Music for telling stories – The Undercover Soundtrack
By Roz Morris
So we sit down, wake the laptop, flex knuckles, put on headphones… and begin.
What’s going into our ears? Something pure like birdsong? Something contemplative and thoughtful for the earnest business of noveling?
Not necessarily. It might just as easily be grinding guitars and ripping vocals.
My blog series The Undercover Soundtrack has been going for 18 months now, and nearly 70 writers have shared the music that helped them invent and hone their novels. They come from all genres, from the profoundly literary to the brashly teen.
Undercover Soundtracks are not the songs their characters like. They are writers’ secret ingredients, meditative antechambers where they can study their characters’ true natures or conjure an atmosphere. They are intensely private worlds where writers uncensor and pour out their souls.
It all started when I was launching my first novel, My Memories of a Future Life. The story is set in the world of classical music, so there were key pieces that were important to the character. But under that was a deep-level score that probably no reader was aware of. It wasn’t necessarily the classical pieces that the character played. It was tracks that put me in the right mood, or grabbed me from the radio and told me the meaning of a moment. A scene would change forever once I found its music, and I could play it over and over to freeze time and examine it. I wrote about this for my blog and suddenly thought: what if I could find other writers who did this?
I found plenty. They are everywhere.
They are poets. Dan Holloway searched for nostalgia and directionlessness. Dave Malone wrote about dirty dealings, the macabre and shadow.
They are children’s and YA writers. Nick Green told how he conjured an entire plot out of one song by Jon & Vangelis. Nicola Morgan drummed up the tumult of teenhood by drenching herself in Coldplay until her family yelled ‘Noooooooo’. They are thriller writers. James Scott Bell has soundtracks for plotting and motivation, Joni Rodgers whirled up a hurricane (literally) with ZZ Top. Ruby Barnes used Melody Gardot to understand lunatics in love. They are contemporary women’s writers. Erika Marks played Billie Holiday for a smoky seduction. Mary Vensel White created bittersweet homecoming with the Steve Miller Band.
They are literary novelists of all stripes. Consuelo Roland listened to Ziggy Marley and created a funeral director moonlighting as a guitarist. Linda Gillard scored a hit with readers when she explained how a Philip Glass piece rescued her novel’s structure.
Time and place
Some soundtracks are historically literal. Award-winning children’s author Katherine Langrish chose the troubadour songs of the 12th century for her tale of lost love. Ellie Stevenson found possibly the last song ever played on RSS Titanic for her novel about the doomed ship. Erika Robuck evoked 1930s Cuba with Cole Porter.
Indeed many writers, regardless of period, get a kick out of Cole. Other favourites are Seal and JS Bach. (There’s probably a joke in there.) But what they do with them are as individual as the writers. Even if they choose the same song, it will have a different meaning.
Some writers find lyrics are unbearably intrusive. Others give themselves to the emotion, as though the words weren’t there at all. Once a song enters a book’s landscape, it means whatever the writer wants. While I was writing My Memories of a Future Life, a perfectly famous song ambushed me from the radio and it was as if I noticed it for the first time.
Some writers have blurred the boundaries even further. Jessica Bell, Grigory Ryzhakov and Nathan Singer have all composed some of their own soundtracks, which they then release with the books. And for my own novel’s first anniversary, I tracked down two musicians who create music inspired by their favourite authors: SJ Tucker, who works with Catherynne M Valente, and Beth Rudetsky – who writes bespoke character-driven songs for authors’ book trailers. Other contributors cheerfully – or ruefully – admit they can’t read a note yet they find that music makes fundamental sense.
Genre boundaries disappear
We all have our tastes in reading and in music, but on The Undercover Soundtrack these borders seem to vanish. We are creatures fuelled by sound, writing in a state of semi-possession. Same for the blog’s fans; they read all the posts, whatever their genre preferences.
This urge to express is bigger than pigeonholes. We are united in creativity, whatever we write. We come away – or I do – having glimpsed the soul of a book – and of an author too.
Does music tell you stories?
About the Author
Roz Morris lives in London. From the earliest age she had a compulsion to express herself on the page. Let out of university, she was soon working as a journalist and writing novels. You’ll have seen her books on the bestseller lists but not under her name because she ghostwrote them for other people. She is now coming into the daylight with novels of her own. Her first is My Memories of a Future Life and her next, Life Form Three, will be released in winter 2013. She is also the author of two writing books – Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and how you can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence and has just released Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life .