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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 debut thriller writer Paul Sean Grieve @PaulSeanGrieve
Soundtrack by Midnight Oil, Eddy Grant, Peter Gabriel, Christina Aguilera, The Police, Kenny Rogers, Animotion, Katrina and the Waves, Gotye
Before Roz asked me to contribute to The Undercover Soundtrack, I’d never consciously thought about how deeply Poison, my debut thriller, had been shaped and inspired by music. In retrospect, this is almost unbelievable, because every time I think of a scene in the book, the music from which I drew inspiration reverberates so loudly in my head I wonder how anyone can read it without hearing it too.
Set primarily in Toronto and Honduras, Poison tells the story of Drew Freeman, an idealistic young toxicology student who uncovers a research file so explosive it could shatter the globe-spanning empire of a massive agricultural conglomerate.
If there is one song I feel captures the ethos of the story from the protagonist’s perspective, it is Beds are Burning by Midnight Oil. This is the song that inspired the ideas which eventually coalesced into the story and it’s the tune I played on Youtube when I needed to get myself into Drew’s head. It’s a very political song interpreted to be about the plight of aboriginal peoples and the long-ago theft of their lands, but I’ve always taken it to be about the plundering of earth’s resources and the exploitation of its less fortunate people. What made the song resonate for me as the ‘anthem’ for this novel and its main character is its undercurrent of anger at gross injustice and its explicit call to action. Until Drew exposes the truth, his bed may as well be burning.
His ex-girlfriend Claire, on the other hand, is a somewhat more complex character, one we learn has gone through a gut-wrenching transition in her life. Formerly a muckraking firebrand of a freelance journalist, Claire was driven by disillusionment and the increasing prospect of life-long poverty to earn an MBA in pursuit of a new career in business. As my ideas about Claire gradually developed, three songs helped me to understand her headspace in three key segments of the narrative respectively.
The song of her back story was Eddy Grant’s Electric Avenue, an angry but upbeat protest song that echoes a hopeful ‘we’re not going to take it any more’ sentiment. I can’t listen to this song without wanting to start a (peaceful) revolution, and it’s the song that played in my mind when I peppered the book with subtle hints about what sort of person Claire used to be years before we meet her.
But this former Claire is not the same woman who ascends in the the glass elevator to meet the CEO of the Fortune 500 company she desperately wants to work for. As she undertakes the walk on eggshells she hope will lead to her dream job, Eddy Grant is nowhere to be heard. Now, it’s Peter Gabriel’s Big Time, a song which to me suggests powerful ambition and lust for material success. Its unapologetic, in-your-face brashness helped remind me how revved Claire was about the new job that was her ticket out of desperation and how reluctant she therefore was to heed Drew’s dire warnings. But Big Time only took me so far. As Claire reluctantly comes to realise that, in spite of her new glamorous job, she is nothing more than a shill for an evil corporate empire, I sensed the energetic confidence of Peter Gabriel’s song start to ring hollow and gradually fade out, to be replaced with the theme song from the film Moulin Rouge, Voulez-vous coucher avec moi? As I wrote the speeches Claire delivers in support of the corporate propaganda machine, I imagined this song about soulless prostitution forcing itself on her like one of the unwelcome hecklers in the audiences she addresses.
In fairness to Claire, she is not the only one engaged in prostitution. Desperate for money, Drew tutors a maths-challenged female student for a chemistry credit she desperately needs. Unable to afford the number of hours she requires just to gain a fingernail grasp the basics, Scarlett (the student) resorts to the only resource she can count on – her feminine wiles. Unfortunately for Drew, who, lonely and frustrated, still secretly pines for Claire, this sultry femme-fatale proves irresistible. Imagining Drew’s obsessive longing for Claire brought to mind the melancholy classic Every Breath You Take by the Police, which, while to reminding me of the character’s painful isolation and emotional desperation, helped me intuit how a such an ideological man would be so keen take solace in Scarlett’s brand of comfort. (As an aside, the name Scarlett came from Kenny Rogers’ song about an exotic dancer titled Scarlett Fever, one of my favourites when I was a kid). In spite of a few minor ethical qualms, he almost forgets his longing for Claire as this ‘forbidden fruit’ hangs ever lower on the branch. As I crafted the story of Drew’s burgeoning attraction toward his beguiling student, I couldn’t help but hear the fiery passion of Animotion’s 1980’s synth-pop hit Obsession, and when he finally gives himself over to her, knowing full well it meant the end of his desperately needed stream of income, I imagined him none the less on cloud nine, strutting down the street to the tune of Katrina and the Waves’s Walking on Sunshine.
