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My first guest this year says that when she was very young, she spent a lot of time in theatres, watching her dad rehearse with bands. She would fall asleep to the sound as he played bass for the likes of Don Cherry, Lou Reed and his own band, The Everyman Band. Later she became consumed by music herself, pouring her soul into the playing of the clarinet. Tendinitis cut her music career short and a teacher suggested she write, encouraging her to write in the voice of one of the authors they’d been reading that term. ‘Voice’ – it was that word that started it. She realised that writing was musical, a sequence of rhythm, tension and release – and so her first novel took shape (and went on to win the 2013 Engine Books Novel Prize). She is Sarah Yaw and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
authors, clarinet, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, Don Cherry, drama, Engine Books Novel Prize, entertainment, Everyman Band, literary fiction, Lou Reed, music, music career, music for writers, music for writing, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, RSI, Sarah Yaw, tendinitis, The Everyman Band, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, 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’s post is by contemporary romance author Jan Ruth @JanRuthAuthor
Soundtrack by Katherine Jenkins, Sarah Brightman, The Pogues
Christmas music; what’s the first track that springs to mind? It’s usually always Slade, that staple of commercial radio and drunken office parties. And as much as we may hate this stuff being regurgitated every year, it wouldn’t be the same without it, such is the power of music and the way it can ‘set a scene’.
The brief – to myself – was three, longish-short stories set in my usual comfort zone of Snowdonia, North Wales, UK. I wanted to make them all very different from each other, and I’ve chosen four pieces of music which I feel sure heavily influenced my dormant festive muse.
I started my Christmas selection back in July and it was a tall order to find the mood when the sun was beating down on the parched Welsh mountains. This is where music plays a massive part, well, that and mince pies. I relied quite heavily on baked goods as husband objected to Christmas music in high summer, and even considering earpieces there’s always a certain level of wailing-along to contend with. So, an empty house, a dangly piece of bald tinsel and plenty of icing sugar…
Rudolph the Brown-Nosed Reindeer – Rejoice by Katherine Jenkins
Rick isn’t looking forward to his lonely corporate Christmas, but it’s the season of goodwill and magic is in the air.
An off-beat love story, with all the hierarchy of the Christmas office party to contend with. It’s time Rick wore his heart on his sleeve, or is it too late? Lessons in love from an unlikely source, in this case, Rudolph. This story has its wry fun, but Rick-the-Reserved is in major denial. Oh, he’s the tall dark sensitive sort but there’s a limit to self-preservation and he’s in danger of losing what’s under his nose. Rejoice is one of those tracks that seems to become richer with every listen, rather like peeling away the layers of doubt and indecision – something my main character needs to examine. Rick would do well to listen to the lyrics of this track and take some of them to heart. Above all, it managed to transport me to the snowy forest in the story. Can you hear the snow dripping and the fire crackling in the grate?
Jim’s Christmas Carol – Angel by Sarah Brightman
Santa and Satan pay a visit. One brings presents, the other an unwelcome presence.
Paranormal reality? Jim’s played with fire and it’s time he got his comeuppance, but from who?
Paranormal isn’t something I seek out to read, let alone write, but Sarah Brightman’s track Angel was one of the triggers for this story. Jim’s Christmas Carol isn’t a serious tale, it does have an element of farce about it, but Brightman’s track (and especially the video) is interesting in that the words and the imagery can be interpreted in many different ways, a bit like Jim’s Christmas Carol. And a lot like our kaleidoscope of beliefs when it comes to religion, guardian angels and all things paranormal.
Home for Christmas – The Pogues: Fairytale of New York (You WILL sing, and you will tap your feet.)
‘Deck the halls with boughs of holly. Fa la-la la-la, la-la la-la. Tis the Season to be jolly…’
Romantic-comedy. Pip might accidentally find her true vocation, but the folly of her fibs are about to catch up with her…
The local village play, Deck the Halls, not only saves Philippa Lewisham from herself but promises an entirely different direction for New Year. She’s something of an old-fashioned girl, hiding behind a carefully fabricated facade of career-driven feminism – but she’s very much a fun-loving party-girl too, who’s perhaps lost her way a little.
