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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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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 horror and thriller writer Will Overby @Will_Overby
I have never understood how anyone can write in total silence. Call me crazy, but there’s something about writing to music that frees up the flow of thought, that takes my mind to places I wouldn’t ordinarily visit, that presents me with sudden, surprising inspiration.
I first noticed this back in 1984. I had just graduated high school and I was working on what would turn out to be my first completed novel, August. That summer I purchased Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA and listened to it most days when I was writing. As the weeks went by, I quickly realized that it was becoming a soundtrack of sorts to the book. Songs like Downbound Train and I’m On Fire helped me add a particularly gritty feel to the character of Brian DeCanto and gave him a depth I couldn’t have achieved otherwise.
This was a revelation. Subsequent stories and novels continued to have soundtracks, including a never-to-be-published young adult novel inspired completely by the music of U2. Back in the day I would make mix tapes to play while writing. I still have a couple of those tapes, and it’s really interesting to go back now and see what inspired me 15 and 20 years ago. Nowadays I just cue up a playlist on my computer, and I can add and delete selections at my whim.
While writing this post I’m listening to the music I used for inspiration while working on my novel The Island. In this story two friends, Sarah and Amy, travel to a Caribbean island for a getaway but end up being caught up in a vodou cult complete with zombie rituals and mysterious disappearances. There is also a touch of romance, as Amy falls for a local tour-boat operator, David.
When first developing this book, I would often listen to the type of music I imagined the characters would enjoy. Sarah and her fiancé, for instance, are into big band music, so much of her characterization involved immersing myself in songs like Goody Goody by Benny Goodman. David, on the other hand, collects vinyl records and is especially fond of 50s jazz; John Coltrane seems to be his favorite for reflection, but as his and Amy’s love affair blossomed, I found myself drawn to sultry numbers by Julie London like I’m in the Mood for Love to accentuate their growing sexual attraction.
When it came to the meat of the book, I relied on instrumental pieces – both modern classical and film soundtracks – for inspiration. The zombie ritual near the end of the book, for example, is set to Kryzysztof Penderecki’s Polymorphia – a creepier piece of music I’ve never heard; you can almost feel skeletal fingers closing in around your throat as the pizzicato strings play a frenetic path up and down the scale. Likewise, his The Dream of Jacob was sometimes set to repeat when I needed a feel of dread and unease. For scenes early in the book when Sarah is having hallucinations and nightmares, Gyorgy Ligeti’s Lontano wonderfully portrays the outward appearance of calm while panic and horror gnaw inside.
No music was a greater inspiration, though, than Brett Rosenberg’s soundtrack to the 2006 film, Half Light. While the more horrific music seemed to mirror some of the Penderecki pieces to great effect, the quieter more melodic passages were fantastic in helping me round out the character of Sarah. The heart-rending solo violin selection Girl in the Storm, for example, perfectly captures Sarah’s sense of loss and loneliness.
For those of us writers who use it, music can be a great motivator. I know if I’m having trouble getting in the mood of the story I can turn on the book’s playlist and the thoughts start flowing again. If you happen to be one of those who can’t write with the distraction of music, I urge you to try listening to some pieces to set your mood before you write. You may just be surprised at what springs into your mind. And onto your page.
Will Overby has spent 30 years in the boardrooms and glass offices of retail banking. Between dodging mergers and drafting policies he publishes novels. He and his wife live far from the corporate world in rural western Kentucky. They have two grown children, a dog, and a menagerie of cats. A graduate of Indiana University, Will is an avid Hoosiers football fan. Connect with Will on his website, www.willoverby.com, on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.
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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 tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by Scott D Southard @SDSouthard
There is usually nothing more important to me than the music I have playing while writing a book. Music can inspire me, engage me, keep my energy up when I need it to be up. It sets the mood for me, and the right song can pull the right levers to get me to go from point A to point B in a plot. It has also been known to drive the people that live with me crazy since while I am writing I may play a CD a few too many times (Just ask my wife about the writing of My Problem With Doors and my nonstop playing of O by Damien Rice; an album I am forbidden to play in her presence again). But what I used for A Jane Austen Daydream was something surprisingly contemporary. This was not something for Liz Bennet to dance to (but she might if given the chance).