But, alas for poor Drew, when the relationship sours in a way that slams back into the conspiracy plot and Drew is left wondering what went wrong, I can just hear Gotye’s super-awesome Somebody I Used to Know blasting from the loudspeakers in his tortured mind. It played (delightfully) in an endless loop in my own mind every time I worked on the scenes post-Scarlett, particularly the cathartic and highly significant confrontation with her on the street (the outcome of which provides Drew with a vital clue).
Paul Sean Grieve has written and directed short stories, but prefers the medium of the novel as it is a more complete work. Poison: A Novel is his debut. It is free for a limited time at Smashwords, B&N and the iBook store (or $0.99 from Amazon). Or he says you can email him for a free digital copy as he loves to hear from readers. His website is here, and you can connect with him on Twitter @PaulSeanGrieve.
Animotion, authors, Christina Aguilera, contemporary fiction, debut thriller, Desert Island Discs, drama, Eddy Grant, entertainment, Gotye, Honduras, Katrina and the Waves, Kenny Rogers, male writers, Midnight Oil, Moulin Rouge, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Paul Sean Grieve, Peter Gabriel, playlist for writers, Poison: A Novel, reggae, rock, Roz Morris, The Police, The Undercover Soundtrack, thriller, thrillers, Toronto, toxicology, undercover soundtrack, writers, writing, writing to music
My guest this week had talismanic pieces of music in his mind while he wrote his debut thriller. Indeed he says the music was such a guiding force that he cannot imagine how anyone reading the book could not hear it too. He chose anthems to embody his characters, their state of mind, their dilemmas and the way they change in the story’s events. They are protest songs, wry looks at characters who are abandoning their principles and songs of obsession and downfall. I’m also delighted to report that he includes Peter Gabriel – one of my long-time favourite musicians. He is Paul Sean Grieve and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
authors, contemporary fiction, debut thriller, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, male writers, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Paul Sean Grieve, Peter Gabriel, playlist for writers, Poison: A Novel, reggae, rock, Roz Morris, The Undercover Soundtrack, thriller, thrillers, toxicology, undercover soundtrack, writers, writing, writing to music
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 apocalyptic thriller author Josh Malerman @JoshMalerman
Soundtrack by Slumber Party Massacre, Rosemary’s Baby, The Fog, Creepshow, Beetlejuice, Danny Elfman, John Carpenter, birdsong
I think Bird Box was written in a trance… a glorious madman’s marathon that most writers are gunning for… the uninterrupted completion of a rough draft that didn’t see a single day’s work end in a question mark. There wasn’t any writing myself-into-a-corner (I’m more likely to do that here, writing this, than I was on that run), no cold sweats, no freak-outs. What a month! Bird Box was written in 26 days. But the awesome bedbug-tapping of the keys and the way I talk to myself as I write weren’t the only sounds that propelled it.
At first, it wasn’t my own. Wasn’t any that I owned, I mean. And some of it wasn’t really music at all. Here’s what I mean.
I’d rented the third-floor attic (former servants’ quarters?) of a mansion in Detroit’s Boston-Edison neighborhood. The owner of the home, a musician, a woman, occupied the rest of the house. But I had my corner; a kitchen up there, a bathtub, a bedroom. And birds. Finches. Five of them. I couldn’t bring myself to keep them caged so they flew freely about the space (a thing that ended poorly for some, but was really nice while it lasted.) I had an idea for a book. A different kind of monster. Fuck vampires, I used to think. And fuck the blues. Both so boring! Gimme something new. A monster burst forth! Splitting the idea-ether, lopping the head off the self-governor quickly. It was infinity, personified, the incomprehensible standing on the front porch, swinging on the porch-swing. Yes! Infinity would chase my Malorie through the foggy black and white world of Bird Box as the birds in my rooms sang out, seven o’clock in the morning, flying from one bookshelf to another.
