Posts Tagged soundtrack
‘An expectant silence, a connection to something greater’
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 writing workshop facilitator and novelist Kathryn Craft @KCraftWriter
Soundtrack by A Great Big World, Christina Aguilera, LeeAnn Womack, Pentatonix, The Civil Wars
When Roz first asked me to write a post for The Undercover Soundtrack, I didn’t think I had one in me. I can only escape into story, it seems, while writing in silence. It soon dawned on me, though, that music had played a rather mystical role in the development of my newly released second novel.
The Far End of Happy is the story of three women who must make tough choices and face shameful secrets while awaiting the outcome of a loved one’s daylong suicide standoff. Sadly, the novel is based on true events. Frustrated by my husband’s insistence that I stay in a marriage he was unwilling to contribute anything toward saving, I felt I had no choice but to break my marriage vow to save our young sons. In 1997 I determined to divorce; he pre-empted that action with a more desperate move.
I waited a good long time to gain the perspective I needed to tell the story, and got the book deal in the fall of 2013 after turning in the manuscript for my debut novel, The Art of Falling.
Music first entered the story in 2014—or so I thought—when I was driving a few hours to Harrisburg, PA to do a TV taping to talk about my debut. Surfing the radio to find something new, I came upon the kind of expectant airspace that can only mean a song is about to begin.
The odds against tuning in at that exact moment are great enough to make you think that the Universe is about to speak.
It brought to mind another time that had happened—the day I woke up for my husband’s funeral.
I woke up at 5:30 am habitually on our small Pennsylvania farm, but due to the deviling notion that I may have been able to prevent my husband’s horrific act, sleep had eluded me. It was a morning service, so to be safe, I set the radio alarm. My eyes opened as I heard a soft pop from the clock. A simple opening of the airwaves. A connection to something greater. Again, that expectant silence.
I listened to the new-to-me song—Leeann Womack’s You’ve Got to Talk to Me. The futility it evoked rang through loud and clear, as if in absolution: you can chase someone with your hand extended all you want, but if he never turns back to take it, there’s nothing you can do.
Little did I know that in 2014, after the expectant silence on my drive to Harrisburg, I was about to hear that message reiterated.
Cue music, take two
The song was so quiet, at first: plaintive piano, small breathy voice, strings that added a wealth of emotion. Its difference from most of the songs you hear on popular radio grabbed me right away. Sad yet determined harmonies that built to the point they demanded to be heard.
Later that day, on the station’s website, I looked up the title: Say Something by A Great Big World and Christina Aguilera. The similarity to You’ve Got to Talk to Me struck. Only this time, the point of view was not of one who is chasing or begging: it was of one who is walking away. By bookending the painful arc of my decision to end the marriage, these two songs anchored me to the inner conflict from which I needed to write. A conflict without end, thanks to my husband’s unforgettable act, so perfectly evoked by the haunting refrain of yet another tune I discovered at that time, Poison & Wine by the Civil Wars.
A few months later, in the final throes of the novel’s development, I stumbled upon a Pentatonix cover of Say Something that I loved even more. This time the sombre mood took on an anxious edge through the plucking of a cello.
In the video, the singers stand together yet facing forward. Parallel grief. When the others add on to Kirstin’s initial solo statement, they seem to say that vocalising pain is so crucial to our human connectedness that even the sound of ‘oo’ releases sadness that cannot be kept at bay. Switching to the mournful resonance of bowed cello, Kevin vocalises the pulse of the breaking human heart. Avi’s lament on the vowel ‘oh’ at 2:25 is enough to break me to pieces. One imagines that each of them sings from their own pain, but together, they make something beautiful.
Because our emotions are beautiful, and important, and should be shared. They are the heartbeat of story and music and life. They are our bridge to shared experience, and my husband’s final, silent downturn shows that emotions left unexpressed will rot us from within. We see this message inherent in the end of the Pentatonix performance: the one person who has vocalised but not yet sung, Kevin, is offered the final plea.
In the Pentatonix arrangement the song ends without resolution. The same is true with my novel, because one of the great legacies of suicide is the plethora of unanswered questions. To be true to my experience, this 12-hour story could not be tied up neatly and put away. Healing for my family would extend on as we shared our sadness and fear. But the unresolved song, like my story, ends on a rising note, because we also shared our hope.
For those of us who choose life this day: may the expression of your innermost self go on and on—whether through the arts or the glorious intimacy of the human voice—in all its pain and beauty.