A Jane Austen Daydream, my latest novel, was inspired by two ideas.
The first was the desire to fix a great injustice that fate had bestowed on Jane. Jane Austen did not have a romance, she did not find the happiness she gave so many of her characters; instead she died in her early 40s, far too soon, with work still to complete and no love to mourn her. That’s where my book comes in; in it, I re-imagine her life as one of her novels. Trying to guess the story she would have liked for herself, filling the missing little holes with characters from her books and plots she created as well.
Over the course of the novel (filled with adventures, wit, proposals, misunderstandings, and surprises) we follow Jane as she grows in her understanding of love and becomes the writer the world holds dear… and then there is the love affair (the second idea), but that is a major literary twist I don’t want to ruin here. There is a chance it might be the first time it was attempted in a novel.
Looking over the catalog of Belle & Sebastian (and I am a fan, owning everything I can get my hands on), desperation seems to be one of the themes that never leaves Stuart Murdoch (the main songwriter) and his songs. Belle & Sebastian are truly a band made for writers, since their songs are little stories, little character vignettes. He wants to find meaning (and so does his characters), understand what is going on in the world. And just like Jane in my book he seems to believe that there is some great truth to discover, to fall back on. If life was only that simple, Stuart.
I can’t escape my novel when I listen to their CD The Life Pursuit and certain songs stir emotions bringing me right back to the creation of the book. See, right from the opening of Act of the Apostle, Part 1 I feel myself returning to that time, as if on cue that old writing part of my brain kicking in. Starting up the right CD to begin writing is a ritual for me, from pressing play to the cracking of my knuckles.
The moments ‘borrowed’ from music
One favorite song from the CD is Funny Little Frog. A lonely and depressing love story sold around a song that almost has a Motown feel to it (even with horns). When I was writing the first part of the book, in which Jane convinces herself she is in love (she is not) and the questionable male is as well (he is not), this song screamed at me; and I know there were evenings where it was on constant repeat. And, I must admit, some of the song sneaked into the section, with Jane imagining futures with this man, allowing her creative mind to run away with her (just like the character in the song). The song truly was infused throughout that writing, right from the beginning to its wonderful last line.
Another song that brings me right back to my writing desk is For the Price of a Cup of Tea and I’m pretty sure this song inspired something unique to Jane’s books. See, in my novel I try to keep every setting from her books, there is nothing foreign really there… Well, except the tea shop in her hometown. This was a device/location I used it in each volume of the book for Jane to meet with her friend Harriet. If that tea shop existed in reality, this song would be on the stereos in the background since the metre and pace of the song feels like those scenes. (Wait, did I just say there would be a stereo in the 19th century? Bangs head on desk, in embarrassment.)
Oh, and when I hear White Collar Boy I picture Jane running through a field. It doesn’t make sense at all. I know that, but that’s creativity and inspiration for you.
Scott D. Southard’s most recent novel is A Jane Austen Daydream (Both available in print as an eBook); his other novels are My Problem With Doors and Megan. He can be found on the internet via his writing blog ‘The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard‘ where he writes on topics ranging from writing, art, books, TV, writing, parenting, life, movies, and writing. Scott received his Master’s in writing from the University of Southern California. He is also on Twitter and Facebook.
