Music to Your Ears: The Soundtrack of My Fictional Worlds

Vector abstract background with open book and notes. EPS 10 file, contains transparencies.

Final edits are finished for Dark the Chains of Treason!  You can still pre-order your Kindle copy on Amazon, or you can snag a paperback on August 29.

There are two main types of writers in the world: those who need absolute silence when they are putting words on the page, and those who can’t create anything without a little bit of background noise, whether it’s coffee shop chatter or their favorite songs on repeat.

I say two main types, because I’ve actually been both.  Right now, I need a quiet environment to concentrate on my work.  But during my misbegotten youth, I couldn’t function without my carefully curated playlist.

When it came to writing creatively, I tended to listen to classical music – Beethoven and Mozart especially – or lose myself in the seamless, ethereal repetition of Gregorian chant.  I was a nerd, okay?  I’ve made my peace with it.

Music set the tone for my characters, inspired my landscapes, and soothed my anxieties when some bit of plot wouldn’t click into place.  Silence during the creative process seemed unnatural and unnerving in some way – like those moments in a movie when you realize the soundtrack has stopped, the only noise is the ragged breathing of the main character or the furtive footsteps of the serial killer, and something very bad is about to happen to someone you like.

The comparison to movies isn’t anything new, of course.  I know a lot of authors who listen to music while writing specifically because they view their novels like films that just happen to be printed on a page.

These authors would scribble song titles in the margins if they could – I’m sure some probably do in their rough drafts – and get frustrated when it becomes difficult to directly translate the sights, sounds, and unspoken gestures of a visual scene into a written one.

The difficulties of going the other way, from book to screen, are well-known to anyone who has been disappointed by a film adaptation of their favorite story.

The cinematic approach isn’t a bad thing at all.  It’s perfect for many types of stories.  Thrillers and romances, of course, rely on a film-like progression of actions and a sharply delineated character development arc that fits right in with what you would expect from the movies.  Certain sci-fi and fantasy styles also very episodic, and mesh well with visually-driven entertainment.

The serializable nature of many popular speculative fiction books and movies (and the many crossover content streams available from properties like the Star Wars and Star Trek universes, for example) shows just how must interplay there can be between media types.

Sure, many of the novelizations or TV pilots or seven-part film sagas are just about making money for the production company that owns the story rights.  I’m not saying it’s always a great thing.

But it speaks to the general cultural perception that many books could easily be movies, and movies are sometimes just visual books, and both types of stories often rely very heavily on similar conventions to highlight character traits, set up plot points, and prepare their readers/viewers for what’s going to happen next.

The point is that many popular fiction titles are very strongly informed by the way movies work, and that often includes the fact that authors tie particular songs to particular characters in order to paint a mood or capture a feeling.

I don’t think my novels are overly cinematic, but I do the soundtrack thing, too, even if I never meant to.

It wasn’t until I had written and published The Last Death of Tev Chrisini that I realized some of my new favorite songs fit in with certain characters so well that it was almost eerie.  I’m sure there was a subconscious thing going on, but it’s still weird to realize it.

After I wrote The Spoil of Zanuth-Karun, I came across a handful of songs that matched the plot and tone of the novel almost exactly, which further freaked me out.

By the time I got around to starting Dark the Night Descending, I had moved away from listening to music while writing, but also embraced the idea that collecting a soundtrack as I went on wasn’t such a bad idea.  After all, the title of the book was inspired by an Iron & Wine song, so it was only natural that music would play a role in the rest of it.

The Paderborn Chronicles are a little darker and grittier than my first books.  I started the series after a very rough period in my life, wherein I lost some of my illusions about the fundamental goodness of the human spirit and gained some new perspectives on what purpose novels should serve in the grand scheme of things.

These books address some difficult themes for me, and there is plenty of brutality to go around, both given and received.  It’s a very dangerous world filled with selfish, cruel, ruthless people (and not-quite-people), and happily-ever-afters are not easy to come by.  That isn’t to say no one can find redemption, but it’s a little harder than in some of my earlier works.

The music is a little sharper, too.  So as I get ready to release Dark the Chains of Treason, I thought it would be fun to share a few of the songs that have shaped the series so far.

