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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 YA fantasy author John Dutton @JohnBDutton
Creating a work of art is usually stochastic; a combination of logical planning and inspired randomness. A novelist needs to wobble across this stochastic tightrope from blank page to finished text.
Original, unexpected ideas come from a variety of sources. Dreams, alcohol and drugs fueled writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William S. Boroughs. As for myself (and in the words of the great Meat Loaf) two out of three ain’t bad. The odd pint of Guinness has certainly helped my out of writer’s rut. And so have the even pints. Of course I would never take drugs as they are illegal, but fortunately dreaming is still allowed. I’m currently writing a trilogy of young adult novels like everyone else, and I even woke up one morning with the title of the second novel, Starley’s Rust, in my head.
But there’s another way to get those creative juices flowing, and that’s music. Either melody or lyrics can be inspirational. When I needed to write the introduction of a major character in book one of the trilogy, I was driving one morning with my iPod set to random. A song came on (I honestly don’t remember which one) but it may have been Simon and Garfunkel’s Hazy Shade of Winter. Suddenly the idea came to me to write this character introduction.
The Friday I met Aranara was a cold, cold day. My hometown of Lancaster, Wisconsin is in some kind of microclimate and we rarely got snow, even in the middle of winter, so I wasn’t expecting the betrayal that lurked in the air that early October in New York City.
When I wrote this atmospheric paragraph it was the middle of summer, so it was directly inspired by the song I was listening to. But my aural surroundings have to be just right for it to help my writing. I often write in a particular café here in Montreal where the music is good (in other words, I enjoy the songs they play) and not too loud. When I go to a café closer to home for various reasons I’m quickly reminded how hard it is to get this balance right by the annoying FM pap that blasts every good idea out of my mind before it can reach the keyboard.
Atmosphere for nowhere
Sometimes an entire album can create an atmosphere in your mind that helps you get inside the head of a character you are writing. This was the case for me when I wrote my (as yet unproduced) screenplay Rd 2 Nowhere. Originally inspired by the title of an amazingly atmospheric 1985 hit by the Talking Heads, this movie features a teenage girl who is uprooted from her Montreal home when her mother dies, finding herself in a medium-sized town where nothing much seems to happen. Of course, things do happen! The main character, Jen, is overtaken by grief-fueled ennui, and takes to hanging out with a bunch of kids at a makeshift skate park where an unfinished highway ends abruptly at a river. Her mental state and attitude towards others was perfectly reflected by the music of Arcade Fire’s albums Funeral and The Suburbs. As Jen’s mind found ways to escape her dull everyday reality (her everydull realiday?) I was listening to songs like Neighbourhood 1 (Tunnels) from Funeral and The Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains). It’s not necessarily easy for a male writer in his 40s to get inside the head of a teenage girl, so I’m forever grateful to the helping hand my muse received from my local heroes.
I’m clearly more influenced by the lyrics of rock and pop songs than by classical or jazz music. It’s amazing how a random word in a song can trigger a chain reaction of mental associations.
Start making sense
Sometimes you’re writing something and you hear a song that you can actually incorporate into your work. One of my novels is called The New Sense. It’s an epistemology-themed epistolary mystery (which might explain its failure to attract readers as effectively as a YA fantasy) and one of the main characters claims to have, yes, a new sense that other humans don’t possess. I originally published the novel in the form of a blog, posting it ‘live’ in serial fashion every day or so. Since it deals with the issue of how we know what we think we know to be true, it was very important for me to make the blog as believable as possible. I must have accomplished this, because the fictional writer of the blog soon began to receive emails from real people who thought that she was also real and her story true.
I decided to continue the fiction-reality mashup by creating fictional emails from made-up people to post alongside the real ones. And that’s when I heard the Blondie song (I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear. It contains a line about a person using an extra sense when playing cards. My character actually funds his lifestyle by using his sense to win at cards in the Montreal casino, so I used this line in a fictional reader email.