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My guest this week describes inspiration as those moments when something small suddenly leaps out and becomes significant. And countless times, the trigger has been music. An entire fantasy trilogy conjured itself when a song took root in her mind. She says she’s sometimes had to hide her soundtracks in case her young children come across unsuitable lyrics, but would not be separated from the songs that feed her imagination so richly. She is Devon Flaherty and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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A change of gear this week. This is the first time I’ve hosted a writer who is talking about short stories. A lot of music lurks behind his award-winning first collection, inspiring the plot, mood and characters. Various signature songs have passed through his imagination to become a tightrope-walking couple, a doomed relationship, a person given the eyes of a serial killer and a haunting piece of music derived from nature. His name is Jonathan Pinnock 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 Michael Stutz @MichaelStutz
Writing and music are together, are one. That’s how it’s always been for me — I started to make music at about the same time I began writing, and in perfect synaesthesia they’re both ways of painting out the colors inside me. I have an acoustic in my workoom and most days, when I get up for a sec from the keyboard, I’ll play it — when you’re working on something that takes years to complete, it’s no small exhilaration to grab a guitar and make a new song in like 48 seconds, which I literally do all the time.
My new book Circuits of the Wind is the story of a life — Ray Valentine, a slacker who grows up online. It’s a big, serious, literary history of the net generation, taking place over three decades — from the 70s through to 2000, which is far enough back to be pretty nostalgic now. There’s plenty of music along the way, but the writing itself’s also directly informed by it – often some piece of popular music will haunt a gestating scene, and in the process of writing I’ll pick up on it.
In the beginning, for instance, about 23 pages in, there’s a scene that goes on for a while in what I call a rhapsodic soundmovie – it’s a sweeping vision of Christmastime and what that means to little Raymond in the suburban America of the 70s and 80s. When preparing to write it I’d recalled The Carpenters’ 1978 version of The Christmas Waltz, a song originally written by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn. I knew that somewhere in that world I was trying to capture, this song was playing — and now when I hear it, I think back to that passage.
I love Karen Carpenter. I love her so much, I mean, man, she could sing — what she and her brother were doing so perfectly well was also anachronistically against the whole hulking motion of postmodern culture, and in that sense is just how I feel about my own place in it now.
Styne and Cahn are among the best of the best of those songwriters that make up what they call the great American songbook — to which I’d include Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini, John Blackburn, Johnny Mandel, Mitchell Parish and two dozen more. This stuff’s in my blood thick and for a long while I thought for sure I was going to be one of those guys, until I realised that I needed to go to an emotional space where songs don’t quite reach, where you need long narrative prose to arrive.
But one piece of music needs to be mentioned because it literally sparked the book. The idea for Circuits of the Wind came to me, complete and whole, while listening to this divine recording of Sarah Vaughan and Clifford Brown’s performance of Lullaby of Birdland, written by George Shearing and George David Weiss.
Something unforgettable happened that night, incredible, that showed me the end of the book and everything that led up to it. It was late and I was alone and it was like the whole world around me melted away — I mean I actually saw this, like Allen Ginsberg’s vision of Blake over Manhattan there was this real, physical, external experience of reality bending right back, and everything melting; even my own heartbeat stopped at one point and I saw that not only was the world a big dream but me too, because I’m in it, and therefore I didn’t hold or own anything, not even myself – when Sarah was scatting in the middle of the track I knew that she and I were both fast nothings forever in the same big lonely dream universe.
To think I’d hoped to look into eternity for so long and here suddenly whoah, I was actually doing it, where now a whole book was neatly laid out for me ready to go. It was originally subtitled ‘a ghost story’, which is probably about as much as I can say without giving it all away, and that’s plenty – because after all what’s writing anyway, but us ghosts in here singing?
GIVEAWAY Michael is excited to give away a copy of Circuits of The Wind to anyone who shares this post on Facebook, Google Plus or Twitter – each platform counts as one entry with a maximum of one entry per platform. To let him know, leave a comment here. You can also enter by leaving a comment here! The prize is either a print or an ebook edition – you choose.
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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 multi-award-winning children’s fantasy author Susan Price @priceclan
Soundtrack by Pavel Chesnokov, the Cantus Sacred Music Ensemble, The Orthodox Singers’ Male Choir, June Tabor, Steeleye Span, Orlando Gibbons, the King’s Singers, Pierrot Lunaire, Jan Garbarek, Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble, Tim Wong, Benjamin Britten
Music doesn’t help me understand my characters, or set the mood for a particular scene. I don’t need, for instance, martial music to write a martial scene. Instead, for me, the music seems to set the atmosphere, or time-frame, of the whole book. I can’t write a scene set in the past to poppy dance-music, because the music insistently reminds me of my own time and drags me back to it. I find it equally hard to write contemporary scenes while listening to music from the past. If Mozart is playing, my characters shrug off their jeans and trainers and slip into knee-britches and powdered wigs.