In no particular order, here are a few of my favorites:

Bilgewater – Brown Bird (Salt for Salt)

Freedom Hangs Like Heaven – Iron & Wine (Woman King)

Beat the Devil’s Tattoo – Black Rebel Motorcycle Club

It’s Only – ODESZA (In Return)

Whistles the Wind – Flogging Molly (Within a Mile of Home)

Wake Up – Arcade Fire (Funeral)

All these links will take you to Amazon’s music service, which will only let you hear a preview (unless you’re a Prime member) instead of the whole song.  As an independent artist myself, I like to make sure people get paid for their works, please do buy them legitimately from Amazon, iTunes, or elsewhere if you decide that one of them strikes a chord.

Happy listening/reading/watching!


A Million Little Gods

I used to listen to music when I wrote.  My first piece of long fiction, an attempt at Multiverse fantasy that will never, ever, ever, ever, ever see the light of day again, was written, as a desperate attempt at escapism during the worst semester I ever had in college, to a playlist comprised of about fifteen songs.  It included Mozart’s Dies Irae, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, and 13 tracks of Gregorian chant.  Yes, I was startled every time when the soothing, lilting chanting of real life, actual monks suddenly switched over to this.  But it worked.  Kinda.

TLDTC – can I do acronyms like the cool kids? – was written to a Pandora station which featured much of the same sort of thing.  Lots of chant, some Hildegard von Bingen (someone needs to make a movie out of her, cause she was awesome), and some harpsichords.  But after 40 hours of writing, which didn’t even get me through the month of November, I hit my limit.  Yes, Pandora has a limit, and they will cut you off from all your stations.  I do have an extensive library of such smash hits as Symphony No. 9 in D Minor by Georg Tintner, from the hilariously named collection “I Love the (18)80’s”, and all of Chant, (oddly enough, Chant II: Vow of Silence never made it onto the charts).

But listening to the same songs over and over didn’t work for me by that time.  Once music gets too familiar, it just gets irritating.  Maybe that’s why my first attempt at storytelling turned out so abysmally.

These days, I need silence.  I can’t listen to anything while I write.  I don’t know what brought about the sudden shift, but it happened.  I do use songs for inspiration, of course.  This song, which was randomly (and legally) downloaded during the search for something else of a similar name, became the theme for the boss battle in TLDTC.  Did I just say boss battle?  Okay, you know what I mean.  But I think it encapsulates the feeling of the last three chapters pretty well, and if I ever make a movie, that’s going to be in it.

While this song, from whence the title of this post is taken, helped color the background story for a couple of my secondary characters (want to know how Seovann got his scar, why Kerimu is so cranky, and what the deal is with that sword [It’s not quite what you’re thinking]?), which turned into a 50k word novella on its own.  I’m thinking about polishing it up and releasing it as extra material some day.  It’s also like, one of my favorite songs ever, so don’t say mean things.  Try driving down the highway with it.  You’ll see why.

Sareisa, my main character from The Paper Flower, which is my current project, has a theme song, too.  Little bit of a different mood, isn’t it?  Well, it’s a sad story.  Or at least, it starts off sadly.  It’ll get better.  But sometimes you’ve got to beat the crap out of your characters before they really start showing what they’re made of.

This rose commitment to making a nice presentation on the topics pages?

On a personal note, Sareisa is a character that was conceived during a difficult time in my life, when I was struggling with depression, anxiety, lack of motivation and lack of direction, and I started to write about her because I thought that if she could find a way out of her sad, stifling life, then maybe I could, too, by figuring things out through writing about her overcoming her obstacles.  I stopped working on her for a couple of months because it was making me more frustrated with my own situation, and I knew that I couldn’t find an answer for her problems if I couldn’t find one for myself, first.

I’m much closer to getting there than I was a few months ago.  I’ve started to do the work, and now I can write about her doing it without feeling like I’m trapped in the same dismal place.  Feels good.  I still don’t know exactly how she’s going to get what she wants, but that’s just a logistics problem, not an emotional one.

What does this have to do with music?  I don’t know.  But that’s a sample of how music affects my writing.  A book is no different from a film in the sense that you’re watching a story unfold, and music is an integral part of setting the mood while that happens.  I associate songs very strongly with certain emotional states or events in my life, as most of us do, and my characters’ lives are the same thing.  Although, you know.  Not actually real.  Don’t tell them.

I am so excited about getting my proof copy in the mail.  Pictures (I mean of things other than water, flowers, and dictionary editors) will be shared once it arrives.