And how their voices spurred me on.
I bought an album, Birds of North America, to play in the intervals, those rare times when the finches grew tired and simply stared, didn’t sing. The sing-song sounds of wild birds spun on the record player, giving my rooms a new feel, and a wider landscape to the book. When Malorie turned her blind head toward the trees, the limbs stretched out farther than they used to. The sky was higher. Room, you see, for all these birds. And there was more. Yes! More music! The landlady played classical guitar downstairs, attempting to revisit a lost passion of hers… writing dreamy-fantastic songs, though she hadn’t written a batch in so long.
Ah, what a place of inspiration! And who would stop there? I’d discovered, for myself, the magnificence of mood, the way an album could influence the words on the page, actually making its way into the work of art. How had I not known it before? How could I have listened to talk radio while typing the rough drafts that came before Bird Box?
Can you hear it?
Can you hear the opening of the Creepshow soundtrack in Bird Box? Can you hear it in my book? I can. It’s in there. No, not at the beginning of Bird Box, not where it appears in the movie Creepshow, but all over the place… as if the book is beginning once again… over and over… letting you know something is starting something is starting I thought it’d already begun but something is starting.
How about the soundtrack for John Carpenter’s The Fog? That ought to be easier to locate. What with the fog that inspired Malorie to leave her house, one might simply point to the page and declare, I hear it! I hear the atmospheric synth sounds of John Carpenter, the Made Man of horror.Yes, as my collection of horror movie soundtracks ballooned (it’s flat out awesome now), so did the story of the book, most pages colored by Slumber Party Massacre, Rosemary’s Baby and Beetlejuice (if you can’t write to Danny Elfman then… then nothing…then I guess you can’t write to Danny Elfman… )
I had no reservations replaying these soundtracks over and over as the birds sang and the homeowner strummed downstairs.
Twenty-six days isn’t long enough to go through too many phases. You get into certain music… certain tracks… and live ‘em for a month.
And yet, the attic scene needed something more.
I wish I could cite the songs used for that frantic scene, but I can’t. I’d have to call radio stations, talk dates and times, extricate one piece from another. Because, for the attic, I wrote to two songs playing at once. As the local classical music station bellowed, the horror movie soundtracks spun on the table by the radio. Oh, the glory of two unrelated pieces sounding at once.
How can I locate a link for such a sound? Maybe we can try. Go ahead and turn your computer speakers as loud as they’ll go. Then play any song you’ve got on there. Absolutely any song. Now turn on your radio and turn it to the classical station. Blast that fucker, too. Situate yourself somewhere in the middle. Sit down where the twain shall meet and begin typing.
Are you into horror? Do you like writing freaky stories? Are you looking for a new thought… a freshie… something you think you aren’t capable of inventing? So am I. Always. And one place to find it is in music. Impossible music… abhorrent combinations.
Why… I’m listening to something like that now… as the door to the office balcony is wide open, the birds sing outside, my girl Allison dribbles a basketball in the driveway… and the soundtrack for Under the Skin spins beside me.
Can you write a novel without music? Of course. But have you tried it with it? Listen closely… you can hear the scope of your story expanding, the boundaries stretching outward, out… until they are as invisible as the medium itself…
Oh, fear not as the music writes the story for you. You are only a conduit. The machine by which those frightening tones will become words… those words sentences… but not before being born as letters. Letters first. Just like the individual notes of the songs that propel you.
Josh Malerman is the author of Bird Box and the singer/songwriter for the rock band the High Strung (whose song The Luck You Got can be heard as the theme song to Showtime’s hit show Shameless). If you’re in the US, you can see him interviewed by @Porter_Anderson (the very first Undercover Soundtrack guest) at the Writer’s Digest Novel-Writing Conference in August. Find him on Twitter as @joshmalerman and on Facebook.