My Ghost World sequence (Ghost Drum, Ghost Song and Ghost Dance) is set in a fantasy Czarist Russia. I wanted these books to be fantastical, frightening and beautiful, with the brilliant jewel colours of Russian folk-art set against intense darkness and cold. While writing them I surrounded myself with postcards of Russian art, and played chants like this one on repeat.
The beautiful swaying voices, with their deep, dark bass notes took me into the vast, dark pine forests of Russian folk-tale, to Northern darkness and cold. Listening again, as I write this blog, I feel the visceral thrill and shiver this music always gives me.
The music and art served the same purpose: bringing together and concentrating all my disparate imaginings. Looking at a Bilibin forest, listening to an Orthodox chant, I was there, in my imagination’s world. This piece, with the Basso Profundo, sounds like the Russian Bear singing.
Past, present and Borders
It is always time and place with me. My Sterkarm novels have scenes set both in the past and in the 21st Century, but the heart of the novels, for me, were the scenes in the 16th century Scottish borders. I read about the reivers and their way of life, I visited the Borders, but to bring it all together and put me there, I played Border Ballads, which I’ve loved since a teenager. Here’s the wonderful June Tabor with her thrilling Clerk Sanders. The final, long-drawn note always raises my hair. It rings like a glass. It’s all there – love, hatred, jealousy, horror, revenge.
I listened to Steeleye Span a lot too. Even though they used electric instruments, I always felt they captured the spirit of many of these old songs better than many who tried too hard to be strictly traditional. Here’s their Wife of Usher’s Well, a tale of life, death, ghosts and maternal love.
Hits of the 16th
I wrote Christopher Uptake, set in the 16th century, to the smash hits of Christopher’s day, such as The Silver Swan, sung here by the King’s Singers. (And its closing couplet, ‘More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise,’ seems appropriate for Christopher too.)
Poor old Keats reviewed plays in order to get a free pass to theatres so he could hear the playing of professional musicians. We’re spoiled today – we can hear excellent musicians any time we casually turn on the radio. Not only musicians of our own day either, but those long dead, and music played in the style of centuries past.
The far future
But what to play when writing something set in the far future, such as my Odin’s Voice trilogy? I found myself seeking out music that, to me, sounded strange and futuristic, and helped me expand my ideas to include all the weird and wonderful possibilities of nano-technology and space-elevators. More musically educated people might find my choices rather old-fashioned, but they worked for me.
First is Moonstruck Pieirrot, or Pierrot Lunaire. ‘What the hell did I just listen to?’ asks a YouTube commentator. I can’t say that I love it, but it’s extraordinary. I remember first hearing it. I was vacuuming during the early hours, while half-listening to the Open University’s educational programmes. This began, and I switched off the vacumn to hear it. I remained on one leg, spellbound, throughout. Didn’t like it, exactly, but couldn’t stop listening.
I am fonder of this by Jan Gabarek and the Hilliard Ensemble. I find it chill, eerie, beautiful and strange – but instead of evoking deep, dark forests, it evokes, for me, the vast dark emptiness of space and the future, where who knows what might be possible? Oberon’s song from Britten’s Midsummer’s Night Dream has the same effect on me. It may have been written in the 20th century, as Britten’s response to Shakespeare’s 16th century play, but its eerie otherworldliness, for me, suggests space – perhaps the music of the spheres?
In 1973, Susan Price‘s father signed a contract with Faber for her first book, The Devil’s Piper. She was under-age, at 16, and couldn’t legally sign it herself. She has earned her living by writing and lecturing ever since. Her best known books are The Ghost Drum, which won the Carnegie Medal, and is available as an e-book, and The Sterkarm Handshake, which won the Guardian prize. She has a blog and is also a founder member of the group Do Authors Dream of Electric Books (aka Authors Electric), and she tweets as @priceclan.
