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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 editor and author Aaron Sikes @SikesAaron
I go for instrumental over vocal music when I write. Spoken or sung lyrics are a distraction. My mind wants to catch the words and hold them long enough to get immersed in the experience of the song. But with orchestral or ambient electronic music, my imagination is free to roam through my story worlds.
My serialized novel, Gods of Chicago, was drafted to the title track of Joe Satriani’s Time Machine. Satch paints pictures with melody, and every one of his songs can bring an image to mind. Listening to Time Machine as I wrote brought to mind scenes of dirigibles soaring overhead while automatons march on the streets below. Radio signals beep and crackle through the air from spires and beacons. Bootleggers’ sedans rumble down back alleys, and my protagonist, a hard-boiled newshawk named Mitchell Brand, races around the city to find the answers nobody else seems to care about. Following on the tail of Time Machine, I happened upon a mind-blowing noir soundtrack by Josh Pfieffer of Vernian Process (DJ Fact.50). The Mixcloud of his DJ set, Noir Jazz and Swing, saw me through first round revisions.
As I moved into deeper revisions, I got turned onto three soundtracks. I started with Hans Zimmer’s score for The Dark Knight. The moody atmospheric quality of the music was a perfect fit for the noir landscape of my story, and the score really helped me get under Brand’s skin a lot better.
In early drafts of the character, I had him as a mashup of Edward R Murrow and Philip Marlowe as played by Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep. This gave Brand a rough exterior and a hard nose for news, but he lacked depth of feeling, and I couldn’t get into his motivation well enough to fix that problem. Once I had The Dark Knight soundtrack playing in the background, I quickly found Brand’s core as a WWI veteran, and much more than the ronin I’d originally thought him to be. He’s still a man obsessed with truth, but he’s also a would-be father to the three newsboys who answer to him. That puts a softer edge to the character, making him feel more like a real person.
I’ve also written to Zimmer’s score for Inception and Daft Punk’s soundtrack for Tron Legacy, which have been incredible for helping me visualize major action scenes, flight and escape scenes, and moments of peril faced by all the major characters in the story. The ambient symphonic quality of both soundtracks is also responsible for me discovering how much more my supporting cast has to say. Previous drafts were Brand-centric, but now I have two major POV characters in addition to Brand, and each supporting cast member gets a little air time of their own.
Last but not least, when it comes to editing, I change gears and go with Adrian Legg – Guitars and Other Cathedrals. The exacting and fluid brilliance of Legg’s fingerstyle playing calms down all thoughts of action and suspense and puts me right into editor mode, smoothing out clunky prose, fixing typos, and ensuring clarity.
Aaron Sikes has been writing and editing full-time since late 2011. Gods of Chicago is his first full-length novel and he has previously had three stories published in anthologies by independent presses. Find him on Twitter @SikesAaron or visit his website http://www.ajsikes.com. He is also one half of the editing/formatting duo, The Wordwrights, with fellow author Colin F Barnes.