I love the drunken fun of the Pogues song. It never fails to make me feel Christmassy, and lots of scenes in Deck the Halls take place in the village pub and the old school hall with a jangly old piano. In this story I flirt with romantic comedy and yes it does have a happy ever after, but I can’t bear mushy sentiment in books, film or music, so for me, The Pogues track IS Christmas.
Deck the Halls or Deck the Hall (which is the 1877 title) is a traditional Christmas, yuletide, and New Year carol. The melody is Welsh dating back to the sixteenth century, and belongs to a winter carol, Nos Galan. Merry Christmas! Nadolig Llawen!
Jan Ruth lives in Snowdonia, Wales, UK. This ancient, romantic landscape is the perfect setting for her fiction, or for just daydreaming in the heather. Jan writes contemporary stories about people, with a good smattering of humour and drama, dogs and horses.
Home For Christmas is available now. Full-length novels by her include: Silver Rain, Wild Water, Midnight Sky and White Horizon, plus two collections of short stories. Find Jan on Facebook, Twitter and her website.
The Undercover Soundtrack will be taking a Christmas snooze, and returns on January 7th. Merry everything.
authors, Christmas, Christmas Carol, Christmas carols, Christmas music, Christmas songs, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, Home For Christmas, Jan Ruth, Katherine Jenkins, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, North Wales Yes, paranormal, playlist for writers, romance, Roz Morris, Sarah Brightman, short stories, Slade, Snowdonia, The Pogues, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Wales, Welsh mountains, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music, yuletide
Yes, this week we have a seasonal Undercover Soundtrack – and one that examines the imaginative lengths a writer has to go to. When you hunker down to read a Noelish tale on a snuggly sofa with snow at the windows and a fire crackling in the grate, spare a thought for the writer, who was probably in flip-flops and T-shirt, shutting the curtains against the sun blazing on her laptop screen. Such was the lot of this week’s guest, who began writing her Christmas collection of off-beat romance stories in July. She says she relied heavily on music to create the mood – and risked husbandly disapproval (though he didn’t mind the unseasonable baked goods that were also necessary). So are we about to drag you through the infuriating radio canon of Slade, Mariah and Bing? No, let me reassure you this Soundtrack is a dignified collection, with Katherine Jenkins and Sarah Brightman. Mostly. Drop by on Wednesday to meet Jan Ruth and her Undercover Soundtrack for summoning Christmas in July.
authors, Christmas, Christmas carols, Christmas music, Christmas songs, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, Jan Ruth, Katherine Jenkins, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, paranormal, playlist for writers, romance, Roz Morris, Sarah Brightman, Slade, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music, yuletide
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 UCLA tutor, Harold Ribelow Award nominee and professional psychic Rochelle Jewel Shapiro @RJShapiro
Soundtrack by Karen Siegel
What I Wish You’d Told Me is a collection of three stories of women of all ages grappling with the whacky and the tragic in their lives. An exciting new publishing company, (Shebooks) gave me the opportunity to publish an ebook of three short works of my choice. I already had two stories that I was delighted with, but there was one in me that my bones, my guts, had needed to write for so long, and each time I started out, the ‘how’ of writing the story — its basic narrative, where to start, the climax, denouement—was like a balloon bobbing overhead with the string always out of reach, no matter how high I jumped.
I went to music as I often do for inspiration, direction. Writing lines of prose on a page or notes on a staff are hugely different, but have parallels—they begin, have a middle, and an end. There’s mood, pacing, breath stops. I played Chopin, Sousa, Wagner, nothing clicked. And then, in one of my procrastination bouts, I looked up a video of my daughter-in-law, Karen Siegel and her acapella composition Confessions from the Blogosphere, and had the eureka moment I had been hoping for.
Karen (the woman with the blue top in the video) holds an undergraduate degree from Yale, an MM (masters of music) in musical composition from NYU’s Steinhardt School where she studied with Marc Antonio Consoli, and a PhD in music composition from CUNY Graduate Center where she studied with Tania León. In this piece, she alternated and layered humorous excerpts from random blogs. Sometimes the text was set intact and homophonic—with the whole choir singing the same text at the same time, in a single rhythm — as in the opening statement, ‘I like Paris Hilton for real. Should I be ashamed?’ More often, a fragment of text was repeated in one or two voice parts at a time, offset against the same text in another voice part or voice parts, to create a rhythmic texture. This texture was frequently a backdrop for a melody in a single voice part. At other times, the rhythmic texture itself was the focal point. Altogether, it was like a cento, a poem made up of quotes, lines, phrases from others.
