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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 historical action/adventure novelist Dianne Greenlay @DianneGreenlay
Soundtrack by Carl Orff, Dvorak, Poitin, Immediate Music, Samuel Barber, Moby
Quintspinner – A Pirate’s Quest is an adventure set in the pirate-infested waters of the West Indies, 1717. The story opens with William, a young man who is searching for his older brother and his father, both of whom have not returned from the pub the night before. When I write, I usually have a scene playing out like a movie in my head and I know that my word choice is strongly influenced by background music.
Therefore, wanting this first scene to be one of ominous and rising tension in the chill of the pre-dawn semi-darkness, I listened to Carl Orff: Carmina Burana, O Fortuna. It provided the perfect musical setting for the sense of building panic which begins in Chapter One and which peaks in an unexpected incident at the end of Chapter Two. And like the title of the music, with that incident, William’s fortune is about to change forever.
My main protagonist – Tess Willoughby – a young woman from a privileged home in London, is the daughter of a well-to-do physician, who unexpectedly witnesses the murder of an old seer. Coming into possession of the dead woman’s odd ring – an ancient Spinner ring, known by the locals as the Ring of Prophesy, she is wrongly accused by her father of having stolen the ring, and soon, by her father’s arrangement for the family, she becomes an unwilling passenger on a merchant ship bound for Port Royal, Jamaica.
For Tess, this is the beginning of a coming-of-age nightmare unfolding in a world that is completely foreign from everything that she knows. The daring sea journey begins, and Dvorak’s Fourth Movement from The New World Symphony painted the background for me as I captured the events along the brave, yet hazardous journey.
There will be dancing
William, meanwhile, also finds himself on board a ship and at the mercy of a sea-hardened captain and crew. In my research about the lives of sailors and pirates in the eighteenth century, I’d read that dance was a way in which the sailors coped with boredom at sea, and presumably, I thought, the copious amounts of grog that they drank gave their feet wings, if not rhythm. Dance was an activity of fellowship, and at times, a competition and a way of showing off.
The challenge given to William by his captain is to provide an evening of entertainment that is meant to lower the dangerous level of mounting tension between two acrimonious sailing crews forced to share one ship. The song, The Congress Reel, is an old Irish reel meant for the flute, fiddle and drum. That was a perfect, almost mandatory accompaniment for writing this scene, as those were the instruments that would have been available to the crew members. Although there are many versions of The Congress Reel, the frenzied tempo as used here by Poitin was just as I envisioned the sailors’ dance to be sounding like.
As I wrote the dance scene, the music filled my head and, spurred on by the song’s rhythm, my typing fingers flew over the keyboard. I could feel the sailors’ tensions dissolving and much to my surprise, during this dance scene, Mrs Hanley, another favorite character – a cheeky, middle-aged woman – showed an unexpected flirtatious side to her that came to have great significance in the plot later on.
A rhythmic splash
A pivotal point in the story is the sea battle in which the merchant ship that Tess and William are sailing upon is overtaken by a brutal pirate crew. The pirate ship’s approach is one of stealth until the last moment:
There it is again! A rhythmical splash, not unlike the ocean’s melody, a soft regular swish as their ship sliced through its surface, but this sound lagged ever so slightly, as though it were a half a beat behind their own.
And then it hit him. At first it was just an uncertain whiff. A faint tendril of pernicious stench, full of human decay, rot, and unwashed flesh. His nostrils flared involuntarily and he swallowed back his stomach’s attempt to empty.
William’s heart began to pound so hard in his chest that it felt as though it was knocking the air right out of him. He whirled on Smith. “Sound the alarm!” he hissed.
I needed some commanding music as explosive as the desperation of the life-and-death ensuing battle that I was next writing. To me, there is nothing more powerful than a full orchestra backing an enormous choir singing in Latin and Immediate Music’s Lacrimosa provided that. I could hear the roar of cannon firing, could smell the gunpowder, could feel the burn of the salty sea spray on my lips and in my eyes, and could hear the courageous screams of the men in battle, as the details appeared on my computer screen.
