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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.
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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.
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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.
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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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