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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 magical realist suspense novelist Candace Austin @caustinauthor
There are two things from which I abstain while writing—music and wine. I write better in silence while sober. Maybe this is why I work through a first draft fairly quickly?
I can reduce the bustling of my busy family to a low murmur with my thoughtful plotting, but music, I cannot. It’s captivating to me. Music does, however, play a huge role in the growth of my novels. Once my protagonists and their stories germinate in my brain, I set out in search of a song that will help them flourish. It never fails. I find a perfect song that speaks to their stories and tells me their secrets. It’s as if the song was created just for my characters—for me.
My debut novel, The Layers, is the story of David Kiplinger, a 19-year-old living in a post-Unveiling age in which most everyone remembers past lives. When TheLayers.b4u website (think Facebook meets Ancestry.com for millennia past and present) reveals that David has lived exponentially more lives than anyone else on earth, he’s lifted to a level of fame reserved for the divine. To answer questions and diffuse the onslaught of attention, David agrees to an autobiography, but when he meets his ghostwriter, Holly Stone, he can’t help but wonder if she’s the woman who has lived alongside him, the one he has loved unconditionally, the one who killed him.
Regardless of David’s suspicions about Holly, theirs is a sweet and humorous story of unconditional, eternal love … and irony, there is irony. When I heard Brandi Carlile’s The Story, I knew it was their song. Ms. Carlile sings about the layers, the depth of our individual life stories and how immensely satisfying it is to find that one person who knows your story like the back of their hand and appreciates it for all that it is, and all that it’s not. It’s messy. It’s glorious. Life’s elation and misery are there in her lyrics. I often listened to it before I began my daily writing. The intensity with which she sings the song inspired me to elevate the emotions as I wrote, and I think The Layers turned out better for it. How this song was not a chart topper, I’ll never know.
Whimsical and inspiring
One song does not fit all, however. Much of The Layers is humorous, and I found that I needed to shift into another gear when writing the lighthearted scenes. Jamie Cullum’s remake of Ruby and the Romantic’s classic Our Day Will Come struck the perfect chord. The tune is whimsical and inspiring, hopeful and innocent, much like David.
David handles his complicated relationship, newfound fame, and status as the most reincarnated of men with a cheerful optimism. He likes to think that living is a gift, not a punishment. Life is Okay by Michael Johns and Brooke White embodies the guarded optimism that defines him.
Rounding out my playlist is In My Life by The Beatles and Imagine by John Lennon. Obviously, there’s a theme here—life. Music helps me contemplate life. Just imagine what life would be like if we remembered being someone else, somewhere else? (insert Twilight Zone theme). Would we launch into a new life knowing what to savor? Would the world improve because we understood without a doubt what is important?
Ooh. I will now listen to music with a glass of wine in-hand!
Candace Austin is the author of The Layers and In Her Sleep. Her fast-paced, suspenseful novels use magical realism to explore love, life, and the humorous and heart-wrenching oddities in both. Originally from the Chicago suburbs, Candace resides in Raleigh, North Carolina with her husband of 20 years, two kids (one heading for college, the other kindergarten), a hefty Golden Retriever, and a Maine Coon Cat that comes and goes as he dang well pleases. When not writing, she enjoys NC State football games (particularly the tailgating), and traveling to Maine to spend time with her parents and family. Find her on her website and on Twitter as @caustinauthor
That’s the last Undercover Soundtrack for 2013! The series will return on 8 January.
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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 debut suspense author Kathryn Guare @KGuare
When I first began writing what would eventually become my debut suspense novel, Deceptive Cadence, I started it at the end. I just didn’t realize it.
The book tells the story of Conor McBride, an Irish musician turned reluctant undercover operative. The beginning details his recruitment for a very personal mission to India to find and capture his own brother, but the first scene that came to me ended up as the beginning of its final chapter. At the time I knew little about the protagonist. He didn’t even have a name. I knew he was Irish, and was emerging from a traumatic, life-changing ordeal. He was physically depleted, emotionally raw, and frightened. Why? I didn’t know. To find out, I kept writing.
While random scenes and bits of dialogue were popping into my head, I was commuting two hours a day to my job—and going through my local library’s inventory of audio books at a rapid rate—when I happened upon a Great Courses audio seminar called How to Listen to and Understand Great Music. To say it had an influence on my writing life would be a vast understatement. Not only did it influence the title of the book (explained here), it also inspired one of the central features of its hero—he’s a virtuoso violinist. Once I had that aspect of his character nailed down, Conor McBride’s personality and all his complexity began to come alive. Many readers of Deceptive Cadence tell me Conor is quite a departure from the typical, stock heroes of suspense/thrillers. He’s a complicated character that they want to know better. I owe that to the Great Courses, and the moment I decided he needed to be a gifted musician.
I’m easily distracted by music. The only thing I can have playing in the background while I’m writing are those ‘sounds of nature’ tracks—rain water, thunder, bells tolling, monks chanting—but when looking for inspiration I go walking with my ipod, my music choices driven by whatever theme I’m concentrating on in a given scene.