Further into the story, I was writing a softer scene in which characters and readers alike were forced to say a sad farewell to Da’, William’s much beloved father. Adagio For Strings by Samuel Barber played in the background, bringing me to tears as I wrote. I believe that my choice of words touched my readers as deeply, as I have since received comments from readers such as this: ‘This book kept me on the edge of my seat. It even made me cry.’
However, not all is heart pounding action or melancholy in Quintspinner. A happy ending is my preferred ingredient for every successful story and this tale is interspersed with laughter, folk wisdom generously and wryly doled out by Mrs Hanley, and life lessons gained by all. As I was wrapping things up, I needed to hear something that was upbeat but not frilly, and yet something that hinted to me that the story was not quite finished, that there would be much more adventure brewing in Tess’s and William’s future, and I composed my last few chapters while gaining inspiration from the urgency of the beat and melody of Extreme Ways by Moby (which has since been chosen to be the closing theme music for the Bourne movies).
All in all, these music pieces transported me to a magical time and place and provided me with the vivid images and emotions that I needed to capture the story. Music was indeed the magical ingredient.
Dianne Greenlay is a debut author. Her historical action/adventure Quintspinner series has proven to be wildly popular with readers on Wattpad. Greenlay is also the author of The Camping Guy, which is available as both a short story and a one-act comedy (live theater script). Although she lives most of the year on the land-locked Canadian prairies, Greenlay enjoys traveling and frequently can be found in tropical climates hiking, cave spelunking, snorkeling, and sailing while researching historical sites in preparation for her writing. Her website is here, and you can also find her on Facebook and Twitter @DianneGreenlay.Dianne is a member of the League of Extraordinary Authors.
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My guest this week has a taste for the adventurous. Her novel is set in the pirate-infested waters of the West Indies in 1717, and her characters are unwittingly pulled into a hazardous sea journey. The music that sustained this imaginative voyage is epic and foreboding, but not without its lighter elements. My guest discovered in her research that sailors used dance to ward off boredom on the interminable days at sea, so she wrote a scene to the soundtrack of a reel. But it became more than dance; when the characters shrugged off their tensions they began to behave in unexpected and delightful ways. In case you’re imagining it’s all lace, beards and cutlasses, though, there’s a distinctly modern note at the end: Moby makes an appearance (no, not the whale). The author is Dianne Greenlay (one of my co-conspirators at the League of Extraordinary Authors) and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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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 bestselling historical fiction author Helen Hollick @HelenHollick
The Time : The Golden Age of Piracy – 1716. The Place : The South African Coast to the Caribbean.
Before writing Sea Witch, music was mere background noise. Meeting my pirate, Captain Jesamiah Acorne, changed that. Was this because I went indie, or does Jesamiah require more ‘audio colour’?
Music enhances the mental process of writing. I ‘see’ scenes as if watching a movie; a soundtrack brings them to life. I start with Mike Oldfield. I heard Tubular Bells in 1973 when it was first released. It remains a favourite, only overtaken by subsequent versions. This track is inspiring; it hurls me into the world of imagination. I listen to this when I need to empty my mind and ‘timeslip’ into the past.
Going indie and the pirate route
I went indie after my mainstream publisher dropped my backlist – The Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy : The Kingmaking, Pendragon’s Banner, Shadow of the King, and my novel of the 1066 Battle of Hastings, Harold the King (US title: I Am The Chosen King). My ex-agent also dropping me, strengthened my resolve to self-publish. I had nothing to prove, and being an indie author keeps me in control.
Sea Witch joined my reclaimed novels in print. This was a leap of faith in my ability as a writer, and the popularity of Jesamiah; who doesn’t like pirate adventures? According to publishers, though, pirates are not popular. What about Jack Sparrow? The first Pirates of the Caribbean movie was not intended to be taken seriously, but where were similar adult novels with adult situations? Finding nothing, I gave up the search and wrote the book I wanted to read.
