Some authors need silence to write; a blank space so their thoughts can be heard. And some of us need an ocean of music.
I’m one of those.
Music enslaves me. It always has. Even a crackle from a stranger’s earbuds will insist on my attention. In cafes that play music, I’m a zombie.
So it probably seems an odd facilitator for writing. But it’s this domineering quality that I find so helpful.
When I’m working on a novel, I drown in possibilities. Music helps me sort them out, holds them still so I can examine what the characters might feel and do. And so each novel I write has an undercover soundtrack.
An undercover soundtrack is not the music that the characters might like, or the songs that have meaning for them. It’s the pieces that became special to me as I wrote.
Creating a place
I first began making undercover soundtracks when I was ghostwriting novels. Many had exotic settings, and music helped conjure the mood. Trilok Gurtu was a passport to the sultry heat of India; Arabesque Zoudge to the Arabian desert.
Rhythms might help with the tone of a scene, especially chase scenes, which can be a chore to write. But put on Fatboy Slim and they would swing.
A novel of my own
But my relationship to music changed totally when I began a novel of my own (My Memories of a Future Life). My narrator is a musician - a classical pianist called Carol, who has to stop playing because of an injury of mysterious origin. Desperate to find a cure, she consults a hypnotist who regresses his patients to past lives. But she doesn’t believe she has lived before, so he takes her forwards in time to her next life. Through this experience, she hopes to be reassured that her current crisis will ultimately turn out well.
Creating a pianist
Inevitably the first pieces on my undercover soundtrack were standards from classical repertoire, to admit me to Carol’s world. I marinaded so often in Grieg’s A minor piano concerto that I developed absolute pitch. Moreover, I became fascinated by the dictatorial nature of a musical score. Those notes come so fast that every fraction of a second is instructed, and sometimes even the musician’s emotion. A direction such as amoroso tells them to play the piece lovingly; appassionata tells them to pour their soul out. Of course there’s room for interpretation, but I began to see that Carol didn’t play music, she channelled the composer.
Another early touchstone was Michael Nyman’s theme from The Piano, Jane Campion’s film. Of course there I also had the context of the movie, where an instrument speaks for a person. I felt an affinity, because Carol isn’t alive unless she practises her art. The commanding reel of Nyman’s theme suggested a state of grace looping on for ever, sustained purely by the love of creating sound.
Music suggests a structure
Carol explores her future incarnation and the narrative splits into two threads. These narratives - now and next - needed to harmonise and sometimes oppose, but I didn’t know how. I was listening to a Joe Jackson album track, Lullaby, when I figured it out. Lullaby is a slow snow-fall of a song that flits between two moods - one has a flavour of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds and the other is an icy operatic vocal. Two separate experiences that laced into one.
This became an emotional template for the novel. The Lucy element was the future setting: an underwater city. And the wintry voice? For a long time I planned the contemporary action to take place at the bitterest time of year, frozen like Carol’s life. Later, this quality hardened into a person: Carol’s hypnotist Gene Winter, a complex, mesmeric man who has ‘a soul of solid steel. A surgeon’s soul’.
Music suggests a character’s voice
In the future, Carol’s next self, Andreq, needed his own voice and soul, distinct from her. Looking through my CD collection I found an album by Meredith Monk, which I’d long forgotten. Or perhaps I hadn’t, because her track titles seemed to have come straight from that subconscious department where my novel was doing secret work: Travel Dream Song. I put it on. Her voice was thrilling, glacial and assured. If a devoutly musical soul was reborn in a future life, she would sound like this.
Andreq has his own secret problem, which the reader suspects may have its roots in Carol, and he hides it with a demeanour of eerie composure that came from my experience of hearing Meredith.
Random acts of inspiration
So my soundtrack had given me the story fundamentals: a world, a structure, characters and a sense of yearning. I’d listen to it while writing and sometimes while driving or running. Then, wonderful things started to happen if I listened to the radio while my mind was still tethered to the novel. Pieces of music seemed to find me and say ‘consider this’ - even songs that were overfamiliar from repeated play.
Seal’s Crazy was one of those. One day it came on the radio and seemed to supply what I had been grappling to understand. Its brooding, restless quality echoed Carol’s fears about the bizarre, desperate quest she was on.
Turn another corner, sweep through a different radio channel - and what might I have found? Or missed? No wonder writers feel they’re at the mercy of a muse.
Later, a Handel aria nailed a scene of exquisite agony - where Carol might have been granted her dearest wish, but in fact is more scared than ever.
Undercover soundtracks do not discriminate genre or style. Evergreen pop speaks just as much truth as opera or avant garde.
On the surface My Memories of a Future Life is a story of reincarnation, reversed. But the more I wrote, the more it seemed to vibrate with meaning and questions. I found these fascinating but they could have drowned the book, whereas most of all I wanted to tell a mysterious story. It was music that kept me straight.
A book’s innermost secret
I now collect writers who, like me, are guided by music. Each week, I host a novelist, poet or memoirist who shares their own Undercover Soundtrack. These are profound and private essays: stories of how we create, explore and often uncensor. Perhaps, like my narrator Carol, we are all channelling composers.
Does music tell you stories?
Roz Morris is a bestselling ghostwriter coming out of the shadows with novels of her own. Her debut as herself channels her love of music into an unsettling tale: My Memories of a Future Life. A more detailed version of its Undercover Soundtrack, with music links, is here. She is also an editor and writing coach, and has a successful series for authors and a writing blog, Nail Your Novel.
If you found this article interesting, you may want to take a look at Roz's other articles for Writers & Artists