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The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where 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 Royal Literary Fund Fellow, newspaper columnist, radio and TV writer and novelist Katharine Grant @KatharineGrant_
Soundtrack by Schubert, Bach, Chopin, Purcell, Alison Moyet, Aaron Neville, Lois del Rio, Scissor Sisters, Country and Western Original Artists, Shostakovich, Abba, Beethoven, Prokofiev
When my writing’s going well, I’m deaf. It’s the same when I’m reading. If I’ve had music on, I don’t realise it’s finished and couldn’t tell you what it was. Yet music’s also why I write. Though I play the piano every day, I can’t play to concert standard so words are my substitute for notes. What’s in my head has to emerge somehow. If I can’t enchant you through Schubert’s lovely Impromptus, I’ll tell you a story.
Music was The Marriage Recital’s midwife. It’s the story of four nouveau rich fathers with five marriageable daughters. The young women will learn to play the piano, give a concert for young Englishmen who have titles but no fortunes, and will marry very well indeed. However, the complications are the lascivious (and French) piano teacher; the piano maker’s jealous (and musically gifted) daughter; and one of these marriageable daughters with a mating plan of her own
Repeated listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, mainly Glen Gould’s idiosyncratic 1981 rendition, meant that walking the dog, standing in the shower, staring at milk in the supermarket all had this accompanying soundtrack. In variation 30, we’re unexpectedly humming German folk songs, one of which features cabbage and turnips. Bach’s laughter was my hook. My Marriage Recital girls would learn to play these variations, and I would too: we would learn together. I didn’t have nearly so much fun or get as far as my fictional girls, and have never used the variations to quite such dramatic effect, but then I had no Monsieur Belladroit …
Like playing an instrument, writing is a physical as well as a mental discipline. The more you practise, the better you get. Reading your work aloud is a key editorial tool. Sorry to sound like a one-composer nut, but to learn how to listen, why not stick with the greatest master of them all? In his Art of Fugue, Bach shows how to interweave your theme through different voices. It’s not called the Art of Fugue for nothing. He practises his art through instrumental sounds; I practise mine through aspects of character.
For narrative, I go to Chopin’s Ballades – Ballade No. 2 is my current favourite, though that changes depending on, oh, I don’t know, the strength of my coffee, what the postie brings, the top CD on the pile. However Ballade No. 2 gets more airtime than the other three. Hear how the theme develops from sweetly innocent to wistful, through turmoil and tumult, to echo, to fury and anguish, and then that ending, the sweet innocence laden with sorrow and memory. A beautiful lesson for musicians and writers both.
So just as I couldn’t write if I didn’t read, so I couldn’t write if I didn’t listen to music, not just for emotional uplift, but for actual nuts and bolts. Luckily, neither for music nor even for research do I stick to the period in which my work-in-progress is set. Writing the de Granville trilogy and the Perfect Fire trilogy, the former set in the 12th century and the latter in the 13th, I still listened to Bach for precision. But sometimes I’d get an earworm of the heart. Moved beyond tears by opera productions of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, I discovered Alison Moyet’s Dido’s Lament striking just as deep, though at a different angle to, say, Marianne Beate Kielland. In writing, as in music, the same words can strike contrasting emotional chords, sometimes within the same page. Forget that. Sometimes, don’t you just want to cry ‘remember me’ along with all of human kind? Nobody does ‘remember me’ like Purcell, and isn’t remembrance partly what writing’s all about?
But you can’t spend all day lamenting. After writing, I need reassurance and I get it walking through the Glasgow park, my lungs full of Aaron Neville. In Louisiana, I wait for the bit about President Coolidge and the lyric picture of the tubby clerk, notepad in hand. Makes me smile every time. Country and Western offers similar reassurance. Though I didn’t grow up with those strumming country legends, they greet me like old friends, and don’t laugh, but when I’ve had a really productive session, I abandon singing and boogie about to Los del Rio’s Macarena or Scissor Sisters’s I Don’t Feel Like Dancing. I know, I know. But nobody sees except the dog and afterwards I sit down with a spring in my fingers.
I often wonder what my Marriage Recital girls would make of my music choices. I’m often surprised by them myself. It’s hard to say what Shostakovich’s Fantastic Dances or Chopin’s Berceuse Op 57 in D flat major or his Barcarolle Op. 60 do for me, only that if I’d never heard them, I’d be a different writer, just as I’d be a different writer if I’d never heard Dickens read aloud or the cadences of the Book of Psalms. Music’s part of my internal internet – it’s all stored somewhere, to be sought out for reasons I don’t fully understand. I could investigate further, I suppose, but for what purpose? At the risk of sounding like Abba (thanks for the joy! thanks for the singalong!), music is a gift; the start, not the end, of my own human story and the novels I write. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet without ever hearing Beethoven’s late quartets. Chaucer without hearing Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Now that’s real genius.