The plot developed while I was on holiday. I had my heroine, Tiola, a healer and a white witch; secondary characters, and the ship, Sea Witch. But not my dashing Captain. I gazed at the sea listening to another Mike Oldfield : Sentinel from Tubular Bells II. And there stood Jesamiah in full pirate regalia. Blue ribbons in his black hair, a gold acorn dangling from his ear. He touched one finger to his hat, nodded. ‘Hello Jesamiah Acorne,’ I said. That track always makes me think of his enigmatic character; quick to laugh, formidable when angry. As skilled with a cutlass as he is in bed. A man who values his freedom, and the woman he loves.
Jesamiah is a treasured friend, although with each voyage I discover more about him. He gets easily into fights, and do not get into a drinking contest with him – he’ll win. He pays too much attention to a pretty face (or the anatomy slightly below the face!) but despite his indiscretions he is devoted to Tiola.
Another Oldfield selection is Weightless Tubular Bells II – for Jesamiah and Tiola to make love to. (Superb Video, although nothing to do with the sea.)
On the sea
I’ve never been on a moving ship and have no idea of nautical matters; instead, I devour O’Brien, Forrester and Julian Stockwin. I use imagination for the swaying of the ship, hear wind in the sails and the creaking of the hull. To be on deck, feeling the rise and dip of her bow as Sea Witch ploughs through the waves. Muse music is Promontory from Last Of The Mohicans … The swaying rhythm and grand majesty of a ship and the sea…
Sea Witch opens with pirates giving chase for a prize. Suitable inspiration for writing fights: Master and Commander. Later, Jesamiah is pursued by pirate hunters. He is injured, and the streets of Cape Town might become his graveyard. Tiola senses his difficulty and must find him before he bleeds to death.
Recovering, Jesamiah realises he is in love, a realisation nudged by a rival for Tiola’s affections. But Jesamiah also has his love of freedom and the sea. With the opportunity to acquire a ship he must make a choice – the ship, or Tiola. The Old Ways by Loreena McKennitt captures that moment when the call of the sea is greater than love.
No spoilers; suffice to say he sails away without Tiola… The question, over and over, in Enigma’s : Why?
Initially, Sea Witch was a stand-alone novel but Jesamiah stole my heart; Pirate Code followed, then Bring It Close, which includes the notorious Blackbeard. One of the delights of writing ‘made up’ novels, as opposed to based-on-fact historical fiction, is the freedom to manipulate true events while remaining plausible. In Bring It Close, Jesamiah masterminded Blackbeard’s demise, but states:
I do not want my name writ in any record book.’
Which is why you will not find him in historical documents.
Back to Sea Witch: The lovers reunite when Jesamiah is again in danger. Tiola rescues him… except this is a chance for Tethys, Goddess of the Sea, to take Jesamiah for her own. Cue Enigma’s I love you, I’ll kill you. Is love more powerful than greed? The final scenes were an emotional conclusion. I put my heart and soul into Sea Witch – it is for those of us who seek escapism, adventure and passion within the pages of a book. A ship glides across a calm sea, sails filled with a following wind. A man stands at the helm: Mike Oldfield Misty Tr3s Lunar.
Helen Hollick lives in Devon, UK and hit the USA Today bestseller list with her novel The Forever Queen. Her full booklist including The Sea Witch Voyages is available here, her website is here, her blog is Of History And Kings, you can also find her on Facebook and on Twitter. Find an even more extensive list of the songs that inspired Jesamiah here.
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My guest this week used to regard music as a mostly-ignorable atmosphere. Then one inspirational moment changed everything. She was listening to Mike Oldfield when a character leaped, fully formed, into her imagination – an enigmatic pirate of the Caribbean, skilled with a cutlass and a roguish smile. This character also proved a turning point in her career, as her agent advised her that the adult readership did not want stories about pirates. But so strong was her conviction about the character that she wrote him anyway – and thus her indie career was born. She is Helen Hollick, her novels are the Sea Witch series, and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack. All say ‘arrr’.
authors, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, Helen Hollick, inspirational moment, Mike Oldfield, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, pirate adventures, pirate novels, pirates, Pirates of the Caribbean, playlist for writers, romance, Roz Morris, Sea Witch, Sea Witch voyages, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music
- 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'