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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 award-winning mystery and thriller novelist (and musician) Timothy Hallinan @TimHallinan
I could not write without music.
With more than 7,000 tracks on my hard drive and the best pair of earbuds money can buy, I can create a distraction-free workspace anywhere in the world. That’s necessary because I like to write in public, usually in coffee-shops, where there’s already caffeine in the air and I can look up and steal a face whenever I need one.
I work to playlists with different qualities, most of them 400-1,000 songs long. (My current all-purpose playlist has 1,356 songs on it, heavy on Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand, Jon Fratelli, Emmylou Harris, Mindy Smith, Lindi Ortega, Over the Rhine, etc.) Generally, music seals me off from distraction, provides a source of energy, and, depending on what I’m writing and the playlist I’ve chosen, an actual entry point to certain emotions and even imagery.
I virtually never write without those earphones plugged in. (I’m listening to Jack’s Mannequin right now.) About half the time I work to the all-purpose playlist, which changes all the time as I add new stuff and yank the old. But occasionally a piece of music will emerge and take over the writing of a book.
In my fourth Poke Rafferty novel, The Queen of Patpong, a young woman has leapt from a boat into the dark Andaman Sea near three large rocks called The Sisters. It’s the middle of the night, rain is pouring down, and the water bristles with sea-wasps, a particularly lethal jellyfish. The man in the boat has brought her there specifically to kill her. This is the turning point of the book, and it became the longest action scene I’ve ever written. A few pages in, Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand kicked in, and I immediately put it on a loop. I wrote to it for several days. In the acknowledgments at the end of the book, I wrote:
the chapter when Rose is in the water was written mostly to Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, a piece of music that’s got dark water running all the way through it.
I mention the music I use most at the close of practically every book, and many, many people have emailed me to suggest new artistes. I get a lot of good music that way.
The forthcoming Rafferty book, For The Dead, is largely about a 13-year-old girl having her carefully constructed and entirely fictional identity ripped from her, revealing her to the kids in her exclusive school as a former street child who’s befriended them under false pretences. Much of it was written to Tegan and Sara, who create great, hooky, irresistible rock about girls and young women. They were the primary soundtrack for Miaow’s sections of the story.
But early in the writing process, I began to listen to Fun., and their music crystallized certain aspects of Miaow’s story. At the beginning of the book a phrase from a Fun. song called Benson Hedges, We all float until we sink, keeps running through her mind, and that also song provided the titles of the first two sections of the book: We All Float . . . and . . . Until We Sink. The third section is Drowning Girls, which is a lyric I actually misheard, but there was no way to drop it because it worked so well, and the fourth section is Aim and Ignite, which is the title of a Fun. album.
Finally, in the new Junior Bender book (due out July 2), The Fame Thief, Junior is hired to find out who destroyed the career (and the life) of a young actress in 1950. The central section of the book departs from Junior’s first-person to take us back to the 40s and the early 50s, and for this section I listened to pop music from the day, which had a real impact on both the dialogue and the visual landscape.
If anyone who reads this has some recommendations for me, please comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org And thanks in advance.
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My guest this week describes his novel as having a subliminal soundtrack that wormed into his head and influenced the period, the tone, characters and the ties that connect them. The novel, Blow Your Kiss Hello, is a mystery and a thriller with a bit of Other too. It’s the story of a man searching beyond the boundaries of here and now in the hope of finding his missing girlfriend. It’s set mostly in the 1990s with threads of 1640, a crossing that becomes apparent as Faithless meets Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aenas. He is Andrew James and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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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 poet-turned novelist Dave Malone @dzmalone
As a boy, I stayed up late without my parents’ knowledge, my ear chaffing against stainless steel of transistor radio. Huddled in my bed, I kept my 10-year-old attention alert for the opening to the CBS Radio Mystery Theater, hosted by EG Marshall.
In the country dark of the Midwest, my radio crackled until the bliss of hearing that creaking, almost screeching, door open the show. Then, ominous string and percussion, followed by EG Marshall’s distinct, authoritative voice. And lastly, words coming to life and bringing mystery stories into my bedroom. My imagination soared with dirty dealings, the macabre, and shadow.
