‘A lyric; a tune; a fragment; a thrilling chord-run’
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 quirky speculative fiction and award-winning short story writer JW Hicks @TriskeleBooks
Soundtrack by Bedrich Smetana, Aaron Copland, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Tallis Scholars, Alison Krauss, Soggy Bottom Boys, Hans Zimmer, Lisa Gerrard
Most of my better ideas are sparked by music. I have a radio in every room – yes, every room, and a disc player close to where I write. I hear a lyric, a fragment of tune, a thrilling chord-run in a classical piece, and visualise a character, feeling him or her and knowing something of their lives. That exciting moment when ideas come is a buzz that never fails to thrill. My mind is filled with the promise of a story hovering within my grasp and just dying to be told, and I shoot to the moon on an adrenaline high. Who needs drugs if ideas can make you feel like that?
But those sparked ideas are will-o’-the wisps; here and gone in an instant. If they’re not captured on paper or tape they’ll fly away – into another writer’s mind perhaps. I know what it’s like to lose an idea and try in vain to recapture it. Lesson learned, I keep a notepad at hand at all times. I’ve even run soaking wet from the bathroom to scribble a few damp sentences on the pad kept on my bedside table. Crazy, I know, but once they take flight, those ideas are lost forever.
When I’m deep in writing mode and the seam runs out, I, like Worzel Gummidge, swap my writing head for a go-do-something-else head. I might clean the cooker, scrub the bathtub, or brush the cat’s black-velvet fur: necessary but easily put-off-able chores. (Have you ever tried brushing an unwilling cat?) As I clean or brush I listen to music suited to the seam that ran dry, hoping it will oil my writing wheels. I look on it as an equation: a good match between music + writing = a satisfying flow of ideas/words. In my case, most often the ploy works, the seam opens and I see my way forward.
My debut novel Rats is a book of speculative fiction – SF, Fantasy, Dystopian? All three, if truth be told, but hopefully suitable for both YA and general readers. Rats is a journey from one world to the next – beginning in the future, ending in the past. In one world my protagonist is Bitch Singer – fighting a dictator – guerilla style. In another she is Dorrie Hart, housewife and mother – carer to a speech-impaired child. Which world is real – which life is true? And why does she wake each morning crying for a lost lover – a lover she is determined to find.
Bedrich Smetana’s Vltava, a tone painting used to evoke the sounds of one of Bohemia’s great rivers, is the music that most suits the Wilderness chapters in Rats. Bitch Singer of the Whip Tails dreams of escaping from the Ruins and the rat-hunting troopers. Sharing that dream of freedom, her clan heads for unoccupied territory, the Wilderness, where Dictator Templeton has no sway. For me, that yearning, that dream of freedom is encapsulated in Vltava. In the joy of the river’s run and the surges of gathering strength as it flows through the forest, I am Bit, heading for the Wilderness with her clan. Hearing Vltava places me there, climbing the hills, sleeping in the forests; searching for a refuge where Rats can live free.
Music inspires, give impetus, gives insight, but it’s the hard graft of putting words on a page that is the truth of writing. For that I need to be alone and in a quiet place.
Place is all-important. At present I write in a room with a good view of the sky. Living at the top of a hill, my sky is high, wide and handsome. Today it’s cloudy but not flat-dull, just a patchwork of grey clouds ranging from dove to near charcoal. I watch as they thin to expose hazy blue streaks when just an hour ago they had thickened to an indigo frown. Day moods and stormy night moods are stored in my memory, ready to add texture to my prose.
Emotion runs strong in Rats, like the river Vltava.
Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring is an inspiration for forging the clan’s new life in the Wilderness. I love its peace and its joy – the sounds of a new beginning.
For deep emotion I listen to Beth Nielsen Chapman. Sand and Water got me in the mood to write a particularly harrowing scene in Rats, just as Allegri’s soul-quivering Miserere saw Bit through her traumatic journey into the unknown.
It’s not all gloom and sorrow in Rats, Alison Krauss singing Down to the River to Pray helped write the homely scenes where my freed Rats attempt to throw off the pall cast by Templeton. And let’s not forget the Soggy Bottom Boys’ Man of Constant Sorrow that jogged me through Bit’s extraordinary new life.
Last but not least I depended on the music score of Gladiator composed by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard, to give life to certain action sequences in the novel. In fact the whole CD fits Rats perfectly – death and hunting, a Rat’s life in just three words. I still watch Gladiator, and listen to my CD of the theme music, thinking of my rebellious freedom fighters and especially of Bit, sent unwillingly on a traumatic journey into the unknown.
JW Hicks, a long-time story teller and writer of quirky tales. Her first love is speculative fiction. Her mentors – John Wyndham, Robert A Heinlein and CJ Cherryh. A prize winning short story writer, with success at the Words With Jam ‘first page’ competition, with Rats, her debut novel, now found on Amazon Kindle and Smashwords. She can be found on the Triskele Books Blog.