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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 award-winning author Linda Gillard
Soundtrack by Philip Glass
When I ground to a halt writing my fifth novel, Untying the Knot, the second movement of Philip Glass’s first Violin Concerto showed me a way forward. I wanted to tell the story of a man suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, an ex-soldier, ex-bomb squad, whose career had been ended by an explosion. I wanted to write about his marriage (which had ended in divorce) and about the loyal wife who’d stood by him through many years of active service, then years of rehabilitation and then walked away.
I had a story, but I didn’t know how to tell it. I knew the emotional trajectory of my characters, but I hadn’t a clue how to structure my novel. I’d called it Untying the Knot because it was a love story about a divorced couple, but the title was ironical. Divorced, my characters discover they’re bound together indissolubly, not only by continuing love for each other, but by their traumatic history.
The book was to be about both of them, not just the attention-grabbing hero, Magnus. I wanted to show his wife, Fay, quietly getting on with her life, quietly cracking up while no one noticed. But Magnus had taken over. My work-in-progress was about a hero, his sacrifice and terrible suffering. I couldn’t see how to bring his wife into the foreground and make her story – and her sacrifice – as poignant and moving as his. I was close to abandoning the novel as unbalanced and too complicated to work.
I always use music to support and enrich my writing and I usually have a playlist for each novel. I’d been looking for a piece of music to represent what’s known as ‘the long walk’ – the bomb technician’s lonely approach to an explosive device he’s about to disarm. I remembered the Glass Violin Concerto, with its descending ground bass pattern that repeats for the whole of the second movement. It sounded like someone walking, but it also had an edgy, disturbing quality, created by oscillating broken chords. This wasn’t just a slow walk, this was a walk towards something ominous, even dangerous.
In the music
As I ‘auditioned’ the Glass, it triggered an almost overwhelming cascade of ideas and I suddenly saw – almost completely – how I could structure my novel by emulating the structure of this eight-minute piece of music.
As I listened, I could hear two voices, male and female, engaged in a kind of dialogue. The male voice was the low, see-sawing strings and woodwind that create the walking ground bass. Over the top, I heard a female voice – a solo violin, calm and lyrical at first, a woman pleading with the man to give up his dangerous job, perhaps asking for his help. As the violin solo is repeated again and again against the implacable ground bass, her voice becomes desperate (anguished arpeggiated figures), yet the man never stops walking. It’s as if he can’t hear her and is walking away. Towards the end of the movement, the violin produces high, sustained notes. I found them heart-rending. The woman has finally lost it, given up and gone under.
The music showed me how I could weave my two narrative threads together. The long-suffering wife could move into the spotlight for a while, then retreat while her husband’s horrific back story took over. The couple could keep changing places until, at the dramatic climax of the novel, their two stories would collide and combine, allowing the reader to discover exactly why the marriage had foundered, why the wife had walked away. What had appeared to be his story would be revealed as her story.
As I listened, I felt Glass had written my novel for me, in miniature. I just needed to expand what he’d done, then translate it into a fictional form. There was an added musical bonus. The movement ends abruptly and is quite unresolved. I believe that unsettled feeling gave me the impetus and energy to get on with writing the book. Much as I admired the music that had inspired me, I thought, ‘In Untying The Knot, all this is going to be resolved.’ And it was.
Linda Gillard lives in the Scottish Highlands and has been an actress, journalist and teacher. She’s the author of six novels, including Star Gazing, shortlisted in 2009 for Romantic Novel of the Year and House of Silence, which became a Kindle bestseller, selected by Amazon as one of their Top 10 ‘Best of 2011’ in the indie author category. Her website is here and you can find her on Facebook.
GIVEAWAY Linda is excited to give away one copy of the ebook to a commenter here – so if you drop by, be sure to say hello!
