass/vocals) in a heavy metal band. He is the author of Wolf’s Head and The Wolf and the Raven, which reached number 1 in Amazon’s War category. Find him on Twitter as @SA_McKay and connect with him on Facebook and his website.
GIVEAWAY Steven is offering a signed copy of Wolf’s Head 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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My guest this week writes reimaginings of the Robin Hood legends. He uses music to conjure the atmosphere but says he has to avoid anything that’s too tuneful or he’ll pick up his guitar instead. He admits his choice of Scandinavian black metal is a challenging listen – but finds the fast drumming, screaming vocals and glowering noise is exactly right to shift him away from the 21st century and into a time of outlaws, campfires and battles. He is Steven A McKay and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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One of my earliest Undercover Soundtrack guests returns this week with a brand-new novel – and another beguiling musical journey. The story features a character whose life spans two timelines, which she envisaged in her head as having a soundtrack of two personalities. Aggressive guitar, driving percussion – softened by the melancholy lyricism of early Celtic folk songs. But she’d never heard such a thing in real life – until a chance listen one day expressed exactly what she’d been looking for. She is KM Weiland and she’ll be here on Wednesday talking about the Undercover Soundtrack for her newest release, Dreamlander.
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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 award-winning bestselling author, indie champion and women’s advocate Melissa Foster @Melissa_Foster
Thank you, Roz, for sharing your virtual space with me today. I love what you are doing with this series, and I have a feeling that many of your followers will find my musical selections odd, lame, or just plain telling-of-my-age. Here goes…
I’m a music fanatic, but not in the normal sense of the term. I cannot write in silence. I need the beat of a good tune to be able to feel my stories, and the particular beat doesn’t matter. It’s not uncommon to find me with F.M. Hot 99.5 playing so loud that I cannot hear anyone speaking to me. It’s also not uncommon to find me listening to an iTunes mash-up of Michael Jackson, Kelly Clarkson, Darius Rucker, Glee (yes, I am almost 46 years old, and this is my guilty pleasure). Even Madonna and Katy Perry make an appearance. The difference between me and most music fanatics is that I rarely know who is singing the songs I listen to, and often, I can’t tell you the title.
When I was writing Chasing Amanda, my typical mash-up wasn’t quite working. I found my inspiration on my iPod, which my stepdaughter had filled with songs when she was about 15 years old, ranging from head-banging heavy metal to rap and top 40 hits. I gravitated toward three songs that pulled me through the manuscript — I was a runner at the time, and these songs were played over and over during my runs as I worked through the storyline of each character: How to Save A Life by The Fray, I Write Sins Not Tragedies, by Panic! At The Disco, and Buttons, by the Pussycat Dolls.
Each song helped me to see Molly Tanner, the main character, a little more clearly. She’s a bundle of strength and emotions wrapped up in sensitive skin. The lyrics embodied all of her. Buttons helped bring out the fun side of Molly, which is so easily lost in stressful situations. Buttons inspired the sexier side of Molly, it was a gentle reminder that she was feminine, though strong, helping me grasp her vulnerability when she was searching for the abductor, alone at night. Sins helped me to remember that she was on a very powerful hunt, where she could lose everything, and Life, well, it’s pretty clear. Molly valued her life, but because she had unknowingly witnessed an abduction, and then the little girl’s body was found, when Tracey went missing, she was willing to forgo her own life to save another.
I drew from the song How To Save A Life on many levels. That particular song carried over to many of the characters. It exposed the search for Tracey as something much deeper than simply a simple search mission. The song is made of passion and longing, which brought life to Hannah Slate’s forgotten past. Hannah Slate, Pastor Lett, and Newton Carr each had deep-rooted secrets that could have crushed them as individuals, but they drew strength from one another, just as the song talks about staying up all night, each of them had been there at all hours for each others. The love that blossomed from their friendship carried them forward through lives of deceit. I didn’t watch the video when I wrote the book, and I’m glad that I didn’t. I found different meaning in the words each time I listened.
A softer side
Molly’s husband, Cole, was a doctor, and a very serious one, who believed in tangible facts rather than Molly’s clairvoyance. Buttons helped me to find his softer, sexier side, and think of him as a man rather than just a husband and physician, and by doing so, allowed another layer of the story to form.
Music enhances my senses and tempts me to reach beyond characters’ looks and the way they move. Music draws me in to think about their emotional state in each scene, and as you can see from my musical choices, there is no rhyme or reason to the tunes that I choose. Music does so much more than just inspire me, it is woven into the fabric of my life, enabling me to see most things in life more clearly, and to remain in a place of light. If you visit me, you’ll find an intercom system that plays music in every room, all day long. Music, even when it has sad lyrics, makes me happy.
What does music do for you?
Award-winning, bestselling author Melissa Foster is a touchstone for the indie publishing community and a tireless advocate for women. Her novels are Megan’s Way, Chasing Amanda and Come Back to Me. She is the founder of the World Literary Café, Fostering Success, and The Women’s Nest. Melissa writes emotionally-driven contemporary fiction and suspense with passionate characters that remain with the reader long after they’ve read the last words. Melissa is a friend, mentor, brownie connoisseur, and book fiend. Connect with her on Facebook, Goodreads and Twitter @Melissa_Foster
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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'