One theme of the book is the paradox of an honorable man forced by circumstance to reinvent himself into something less so. Conor disappears into an assumed identity and enters a world of cold-blooded deception and violence. And finds he is good at it. The internal chaos this creates is mirrored by the literal chaos of his external surroundings. India is a kettle perpetually at full boil, vibrant and desperate, cunning and guileless, its teeming humanity contributing to an overwhelming sensory experience of sights, sounds and smells.
Secret Garden’s atmospheric piece Moving captured that internal and external tumult for me, almost a theme song for Conor’s entire journey, so that I ended up including it in my book trailer. It begins with an ominous drumbeat underlying a melody of violin and soaring flutes, evoking the Irish sea coast, but the intensity grows, creating a cascading sense of wildness, perfectly symbolizing the physical and psychic movement from idyllic country setting to exotic, urban mayhem.
The Irish-American group Solas does a cover of Jesse Colin Young’s moody Darkness Darkness that inspired me as I watched Conor falling farther from himself. After committing an act of violence that revolts him, he wanders the dark streets of Mumbai, wrestling with guilt, and I thought of this song as I wrote that scene.
For the Indian side of the equation, Munni Badnam by Arbaaz Khaan from the 2010 Bollywood blockbuster Dabaang, is a song with a driving urban beat that conjures the modern, kaleidoscopic frenzy of Mumbai’s crowded streets and throbbing nightlife. At the 1:06 mark, you even get a taste of something like a mash-up of a Hindi-Irish reel!
I’ve also belatedly discovered the legendary Irish rocker Rory Gallagher, and for some pure, tongue-in-cheek fun, his Philby is perfect for epitomising some of Conor’s disdain for the world of secret intelligence and the testy relationship with his American control officer. Ironically, Rory offers some fierce, sitar-like plucking at the song’s mid-point.
Touching the mystical
Another important theme of the book is Conor’s connection to the mystical, and the special relationship he feels with some of the people in his life – his near-psychic mother, and the tiny Indian mafia wife and guru who becomes a spiritual anchor for him. Turning again to Indian cinema, Love and Marigolds from Monsoon Wedding instantly puts me in the right space for this theme, as does Luka Bloom’s Sanctuary, and Secret Garden’s Hymn to Hope.
Back to classical
For the most emotional and climactic scenes of the book, I went back to the classical realm and the second movement of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, Op. 14. I never make it through this without crying, almost from the opening notes of its poignant clarinet solo. The entire movement, with a discordant violin gradually resolving into gorgeous melody, seems like an ode to sorrowful loss that is somehow balanced against a staggering, awe-struck wonder. I won’t reveal details, but suffice it to say this is Conor experiencing a powerful moment of grace even as he is shaken by the reality of grief.
I would like to say I’m a connoisseur of music, but that would be giving myself too much credit. I am more like a committed dilettante. I’m a curious listener and lover of diverse forms, which I experience with emotional enthusiasm rather than any depth of expertise, but at least I can say that the Great Courses seminar worked. I now can listen to and understand great music, and it fuels every creative effort I undertake.
Kathryn Guare is back in the town of Montpelier, VT where she grew up after many years of globetrotting. She spent 10 years as an executive with a global health membership organization, worked as a travel agency tour coordinator, and her extensive travels inspire her writing. Deceptive Cadence is her first novel, available now at Amazon and other online retailers, and distributed through Ingrams and Baker & Taylor. Visit her website for more pictures, music and fun facts about the book, and connect with her online on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.
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- The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where writers - and occasionally other arty folk - reveal how music shapes their work.
- It began as a companion to my first novel, My Memories of a Future Life, and now thrives as a creative salon in its own right. Pull on your headphones and join us.
- If you're curious about the novel that started it all, click the image below.
Kobo featured book, London Book Fair 2013
Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Independent Fiction, Awesome Indies 2013
Underground Book Reviews Top Summer Read 2012
League of Extraordinary Authors Top 10 Indie Elite 2012
Multi-Story Pick of the Month March and October 2012
Alliance of Independent Authors Book of the Month, January 2013
Email merozmorriswriter at gmail dot com
- All content copyright Roz Morris 2011-2021. Nothing may be reproduced without my express permission in writing beforehand. Photography: Bonnie Schupp Photography, gcg2009 and Roz Morris
What is The Undercover Soundtrack?Sleeve notes here
For the soundtrack of My Memories of a Future Life, you'll need Chopin's Sonata in B Minor, Rachmaninov preludes, lashings of Grieg's piano concerto in A minor and The Clash's Rock the Kasbah (they go together well).
You'll also need Samuel Barber's Dover Beach on piano, although that doesn't actually exist so do the best you can.
And the novel's undercover pieces. You can find them here
- What's on their soundtracks? Zip down to the footer and you can search by artiste or composer. See who shares your taste in inspirational music
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- 'My Memories of a Future Life is a poignant story steeped with melancholy, edged with a desperate hope, and twisted throughout with darkness and humor'
- 'Some of the sharpest writing I've read in a long while'
- 'The feel of a modern-day witch trial with a tense romance'
- 'Clever when you think about it afterwards; haunting and engrossing while you're reading'