Kathryn Craft is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. Her work as a freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she leads writing workshops and retreats, and is a member of the Tall Poppy Writers. Her Twitter campaign, #choosethisday, is designed to empower others with the notion that each day we get up and go about our business we are choosing life. What will you do with yours? www.kathryncraft.com. Find Kathryn on Facebook and on Twitter @KCraftWriter
#choosethisday, A Great Big World, Christina Aguilera, contemporary women's fiction, family stories, family suicide, Kathryn Craft, LeeAnn Womack, music for writing, Pentatonix, soundtrack, Sourcebooks, Tall Poppy Writers, The Art of Falling, The Civil Wars, The Far End of Happy, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, Women's fiction
I have been looking forward to sharing this Soundtrack with you. I’ve known the writer for a number of years on social media as we’ve moved in the same Venn diagrams, but when I saw the pre-publicity for her latest novel I had to approach her for this series. One of the hallmarks of these posts is that they are deeply personal journeys, and this novel is perhaps an ultimate example – it’s based on true events, the suicide of her husband. Do you recognise her already? If you’re in our Venn diagrams, perhaps you do. Before I confirm her name, let me say a little more about the music. This Soundtrack is a series of songs that reached out of the radio at the right time, to comfort, add perspective or share a moment; to make it possible to create a novel out of such a happening. She is Kathryn Craft, and she’ll be here on Wednesday with the Undercover Soundtrack to The Far End of Happy.
family bereavement, family grief, family stories, grief, Kathryn Craft, music, music for writers, music for writing, social media, soundtrack, soundtracks for healing, The Far End of Happy, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Venn diagrams, Women Writers
‘A sense of collective trauma across a century’
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 Suzie Grogan @keatsbabe and @shellshockedgb
Soundtrack by Nick Drake, Kenneth Branagh and the Moody Blues
An ‘Undercover Soundtrack’ reflecting the writing I have been doing over the past two years, and which I will continue to work on for the foreseeable future, offers a particular challenge. Not specifically character driven, yet evoking a sense of collective trauma across a century, my most recent book Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health is a call to arms for those responsible for supporting service personnel and their families on into the 21st century. It is a tough subject, taking a writer to scenes of horror and despair worthy of the darkest psychological thriller; yet the writing must inspire hope and promote understanding and compassion. Some 80,000 men were diagnosed with shell shock during the Great War, but that is a gross under-estimate. It does not include those that broke down post-war, or who suffered in silence until the ends of their lives. It does not include those on the Home Front – families torn apart by grief, or affected by the trauma of air raids. The soundtrack to Shell Shocked Britain is a varied one indeed.
The first track I have to mention is Day is Done, by Nick Drake. Drake was a precociously talented young man who found the world a difficult place to live in, despite the opportunities that it offered to express himself through his love of music. My poor husband, regularly working with me at home, was shushed and ignored as I tapped away to the complex and unorthodox guitar and the melancholy lyrics.
Can despair ever be gentle? As I wrote Shell Shocked I came to realise that ultimately it was the return to what passed for normality, the requirement to fit in to a world forever changed, that broke many men post war. One young man wrote, in a note found in his pocket following his suicide
The day is one of intense loveliness, but the purpose for which I came down must be accomplished.
He had served with great courage at the Front, but life had become meaningless for him. Men lost their way, could no longer communicate with loved ones and found solace in self-medication.
Occasionally I would reach a point in the manuscript where I felt drained of any emotion and it was then I would turn to Nick Drake. He ended his life with an overdose of antidepressants, planned or accidental. The track recharged my commitment to expose the horrors and give that despair a voice.
Is it cheating to include a recording of poetry? Kenneth Branagh reading The Parable of the Old Man and the Young by Wilfred Owen (a poet whose death occurred so close to the end of the First World War that his parents received the telegram on the day the Armistice was signed) was a track that I turned to when I really wanted to evoke that real sense of horror at what the men in the trenches suffered, without any graphic depiction of the physical privations. Read so simply, the deep meaning can elude you. But if ever I needed reminding that despite all the warnings, in the face of so much evidence, a man’s emotional and physical well-being was denied throughout the period of the Great War and then for years afterwards, this is the track I turned to. Those final lines are chilling:
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Researching Shell Shocked Britain I was not surprised to read that those in government were reluctant to step back from the horrors, but I was stunned at the level of ignorance that continued well after the war, and which left families to cope with damaged men, or consigned them to lunatic asylums.
Finally, no other song threads its way through the pages of my book like Question, written by Justin Hayward and sung by the Moody Blues. Question – how would we respond to a Spanish influenza outbreak that killed 200,000 people in a year? Question – how could anyone really believe that a spiritualist medium could talk to sons, brothers, lovers lost in the mud and blood of the trenches to the point where some 5000 séance circles were established and thousands would crowd halls large and small to hear a medium communicate with the dead? Question – why did doctors continue to believe men with symptoms of shell shock were malingerers or cowards well beyond the end of the war, leaving thousands of men lost in local lunatic asylums? Question – why do we hear so little about the rise of the eugenics movement post First World War, little realising that many historical figures advocated the eradication of the mentally ill from the ‘breeding’ stock of Britain. And Question – why, 100 years on are young men and women still suffering levels of PTSD wholly unacceptable in a modern military?
We may not have the answers, but we, like the Moody Blues, must keep asking the questions.