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You could divide my Undercover Soundtrack guests into those who aren’t put off by lyrics and those who are. My guest this week is one of the latter. He says that music with lyrics is too domineering when he’s trying to write – but that orchestral or ambient electronic music sets his imagination free to roam. His novel is a quirky noir of dirigibles, automata, back alleys and a hardboiled hack (the bipedal journalistic sort, not an equine), and his central character was honed by long hours simmering with Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack for The Dark Knight. He is Aaron Sikes and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
Aaron Sikes, authors, Chicago, Desert Island Discs, detective fiction, drama, entertainment, episodes, fantasy, film soundtracks, Gods of Chicago, Hans Zimmer, instrumental music, lyrics, male writers, movie soundtracks, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, noir, noir fiction, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, serial fiction, serialised fiction, steampunk, The Dark Knight, The Undercover Soundtrack, The Wordwrights, undercover soundtrack, writers, writing, writing to music
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 NYT bestselling author and ghostwriter Joni Rodgers @JoniRodgers
Soundtrack by Dick Dale & the Del Tones, The Playboys, Rockin’ Rebels, The Ventures, The Trashmen, The Tremolo Beer Gut, Propellerheads, Shirley Bassey, Fabulous Playboys, B-52s, Booker T & the MGs, Dave Brubeck, Archie Bell & the Drells, Caroline Savoie, Hanson, Cake, Nancy Sinatra, Duffy, Amy Winehouse,
Kill Smartie Breedlove is the story of a Shep, a dishonored cop, and Smartie, a pulp fiction writer, who is convinced that Shep’s employer, divorce attorney Suri Fitch, is behind the murders of several of her clients’ inconvenient exes. It is the most fun I’ve ever had writing a book – ever – and was born out of a pure pleasure reading/listening binge of pulp fiction (hardboiled mysteries of the 1930-60s) and ‘pulp music’: electric guitar and percussion-driven beats embodied by Dick Dale & the Del Tones’ Misirlou – which a lot of people associate with the movie Pulp Fiction. The Playboys’ Cheater Stomp actually gave me the original working title.
As I absorbed a plotting masterclass from Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the vaguely nerdy vibe of the music took me to a creative place that was fun and full of reckless energy, a semi-cool throw-back to horn-rimmed glasses and pencil pants. The Dick Dale channel on Pandora features The Ventures, Rockin’ Rebels and other old-timers along with gritty off-beat wonders like The Trashmen and a Danish band called The Tremolo Beer Gut. These instrumentals are driven machine-gun percussion and gritty electric guitar leads. They’re a bit reminiscent of the theme music from The Munsters – which might explain the macabre undertones that rumble and rise throughout the book, which has a lot of ‘whistling past the graveyard’.
Rhythm and sense memory
Two songs that anchored me to my original vision with rhythm, lyrics and sense-memory: Propellerheads (featuring Shirley Bassey) History Repeating and The Fabulous Playboys Nervous. Archie Bell and the Drells Tighten Up always reminds me of exactly what I love about Houston, which is very Southern but very urban.
Roam by the B-52s plugged me into the quirky artistic tourism that compels dysfunctional Smartie to observe people and extrapolate their backstories. Dave Brubeck’s classic Take Five and Booker T & the MGs’ Green Onions perfectly capture the plodding procedural aspect of Shep’s work and the patiently canny way he goes about his daily grind.
Both Shep and Smartie are widowed, and a collection of cover versions of Bill Withers’ Ain’t No Sunshine kept me mindful of how that terrible loss motivated and defined them. Two of my favorite covers are Caroline Savoie and Hanson. (Seriously! As in ‘MmmBop’ Hanson. They grew up. Sort of.)
Divorce attorney Suri Fitch’s calculating brilliance (and Shep’s ill-timed attraction to her) steps out of Cake’s Short Skirt Long Jacket, while the transformative sorrow, betrayal and bitterness she sees (and generates) in her business are present in Nancy Sinatra’s Bang Bang, Duffy’s Stepping Stone and Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black.
One of my favorite aspects of this novel was the chance to write about the publishing industry with a bit of the ol’ gimlet eye. Smartie and her critique-mates, a group of women authors called the Quilters, approach writing life with a wistful pragmatism best expressed by Nancy Sinatra remixing one of her dad’s standards, This Town.
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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 crime writer Terrence McCauley @tmccauley_nyc
People who know me or have read my work may be surprised by how much music influences my writing. I don’t listen to music when I write or even edit, but at other times, a chance song on the radio or browsing the musical selection on my phone can help spark an idea for a scene or an entire story line.
The best examples are the novels I’ve written. The first – Prohibition – is a crime novel set in 1930 with an opening scene of the protagonist stalking someone through the cold, lonely streets of New York City. One could be forgiven for believing that scene was inspired by any number of noir movies – of which I am a huge fan – but in this case, they’d be wrong. The opening scene was inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s song Murder Incorporated. When I heard that song for the first time, the drum beats that open the song reminded me of footsteps echoing on an empty street as someone is fleeing for their life. The sax sounded like car horns blaring past the unfortunate man now on the run.