The third of seven children, Katharine Grant was brought up in Lancashire amid the ghosts of her ancestors, one of whom was hanged, drawn and quartered for supporting the 1745 Jacobite rebellion. A lock of his hair lives in a small leather case in the drawing room of her family home. As KM Grant, she writes novels for children and young adults. Her debut book, Blood Red Horse, was a Booklist Top Ten Historical Fiction for Youth and a USBBY-CBC Outstanding International Book for 2006. The Marriage Recital is published by Picador and is her first book for adults. A newspaper columnist, a regular contributor to Scottish television and radio, and a Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow, she writes like ‘Jane Austen on crack cocaine’ (Scotsman, 2014). Katharine is not sure what Jane Austen would make of that. Find her on Twitter at @KatharineGrant_
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My guest this week says she would like to be able to play the piano to concert standard, but since she can’t, she uses words as her instrument of enthrallment. Pianos are central to the plot of her latest novel, a historical romance in which four nouveau riche fathers attempt to marry off their daughters by displaying their talents in a music recital. Mayhem ensues, con brio. She says her musical ear guides her writing; Bach helps her to listen to the cadence of words and Purcell reminds her, in the most emotional way, that writing is all about remembering. (Are you guessing that Dido’s Lament might be coming up?) She is Royal Literary Fund Fellow Katharine Grant and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
Bach, classical pianists, creative writing, Dido's Lament, historical fiction, historical romance, how to write fiction, Katharine Grant, literary fiction, music for writers, music for writing, pianists, piano, Purcell, Royal Literary Fund, undercover soundtrack
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 romantic novelist Glynis Smy @GlynisSmy
Soundtrack by Madonna, Roseanne Cash, Etta James, James Vincent McMorrow
Quite often a piece of music will transport me back to an emotional time in my life or a happy event and words flood into pea-brain. I don’t seek out music intentionally but often find inspiration within the lyrics or rhythm.
Music stimulates my creative juices. For my fourth novel The Penny Portrait, I tended to be more aware of music as a scene writing influence than in previous times.
I’ve been known to jot down notes in a supermarket when they are playing a piece of music that forms an image in my mind. This happened when I heard Love Don’t Live Here Anymore, being played inside a well-known electrical store during a visit to the UK. I sought out one of the assistants as I knew the original singer (Rose Royce) but didn’t recognise the version they played. It appeared the song was by Madonna. It triggered the base of a novel plot which eventually became The Penny Portrait. It is the emotional growth and survival of a sixteen-year-old Victorian girl abandoned by her parents. I could see Elle Buchanan, standing alone and forlorn and the rest is in the story.
When my father passed away I played one of his favourite pieces of music, Sea of Heartbreak by Roseanne Cash. I was living in Cyprus at the time and a dreadful wave of homesickness came over me. I altered the town where the novel was set. I took it back to my birth town, to where my father now rested by the sea. I had walked along a spot where we became trapped by a returning tide when I was a child and recalled how he carried me on his back to safety. This was where I eventually took my character. To the place my father had been my hero, to where I played with my best friend who passed away when we were 36 years old, and to the place where I walked with my boyfriend (now husband). A rugged pathway of emotions beside the sea – a sea of heartbreak and joy.
The song triggered so much emotion in me that the decision was made for our return to the UK. In 2013 I walked along the path to the area I remembered and knew it was the right place to write my character’s journey through a difficult life. Elle Buchanan finds friendship here, she falls in love and also loses a friend in the area.
Browsing through Madonna’s video selection a few months later, I stumbled across, Frozen. Although I was writing an emotional scene at the time, another was triggered by the words at the start of the song. My characters Elle, and Matthew, took me on another journey and during that journey I created a project for Elle to pursue but couldn’t get her to grasp what I needed from her. She obviously prefers to listen to Etta James, as when I played Damn Your Eyes from Mother’s collection, Elle sent me images of what I needed to write so she could open up her artistic soul. A whole chapter and an ending came from a mix of inspirational words and visions they conjured up for me. Elle couldn’t express her feelings for Matthew during the creation of a painting and left only black eyes as windows for his soul. Her French friend despaired of her and basically told her she had frozen her soul to ignore the facts.
While researching the railway service of our town I played my YouTube listing as I browsed endless snippets of information but all I gathered were dates. Useful but not the wow factor I required to inspire me that particular day. Around two hours into the project I tapped my foot to This Old Dark Machine by James Vincent McMorrow. Bam! The chapter of Elle and her mentor Angus, rose to the fore, although the words did not relate to what I’d been researching the title and rhythm of the song triggered a chapter about the first steam train ride for Elle.
Glynis Smy lives in the UK, in the seaside town of, Dovercourt, Harwich. She writes historical romance with a twist. The Victorian era fascinates her and she says the best part of writing a novel is often the research. She also writes poetry and short stories. Proud writing moments in her life include being shortlisted for the Festival of Romance Fiction 2014 New Talent Award – and reaching the second round of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2014. When she is not writing, she enjoys making greetings cards, cross stitch, fishing and the company of her granddaughter. Her blog is here, and you can find her on Facebook and Twitter @GlynisSmy.
Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2014, authors, Desert Island Discs, Etta James, Festival of Romance fiction 2014, Festival of Romance Fiction 2014 New Talent Award, Glynis Smy, historical fiction, historical romance, James Vincent McMorrow, Madonna, music for writers, music for writing, romance, Roseanne Cash, Roz Morris, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers
I’m particularly pleased to welcome this week’s guest as I seem to have known her for all the time I’ve been zipping about the internet. When I was first blogging, and launching the original Nail Your Novel, she was writing and blogging too. Now she’s got five novels to her name, and one of them was shortlisted for the Festival of Romance fiction 2014, writing what she describes as historical romance with a twist. But what about the music, I hear you ask? Yes, it’s a pervasive influence, as you’ll have guessed from the headline of this piece. And among her choices is an unorthodox version of a well-known song, so she ticks those boxes for me too. She is Glynis Smy and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
authors, Desert Island Discs, Festival of Romance fiction 2014, Glynis Smy, historical fiction, historical romance, music for writers, music for writing, romance, Roz Morris, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers
- 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.
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- All content copyright Roz Morris 2011-2023. 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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