Suzie Grogan is a London-born writer, researcher and editor, published in national publications on the subjects of health (focusing on mental health), women’s issues and social history. She has had two books published and is currently working on two further commissions for Pen and Sword Books for publication in 2016 and 2017. In her spare time she dabbles in fiction and has her own imprint, Mickleden Press. Married with two children – one a philosopher, one a high jumper – she lives in Somerset but has her heart in the Lake District and London. Her long-standing passion for poetry, especially John Keats, has led to the wicked rumour that there are three people in her marriage… Find Suzie on her website, her blog, Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter, where she is both @keatsbabe and @shellshockedgb. Shell-Shocked Britain is available on Amazon or from the publisher.
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‘Music is a ritual of invocation’
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 medieval literature scholar and metaphysical fantasy writer Alice Degan @ajdegan
Soundtrack by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Maddy Prior, Adele, Sarah Slean, Loreena McKennitt, Squirrel Nut Zippers
Before iTunes, making a mix of music to write to used to be this whole ritual. For me it was one of those great para-writing procrastination activities, like buying notebooks or clearing off your desk. I’d want to carefully select a track to go at the beginning of the CD, which served as a kind of invocation to set the mood as I sat down to write. Often this one would be a song that wasn’t musically appropriate to the setting, but had some apposite lyrics, or related thematically somehow. With From All False Doctrine, which I began after I had started migrating my music library onto my computer, things were a bit different. It was easier to create a soundtrack, which deprived the ritual of some of its distracting power, and it wasn’t necessary to select just one track to open with. Several different songs ended up playing that role of invocation.
Adding to the choir
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was the track that most often functioned as an entry point. It’s an exquisite piece that embroiders on the melody of one of my favourite hymns. It builds slowly and quietly, but reaches a dramatic climax. Listening to Vaughan Williams’s version calls to mind not so much the exact words of the hymn but its general theme and mood: a feeling of inadequacy in the face of greater powers, and a plea to God for the strength to add my own voice to a great choir. That spoke to me as I approached my writing, and it evoked the concerns of my main characters in their different pursuits.
If it’s the life you feel called to, it’s what you should live. If you’ll pardon the expression.’
‘ “Called. “’ He grinned up at her apologetically. “It implies there’s Someone to do the calling.’
‘It’s just a turn of phrase,’ she said sternly.
From All False Doctrine is set in the 1920s, but jazz music isn’t a major feature of the plot, and didn’t help in its creation either. Of course that’s partly due to my own musical tastes. But it’s also partly because the book is set in Toronto, which was still a fairly conservative city in the ’20s, not a hotbed of the kind of social and artistic innovation that we associate with the decade. A jazz soundtrack wouldn’t quite capture the mood of 1925 Toronto as I understand it. My story centres on the worlds of the university and the Anglican Church. My hero, Kit Underhill, is a young Anglo-Catholic priest in the working-class neighbourhood of Earlscourt, an area populated at the time mostly by English immigrants. Elsa Nordqvist, my heroine, is a classics student who has lost her faith in God but believes passionately in her academic calling.
The words to a number of hymns feature in the story, but I didn’t listen to most of these while writing: they’re songs I know from years in the pews, not from recordings. Jesu, lover of my soul, in Maddy Prior’s atypical rendition, was one I did play while writing, though it doesn’t get a mention in the story. Privately, though, I know that my characters like it: I think of it as expressing something of Kit’s spirituality while at the same time evoking Elsa’s Protestant upbringing.
Then there are songs that evoke just the right mood even though the style and lyrics may have no obvious connection to the story. One of those for this book was Adele’s Set Fire to the Rain, which spoke perfectly of the unhappiness of a secondary character, Harriet Spencer, a charismatic young woman who is abandoned by her fiancé. (Come to think of it, she looks a little bit like Adele, especially in that video!) Sarah Slean’s Society Song evokes something of Elsa’s relationship to propriety: it’s a defiant, upbeat song that made a nice contrast to the more contemplative tracks on my list.
Star of the County Down is the shiftless fiancé’s theme. A classic folk song about a determined suitor, it’s also very close in its tune to another hymn, I heard the voice of Jesus say, so it evokes two aspects of this character for me. I have several recordings, but the one I had on the False Doctrine soundtrack was Loreena McKennitt’s rendition from The Wind That Shakes the Barley.
Finally, because of the turn that the story takes towards the end, the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ Hell made it onto the soundtrack.
He reached for her hands and then stopped. ‘At midnight my soul—whatever that may be—is forfeit to that thing and its Master. Do you think I would hesitate to throw you to him, to save myself?’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘You are hesitating right now.’
I’m working on a sequel now, and the song I use to get in the mood (this is a slight spoiler) is Sarah Slean’s Angel.
Alice Degan is an academic and novelist who lives in Toronto. She studies and teaches medieval literature, and writes fantasy and something she likes to call metaphysical romance. From All False Doctrine, a supernatural mystery wrapped in a 1920s comedy of manners, is her first published novel. She also has a series of urban fantasy stories involving a collection of misfit otherworldly characters who live above a bakery. You can find her on Twitter as @ajdegan, or on her website.
