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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 contemporary fiction author, poet, editor and singer-songwriter Jessica Bell @MsBessieBell
Soundtrack by Judy Garland, Magic Dirt, Hole, Lene Lovich, I Killed the Prom Queen, Metallica
White Lady is written from the perspective of five different characters, each in first person, so, in addition to my usual character-defining tactics, I decided to give three of them specific music tastes. These music tastes also really helped to mould the personalities of these characters, and made it easier for me to write in their different voices.
The musical soundtrack fan: Somewhere Over the Rainbow by Judy Garland
Sonia Shâd, an Australian/Turkish high school mathematics teacher and wife of Melbourne’s leading drug lord, is addicted to slicing people’s throats and admiring the blood cascade down her victims’ chests.
Now the clichéd thing to do would have been to make her a fan of heavy metal. I didn’t want to go the typical route. Instead, I thought it would be a little more creepy having a song associated with innocence and finding true bliss linked to Sonia finding her true bliss—the pleasure of a kill.
I’ve also used the rainbow as a metaphor for Sonia’s passion for numbers:
It is seven a.m. and everyone’s mailboxes are decorated with dew. When I was a child, I liked to think the dew meant fairies had been out to play during the night. Especially when the sun shone through dispersive prisms of condensation, creating a field of colour across my front lawn. It was the rainbow that first got me interested in mathematics and physics, and its ever-elusive pot of gold. It didn’t take long for me to rationalize that the pot of gold was simply the bait to enrich my knowledge.
As an extra quirk, Sonia’s doorbell plays this song when it’s pressed.
Mia Weston is an insecure overweight high school student, who turns to drugs to lose weight, and experiments with her sexuality to manipulate her drug dealer. She falls for Sonia’s son, Mick, and gets caught up in his family’s criminal activities. She enjoys every minute of it, because it makes her feel beautiful. She experiences a tug of war with her conscience — good girl (who is insecure about her looks, and wants to be a good daughter for her single father) versus bad girl (a beauty queen in Mick’s eyes, and bold and confident when engaging in illegal activities).
Mia is also an aspiring songwriter and turns to these female rock goddesses for inspiration.
I don’t, however, just use these songs to represent Mia’s personality. I make sure the songs appear in the story when the lyrics actually mean something to the scene.
For example, she turns Dirty Jeans up full blast when she realizes she might be falling for Mick. The first line of the song is about being attracted to an ordinary boy. Mick is far from an ordinary boy. Mia listening to this song is almost trying to convince herself that there is nothing to worry about, that Mick may be different than most, but deep down he is normal and she will be safe with him. At the same time, it also gives her a false
sense of self-esteem when she imagines the lyrics, about being beautiful, are being sung to her directly.
On the opposite end of the scale, when Mia is feeling guilty about her actions, she listens to Skinny Little Bitch, glorifying that fact that she is acting like one herself. Of course, she’s still romanticising about being skinny. It’s easier for her to be a ‘skinny bitch’ than an overweight one.
On the surface, Mick Shâd (Sonia’s son) is an absolute thug. He’s foul mouthed, exhibits violent and crude behaviour, and shows no respect to anyone whatsoever. Yet, deep down, he is a gentle sweetheart with a poetic soul, which readers witness through his scenes with Mia.
All his life he has been exposed to the illegal activities of his parents. The biggest thing that haunts him to this day is the blood stain on the back porch, along with the memory of Sonia tucking him in one night without having properly washed the streaks of blood off her skin.
Mick listens to hardcore music to escape his hardcore reality. It’s a way for him to shut the world out when he needs to be alone. Readers also get the hint that he prays to Allah on his seccade (a Muslim Prayer mat in Turkish), when he’s alone in his room too. He clearly has a conscience.
The songs I’ve mentioned above are not actually cited in the novel. Only the bands. This is because Mick isn’t the type of guy to describe what he’s listening to. He just turns his stereo on full blast — full stop. We also experience the loud music coming from his bedroom through Sonia’s perspective, in which she recognises the bands, but can only make out the sound of roar roar roar.
Despite readers never knowing what songs Mick listens to, these are the songs I had in mind when writing the scenes these bands are mentioned in. If you look up the lyrics to these songs, you will glean a lot of meaning from them and how they relate to the story. Though I would have loved to explain all these details in the book, they just didn’t fit. So I had to resolve myself to the fact that they would remain hidden (a true Undercover Soundtrack!”)
If you ever decide to use music for writing inspiration, have a think about how you can create symbolic branches to your music of choice in your story. Not only does it provide a fabulously diverse platter of character food, but it’s also nutrition for your plot. I don’t think I have ever written a book which didn’t incorporate music in one form or another. And now I don’t think I could ever write without it.