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My guest this week says his novel was written in a trance. He rented an attic from a musician, who he could hear practising in the rooms downstairs, brought along a cageful of finches and set them free to fly around him as he typed. You’ll see from the title why they seemed like a good idea. These avian muses were also treated to the soundtracks of several movies – Rosemary’s Baby, The Fog and Creepshow – which doubtless helped them get further into character. When he needed to crank up the intensity, there would be two songs howling at once – the radio at one end of the room, classical music at the other. My guest reports that sometimes his birds got tired and stared at him. This endearing aural vandal is Josh Malerman, his novel is the post-apocalyptic thriller Bird Box, and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
apocalyptic, authors, Bird Box, birdsong, classical music, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, future, futuristic, Josh Malerman, literary novels, male writers, music, music for writers, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, speculative fiction, The Undercover Soundtrack, thriller, thrillers, undercover soundtrack, wild birds, writers, writing, writing to music
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 science fictioneer-turned-historical-murder mystery writer David Penny @DavidPenny_
Soundtrack by Tinariwen, Neil Young, Joe Satriano, Grace Potter, Counting Crows, John Hiatt
I’m a frustrated musician. Many writers I talk to wish they were musicians (yes, we know who you are, Mr Rankin) but, when I talk to musicians they often want to be writers. Or actors. As for the actors, well…
For me writing is a constant striving to achieve the same visceral punch I get from great music. It’s hard because writing is a different medium, but every now and again, for a brief moment, I like to think I’ve almost attained that ambition.
I use music to inspire me, to turn off my analytical mind and don a cap of imagination. While writing my first new book for over 35 years (don’t ask) I used music as inspiration, but also as a wash of sound through which my hands drifted across the keyboard.
That book, The Red Hill came to me complete in less than a second, the entire idea and thread for a multi-book series. Then it took two years to write. The protagonist, Thomas Berrington, is an Englishman a thousand miles from home, a surgeon working in the final years of the Moorish caliphate that has ruled Spain for over 700 years. For much of that period the Moors were a beacon of civilisation in a Europe shattered by invasion, war and ignorance. They were cultured, scientific, and curious about the world. While the Vikings invaded the north, the Moors were inventing flying machines (1100), algebra, the clock, and studying the stars and medicine. In the book Thomas uses the techniques and instruments invented by the Moors – many of which have developed into those now used in modern operating theatres. His life is settled, deliberately constrained, until a man he can’t refuse asks a favour that could get him killed.
Below is the music that inspired me in the writing of the book, but more importantly music that just inspired. What more is there?
This is how I see Thomas dressed in The Red Hill. It’s also here because I listen to Tinariwen when I need to get into the emotional world of the Moors before they came to Spain, the world they carried with them. I can hear this music – without the electric guitars, but the Moors did have lutes and some even believe they created the acoustic guitar – being performed in al-Hamra at the time The Red Hill is set – the music rhythmic, dense, ululating. And the performers – you can see their lives etched deep on their faces.
I love everything about Neil Young when he plays electric guitar this way. His acoustic, Harvest Moon period, I can take or leave, but when he performs like this it sums up how I feel about writing. The music is on the edge, barely constrained, constantly threatening to tip over into chaos and feedback, always pulling back from the brink. I love his uncompromising nature. I understand it’s also what turns people off his music, but the point is he doesn’t care. He does what he does, what he must do. Whether you like it, love it, or loath it, it is what it is. The struggle to write something possessing this raw power and emotion is what keeps me coming back to the keyboard over and over again. It’s an unattainable dream, but that’s all right, because it means I never need to stop. Just like Neil. And take time to listen to the words.
Also there is this cover of Cortez the Killer by Joe Satriano and Grace Potter. Written by Neil, of course, but included for a couple of reasons – the main one being the dichotomy between the slight Spanish vibe and the words. And it tells the result of the victors in the battle the Thomas Berrington series is about. I can’t help wondering how different the world would be today if the Moors hadn’t been defeated.
Another band I can’t get enough of, another singer who wears his heart on his sleeve. My wife and I – kids too – have seen this band more than any other, and every time they’re different. Some people don’t like that, wanting things to sound just like on the album. Us? No – we like different. This song, A Long December, contains one of my favourite lines: about oysters and pearls… listen… Also listen to Miller’s Angels – stark, haunting, beautiful.