And sometimes music can be simply a source of fun that gets the mind working and creative juices flowing. I’ve been a fan of both the BBC sci-fi show Doctor Who and popular pop-rock combo The Beatles since I was very young. My commercial writing self has recently been hired to write the new Cirque du Soleil website and I’ve been researching their shows, including one called The Beatles LOVE that is performed permanently in Las Vegas. My sudden re-immersion in the Fab Four’s music combined with Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary clearly sparked something in a strange corner of my mind, because I came up with the idea to create a Dalek-Beatles mixtape (the Daleks being the Doctor’s arch enemies).
For a day or two I had a permanent semi-smile on my face as I re-imagined Beatles classics as performed by evil Daleks. The resulting mix tape insert card is here for your enjoyment. You may then exterminate it from your mind if you like.
After graduating from film school in London, John emigrated to Montreal in 1987, where he still lives with his two young children and their even younger goldfish. He spent over a decade as a music TV director before moving into the advertising industry as an award-winning copywriter and translator. In parallel to his corporate work, John has written novels, short stories, blogs, screenplays and a stage play. He is currently writing a trilogy of young adult novels under the pen name JB Dutton, the first of which, Silent Symmetry, was published in early 2013 and features neither vampires, zombies nor wizards. John speaks four languages and has been married three times in three different countries in three different decades. Find his blog here, get his Facebook page here, and tweet him as @johnbdutton
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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 crime novelist TJ Cooke @Timscribe
There is rarely a day when I don’t listen to music. Occasionally I listen whilst actually writing, but rarely, as I find it too distracting. However I will often be listening to something just before a stint at the PC or laptop.
Sometimes I choose a piece which tends to inspire creativity, to help develop a specific character, scene or location. On other occasions it works in reverse. I will actually be working on something and it will remind me of a specific piece of music. Either way music has always helped the creative juices flow.
Lead character Jim Harwood, who narrates, has a passionate but all too brief liaison with the seductive Sarena. Her sudden disappearance from his life is something he finds hard to come to terms with. This powerful song evokes both loss and desire. Not only does it resonate with his feelings, but also with a key location in the story, Beachy Head cliffs. It is synonymous with the film Quadrophenia, being from the album of the same name, but conjures up far more. I remember driving along the clifftop coast road with Love Reign O’er Me by The Who playing loudly… thinking about Sarena’s demise, and how Jim had lost his fleeting but passionate love.
I couldn’t write this without devoting a song to Elton. In a way he’s the star of the show and was based on a character I knew way back when. Elton doesn’t fit neatly into any box. He has serious mental health issues which manifest themselves into bizarre ‘episodes’. Sometime he will appear quite ‘normal, only to morph seconds later into a caricature who spouts random words, song lyrics and general ‘nonsense’. Lack of proper funding for the mentally ill means there are way too many Eltons trapped in the criminal justice system. Talking Heads often tackled challenging issues. I often listened to Once in a Lifetime before writing some of Elton’s more obscure dialogue.
I’m pretty sure that unorthodox lawyer Jim Harwood would be a Captain Beefheart fan, probably on the quiet. It fits in with his flippant and sometimes chaotic character, which grates against the rigid structures of the law. Jim’s own demons mean that he invariably seeks a place to escape from it all, his Clear Spot.
Jon Anderson’s unique voice, probably the antithesis of other ‘rock’ leads, has an earthy connectivity. There’s a section in the book where Jim is driving back from the south coast having just done something quite despicable. Traumatised by events, he starts to hallucinate as visions of Sarena’s dead body etch themselves onto his car windscreen. I’ll Find My Way Home would be playing on his CD, as his path to redemption kicks in.
What a voice Joni Mitchell has, and in The Pirate of Penzance she uses it skilfully to create a truly atmospheric piece of music. I recall listening to this song before penning some of the darker narrative in Defending Elton. It isn’t indicative of a specific moment, more of general mood. I always find it haunting.