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I find it so interesting how one novel’s soundtrack can absorb so many styles. My guest this week has written a supernatural mystery wrapped up in a 1920s comedy of manners and her soundtrack is a glorious tour of classical, folk and madcap jazz. Even more interesting, she uses Thomas Tallis – as my guest did last week – but with such a different outcome. We all operate in our own key of creativity, which is one of the wonders of this series for me. Anyway, this week you’ll be entering the classical, folky and knock-bones skelly-shaking jazzy world of Alice Degan – and her Undercover Soundtrack.
1020s, Alice Degan, authors, classical, comedy, comedy of manners, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, fantasy, folk, jazz, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, romance, Roz Morris, soundtrack, supernatural, supernatural romance, The Undercover Soundtrack, Thomas Tallis, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music
‘First he hears sounds; urgent and deep, like a heartbeat in the ground’
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 it’s my turn on the decks – with the Undercover Soundtrack for Lifeform Three
Soundtrack by Boards of Canada, Peter Gabriel, Enya, Vangelis, Gabor Presser, Ralph Vaughan Williams
Lifeform Three is a fable in the tradition of Ray Bradbury, set in the near future, where global warming has shrunk the landmass and the countryside has been sacrificed for buildings and roads. One valley remains, of woods, trees and meadows, and is now kept as a theme park – The Lost Lands of Harkaway Hall. My main character, Paftoo, is a groundsman there. He’s the odd one out; the only soul who’s uneasy in a world that everyone else accepts. You could say he lives in a utopia – but to him it’s a dystopia.
Music became the story
I knew the emotional beats of Lifeform Three before I knew the story. They came to me as pieces of music, a chain of albums and tracks that suggested the landmarks of the novel. I would load them into my MP3 player and take them running, puzzling over them as I pounded out the miles.
Paftoo is a bod – an artificial human who’s programmed to do menial tasks. To keep him efficient, his memory is regularly wiped, but he has inklings of other memories. We meet him after such an event (known as a ‘sharing’). My first beat was that state of newness, a world shining and fresh where you go out and do your tasks, content with simple instructions. In the beginning, Paftoo doesn’t even know his own name until he realises the sole of his boot has a number – 2 (his name is an alphanumeric, short for Park Asset Field Redo Bod 2).
Boards of Canada’s album Music Has The Right To Children told me the innocence of new, eager eyes, especially this track, An Eagle In Your Mind.
The novelty doesn’t last long. There’s a wildness in Paftoo and by the end of his first day, he’s made the others wary of him. He’s also frustrated. But worse is to come when night falls. While his companions go dormant and lifeless, Paftoo starts to dream.
Again, the idea came as a feeling from music – Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ suggested a tingling in the nerves, a meaning that must be grasped.
First he hears sounds; urgent and deep, like a heartbeat in the ground
The dream sequence was choreographed to that album. It starts with a sense of unease, then that beat gallops in like the thing you knew was coming.
Horses, flashing across the green hills in glorious gallop. Necks reaching, tails streaming. Riders on their backs, urging them faster.
Paftoo opens his eyes, shocked. He knows he’s not supposed to dream. He also knows that nobody rides horses now. They’re untamed animals in the fields (and known as Lifeform Three). But at the same time it makes perfect sense in his restless soul. From that moment, Paftoo has a mission. Every night, he goes looking for clues that might explain why he has these dreams and what happened to him before his mind was wiped. By day, he struggles to hide his true nature in case he’s wiped again.
In a small way the story is autobiographical. In winter 1995 I acquired a horse, which had been an ambition since I was a kid. Like the horse Paftoo later befriends, my horse was enormous, black and alarmingly excited to be alive – especially with the frost nipping his clipped skin. I was laughably incompetent on his back, especially when trying to stop him. While sceptical (and wise) folk waited for me to give up and sell him, I was determined to persevere. If I couldn’t handle my dream, what did that make me? That first winter, Enya’s Anywhere Is was in the charts. I wasn’t a fan of her music, but when I came to write Paftoo’s attempts to tame a horse I listened to Enya to capture that time. For some reason Caribbean Blue with its waltz rhythm brought back the sense of a wondrous adventure, the tentative courtship of a wild creature and the sense of being alone on a dumb-headed quest for something inexplicable and ideal.
A song called Caribbean Blue that takes me back to an English winter, riding horses? Like dreams, Undercover Soundtracks have a logic of their own. Or I take no notice of lyrics.
During the writing, my soundtracks had to become a time machine. Those first days with my oversized horse were, as you can probably see, long ago. Reader, I kept him, and he was now reaping the arthritic rewards of a vigorous life. I was having ghastly conversations with the vet because if her treatments didn’t work it was time for the gun. I clung to those music tracks to help me give his glory days to Paftoo while the real situation seemed so hopeless. Thankfully, he rallied and we gallop on (on a good day).