It occurred to me that neither Karen nor I had to have the total vision of what our creations were going to be. She used lines of dialogue gathered by different people. Bingo, I could write lines of dialogue from each of the characters I wanted in Secrets (the first and newest short story in What I Wish You’d Told Me, and see how it came together later, rather than trying to create order right away.
It made sense to me, even physically. I have a spot in my right eye that I need to see around. Sometimes it blots out the full picture of what I need to see, but somehow, my mind creates the whole of it. A study from John Hopkins University shows that when a person looks at a figure, a number, or letter, or any shape, neurons in other areas of the brain’s visual center respond to different parts of that shape, almost instantaneously interlocking them like a puzzle to create an image that sees and understands. I’m sure this is true for all of our senses.
In Secrets, a story set in the 60s about a teenage girl, Leah, whose illusions about her best friend, Arianna’s family are blasted along with her faith in Kennedy’s Camelot, I began with a piece of dialogue from Arianna’s mother. ‘You ran him over!’ she says. ‘It wasn’t a dog. It was an old man.’ Arianna’s father counters with, ‘I wouldn’t have hit anything if you weren’t so drunk that I had to be the one to drive after I had a few.’
After pages of dialogue, some of which I got rid of in the end —’Kill your darlings,’ as Arthur Quiller-Couch advised in his lectures On the Art of Writing — I was able to fill in the rest, and that was the secret of my writing Secrets.
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro’s first novel, Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster), was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award. Her novel Kaylee’s Ghost is an Indie Finalist. She’s published essays in the New York Times and Newsweek and in many anthologies. Her poetry, short stories, and essays have appeared in the Coe Review, Compass Rose, the Griffin, Inkwell Magazine, the Iowa Review, the Los Angeles Review, the MacGuffin, Memoir And, Moment, Negative Capability, Pennsylvania English, The Carolina Review, and more. She won the Brandon Memorial Literary Award from Negative Capability. Shapiro is a professional psychic who currently teaches writing at UCLA Extension. Read more about her at her website. Find her on Twitter @RJShapiro
a capella, authors, blogs, Brandon Memorial Literary Award, characters, Coe Review, Compass Rose, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, Harold Ribelow Award, Inkwell Magazine, Karen Siegel, literary fiction, Memoir And, Moment, music, music composition, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Negative Capability, New York Times, Newsweek, Pennsylvania English, playlist for writers, Rochelle Jewel Shapiro, Rochelle Shapiro, Roz Morris, She Writes, Shebooks, The Carolina Review, the Griffin, the Iowa Review, the Los Angeles Review, the MacGuffin, The Undercover Soundtrack, UCLA, UCLA Extension, UCLA tutor, undercover soundtrack, vocalists, Women Writers, Women's fiction, writers, writing, writing to music
My guest this week had a real struggle to get her novel into shape. She was used to seeking inspiration from music, but found that nothing she listened to was helping. In her head was a jumble of characters and voices, all clamouring but making no sense. Then she happened upon a video of her own daughter-in-law, singing an a capella composition of her own that layered and alternated lines from random blogs. This quirky piece gave her the courage to put her characters together – and see where the harmonies came. She is Rochelle Jewel Shapiro and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
a capella, authors, blogs, characters, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, literary fiction, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, Rochelle Jewel Shapiro, Rochelle Shapiro, Roz Morris, She Writes, Shebooks, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, vocalists, Women Writers, Women's fiction, 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 writing coach EJ Runyon @EJRunyon
Soundtrack by Thee Midniters, Simon & Garfunkel, Nancy Wilson, Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt, Otis Redding, Consuelo Velazquez, The Righteous Brothers, Hank Williams
A House of Light & Stone, a tale set in the 60s, could easily have used the expected rock ‘n roll music of its day. Instead, I’ve featured a mention in the novel of other songs within the tale of Duffy Chavez. I’ve gone with a local, specific East Los Angeles song, Sad Girl (by Thee Midniters). Then a semi-folk song of the time, April Come She Will (Simon & Garfunkel) and followed with a light jazz tune, How Glad I Am (Nancy Wilson). The music was in my ear as I wrote and ended up in my novel as well.