The ending of the novel (which I won’t give away here) was inspired by 3 Doors Down’s Love Me When I’m Gone, a mournful tune that fit the ending of the book rather nicely.
Hard luck cases
My novella Fight Card: Against the Ropes is a prequel to Prohibition and details the protagonist’s boxing career before he became a mob enforcer. The protagonist – Quinn – has always had his own soundtrack in my mind that was different from the over all soundtrack of whatever story in which he appears. In Against The Ropes, Quinn’s soundtrack comes to the fore: Everlast’s What It’s Like is a song about hard luck hard cases, a description that fits the Quinn character nicely. The ending of the book, where Quinn accepts the inevitable end of his boxing career and agrees to become an enforcer for the very men who have ruined his career, was inspired by the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil. The crafty, patient villainy of the song seemed appropriate for Quinn’s acquiescence of a life of crime.
The third book I have out now, Slow Burn by Noir Nation Books, is also set in 1930s New York, but the protagonist is a police detective named Charlie Doherty. He’s a corrupt, impure Tammany Hall hack and a man whose life is on a downward spiral. His wife left him, his career is ending in ignominy and he’s running out of reasons to get up in the morning. The melancholy, yet strong song Better than Me by Hinder suited Doherty well and I wrote the story with that tune in mind. Some people who have read Slow Burn think Dean Martin’s Ain’t That a Kick in the Head inspired the ending. But I thought of a more triumphant, slightly cocky song. How You Like Me Now by The Heavy worked best and it gave me inspiration for the ending scenes.
Music doesn’t only influence the beginning and ends of my books. I also draw inspiration from music for other types of scenes I write. For more sentimental scenes, I listen to the theme from The Shawshank Redemption soundtrack or Now We Are Free by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard from the Gladiator soundtrack. The Band Perry’s If I Die Young inspired me to write a few scenes for a western I’m working on now called The Devil’s Cut.
My work tends to have a lot of violence and action, and music plays a role in my crafting of those scenes as well. House of Pain’s Jump Around as well as Rob Zombie’s Super Charger Heaven have hard, edgy, fast-moving tempos that get the juices flowing and help me create scenes that pop.
Terrence P. McCauley is an award winning crime writer. His latest novel, Slow Burn, is currently available in e-book format from Noir Nation Books on Amazon. His other books Prohibition, published by Airship 27, and Fight Card: Against the Ropes (Fight Card Books) are also available on Amazon. His website is here and you can follow him on Twitter @tmccauley_nyc and Facebook.
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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 musician, playwright, performer and award-winning novelist Nathan Singer @nathansinger1
My music and my fiction are often so inextricably linked there is very little separating the two. The music that I write for my bands is fairly ‘literary’ I suppose … and sometimes I just rip off my own novels for lyrics (gotta do whatcha gotta, and so on). Each of my novels corresponds to a different musical genre: A Prayer for Dawn is a thrash novel, In The Light of You is a punk novel etc. As such I often write — and occasionally record — my own soundtracks for my books to get a sense of tone first and foremost. Today I will be talking through the sounds that inspired/created/were created by my blues novel Chasing the Wolf, my only novel to date whose original soundtrack album was officially released, originally as part of a special limited edition of the book, but now for all to have on its own. So here is the (free) full soundtrack album that I wrote and recorded to accompany Chasing the Wolf called On Through the Night. It’s best to listen along while you’re reading the book.
Beyond my own original music, though, many masters of the form make direct (and indirect) cameos within the novel, and their music was playing constantly throughout the writing of the book. Let’s dive in, shall we?
Part One – Midnight Creepin’
The song quote that starts Part One is from a song by Rev. Robert Wilkins called That’s No Way to Get Along. It captures the deep well of the main character’s sorrow (as does the Blind Willie song below), and it’s also foreshadowing of what’s to come in the story.