While I’ve spent most of my writing life as a poet, I have never lost my love for mystery and detective stories. Living in the Ozarks provides quick and easy access to inspirational characters. Most Ozarkers are no-nonsense and a welcoming bunch — to a point. It was this kind of straightforward man I wanted in my private detective, Walt Records. In my novelet, Not Forgiven, Not Forgotten, I wanted him educated at college for a couple of years, before he considered it useless. And I wanted him a smart-ass, but wise. Tough, but tender.
Music is almost always essential for me to getting started, to diving down into the moment. Whiskey has a similar effect, of course. I like to write in the early afternoons. With a bourbon. Everything else fades away, except the characters, the moments.
My private detective keeps shop on the downtown square of a small Ozark town. About the only other private dick in the county, Records comments:
Jones ain’t as good as me. He’ll charge you double, and he’ll find the same shit I did.
For Records, I needed music dark and soulful. Something rural and tough. Something lean. And I found it, in The Hank Dogs. The British band’s eponymous album played throughout not only just the composition but the revision as well.
Mostly, I’m interested in the sounds of The Hank Dogs. The female vocals, the harmonies, the trailing guitar. However, I’m an Angel could well have been written by Walt Records himself who narrates the stories. The song’s sentiment is that we are being judged — not necessarily by Records — but actions have consequences on a person, and this is very much this private detective’s belief. Records is a dark, sarcastic anti-hero, yet he acts with integrity. Despite his fuck-ups and misgivings, he knows he’s ‘an angel by comparison’ to others, including a town preacher and the community’s leading philanthropist — who both are leaders in the town’s dark underbelly of drugs and scams.
There wasn’t anything better to get me started with the action of Not Forgiven than a pleasant three fingers of Wild Turkey and some Hound Dog Taylor and the Rockers. Upbeat, tough, mean, spirited, tender, poetic describes this powerhouse of an album. She’s Gone, Walking the Ceiling and Give Me Back My Wig are three winners. I played this CD while Records chased down leads: crashing Adam’s Rib bar, getting pistol-whipped by the corrupt preacher man, and flying through the night in his old Chevy Cav for the next clue.
The love interest, Madeline (Mads), is a lanky, tough, strawberry blonde, and according to Records
That girl is all fire and no rain.
Mads is strong and independent, and the Cowboy Junkies’s Witches set the mood I needed for Records’s arrival at her place when he wasn’t sure she’d be interested:
I wouldn’t say it. Cuz a man only says certain things to a woman. Madeline might have known I’d been clobbered in the face by the butt of a .357, but she didn’t say nothing about it when she answered her door at 10:14 that night. She hadn’t gotten a text from me, and she was a free woman, but I played the odds that on a weeknight, another rooster weren’t in the chicken house.
To keep me from getting too romantic, I drafted their love scenes by also listening to Billie Holiday’s God Bless the Child. It has such greats as I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You, I Cover the Waterfront, Don’t Explain, and He’s Funny That Way. He’s Funny (lyrics here) plays into the spirit of both Records and Mads — tough Ozarkers, they ain’t beauty queens. But they’re real solid inside. And maybe despite town corruption and any personal insecurity, these two strong characters might find love in Not Forgiven, perhaps like a boy who found love so many years ago in an unexpected place — a storied voice on a transistor radio.
From the Missouri Ozarks, Dave Malone writes crime fiction and is also the author of five poetry collections, including Seasons in Love. His latest volume, View from the North Ten: Poems after Mark Rothko’s No. 15, is forthcoming from Mongrel Empire Press. His interests, bordering on obsessions, include Alan Watts, Ozark culture, crime fiction, gardening, and minor league baseball. He publishes a monthly e-newsletter, If I Had a Nickel, whose title derives from the sentiment of his rascally Ozark grandfather. For more, visit davemalone.net or find him on Twitter @dzMalone.
GIVEAWAY: 5 Kindle copies of Not Forgiven, Not Forgotten to be won! Dave is excited to give away a generous 5 copies of his novelet to commenters here – and as usual, extra entries if you report in your comment that you’ve spread the word on other media.
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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'