This song, Have a Little Faith in Me, has nothing to do with The Red Hill, other than I listen to John Hiatt all the time. It isn’t my favourite song of his (that’s another guitar blow-out, but I’ll spare you), but it is his best known and most covered. John Hiatt it the best unknown singer-songwriter in the world. No, don’t disagree – he is. He just is. And again, listen to the words and bow down to the man…
I first saw John Hiatt at the Hammersmith Apollo in the 90s and at the end of a three-hour show that blew my socks off he said something that sums up exactly how I feel about writing: ‘Hey, thanks y’all for coming. If you weren’t here we’d still be playing this stuff, but we’d be doing it in our garage.’
Also try Cry Love. I’ve included this because Immy from Counting Crows is on mandolin (plus it’s brilliant).
David Penny is the author of four science fiction novels and several short stories published during the 1970s. Near-starvation led him down the slippery slope of work, which distracted him from his true calling. He has now returned to writing and The Red Hill, a Moorish mystery thriller, is out July 13 2014. He is currently working on two new books: the follow up to The Red Hill, and a thriller set in the world of industrial espionage. You can find out more about David and his writing at his website and you can connect on twitter @davidpenny_
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My guest this week describes his writing as a constant state of striving – to achieve the same visceral punch of great music. His books come to him that way too – protagonist, thread and plot in one hit. In fact I’ve actually seen this thunderbolt descend; I was with him on a course one day when he told me he’d just seen an entire plot and its characters in an instant. After that comes the hard work, of course, and music helps him return to that state of fever. The novel he is talking about this week is the first in a crime series, set in the final years of Moorish rule in Spain, and its soundtrack is full of sweat, guitars, lutes and bass. He is David Penny and he will be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
authors, bass, crime, David Penny, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, guitars, historical crime, historical fiction, historical thriller, literary fiction, literary novels, lute, male writers, Moors, murder, murder mystery, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, protagonist, Roz Morris, Spain, surgery, The Red Hill, The Undercover Soundtrack, thrillers, undercover soundtrack, writers, writing, writing to music
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 NYT bestselling historical thriller author Rebecca Cantrell @RebeccaCantrell
When I start writing a new novel, one of the first things I do is put together a playlist for it. I’ll start with just a few songs and then add them as time goes on, so I might start out with 20 minutes of music and then end up with an hour and half to two hours by the end. I listen to this playlist almost every day while writing the book. At the beginning, I hear every word, but after a while the music becomes background while I’m writing in some Berlin café.
My latest Hannah Vogel novel is A City of Broken Glass and it’s set during Kristallnacht in 1938, so I listened to some modern stuff to establish the right mood and some historical stuff to put me straight in Hannah’s word.
The first song on my playlist is the theme from the BBC series Wallander sung by Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo. It’s haunting and sad and reminds me that it’s time to get serious, to slow down and leave all of my thoughts outside of the writing room and get to work.
The next song was written in 1926, but I think it was more popular during World War II, and it reminds me that Hannah is always trying to help others as they try to escape the burgeoning Nazi menace, even at the cost of her own life. It’s Someone to Watch Over Me sung by Dakota Staton. It’s a love song, and if I’m working on a romantic scene, sometimes I’ll play that song a couple of times in a row. Hannah and Lars both watch out for each other, so it’s not as sexist as it might seem. Or so I tell myself.
After that, I move on to Song of a German Mother, sung by Lotte Lenya with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht and music by Kurt Weill. All of them lived in Berlin at the same time as Hannah, and all of them fled to the United States during the Nazi years. It’s a very grim song about a mother who lost her son to the Nazis because she didn’t understand what would happen. It’s a warning to Hannah and a reminder to me that the Germans, too, suffered terrible losses and had deep regrets, even before they lost the war. I try to paint a nuanced picture of all the characters, because few things were as simple then as we like to think they were when we look back on it. I couldn’t find Lotte Lenya singing this on YouTube (although she sings other songs there, all worth listening to—she has a wonderful smoky voice), but here it is sung by Dagmar Krause.