The plot of Chasing the Wolf, in a nutshell, is this; a young white artist named Eli Cooper is living in NYC in the early 2000s with his beautiful African American wife Jessie. Jessie is a dancer. They are an ultra-hip couple. All is going just swell, until Jessie is killed in a tragic backstage accident. Overcome with grief, Eli attempts to commit suicide. He runs off into the night in a bind frenzy, passes out in Central Park … and wakes up in Mississippi 1938. Cue Dark Was The Night, by Blind Willie Johnson.
Once Eli accepts that he is not dreaming, he sets out through the dark of the night to try and make sense of what has happened.
Part Two – Dry Long So
Eli muses that one of his favorite blues legends Robert Johnson would by murdered at a juke house soon. He ponders how cool it would be to go witness it when he realizes that a mysterious young black man he had met some time ago back in NYC was actually the one and only (and long deceased) Howlin’ Wolf (the ‘Wolf’ of the title). He decides he needs to find Howlin’ Wolf in order to get back home. What Eli does not yet know, however, is that both he and Howlin’ Wolf are being followed by group of men in fancy, pinstriped suits that are likely not men at all. They are the hellhounds on your trail that Robert Johnson sang about. (Robert Johnson makes a brief but important cameo in the novel as well, but Eli never meets him.)
(Here I am channeling Robert to the best of my abilities at Morgan Freeman’s blues club Ground Zero in Clarksdale, Mississippi.)
Part Three – In Devilment
Even though Skip James only gets a passing mention in this novel, his music informed the entire vibe of the novel and I played him constantly during the writing. His music is just so sinister and otherworldly, it provided the perfect ambiance.
In his search for The Wolf, Eli takes up lodging at a boarding house near West Point, Mississippi. To his shock he discovers a beautiful young widow working there named Ella Brown. Ella Brown looks, talks, and by all appearances is his late wife Jessie, even though she doesn’t know Eli at all, and is a bit frightened of him (much to his heartbreak).
Unbeknownst to Eli, Ella and another maid from the boarding house slip out of the house to a juke joint one night to see Howlin’ Wolf. After the show Wolf comes up to Ella and says, desperately:
You gots to tell him come find me, Miss Jessie.
Ella has no idea who ‘Jessie’ is. Out behind the juke house, Ella catches Wolf ‘killing’ a white man (actually one of the hellhounds).
When I’m upset, blood leaks from my head. When I’m over the edge my gums bust open and my nose bleeds and my eyes get little red polka dots on them.
You’ll have to read the novel to find out why.
Part Five – Lonely One in this Town
Eventually Eli catches up to Wolf. For a moment Eli thinks he sees a way out of his situation and con maybe even get Jessie to come with him. But, as Mr LeRoy Carr says in How Long Blues, the train seems to be gone. Here I am reading/ performing the scene – enjoy!
Nathan Singer is a novelist, playwright, composer, and experimental performing artist from Cincinnati, Ohio. He is the author of the critically acclaimed novels published by Bleak House Books A Prayer for Dawn, Chasing the Wolf, In the Light of You and the forthcoming sequel to A Prayer for Dawn, Blackchurch Furnace. He is also the lead vocalist, lead guitarist and principal songwriter for the bands Starshaker and The Whiskey Shambles. He is currently at work on two new plays, an opera, and three albums of original music, plus probably some other stuff. His website is here, connect with him on Facebook, or Twitter @nathansinger1.
1930s, authors, bereavement, Blind Willie Johnson, blues, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, Howlin’ Wolf, LeRoy Carr, literary fiction, literary novels, male writers, Mississippi Sheiks, music, music for writers, music for writing, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Nathan Singer, noir, playlist for writers, Robert Johnson, Robert Wilkins, Roz Morris, Skip James, spiritual possession, The Undercover Soundtrack, time travel, undercover soundtrack, writers, writing, writing to music
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 2011-2022. 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'