Is your story lacking the nutrients it needs? Perhaps some music will help!
Jessica Bell, a thirty-something Australian-native contemporary fiction author, poet and singer/songwriter/guitarist, is the Publishing Editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal and the director of the Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop on the Greek island of Ithaca. She makes a living as a writer/editor for English Language Teaching Publishers worldwide, such as Pearson Education, HarperCollins, MacMillan Education, Education First and Cengage Learning. Connect with Jessica online at her website, retreat & workshop, blog, the Vine Leaves Literary Journal, Facebook and Twitter
GIVEAWAY To celebrate the release of White Lady, Jessica is giving away an e-copy (mobi, ePub, or PDF) to a random commenter of this post.
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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by journalist and contemporary women’s fiction author Fanny Blake @FannyBlake1
I don’t listen to music when I’m writing. If I did, I’d lose my focus on the words and spin off into whatever I was listening to. However I do use music in my novels as an indicator of character or to set a mood. When I’m thinking about a particular scene or someone’s state of mind, then I spend ages (too long, probably) listening to different tracks, or trawling through Youtube, to check that the pieces I choose are the right fit. Sometimes I play them very softly in the background, because they can transport me into the scene I’m writing, but never loud enough to distract me, and not for long.
Musical taste says so much about someone, as Bea, the central character in What Women Want realises when she hears strains of James Taylor coming from the record player in the holiday cottage where she’s been brought for a weekend. She enters the room to see several LPs that she recognises at a glance strewn on the rag rug: Dory Previn, Fleetwood Mac, Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, The Lovin’ Spoonful, Country Joe, The Byrds and of course Bob Dylan. ‘A record collection speaks volumes about a man, she thought.’ The fact that her new lover has hung on to his vinyl tells us something, but so does his choice of music. He’s a man of a certain vintage who enjoys musical nostalgia, and maybe his taste hasn’t moved on much. Bea immediately recognises that they share a similar musical history, giving them that little extra in common. She feels at home.
In my new novel, Women of a Dangerous Age, the two central characters Ali and Lou have quite different soundtracks to their lives. Lou, a woman in her 50s, has left her husband and is starting a new life on her own. Her passion is for vintage clothes, and she plans to set up a high-end vintage clothing shop called Puttin’ on the Ritz. At work, she listens to the songs I remember so well from the old movies my family used to watch on TV. She gave me the perfect excuse to revisit on Youtube the fabulous song ‘n’ dance numbers of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers or, when she walks home with her ex having had a glass or two too many, of Fred with Judy Garland.
Secret passion for cheese
When her lover takes her to a concert at the Festival Hall to hear Brahms’ Symphony Number 2 in D, Lou is too embarrassed to admit she is ‘a self-confessed unreconstructed schlock chick. Cheesy pop and songs from the shows were more her thing but there was no way she’d confess her secret shame to Sanjeev.’ Instead, when alone in the car, she sings loudly and out of tune to Billy Joel and Dire Straits, and nurses a private passion for one of the band members of Take That. When she receives some shattering personal news, she soldiers through an evening with her children before arriving home and turning to Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven to accompany her misery and a good cry. Ah, the cheap emotionalism of music. Lou’s a woman after my own heart.
However, Ali is cut from another cloth. She is of a classical bent. When her lover is clearly distracted, she chooses one of the ‘most soothing pieces of music she knew’ – Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major. She’s a goldsmith who shares a studio with a silversmith. They listen to Radio 3 in the background all day long. She befriends Lou when they’re on holiday in India. Lou invites her to design some jewellery for her shop and before long Ali is helping her in it. When Lou arrives one afternoon, she finds Ali reading a paperback ‘with something classical at full throttle in the background’. Lou’s immediate reaction is to change the CD for Ella Fitzgerald singing All Through the Night, after all it was ‘her shop, so her mood, and this was definitely more the thing’. Although Ali’s lifestyle is perhaps more unconventional than Lou’s, her taste in music is not and I hope that gives a better indication to the quality of her interior life.
I find that using music in my novels is a way of adding an extra dimension to my characters, and one that can often act as a useful shorthand for the reader.
Novelist and journalist Fanny Blake is also the Books Editor of Woman & Home. Her career has spanned almost every aspect of writing. She was a publisher for many years before becoming an author. She has written best-selling non-fiction, ghost-written several celebrity autobiographies and has written two novels, What Women Want and now, Women of a Dangerous Age which was published last week by Blue Door. She lives at home with her husband, a novelist, an ancient cat that’s young in spirit, and however many of their three sons happen to be at home at the time. She goes to the theatre more than is good for her bank account, loves long country walks and chocolate. Find her on Facebook and on Twitter as @FannyBlake1
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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'