In Duffy’s world, like in Roz’s work, there are a number of pieces that have special meaning for this character. We move from nostalgia with the Spanish-language songs and into an American sound of more yearnings. It’s with the mention of a Bob Dylan tune , Mr. Tambourine Man where a frisson of change is now in the air around Duffy. This song shows up at a point where we see a bit deeper into her past.
If you give a listen to the songs in this post, you’ll almost be able to write your own novel from them. These tunes tell a tale of their own as a playlist. Beginning with Lo Siento Mi Vida (Linda Ronstadt) and then to I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (Otis Redding), there’s an arc you can follow and a sense of storytelling in the lyrics.
This is what I love the most about writing to music. When lyricists tell us a story, we become readers in our listening. From there, the inspiration for our own work seems a natural progression if you are open to it, just as I was inspired in the case of Duffy’s world.
Thief to belief
Duffy knows she must choose to either be a thief and liar all her life or believe in herself enough to risk using her gifts of imagination and ingenuity for good.
To tell that tale, I began writing by considering what my scene’s mood might be. I would ask myself what in the setting could reflect each mood. And also, month after month through this child’s journey, how do I show the passing of time for her poetically. And music seemed to be the key with music being such a large part of her young life.
And while listening to my own collection of music, Besame Querido (Consuelo Velázquez), Unchained Melody (The Righteous Brothers), Mr Tambourine Man (Bob Dylan), these tunes are the ones I heard as I wrote and that managed to sneak into the novel itself.
In this novel, we follow a year in the life of one young girl. While reading Duffy’s story, one can hear the emotions of the music I listened to while writing. The music underscores a story that’s powerful, dark, and uplifting. As the songs felt to me when I wrote, so they matter to young Duffy as she traverses a year on Elliott Street.
A bit of foreshadowing of the novel’s theme is reflected in Otis Redding’s song ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’. Duffy’s story is a novel about letting go, as well as about our holding onto our pasts.
Songs as signposts
This isn’t a film we watch with those catchy songs we all know to be signposts to a set range of time we can all identify. These signposts are woven into the telling of Duffy’s quest to be a ‘real girl’. They’re used in her tale to serve the scene. The songs within Duffy’s life show her steps along the quest. Duffy is also being taught to play violin during her summer months. One of the joys I had writing those scenes was searching the web for actual lesson books a child might have used during that time and weaving its title into the story.
The lyrics of Simon & Garfunkel’s April Come She Will runs through the year, month by month, as does Duffy’s quest, chapter by chapter, from one Christmas day to the end of the following year. It’s almost as if I’ve planted lyric-based Easter eggs for folks to find if they are knowledgeable of the lyrics of these songs.
Music as character
Duffy’s world is often impoverished. It’s always colourful. Hopefully, it’s also reflected in the use of these tunes throughout my chapters. If there were a theme for A House of Light & Stone, it might be Duffy’s separateness that seems to be reflected with I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry (Hank Williams)
Duffy’s mother spends most of the novel listening to one song over and over. The repetition of the Otis Redding song, and how it affects so many of the characters, makes it seem as if that one song is a character all its own. And in a way, that is why, while not licensing the tune to use its lyrics, I did describe the iconic album cover to a T. This was in the hope that readers familiar to the time would pull in the lyrics on their own, in spite of none being quoted in the book.
EJ Runyon was born and raised in East Los Angeles, California. She now spends her time in Las Cruces, New Mexico. EJ runs the coaching website for writers, Bridge to Story. Her books have garnered rather nice, if few, reviews. She’s currently working on her fourth book, Revision for Beginners, all her releases, including A House of Light & Stone, are from the UK Press, Inspired Quill. Find EJ on Facebook, or Twitter as @EJRunyon and at her author website.
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My guest this week wrote her book from a soundtrack of nostalgia – she describes it as a mix of Spanish-language songs and an American flavour of yearning. She used music and lyrics as signposts and milestones, to transport her into the mind of a child, to show the passing of time and the key moments of her young life. At one point, the character learns the violin and the author searched the internet until she had tracked down actual lesson books that would have been used by a child of that period. She is writing coach EJ Runyon, 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 my guest is theatre composer and debut fantasy novelist Stephen Weinstock @s_weinstock
Soundtrack by Frank Zappa, Igor Stravinsky, Stephen Sondheim, Alban Berg
I greatly admire Roz Morris’s wonderful combining of writers and their musical minds. I am excited to contribute because I am a composer, pianist, and dance accompanist who crossed over to write a fantasy series called 1001: The Reincarnation Chronicles. Before writing every day, I devise a playlist that is an eclectic mix of styles, and I wanted to explore how this music affects my writing. But no song expresses a character; no instrumental sets a scene in my book. So why listen to music when I write?