The horse awakens Paftoo’s sense of the natural world, which humanity seems to have lost. Again, music already contained what I needed to say. Vangelis’s Pulsar was the thrill of galloping feet
‘gathering up the miles and throwing them out behind’.
Electromantic La Baletta No 2 – by the Hungarian composer Gabor Presser had feisty, fertile joy, like a primitive spring ritual. It smells of untamed hair and corduroy. And whoever said electronic music lacked a soul? Both these tracks are entirely electronic, made from circuits and wave generators, yet they bound and leap like wild animals.
Past, people and a vanished time
But there’s a lot more to Paftoo’s quest than riding and nature. They are merely the beginning; the gateway to a profound discovery of his own past and the people and creatures he loves. Now I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but I can say that the more he recovers, the more he stands to lose and the more desperate his day life becomes. This impossibility was exquisitely insisted in Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending.
The piece was written in 1914 and 1920, in an England changed forever by the first World War. That period would also be the heyday of Harkaway Hall, the mansion that used to stand at the heart of the Lost Lands, where Paftoo now struggles to keep his memories. The Lark Ascending seems to say that what will be lost is more than just the loves of a few souls in a little story; it speaks for the loss of time, grace, of fallen walls in overgrown woods, bumps under the turf in an empty field. That violin seems to be shrilling from the skies: it won’t last. We won’t last. And how can Paftoo save it?
Roz Morris is, of course, your host on The Undercover Soundtrack. Find out more here, connect on Twitter as @Roz_Morris and on the writing advice blog Nail Your Novel. Her first novel was My Memories of a Future Life (Soundtrack here) and Lifeform Three is now available in all formats, including print.
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‘Music to make a creative space’
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 romance novelist and Novelicious founder Kirsty Greenwood @kirstybooks
Soundtrack by Jeff Buckley, Fairground Attraction, Phoenix, Carole King, John Grant, Grease 2, George Fenton, Color Me Badd, Bobby Helms, Skeeter Davis, Rosemary Clooney, Duke Ellington, Stacey Kent, Best Coast, Stevie Wonder, Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, George Gershwin, Rufus Wainwright, Ella Fitzgerald, Toni Braxton, Ani Difranco
I always intended to have a career in music. Encouraged by musically minded parents, my sisters and I spent much of our teenage time singing in harmony. We were cool that way. Known for our rendition of The Andrews Sisters’ Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, we performed in local pubs, at karaoke, family birthday parties and such. We still get asked to perform Boogie Woogie, but it’s not quite so adorable now we’re in our 30s. At 22 I studied music at college, sang, learned to play the guitar and wrote whimsical/folksy pop songs. I won a ‘Song of the Year’ award and wrote and sang for a local bhangra/pop producer. Music was my everything. Shortly after getting my degree, I was hit with a period of bipolar depression that lasted for over a year. I stopped performing and lost all interest in pursuing music professionally. During my recovery I started to write romantic comedy – writing fiction is remarkably similar in process to writing songs (both crafted in terms of story, rhythm, theme, timbre, pace and texture) – and found it to be hugely enjoyable as well as restorative.
A creative place
I use music to quickly access a creative state, particularly if I’m procrastinating on a book or I’m having a day when I don’t feel like writing jokes. So before a writing session I’ll listen to songs that buoy my spirits, energise and inspire me. Jeff Buckley (Mojo Pin, Vancouver and So Real are all shortcuts to a mood lift), John Grant’s Queen of Denmark album, Carole King’s Tapestry, Eddi Reader, Phoenix, Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, Rufus Wainwright, Ella Fitzgerald, plenty of 80s power ballads and, er, the Grease 2 soundtrack which just straight up makes me laugh.
When deep into writing I love the easy companionship of music, but find anything lyrical too entertaining and end up singing along. I’ll listen to classical music and film instrumentals, particularly Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, George Gershwin and George Fenton, whose You’ve Got Mail soundtrack really helped me to get into a jaunty, ‘romcom’ mind-set for Yours Truly, as well as making me think about Nora Ephron and how I need to try harder.
Back to the 90s
My debut novel, Yours Truly, gave me a legitimate excuse to listen to lots of 90s pop. My leading man, Riley, has a thing for the supremely cheesy band Color Me Badd (they had one hit song, it was called I Wanna Sex You Up), and there’s a sex scene set to Toni Braxton’s extra randy You’re Making Me High. Music was used to bond the main characters, as it does so much in real life. Riley, an amateur musician, sings little off-the-cuff ditties to Natalie in order to woo her, and she is constantly amused by his willingness to expose his 90s pop ‘fanboying’.