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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 Ellie Stevenson @stevensonauthor
There’s always a song playing in my head – I just need to decide if it means anything. Sometimes it might be an important clue, but mostly it’s just from a TV advert! Music has always been special to me – I listen to it often, usually pop but some classical. (Cue Music by John Miles.)
When I was writing Ship of Haunts, two tracks were particularly important. I’ve always liked Madonna’s music (especially the albums American Life and Confessions on a Dance Floor) but this particular track came from the album Hard Candy.
The song, the Devil Wouldn’t Recognise You existed for me before the book, by which I mean it was influential in its creation. I’d listen to the lyrics and hear the tune, and what sounded like water, and have this image of two or three people in the depths of a ship, with the water rising, and somehow knowing they wouldn’t get out. That’s what happened to my character Lily, trapped with Hern in the depths of Steerage.
The story doesn’t end there though. The feel of the song, combined with Ballard’s haunting photo (Mail Online, 15 April 2012), of shoes and a shape on the ocean floor, maybe a dress, or some sort of coat, gave me the keys to Lily and Carrin – death and goodbye, but not the end. The lyrics of the song, which are about recognition – seeing someone is not who they should be, helped establish the theme of betrayal, which runs through the book: Mad with her kids, Iserva and Jacob, but mostly Carrin, whose lover Brianna is not what she seems. And then, of course, there are the real people who died on Titanic, whose families felt let down by the company (White Star Line).
The last waltz
Ship of Haunts is all about failings, the mistakes of history, like those with Titanic, and people’s mistakes and how they can learn to change and move on. For me, Titanic is all about stories, people’s stories and that’s what really holds us captive, tied to the ship, 100 years on. When I was reading, researching the ship, I went to YouTube, searching for histories and maybe some footage of Titanic. I came across a beautiful video with pictures and film clips of the ship – as she was then – you could see the people standing tall, not having a clue what lay in wait. A song was playing, Songe d’Automne; it could have been the last song ever played on Titanic – or maybe it wasn’t, but it was there in the clip and that was enough.The song, Songe d’Automne (Dream Of Autumn) was composed by Archibald Joyce in the early 20th century. This particular arrangement is by Rob Astor, and can be found on his Yesteryear Classics album.
Dance with Titanic
When I listened to the waltz, and watched the footage, I felt the song epitomised Titanic, its beauty and its loss, and I liked the haunting melody so much that I wrote the music into the novel. It became a kind of signature tune, telling of when, 100 years after Titanic had sank, Carrin and Brianna meet again. And still remember.
Several other songs helped to inspire me, including Rihanna’s track Disturbia, which helped me capture ‘confused and crazy,’ in the form of Mad, a troubled ghost who’s lost her children, but also Carrin, who thinks her enemies are out to get her. And then the song Runaway Baby (by Bruno Mars), which helped me solve an Australian problem: the place was hot and far too dangerous in the 1940s, especially if you were young and a girl. All the girls could do was run.
A lost time
This final track, The Last Resort, from the Eagles’ album, Hotel California, and always best heard with your eyes closed, spoke to me of the end of a world, in this case the England of the Edwardian era, a wonderful place but full of contrasts and not so wonderful for some. The song recalls how easy it is to forget what we’ve got, to damage what’s good, with our hunger for more or our careless indifference. As the time of Titanic was lost forever, along with her people.
Yet the song, like Titanic, is still amazing.
Ship of Haunts: the other Titanic story is Ellie Stevenson’s first novel. She also writes articles on history, careers, travel and the arts. In a previous life, she worked as a careers adviser, a web editor and also in libraries (although she keeps the last bit quiet…) She has a website and can also be contacted on Twitter @stevensonauthor
GIVEAWAY Ellie is giving away a paperback version of Ship of Haunts. Just tell us why you’d like to read an alternative Titanic story – one with quirky, subversive characters – and a novel that makes you think.
And just because it’s about Titanic, doesn’t mean you know how it ends! For a flavour of the book see http://tinyurl.com/9hw56um
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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.
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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
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