From scene to song
Of course music plays a part in Book One of 1001: The Qaraq – a group of souls who travel together from lifetime to lifetime. In each chapter, one of the qaraq members recalls a past life story; the present day action acts as a mainframe to enter into the memory, like the Scheherazade framing tale device in The Thousand and One Nights. Having worked in musical theater, I channel the techniques used for moving from a spoken scene in and out of a song to accomplish this shift. And some of the tales involve music: one character remembers his incarnation as Vaalat, an East African mallet instrument called a xalafon, which transfixes its audience.
On reflection, I realize the main influence music has on my writing is through the idea of hidden forms. As a composer, I love complex structural devices that we don’t hear in the music, but which shape the score. This love inspired me to construct 11 hidden structures that unify the 1001 series. Here are four examples, along with musical samples of corresponding hidden forms.
Past in the present
1. Embedding a past life story into each chapter is not so hidden, but it’s not obvious reading the first book that there will be 1001 chapters and 1001 lifetimes in the series, God help me! Frank Zappa, master musical parodist, loved to embed famous pieces of music into otherwise pop sounding tunes. In Status Back Baby, a bubble-headed high school kid’s lament is interrupted (at 1:27) by an electric quotation of the opening of Stravinsky’s ballet score Petrushka, then, with a cheerleader’s whistle, the jaunty song returns, mocked by the juxtaposition of kitsch and class.
Zappa, an incredible guitar virtuoso, could also be lyrical and breathtaking, with hidden rhythmic complexity, such as the beautiful Watermelon in Easter Hay.
2. In a score, motifs or longer melodies can recur in obvious or subtle ways. In Stephen Sondheim’s musical Passion, a motif is varied incessantly, to represent the character Fosca’s obsessive, neurotic nature. In Fosca scene, we first hear it at 2:13, and it then snakes its way throughout the scene. Similarly, for each of my central characters, I reiterate a set of traits, a gesture, and a literary voice in all their incarnations. Ooma, the sexy, troubled present day incarnation of the orgy-driven Queen of the Scheherazade tale, recalls her lifetimes in a haunted stream of consciousness. Sometimes I want these tropes to help identify the central character in the incarnation; sometimes they are hidden and just help me create the character. Sahara, the main character, likes to play with her hair: in 17th Century France, we recognize her as she curls a lock of hair around her finger; but in the Ediacaran Era, she is disguised as a two-inch organism with filaments that wave in the waters on the sea floor.
3. The great master of the hidden form was Alban Berg, the Viennese composer whose opera Wozzeck rejected conventional structures like arias and duets. Berg composed each scene of this story, about an oppressed soldier who descends into madness, around a particular structure supporting the dramatic action, some old forms like fugue or march, others more abstract, like the inventions of the last act. In Wozzeck, III, 2, when Wozzeck murders his wife Marie, the hidden form of Invention on a Single Tone reveals itself (at 4:45) with a chilling crescendo. In Wozzeck, III, 4, the Invention on a Hexachord accompanies Wozzeck’s drowning (circa 3:00) as the chord washes up and down in the orchestra. Creepy brilliance.
Influenced by Berg’s superimposition of forms onto a narrative, I placed in each past life story a hidden reference to one Arabian Night. The Thousand and One Nights contains parts of stories; remember that Scheherazade interrupts her storytelling every morning to save her head, so each night she tells only part of a tale. In my writing process, I use the Nights references to add local color or suggest a character’s inner thoughts. At times I lift a whole plot line to guide a past life tale: the magical roukh from Sinbad flies in and out of the qaraq’s mythic memories of their lives on the Red Isle.
