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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 Southern Gothic literary novelist Dave Newell @davenewell
Can music make a writer a better writer?
I grew up in South Carolina so my literary diet consists of the great Southern Gothic writers like Flannery O’Connor, Edgar Allan Poe, Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams. In addition, local storytellers with little name recognition outside of their own counties introduced me to unique styles. Horrific stories told beautifully are nothing new to me; they’re what I grew up hearing and how I thought storytelling was meant to be.
When I was in elementary school my parents signed me up for ten years of ill-fated piano lessons. Sure, I didn’t miss a lesson, but very little came of those years in terms of musical skill. However, I did learn the importance of the metronome – a steady guide and constant companion that helped me stay as consistent as I was able to. It afforded me the ability to concentrate on other tasks instead of focusing solely on rhythm. I was able to focus on the position of my hands and recall what my teacher had reminded me of. In terms of writing, music is my metronome.
Writers have to perform an incredible amount of mental gymnastics in very tight spaces. Some of the writing comes naturally while much of it is learned and then mastered through practice. For brainstorming I listen to music with lyrics, but when writing I need a guide to pull along my voice, which comes naturally, while I concentrate on practicing what doesn’t – new sentence structures and world-building.
Conspiracy, calm and bitter tension
When writing my book Red Lory I created a small 1950’s town and centered the story on Dr Douglas Howard and the wife of a patient, Mrs King. Her wealthy husband owns a very profitable department store, but his health took a surprising dive, leaving him incapacitated and in a coma-like trance. She appears to be giving up on him in favor of making plans to marry Dr. Howard, who happens to be struggling financially. Many of the scenes take place in the Kings’ library where the doctor and Mrs. King spend hours while her husband fights for his life upstairs in his bedroom.
Theirs is a strange world – a complex environment of conspiracy, calm, and bitter sexual tension. I needed something to keep me in that world, so I went back to the classics. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, a song Mrs King plays on the library piano, became invaluable. I also looped Olafur Arnalds’ album Living Room Songs, using it as my metronome to carry my voice while I concentrated on other things.
Since it was published the book has been produced as an audiobook and is being adapted into a movie. Both producers have remarked on how cinematic the story is, and I owe much of that to the music I listened to. A strong soundtrack helps me paint the story with a finer brush and more vibrant colors.
Music isn’t just something I use to allow my voice to carry on and remain consistent; it’s also something I learn from. Songwriters tell stories; they just pack it differently than novelists do. Thayer Sarrano’s Quiet Now Your Bones changed my perception of what’s expected of me as a writer. It’s a lonesome song that puts me under a spell I don’t dare break.
I often associate page-turners with action-packed stories where the turning points are easily identified, and the tension rings the doorbell instead of sneaking up on you. I like to think that I’ve learned how to write tension into a story like she does with her songwriting. By nature of the Southern Gothic genre, readers are expecting strong doses of tension to show up in my stories, and I’m happy to oblige. However, I don’t want my tension to waltz up to the front door and announce itself. I want it – without the reader realizing – to have been sitting beside them the whole time, turning the pages.
Listen for the stories
To me music is something more than background noise. Each, with or without lyrics, is a carefully crafted story. Both Sarrano and Arnalds construct songs with heavy amounts of friction disguised by beautiful melodies. Listen for the stories the artists are trying to tell. Those stories, although kept in the invisible binding of digital formats, are page turners that bring us into their world and teach all along the way.
Dave Newell was born and raised in the Midlands of South Carolina. After graduating in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in Broadcast Journalism, he moved to Greenville, South Carolina where he currently lives with his family. Red Lory is his first novel. Find him online at davenewell.net and on Twitter at @davenewell.
authors, Ólafur Arnalds, Beethoven, contemporary fiction, Dave Newell, Desert Island Discs, Douglas Howard, drama, Edgar Allan Poe, entertainment, Flannery O’Connor, literary fiction, literary novels, literature, male writers, Moonlight Sonata, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, Red Lory, Roz Morris, South Carolina, Southern Gothic, Southern Gothic literary, storytellers, Tennessee Williams, Thayer Sarrano, The Undercover Soundtrack, Truman Capote, undercover soundtrack, voice, writers, writing, writing to music
- 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.
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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
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- All content copyright Roz Morris 2011-2022. 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'
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