‘I’m almost not creating, but transcribing the feelings the music gives me’
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by historical and speculative fiction author KM Weiland.
Soundtrack by Hans Zimmer, Loreena McKennitt, Within Temptation, Ronan Hardiman
I’m a total non-musician. People ask me if I play, and my glib reply is always, ‘Sure, I play the radio’. My musical accomplishments span the gamut from plucking out My Dog Has Fleas on the guitar, a wheezy rendition of When the Saints Come Marching in on the harmonica (so long as I have the Harmonica Playing for the Spectacularly Untalented propped open in front of me), and pretty much any song you’d like to hear on the kazoo. (What’s that? You can’t think of a song you’d like to hear on the kazoo? Me neither.)
But for all of my very unmusicalness, I am a music drunkard. I am intoxicated by the magic of sound. Even more, I am endlessly fascinated by the power music possesses to tell perfect stories. Even the best of authors require hundreds of words to convey character, emotion, and theme. Musicians share their stories effortlessly and organically in just a few notes. As a writer, I’m determined to steal a little of that magic by imbibing copious amounts of music when writing.
For every story I write, there’s always a soundtrack of particular songs that influenced its evolution. For my medieval novel Behold the Dawn, those songs included everything from Loreena McKennitt’s simultaneously aggressive and dreamy Prologue / The Mummer’s Dance to Within Temptation’s tragic The Truth Beneath the Rose and Ronan Hardiman’s simple love song Take Me With You.
But probably the single greatest musical influence on this story was Hans Zimmer’s Gladiator soundtrack.
At the time of Behold the Dawn’s conception, I hadn’t seen the movie yet, so I knew next to nothing about the plot and was free to speculate according to the music. The story that arose whenever I listened was one of revenge and redemption, tragedy and love. The music—that brutal, sawing, bloody, thundering waltz of The Battle and Barbarian Horde and the earthy primal call of tracks such as The Wheat and Elysium —told the story growing in my head better than I could ever tell it on paper. The callused, hurting warrior knight Marcus Annan and the battered but unbroken noblewoman Lady Mairead lived within the music Zimmer wrote for a very different story. Themes danced in colors of olive green, yellowed sand, and blue as brilliant as the Middle Eastern sky. In one note, I could hear the whole story, see it spinning out in front of me to infinitude, then disappearing in the next instant as the music thundered on.
I took those feelings—and that music—to the keyboard with me, and I wrote it into my story. In so many ways the writing of that book was a special experience (one that often makes me wonder if it was unrepeatable), and I credit it to the music as much as anything else. I finally did get around to watching (and loving) Gladiator and was awed by the entirely different tale that had given birth to the music that had helped me give birth to my own story.
Every story I write is a journey through music. This melding of the arts gives me a power in my stories beyond my own ability with words. The deep emotion of the music breathes life into the characters and the themes to the point that I’m almost not creating at all, so much as transcribing the feelings in my chest. That’s the gift of music. That’s why I listen.
K.M. Weiland is the author of the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn. She enjoys mentoring other authors through her writing tips, her book Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration. You can find her on Twitter as @kmweiland