4. Despite Stravinsky’s revolutionary status, he also followed Berg’s lead and used hidden techniques like retrograde, where you take a sequence and use it backwards, or the palindrome, where a sequence is the same forwards and backwards (Madam I’m Adam, or, qaraq!). In his opera The Flood, Stravinsky depicts the deluge structurally as a palindrome (at 2:33): the seas rise with orchestral tremolos for the storm, then the music retrogrades with the receding of the waters. In 1001, the chronological order of the past lives presented in the series is a karmic palindrome. The first 500 lifetimes create issues among the characters, and the last 500 are the karmic consequences, resolved in retrograde order. If the incarnation in lifetime #251 murders incarnation #252, then in lifetime #750, the victim forgives the murderer’s incarnation #751. That’s a hidden form!
If you haven’t stopped reading and called my local asylum to come fetch me immediately, I hope you might be excited to go hunting for hidden forms, or even use them in your work. They help generate ideas you’d never think of otherwise, and at the very least they have a subconscious effect on the reader. Maybe that’s how my daily playlist influences my writing; it’s a hidden form working on a subconscious level. An Undercover Soundtrack!
Stephen Weinstock is the author of 1001: The Reincarnation Chronicles. You can find more information on the series, more articles on writing, music, and reincarnation, and links to online tales here . Find Stephen on Facebook and email: email@example.com. 1001 will be an 11 book series, contain 1001 chapters and past lives, and take the rest of Stephen’s life to complete. Musically speaking, Stephen worked for years as a composer in the theatre. He won his 15 minutes of fame for the experimental sound-theatre work Mt. Quad at San Francisco’s Magic Theater, developed and team taught the first curriculum for opera/musical theatre writing at New York University, and created music for dancers at the Martha Graham School of Dance, Juilliard, and LaGuardia Arts HS (the ‘Fame’ School), where he continues to bring young dancers to physical, emotional, and spiritual ecstasy every day. Find him on Twitter as @S_Weinstock.
SHORT BREAK The Undercover Soundtrack will take a short break but will be back in a couple of weeks.
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You can’t read much about writing advice before you trip over an essay about story structure, and how it works invisible magic on the reader. My guest this week has used sophisticated musical structures as the skeleton of his fantasy series, a series of nested reincarnation tales inspired by The Thousand and One Nights – and his influences range from Alban Berg to Frank Zappa. For him, music does not so much conjure up a scene or a character as an entire shape, of how an idea moves into a story and where it eventually goes. He is uniquely qualified to do so, as he is a composer, pianist and dance accompanist for musical theatre with the dance faculties of UC Berkeley, Princeton, Juilliard, and the ‘Fame’ school (though he has not yet said if he is reincarnated). Stephen Weinstock will be here on Wednesday with his 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 my guest is historical action/adventure novelist Dianne Greenlay @DianneGreenlay
Soundtrack by Carl Orff, Dvorak, Poitin, Immediate Music, Samuel Barber, Moby
Quintspinner – A Pirate’s Quest is an adventure set in the pirate-infested waters of the West Indies, 1717. The story opens with William, a young man who is searching for his older brother and his father, both of whom have not returned from the pub the night before. When I write, I usually have a scene playing out like a movie in my head and I know that my word choice is strongly influenced by background music.
Therefore, wanting this first scene to be one of ominous and rising tension in the chill of the pre-dawn semi-darkness, I listened to Carl Orff: Carmina Burana, O Fortuna. It provided the perfect musical setting for the sense of building panic which begins in Chapter One and which peaks in an unexpected incident at the end of Chapter Two. And like the title of the music, with that incident, William’s fortune is about to change forever.
My main protagonist – Tess Willoughby – a young woman from a privileged home in London, is the daughter of a well-to-do physician, who unexpectedly witnesses the murder of an old seer. Coming into possession of the dead woman’s odd ring – an ancient Spinner ring, known by the locals as the Ring of Prophesy, she is wrongly accused by her father of having stolen the ring, and soon, by her father’s arrangement for the family, she becomes an unwilling passenger on a merchant ship bound for Port Royal, Jamaica.
For Tess, this is the beginning of a coming-of-age nightmare unfolding in a world that is completely foreign from everything that she knows. The daring sea journey begins, and Dvorak’s Fourth Movement from The New World Symphony painted the background for me as I captured the events along the brave, yet hazardous journey.
There will be dancing
William, meanwhile, also finds himself on board a ship and at the mercy of a sea-hardened captain and crew. In my research about the lives of sailors and pirates in the eighteenth century, I’d read that dance was a way in which the sailors coped with boredom at sea, and presumably, I thought, the copious amounts of grog that they drank gave their feet wings, if not rhythm. Dance was an activity of fellowship, and at times, a competition and a way of showing off.