I’m now writing my second book. It’s called The Vintage Guide to Love and Romance (published June 2014 with Pan Macmillan) and is the first in a series. One of the central characters, Matilda Beam, is a 77-year-old writer who can’t let go of her 1950s glory days. When my protagonist, Jess, meets Matilda, she’s sitting in a grand, cluttered room, listening to a Bobby Helms record on repeat. I find the melodies of most of his songs melancholy and the hefty reverb used on his voice makes it sound otherwordly and creepy. I wanted to provide a soundtrack for the scene that would give the audience an immediate insight into Matilda’s state of mind and also to freak out the thoroughly modern and lively Jess.
I have a dedicated Spotify playlist for The Vintage Guide to Love and Romance. These are the songs I’ve listened to in order to connect with characters and emotions, or to help me get to the ambience of a scene more clearly. The most often played tracks on there are:
End of the World (Skeeter Davis): Hauntingly beautiful, lonely and lost. A soundtrack for Matilda Beam in 2013.
Sophisticated Lady (Rosemary Clooney, Duke Ellington): Sultry and smoky, this song perfectly embodied the young Matilda Beam as a socialite and writer in the 50s. When I listen to this, I think of her being spun across the dance floor at some fabulous New York party.
Wishin’ and Hopin’ (Ani Difranco): I saw a tongue in cheek video for this song on the opening credits to My Best Friend’s Wedding and it mirrors the way Matilda Beam believes women ought to behave in order to find love. Its ludicrousness always makes me laugh and Ani Difranco’s raspy voice sounds so damn sexy in it.
This Can’t Be Love (Stacey Kent): The main romantic relationship in The Vintage Guide to Love and Romance is kind of screwball in nature with fast dialogue, disagreements and a touch of slapstick. This charming little song always puts me in mind of that.
Up All Night (Best Coast): I don’t know much about this band, but I stumbled upon this song on YouTube before I began work on the book and immediately felt it was a perfect fit for the character of Jessica Beam. It’s bursting with youthful longing and excess. I listen to this on repeat before working on emotionally charged Jess scenes.
And there you have my Undercover Soundtrack. Thanks so much for having me, Roz!
Kirsty Greenwood is an author of comedy romances, founding editor of Novelicious.com and director of the Novelicious Books imprint. She likes American TV, green clothes, Point Horror, Kristen Wiig and funny stories. She doesn’t like the Ironside theme tune or the phrase ‘nom, nom, nom’. Yours Truly is out now (Pan Macmillan). Find her on Facebook and tweet her on @Kirstybooks
Ani Difranco, authors, Best Coast, Bobby Helms, Boogie Woogie, Carole King, classical music, Color Me Badd, contemporary fiction, Danny Elfman, Desert Island Discs, drama, Duke Ellington, Eddi Reader, Ella Fitzgerald, entertainment, Fairground Attraction, George Fenton, George Gershwin, Grease 2, Hans Zimmer, Ironside, Jeff Buckley, John Grant, Kirsty Greenwood, Matilda Beam, music, music for writers, music for writing, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Nora Ephron, Novelicious, Pan Macmillan, Phoenix, playlist for writers, Point Horror, romance, romcom, Rosemary Clooney, Roz Morris, Rufus Wainwright, Skeeter Davis, soundtrack, Stacey Kent, Stevie Wonder, The Andrews Sisters, The Undercover Soundtrack, Toni Braxton, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music, Yours Truly
‘That eerie chorus was the soundtrack of their deaths’
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 journalist and novelist Catriona Troth @L1bCat
Soundtrack by The Specials, The Selecter, Barrington Levy, King Tubby, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Malkit Singh, Alaap with Heera Group UK
My novel, Ghost Town, is set in Coventry and Brixton in 1981. Around that time, young musicians from different communities were developing styles of music that melded sounds from their cultural roots with modern pop, and writing lyrics that expressed their anger and discontent. The music they produced played a vital part in taking me back to those times and in helping me identify with characters from three different communities.
Coventry in 1981 was the city of 2 Tone Records and Ska; it was also a city riven by conflict between skinheads and young Asians. The 2 Tone sound was essential to the atmosphere I wanted to create.
Ska has its origins in the West Indies, but by the time it stormed Britain in the late 1970s and 1980s, it had a flavour all its own. The line-up of the bands on Coventry’s 2 Tone label – like The Specials and The Selecter – were a mix a black and white musicians, and the message of their songs was often explicitly anti-racist.
One of the characteristics of the 2 Tone sound was the use of a horn section, epitomised by Rico Rodriguez’s wailing trombone sole at the start of The Specials’ Ghost Town – surely one of the most haunting openings to a pop song ever written. Ghost Town inspired not only the title of my novel but underpins much of its mood.
That was the day that The Specials released Ghost Town. For days it keened from every radio, every jukebox, every stereo. Those stabbing horns and that eerie, wailing chorus became the soundtrack of their deaths.
Equally poignant is the voice of Pauline Black, lead singer of The Selecter. Black’s voice slides from contralto (in Three Minute Hero) to soprano (in On My Radio) – dark and light all in one unforgettable package.