After this, I need something a little lighter and more fun, so I have Mack the Knife, which was also has lyrics by Bertolt Brecht and music by Kurt Weill. I have a version sung by Lotte Lenya as well, where she teams up with Louis Armstrong. Mack the Knife was part of the The Threepenny Opera and was first performed on stage in Berlin in 1928 (with Lotte Lenya and Peter Lorre!). I think Hannah would have scraped together the cast to go and see it. Its message of violence under the smooth surface was prescient. And Louis Armstrong is always fantastic. I could follow that voice anywhere.
The next song is It’s Only a Paper Moon by Paul Whiteman and his orchestra. I got it off a CD called A Time to Remember 1934 that was in the birthday card section of a gift shop in Hawaii. I always buy one for the year each book is set, although I don’t know what I’ll do now that I’ve moved to Berlin and can’t get to that gift shop. I played a lot of those songs when I was writing the book set in 1934, but this one stuck with even after and moved on to this later playlist, probably because I have Hannah herself sing it while under the influence in A Night of Long Knives. I think it’s been remade many times over the years, but here’s the oldie version because I think that one is still the most fun:
There are various songs in between, some historical and some not, but all of them hopefully speaking to my subconscious and keeping me in Hannah’s world. The soundtrack ends with Beauty in the World by Macy Gray, as it brings me back to the 21st century. And lunch.
Rebecca Cantrell is a New York Times bestselling thriller author. Her novels include the Order of Sanguines series, starting with The Blood Gospel, the award-winning Hannah Vogel mystery series, starting with A Trace of Smoke and the Joe Tesla thrillers, starting with The World Beneath. She, her husband, and son left Hawaii’s sunny shores for adventures in Berlin. Find Rebecca Cantrell on Facebook, Twitter, and at www.rebeccacantrell.com
A Trace of Smoke, authors, Berlin, Bertolt Brecht, Dagmar Krause, Dakota Staton, Desert Island Discs, drama, Emily Barker, Emily Barker & the Red Clay Halo, entertainment, Hannah, Hannah Vogel, how to write a thriller novel, Joe Tesla thrillers, Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya, Louis Armstrong, Macy Gray, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Mystery, mystery series, Nail Your Novel, New York Times, Order of Sanguines, Paul Whiteman, playlist, playlist for writers, Rebecca Cantrell, Roz Morris, The Blood Gospel, The Undercover Soundtrack, The World Beneath, thriller, thrillers, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music
My guest this week says she always begins a project by assembling a sequence of music tracks. To start with, she notices every word and note, but after a while they settle into a familiar environment – a mental writing room that claims her attention and tells her it’s time to immerse. The novel she’ll be sharing with us is set in 1938, so her soundtrack is a mix of her own favourite contemporary songs to help capture the mood, and then a lot of material from the period of her story to conjure the historical period. She is NYT bestselling thriller author Rebecca Cantrell, and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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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.
authors, Benny Goodman, Brett Rosenberg, Bruce Springsteen, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, friends, Gyorgy Ligeti, horror, horror novels, how to write a horror novel, how to write a thriller novel, how to write a zombie novel, I’m On Fire, inspiration, Julie London, Kryzysztof Penderecki, male writers, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, soundtracks, The Dream, The Undercover Soundtrack, thriller novels, thrillers, U2, undercover soundtrack, vodou, voodoo, Will Overby, writers, writing, writing to music, zombie novels, zombies
My guest this week says he uses music before he sets hands to keyboard, to help conjure the creative mood. Sometimes it works the other way around; he’ll be writing and will realise the mind-jukebox is directing a scene to the structure or lyrics of a song. He trained as a lawyer but quickly found a creative outlet as a legal adviser on TV dramas. From there he began writing some of the UK’s most popular series and is now a crime novelist. Funnily enough, one of his key songs is Jon & Vangelis’s I’ll Find My Way Home, which one of my earliest guests used as a touchstone for his MG novel – isn’t it amazing how one piece of music can inspire such diverse ideas? He is TJ Cooke and he will be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
authors, contemporary fiction, creative mood, creative outlet, crime, crime fiction, crime novelist, crime novels, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, legal adviser, male writers, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, oscars, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, The Undercover Soundtrack, thriller, thrillers, TJ Cooke, tv dramas, undercover soundtrack, 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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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 2011-2023. 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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