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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 NYT bestselling historical thriller author Rebecca Cantrell @RebeccaCantrell
When I start writing a new novel, one of the first things I do is put together a playlist for it. I’ll start with just a few songs and then add them as time goes on, so I might start out with 20 minutes of music and then end up with an hour and half to two hours by the end. I listen to this playlist almost every day while writing the book. At the beginning, I hear every word, but after a while the music becomes background while I’m writing in some Berlin café.
My latest Hannah Vogel novel is A City of Broken Glass and it’s set during Kristallnacht in 1938, so I listened to some modern stuff to establish the right mood and some historical stuff to put me straight in Hannah’s word.
The first song on my playlist is the theme from the BBC series Wallander sung by Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo. It’s haunting and sad and reminds me that it’s time to get serious, to slow down and leave all of my thoughts outside of the writing room and get to work.
The next song was written in 1926, but I think it was more popular during World War II, and it reminds me that Hannah is always trying to help others as they try to escape the burgeoning Nazi menace, even at the cost of her own life. It’s Someone to Watch Over Me sung by Dakota Staton. It’s a love song, and if I’m working on a romantic scene, sometimes I’ll play that song a couple of times in a row. Hannah and Lars both watch out for each other, so it’s not as sexist as it might seem. Or so I tell myself.
After that, I move on to Song of a German Mother, sung by Lotte Lenya with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht and music by Kurt Weill. All of them lived in Berlin at the same time as Hannah, and all of them fled to the United States during the Nazi years. It’s a very grim song about a mother who lost her son to the Nazis because she didn’t understand what would happen. It’s a warning to Hannah and a reminder to me that the Germans, too, suffered terrible losses and had deep regrets, even before they lost the war. I try to paint a nuanced picture of all the characters, because few things were as simple then as we like to think they were when we look back on it. I couldn’t find Lotte Lenya singing this on YouTube (although she sings other songs there, all worth listening to—she has a wonderful smoky voice), but here it is sung by Dagmar Krause.
After this, I need something a little lighter and more fun, so I have Mack the Knife, which was also has lyrics by Bertolt Brecht and music by Kurt Weill. I have a version sung by Lotte Lenya as well, where she teams up with Louis Armstrong. Mack the Knife was part of the The Threepenny Opera and was first performed on stage in Berlin in 1928 (with Lotte Lenya and Peter Lorre!). I think Hannah would have scraped together the cast to go and see it. Its message of violence under the smooth surface was prescient. And Louis Armstrong is always fantastic. I could follow that voice anywhere.
The next song is It’s Only a Paper Moon by Paul Whiteman and his orchestra. I got it off a CD called A Time to Remember 1934 that was in the birthday card section of a gift shop in Hawaii. I always buy one for the year each book is set, although I don’t know what I’ll do now that I’ve moved to Berlin and can’t get to that gift shop. I played a lot of those songs when I was writing the book set in 1934, but this one stuck with even after and moved on to this later playlist, probably because I have Hannah herself sing it while under the influence in A Night of Long Knives. I think it’s been remade many times over the years, but here’s the oldie version because I think that one is still the most fun:
There are various songs in between, some historical and some not, but all of them hopefully speaking to my subconscious and keeping me in Hannah’s world. The soundtrack ends with Beauty in the World by Macy Gray, as it brings me back to the 21st century. And lunch.
Rebecca Cantrell is a New York Times bestselling thriller author. Her novels include the Order of Sanguines series, starting with The Blood Gospel, the award-winning Hannah Vogel mystery series, starting with A Trace of Smoke and the Joe Tesla thrillers, starting with The World Beneath. She, her husband, and son left Hawaii’s sunny shores for adventures in Berlin. Find Rebecca Cantrell on Facebook, Twitter, and at www.rebeccacantrell.com
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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 horror and thriller writer Will Overby @Will_Overby
I have never understood how anyone can write in total silence. Call me crazy, but there’s something about writing to music that frees up the flow of thought, that takes my mind to places I wouldn’t ordinarily visit, that presents me with sudden, surprising inspiration.