The challenge given to William by his captain is to provide an evening of entertainment that is meant to lower the dangerous level of mounting tension between two acrimonious sailing crews forced to share one ship. The song, The Congress Reel, is an old Irish reel meant for the flute, fiddle and drum. That was a perfect, almost mandatory accompaniment for writing this scene, as those were the instruments that would have been available to the crew members. Although there are many versions of The Congress Reel, the frenzied tempo as used here by Poitin was just as I envisioned the sailors’ dance to be sounding like.
As I wrote the dance scene, the music filled my head and, spurred on by the song’s rhythm, my typing fingers flew over the keyboard. I could feel the sailors’ tensions dissolving and much to my surprise, during this dance scene, Mrs Hanley, another favorite character – a cheeky, middle-aged woman – showed an unexpected flirtatious side to her that came to have great significance in the plot later on.
A rhythmic splash
A pivotal point in the story is the sea battle in which the merchant ship that Tess and William are sailing upon is overtaken by a brutal pirate crew. The pirate ship’s approach is one of stealth until the last moment:
There it is again! A rhythmical splash, not unlike the ocean’s melody, a soft regular swish as their ship sliced through its surface, but this sound lagged ever so slightly, as though it were a half a beat behind their own.
And then it hit him. At first it was just an uncertain whiff. A faint tendril of pernicious stench, full of human decay, rot, and unwashed flesh. His nostrils flared involuntarily and he swallowed back his stomach’s attempt to empty.
William’s heart began to pound so hard in his chest that it felt as though it was knocking the air right out of him. He whirled on Smith. “Sound the alarm!” he hissed.
I needed some commanding music as explosive as the desperation of the life-and-death ensuing battle that I was next writing. To me, there is nothing more powerful than a full orchestra backing an enormous choir singing in Latin and Immediate Music’s Lacrimosa provided that. I could hear the roar of cannon firing, could smell the gunpowder, could feel the burn of the salty sea spray on my lips and in my eyes, and could hear the courageous screams of the men in battle, as the details appeared on my computer screen.
Further into the story, I was writing a softer scene in which characters and readers alike were forced to say a sad farewell to Da’, William’s much beloved father. Adagio For Strings by Samuel Barber played in the background, bringing me to tears as I wrote. I believe that my choice of words touched my readers as deeply, as I have since received comments from readers such as this: ‘This book kept me on the edge of my seat. It even made me cry.’
However, not all is heart pounding action or melancholy in Quintspinner. A happy ending is my preferred ingredient for every successful story and this tale is interspersed with laughter, folk wisdom generously and wryly doled out by Mrs Hanley, and life lessons gained by all. As I was wrapping things up, I needed to hear something that was upbeat but not frilly, and yet something that hinted to me that the story was not quite finished, that there would be much more adventure brewing in Tess’s and William’s future, and I composed my last few chapters while gaining inspiration from the urgency of the beat and melody of Extreme Ways by Moby (which has since been chosen to be the closing theme music for the Bourne movies).
All in all, these music pieces transported me to a magical time and place and provided me with the vivid images and emotions that I needed to capture the story. Music was indeed the magical ingredient.
Dianne Greenlay is a debut author. Her historical action/adventure Quintspinner series has proven to be wildly popular with readers on Wattpad. Greenlay is also the author of The Camping Guy, which is available as both a short story and a one-act comedy (live theater script). Although she lives most of the year on the land-locked Canadian prairies, Greenlay enjoys traveling and frequently can be found in tropical climates hiking, cave spelunking, snorkeling, and sailing while researching historical sites in preparation for her writing. Her website is here, and you can also find her on Facebook and Twitter @DianneGreenlay.Dianne is a member of the League of Extraordinary Authors.
adventure, adventure stories, authors, background music, Bourne movies, Carl Orff, Carmina Burana, characters, Desert Island Discs, Dianne Greenlay, drama, Dvorak, entertainment, hazardous sea journey, high seas, historical fiction, Immediate Music, League of Extraordinary Authors, Moby, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, pirates, playlist for writers, Poitin, Roz Morris, Samuel Barber, The Congress Reel, The League of Extraordinary Authors, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, West Indies, Women Writers, 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
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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'
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- '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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