Tracks like these helped me to unlock memories and recapture the feel of those troubled times.
Down in Brixton, the defining sound for the young Black community was reggae. If 2 Tone drew me back into my own past, then reggae opened a doorway into a different world. Like most people, I knew a few Bob Marley tracks, but in writing the book, I explored others like Barrington Levy’s Shaolin Temple and King Tubby’s Flag Dub.
Most of the rioters had slipped away through the alleyways, back into the maze-like estates beyond. Behind the blank façade of the night, the sound of reggae spilt into the air. Brixton was celebrating.
At the same time, dub poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson were performing live to a reggae backing beat. Highly political lyrics written in Jamaican dialect (such as LKJ’s New Crass Massahkah) capture the fury that led to the Brixton riots in a way that no amount of reportage could possibly convey.
Back in Coventry, the third element of my story lay among young British Asians, many of whom arrived in Coventry as children when their parents were expelled from East Africa.
Many young Asians identified with the 2 Tone sound, but they were also developing a sound of their own. It would be another two years before the first Bhangra records were pressed, but meanwhile, local bands were experimenting with blending the traditional sound of instruments like the dohl (drum) and the single-stringed tumbi with Western pop.
Most of us are familiar with Bhangra music now from films like Bend It Like Beckham and Slumdog Millionaire, but back then it was new, exciting and a little bit dangerous. Fans were known to gatecrash weddings where the best bands were playing.
The stringed instrument opened by twanging out a melody and was answered by the seductive beat of the drum. The singer threw back his head and produced an ululating sound that formed a contrapuntal beat. The other instruments joined in one by one, weaving between the two rhythms … Feet tapped and bodies began to sway. A circle of dancers formed, energetic and sinuous –hands clapping, wrists twisting and shoulders shaking.
Those early bands were unrecorded, but you can catch something of their feel from listening to the earliest Bhangra stars, such as Malkit Singh, on Putt Sardaran Da or Alaap with Heera Group UK on Chamm Chamm Nachdi.
Listening to these three styles of music helped me get under the skin of the different characters, to absorb something of their rhythms and to switch from one ‘mode’ into another as I moved from scene to scene.
Catriona Troth is the author of the novella, Gift of the Raven and the novel Ghost Town. She is a former researcher turned freelance writer and a regular contributor to Words with Jam magazine, and a proud member of the Triskele Books author collective. Find her on Twitter as @L1bCat and on her blog/webpage at CatrionaTroth.com.
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‘Music to reshape the world’
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 US National Book Award winner William Alexander @williealex
Soundtrack by Zoe Keating, Tom Waits
Both of my novels, Goblin Secrets and Ghoulish Song, are set in the same city and unfold at the very same time. They also share a soundtrack. The first is about a goblin theatre troupe. The second is about a girl who loses her shadow and becomes a musician.
First let me tell you a bit about this shared setting. Zombay is a playfully broken place, its pieces repurposed and cobbled together. The noise of and voice of this city clanks and clamors. One single bridge — the Fiddleway — connects two halves of the city (barely), and various musicians play at all hours to keep that bridge from falling over.
Luce Strumgut the sailor explains how and why in Ghoulish Song:
“You can shape music to reshape the world, just as words do in charms and curses. Sailors learned that first.” Luce proudly tapped the tip of her nose with one finger. “We sang chanties to the rhythm of oar and hoisted sail. It’s madness to trust your own weight to a bit of bark adrift on water. It’s only ever possible to face up to that madness with a song. So we made the music necessary to hold a barge together—or a bridge. The madness of the bridge, of walking and living and building whole houses high above the River, is only possible with many songs. You can hold anything together with the proper tune—or you can tear it apart.”
Two albums in particular helped me map out my city and hold it together.
First I used Real Gone by Tom Waits. I often started a writing session with Hoist that Rag. It’s a working song, a sailor’s song, and it has an urgency and a clanking, jangling rhythm that I found especially useful.
Once Tom forced me awake and growled at me until I started working the album would fade into background noise. That’s no criticism of its quality. All of Real Gone rewards close listening, but the songs didn’t seem to mind humming and muttering between themselves while I mostly ignored them and went about my writing business. There’s one track I couldn’t ever ignore, though: How’s it gonna end? Every time it came up I would write faster. Tom needed to know the ending, and so did I.
Lyrics can be distracting, though, and the stories told and hinted at in the rest of How’s it Gonna End don’t really match up with the stories I was working on. The other album I had set to endless repeat was Zoe Keating’s Into the Trees—an absolutely gorgeous album, played by a single cellist looping and accompanying herself. Keating composes ideal soundtracks for dark fairy tales. You can stream the tracks from her site, but pay particular attention to Optimist.
Take a moment to imagine both Tom Waits and Zoe Keating guest-starring on The Muppet Show. That sense of unsettling playfulness is pretty much what I was aiming for. If I hit the mark, then I owe it to those two musicians.