Kiss and Tell
Marta’s Song by Deep Forest and sung by Hungarian singer Marta Sebestyen helped me to picture the character of Bella in Kiss and Tell. She is a Hungarian national who lost both parents in a car crash before coming to Britain with her brother. Her brother then abused her by forcing her to work for his drug smuggling ring. This piece of music is evocative of a lost soul.
Many of my characters’ songs follow a particular journey in life. When I was trying to imagine what the character of Jimmy was like when younger,Squeeze’s Cool for Cats sprang to mind. Like many of their songs it has sharp urban lyrics. Jimmy was hiding his criminal exploits from Jill. His ‘Jack the lad’ image was just a front, but it had devastating consequences.
Louis Armstrong has a beautiful and distinctive voice. When we pick up Jill Shadow’s story 12 years on, with her ex Jimmy now released from prison, she is unsure how to deal with feelings reawakened. I listened to We Have All The Time In The World, which helped me to empathise with Jill. It conjures up the immense hope that is offered by young love. When we’re young we have little understanding of the realities of time or growing old, or of the frailty of our ‘first love’.
There are various themes of ‘truth’ throughout both Kiss and Tell and Defending Elton. It’s a theme I struggled with myself when younger. I had been denied truth by my adoptive parents, and could never understand why my adoption was treated as taboo. Some years later I worked in the criminal justice system, where I discovered that truth was often a football kicked about by both sides in an adversarial game. I became wary of accepting ‘truth’ at face value, and it’s no surprise that it features as a theme in my writing… Cue John Lennon and Gimme Some Truth.
TJ Cooke, otherwise known as Tim, was formerly a lawyer before becoming a legal adviser to television dramas in the UK . He went on to write many hours of broadcast drama himself, notching up writing credits for some of UK’s most popular series. He is the author of two crime fiction novels Kiss and Tell and Defending Elton, and has an inventive take on the genre. Tim currently lives in Devon, UK. For further details, and to follow his blog, visit his website or follow on Twitter as @timscribe.
authors, Beachy Head cliffs, Captain Beefheart, crime fiction, crime novelist, crime novels, Deep Forest, Defending Elton, Desert Island Discs, drama, Eastenders, entertainment, John Lennon, Jon and Vangelis, Joni Mitchell, Kiss and Tell, Louis Armstrong, male writers, Marta Sebestyen, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, Quadrophenia, Roz Morris, Squeeze, Talking Heads, The Undercover Soundtrack, The Who, TJ Cooke, undercover soundtrack, writers, writing, writing to music
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 contemporary fiction author, poet, editor and singer-songwriter Jessica Bell @MsBessieBell,
I can’t cope with music playing in the background when I write. It’s distracting. Why? Because I am also a musician, and every time I hear music, it’s hard to fight the urge to sing, or pick up the guitar. That said, it would also be very rare for any piece of writing of mine to not include music in some way. Writing is my ability to breathe, and music is my oxygen. Neither one can exist without the other.
When I had the idea to write The Book, I knew immediately that music would have a place in the story. Though it’s not a feature, it’s important to my main character’s arc. About 60% of The Book, set in the early 1980s, is written from the perspective of a five-year-old girl named Bonnie. I hint, through the journal entries of her mother, Penny, and the transcripts of Bonnie and Dr Wright, her therapist, that due to her premature birth, she has trouble learning, and significant behavioural problems and eccentricities. However, I try to juxtapose this through Bonnie’s matter-of-fact point of view. The reader is then able to see how differently she perceives the world compared to the adults in her life.
This is where my soundtrack comes in.
When I was a kid, I remember getting song lyrics wrong all the time. The worst misunderstanding I can remember is from REM’s Losing My Religion where the first line of the chorus became ‘let’s pee in the corner’. This gave me the idea to show the reader some quirks in Bonnie’s personality through the way in which she misunderstood lyrics. However, in the end, this is not what I focused on. Because I wanted to emphasise Bonnie’s overly logical perception of the world, I made her comprehend the lyrics perfectly, and comment on how they didn’t make sense.