I first noticed this back in 1984. I had just graduated high school and I was working on what would turn out to be my first completed novel, August. That summer I purchased Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA and listened to it most days when I was writing. As the weeks went by, I quickly realized that it was becoming a soundtrack of sorts to the book. Songs like Downbound Train and I’m On Fire helped me add a particularly gritty feel to the character of Brian DeCanto and gave him a depth I couldn’t have achieved otherwise.
This was a revelation. Subsequent stories and novels continued to have soundtracks, including a never-to-be-published young adult novel inspired completely by the music of U2. Back in the day I would make mix tapes to play while writing. I still have a couple of those tapes, and it’s really interesting to go back now and see what inspired me 15 and 20 years ago. Nowadays I just cue up a playlist on my computer, and I can add and delete selections at my whim.
While writing this post I’m listening to the music I used for inspiration while working on my novel The Island. In this story two friends, Sarah and Amy, travel to a Caribbean island for a getaway but end up being caught up in a vodou cult complete with zombie rituals and mysterious disappearances. There is also a touch of romance, as Amy falls for a local tour-boat operator, David.
When first developing this book, I would often listen to the type of music I imagined the characters would enjoy. Sarah and her fiancé, for instance, are into big band music, so much of her characterization involved immersing myself in songs like Goody Goody by Benny Goodman. David, on the other hand, collects vinyl records and is especially fond of 50s jazz; John Coltrane seems to be his favorite for reflection, but as his and Amy’s love affair blossomed, I found myself drawn to sultry numbers by Julie London like I’m in the Mood for Love to accentuate their growing sexual attraction.
When it came to the meat of the book, I relied on instrumental pieces – both modern classical and film soundtracks – for inspiration. The zombie ritual near the end of the book, for example, is set to Kryzysztof Penderecki’s Polymorphia – a creepier piece of music I’ve never heard; you can almost feel skeletal fingers closing in around your throat as the pizzicato strings play a frenetic path up and down the scale. Likewise, his The Dream of Jacob was sometimes set to repeat when I needed a feel of dread and unease. For scenes early in the book when Sarah is having hallucinations and nightmares, Gyorgy Ligeti’s Lontano wonderfully portrays the outward appearance of calm while panic and horror gnaw inside.
No music was a greater inspiration, though, than Brett Rosenberg’s soundtrack to the 2006 film, Half Light. While the more horrific music seemed to mirror some of the Penderecki pieces to great effect, the quieter more melodic passages were fantastic in helping me round out the character of Sarah. The heart-rending solo violin selection Girl in the Storm, for example, perfectly captures Sarah’s sense of loss and loneliness.
For those of us writers who use it, music can be a great motivator. I know if I’m having trouble getting in the mood of the story I can turn on the book’s playlist and the thoughts start flowing again. If you happen to be one of those who can’t write with the distraction of music, I urge you to try listening to some pieces to set your mood before you write. You may just be surprised at what springs into your mind. And onto your page.
Will Overby has spent 30 years in the boardrooms and glass offices of retail banking. Between dodging mergers and drafting policies he publishes novels. He and his wife live far from the corporate world in rural western Kentucky. They have two grown children, a dog, and a menagerie of cats. A graduate of Indiana University, Will is an avid Hoosiers football fan. Connect with Will on his website, www.willoverby.com, on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.
authors, Benny Goodman, Brett Rosenberg, Bruce Springsteen, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, friends, Gyorgy Ligeti, horror, horror novels, how to write a horror novel, how to write a thriller novel, how to write a zombie novel, I’m On Fire, inspiration, Julie London, Kryzysztof Penderecki, male writers, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, soundtracks, The Dream, The Undercover Soundtrack, thriller novels, thrillers, U2, undercover soundtrack, vodou, voodoo, Will Overby, writers, writing, writing to music, zombie novels, zombies
- 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'