William Alexander won the US National Book Award for his first novel, Goblin Secrets, and the Earphones award for his narration of the audiobook. His second novel, Ghoulish Song, just came out. He read the audiobook for that, too. Will studied theatre and folklore at Oberlin College, English at the University of Vermont, and creative writing at the Clarion Workshop. He lives in the Twin Cities, right in the middle of the States. Find him online at goblinsecrets.com and on Twitter under @williealex.
Brief hiatus: The Undercover Soundtrack is taking a short break and will be back in two weeks’ time on 13 November. See you then!
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‘Rhythm taps into the part of my brain that lets the words flow’
The Undercover Soundtrack is a weekly series by writers who use music as part of their creative process – special pieces that have revealed a character to them, or populated a mysterious place, or enlarged a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by author and journalist Jennie Coughlin @jenniecoughlin
Soundtrack by Simon and Garfunkel, Seal, Greg Laswell, Brian Kirk, Lady Antebellum, John McCutcheon, Stop Making Friends, Missy Higgins
It was almost 15 years ago, as a rookie reporter, that I discovered Simon and Garfunkel’s The Boxer made the words flow on deadline. Even today, when I’m on deadline for my fiction writing I’ll put it on repeat on my iPod.
Music has always been part of my writing toolkit. Since I first joined my parish’s children’s choir in third grade, music has been something I use to connect more deeply in many aspects of my life. When it comes to writing, it’s probably the second most-useful tool in my toolbox.
For the rhythm
Music is versatile. Sometimes I’ll use it for the rhythm, because that taps into the part of my brain that lets the words flow. The Boxer is my go-to song for this, but while drafting the novel I’m in rewrites on, I found Seal’s Amazing helped one day when I was stuck. Greg Laswell’s Off I Go falls into this category, too. My sister maintains that if I were a kid today, I’d be diagnosed with Asperger’s, and this is one of those instances where I agree with her — when I’m using music for its rhythm, I’ll put it on repeat, sometimes for hours if that’s how long I’m writing. I call it my brain’s musical marinade.
I don’t just use repeat for rhythm, either. The revisions I’m working on now involve a lot of tension-building, and I’ve had Brian Kirk’s Vance’s Dossier from the NCIS Score album on repeat. It’s one of the few occasions I’ll use a completely instrumental piece. Probably because of my background in singing, I tend to choose my writing playlist based on song lyrics. But Vance’s Dossier has that creepy “something’s not right” feel I’m trying to thread through the story I’m telling.
It’s a contrast to what I consider my theme song for Exeter, the small town where my series is set: Lady Antebellum’s Hello World. You can see it in the opening of my short story collection Thrown Out: Stories from Exeter as Riordan sits on the porch, enjoying a quiet late summer day. And then a different side later in the book when newcomer Chris has to decide if he can trust people in Exeter not to hurt him in the “broken, like I’m never gonna heal” line:
Joe was still running his mouth as he stood a few feet down the third base line, waiting for a chance to score, but Dan seemed to be ignoring him. Chris felt the tension ease from his shoulders that the impending fight had been so easily defused.
Chris rubbed his hand over the scar on his arm. He was suddenly glad there was no alcohol allowed on school grounds, that the scent of stale beer was only in his head. He pressed his hand onto the warm bleacher, the ridged metal as far from chipped brick as possible.
When I’m trying to get into Riordan’s head, the lawyer/town storyteller, I’ll put on John McCutcheon — his Last First Kiss captures how Riordan feels about his unique relationship with Becca that starts in Thrown Out. When he’s in storytelling mode, it’s McCutcheon’s Greatest Story Never Told.
Lyrics lead to scenes
Because my storytelling is character driven, lyrics often spark thoughts about the characters. The journey of the characters in the novel I’m revising is perfectly captured by Stop Making Friends’s Fear. And when I was honing my writing skills on fanfiction, Missy Higgins’s Where I Stood was the theme song for my first novel-length work. I was three chapters from the end, wrestling with a key scene. And as I listened to the song while working on something else, it clicked. I was trying to write it between the wrong two characters — the ex-lovers — when it needed to be the ex- and the current partner having the conversation. I’d heard the piece a few thousand times at that point, but it wasn’t until my brain had soaked in for that long that the pieces fell into place.
Jennie Coughlin was raised in Franklin, Massachusetts and the author of Thrown Out: Stories from Exeter. Her first short story was the final project for a local history unit in middle school, and it sparked a love of both fiction writing and local history that continues to this day. She graduated from the University of Missouri with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She has worked as a reporter and editor for community newspapers based in Massachusetts and Virginia. A life of living in small college towns with lots of history and strong arts communities comes through in her stories about Exeter, a small mill town in the Blackstone Valley of Massachusetts. The name is a nod to her hometown’s history, but Exeter isn’t based on Franklin or any of the other small towns she’s lived in — reality in those places is far too unbelievable to make good fiction. Find her on Twitter @jenniecoughlin
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