Bonnie doesn’t grasp the fact that lyrics can be metaphorical and/or symbolic, she only hears what the lyrics mean literally. Through this, I was able to show that despite the adults around her being conditioned to believe she had a learning disability, she is actually quite skilled at vertical thinking, and might very well have the qualities of a genius hiding behind her over-emotional demeanor.
For example, I used Talking Heads’ lyrics from Burning Down the House to illustrate this. Bonnie confidently explains that you can’t put fire out with fire, and that fire isn’t wet, so why would you need a raincoat? After her mother tries to explain that the lyrics are like art and don’t have to make sense, she shrugs and decides to accept the fact that despite the song not ‘making logic’, at least it is great to dance to. This not only shows that she can make sense of language, but also shows that despite not agreeing with something, she is willing to overlook it, and embrace its value. A pretty strong trait to have as a five-year-old, yes? It’s also something that young, stressed, ill-informed parents of the 80s would boil down to her being just a quirky five-year-old girl, and not notice how smart she is.
Bonnie also questions the deeper meaning of lyrics. After hearing Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams, she says:
I rooly rooly like that man that sings the sweet dreams are made of weeds song. I askted Mummy if all bodies are looking for sumfing, and she said they are. And I askted what she was looking for, and she said that she was looking for love, but she already founded it, so she’s not looking anymore. I askted her to show it to me. But she said that love isn’t tangible. I don’t know what tangible means, but I would still like her to show me the love she found.
The excerpt above also draws attention to Bonnie’s misunderstood wisdom by showing how capable she is of rational thought. Annie Lennox must be a man because she has short hair and wears a suit and tie in the video just like Bonnie’s father does; and the fact that logically, if you find something, you should be able to hold that something in your hand.
Trying to understand music through the eyes of a child was an amazing and eye-opening experience. It really made me realize how much of what we ‘know’ is almost like a stamp. We learn something, and assume it is correct, because that’s what we’re conditioned to believe. But Bonnie questions a lot of basic things in life that we take for granted, and it made me realise how much adults can learn from children. Children tell the truth. Children’s opinions aren’t blurred by a lifetime of experience. Their opinions are pure and simple. And sometimes pure and simple is a smarter way to live than the tainted and complicated lives us adults lead. Don’t you think?
The music that influenced The Book wasn’t just a trigger for the muse.
It was a voice.
The voice of logic.
Jessica Bell is an Australian-native contemporary fiction author, poet and singer/songwriter. She also makes a living as an editor and writer for global ELT publishers (English Language Teaching), such as Pearson Education, HarperCollins, Macmillan Education, Education First and Cengage Learning. She is the co-publishing editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and the director of the Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop on the Greek island of Ithaca. The Book is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK and Kobo. For the book trailer see here. Connect with Jessica at her website, blog, on Facebook or Twitter @msBessieBell
authors, behavioural problems, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, Eurythmics, fiction author, Jessica Bell, literary novels, losing my religion, music, music for writers, music for writing, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, mysterious place, Nail Your Novel, pivotal moment, playlist for writers, premature birth, R.E.M., Roz Morris, singer-songwriters, Talking Heads, The Book, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, Women Writers, Women's fiction, writers, writing, writing to music
- 'Constant murmur of pouring rain, piano chords and a stormy sea'
- 'A spellbindingly good yarn'
- 'Simple, beautiful - gripping'
- 'So original it's in a class of its own'
Kobo featured book, London Book Fair 2013
Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Independent Fiction, Awesome Indies 2013
Underground Book Reviews Top Summer Read 2012
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Multi-Story Pick of the Month March and October 2012
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- Carol is a concert pianist until an injury threatens her career. Desperate for a cure she discovers her future incarnation - or is he a psychological figment? And can he help her recover?
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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
- 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'