If you’ve followed this series for a while, you’ll recognise my latest guest. Gwendolyn Womack writes romantic thrillers imbued with a sense of metaphysics, time and memory. Her stories come to her through music and her Undercover Soundtracks have always been haunting and unusual, with a strong sense of place and emotion. I urge you to check out her first time on the series, when she introduced us to an album recorded inside the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid in Egypt. For her new novel, she conjures a psychometrist who can feel the history in any object he touches – so her mental and musical soundscape includes 1700s Vienna, 1400s Prague and the red plains of empty Australia. Drop by on Wednesday for her latest Undercover Soundtrack.
Searching for places, emotions and characters – Gwendolyn Womack
My guest this week is another returner to the series. When she posted about her first novel, her preoccupations included memory and time, and they return again in this new work – a romantic thriller based around the twined stories of an ancient memoir and the world’s first Tarot cards. Music was key to creating these different lands and lives and her mental soundscape includes a tour through ancient Egypt, Milan in the 1400s and the modern seers Dead Can Dance. She is Gwendolyn Womack and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
The Undercover Soundtrack – EJ Runyon
‘We become readers in our listening’
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.
‘We become readers in our listening’ – EJ Runyon
My guest this week wrote her book from a soundtrack of nostalgia – she describes it as a mix of Spanish-language songs and an American flavour of yearning. She used music and lyrics as signposts and milestones, to transport her into the mind of a child, to show the passing of time and the key moments of her young life. At one point, the character learns the violin and the author searched the internet until she had tracked down actual lesson books that would have been used by a child of that period. She is writing coach EJ Runyon, and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
The Undercover Soundtrack – Wendy Storer
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 Mslexia award-winning YA novelist Wendy Storer @WendyStorer
Soundtrack by Metallica, Linkin Park, Papa Roach, Avenged Sevenfold, Rush, Green Day, Razorlight, The Killers, Blink 182, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, Nirvana, The Who, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Sugarcult, Rise Against, Arvo Part, Willie Nelson, Seafood
Bring Me Sunshine is the story of a young musician, Daisy, a wannabe rock drummer thwarted in her ambition by her dad’s resistance to noise. She’s 15 when she realises his bizarre behaviour and increasing number of memory lapses might be due to more than a quirky personality, and as the story unfolds the impact of Dad’s dementia on Daisy’s life is uncovered.
Hope, direction and power
I couldn’t have written this story without immersing myself in the sort of music Daisy loved and aspired to play.
Drumming is my heartbeat…
she says; it gives her hope, direction and power. When she can no longer play, she is lost.
I listened to hours, days, weeks’ worth of music in order to put myself in Daisy’s shoes. I found myself thinking ‘Daisy would LOVE this’, or ‘this isn’t Daisy at all’. I discovered bands like Linkin Park, Papa Roach, Avenged Sevenfold and Rush, and made myself a playlist of their music. Other bands on the list were Green Day, Razorlight, The Killers, Blink 182, as well as the rock gods of my own teen years: Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, Nirvana, The Who, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Metallica…
Daisy’s playlist took me back in time to the memory of what it was like to be a teenager, (messing up at school, falling in love for the first time, wanting something so terribly badly that just didn’t seem possible) and helped me connect to her life now.
Bring Me Sunshine is a sad story, but it’s also a story of hope, of living in the moment and how that sets Daisy free, so the music I chose to listen to was often tinged with sadness, always powerful and at times liberating.
This song for example – Nothing Else Matters by Metallica – never failed to put me in touch with Daisy. I imagined her wrestling with her fears, afraid of the consequences of both truth and lies, then hearing Metallica’s power ballad about the need to trust in ourselves and be true to who we really are, before coming down on the side of truth.
Songs for resonance
Each chapter is a song title, and every single song was chosen deliberately for its emotional resonance. Daisy listens to: Numb by Linkin Park when she first starts to realise something is wrong with Dad; I Miss You by Blink 182 when she’s remembering her mum; Memory by Sugarcult when Dad remembers his brother Ziggy; No Prayer for the Dying by Iron Maiden when Daisy and little brother Sam go out into the stormy night to search for their lost dad. These are all powerful pieces of music with a touch of melancholy, and mean something in the context of Daisy’s experiences in the book. This is Letting Go by Rise Against has a more hopeful vibe and it’s what Daisy (and I) listen to when Daisy finally faces up to her problems and tells someone what’s going on at home.
And so my playlist, my undercover soundtrack, is also Daisy’s. Apart from this one piece of music – Variationen zur Gesundung von Arinuschka by Arvo Pärt. I would often listen to this while out on Kendal Castle with my dogs. It’s a piano solo, which begins with a simple melody and builds into something more complete and rounded. There was something about the quiet minimalism of this tune which always helped me get back to the story. There’s still that hint of melancholy in the beginning, but as the tune builds, the deliberateness and focus somehow takes over. On reflection there is something about this tune which mirrors Daisy’s journey. I did not know until I wrote this post that the title means Variations for the Healing of Arinushka. I couldn’t find anything about the history if this piece but I completely ‘get’ how the healing quality of this piece has always led me back to Daisy’s story.
The referenced title track of Bring Me Sunshine is an acoustic version of the song by Willie Nelson. Sunshine (both literally and metaphorically) is what Daisy needs in her life.
If I had to choose one song from Daisy’s playlist to represent the story, I would choose this one – This Is Not An Exit, by Seafood with Caroline Banks on drums. It comes near the end of the story, when Daisy has started to play the drums again and is able to listen to tracks with female drummers once more. This song captures the mood of the book for me. There’s something about the quality of the sound, the chord dynamics and the lyrics also, which resonates with the Daisy in me, in a way that the other songs don’t quite. When I hear this, I can feel Daisy fighting back, finding herself and knowing that whatever has happened in the past, and whatever else happens in the future, she will find a way to be happy.
Wendy Storer is the author of YA stories Bring Me Sunshine and Where Bluebirds Fly. Bring Me Sunshine was a finalist in the Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition 2012. She is interested in stories which tug at the heart strings and the amazing resilience of people who battle through desperate situations to come out the other side, happier. Originally from Essex, Wendy now lives in Cumbria where she teaches creative writing to adults and children, and offers editorial help to writers through Magic Beans literary service. When not writing, Wendy likes to walk her dogs, spend time with her family, and find new and exciting food combinations involving peanut butter. Find her on her website, blog, and on Twitter as @WendyStorer
‘Drumming is my heartbeat’ – Wendy Storer
This striking phrase is a manifesto for a character who lives, breathes and seeks refuge in music. She is Daisy, an aspiring musician coping with a family member who is slipping into dementia. In the early stages of writing, her creator found that she would judge every piece of music she heard on whether Daisy would love it or not – and so the character was created by a series of instinctual responses. Memory is necessarily a theme here too, which became strangely real for the author as the music of her teens brought back the times she messed up at school, fell in love and wanted something so badly it didn’t seem possible. She is Wendy Storer and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.