Thursday, April 6, 2017

Anne Leclaire: Writing as Opera

--> HALLIE EPHRON: I've read a ton of books, and occasionally one really sticks with you. I met Anne LeClaire (I think it was at a writer's conference on Cape Cod) at least ten years ago. She was so smart and engaging, generous and warm that I immediately read her book, Leaving Eden. I fell in love with young Tallie and her dreams about winning a beauty contest and making it big.

Many years and a bunch of novels later, Anne wrote Silence, a personal memoir about her habit of practicing silence for 24 hours, once each month. Again, I am in awe. Because the idea of keeping my mouth shut for 24 minutes, never mind 24 hours, is daunting.

Now Anne has switched gears again. I'm happy to say she's written one terrific mystery novel, The Halo Effect. The main character is a father, determined to wreak vengeance upon the person who murdered his daughter. 

It's a riveting story with unexpected twists. One of the most brilliant things about it is the way Anne effortless shifts from the voice of one narrator to another. A grief stricken father one minute. A confused, flaky, hormone-driven adolescent girl the next. A priest the next. How do you do that? 

And by the way, just published it's an Amazon #1 Bestseller!

Here are her insights on the about capturing a character's voice.

ANNE LECLAIRE: Years ago, while on a writing residency at The Virginia Center for Creative Arts, I was in early stages of writing a book with two central characters set in two different time periods and geographic locations. Shoe was a young farm girl in depression era Ohio and Soleil was a librarian in her mid-thirties who lived in contemporary Boston. Their story was told in alternating chapters.

The VCCA is an artist colony in Amherst, Virginia where artists, poets, painters, sculptors, novelists, photographers and composers are granted residencies in which to work without the obligations and responsibilities of daily life. Each resident is given a room in the residency hall, a separate studio in the studio barn, and three prepared meals each day. It is so ideal that my husband always flies down at the conclusion of my residency to drive home with me. I think he’s kidding when he says it’s to make sure I come home.

One afternoon at the end of a particularly difficult day in the studio, I headed into the dining hall, still struggling with the problems I faced. Each time I began a new chapter it was taking me a long time to switch to the alternating voice and mood and era. A composer from Pennsylvania named Richard Wagner, (his real name!) asked how the day had gone and I briefly described the difficulties I was having with switching back and forth between chapters.

He thought for a second and said, “Have you ever thought of having theme music for your characters?” He told me that in opera each main character has a musical motif that is woven into the score each time they appear. He asked for a bit of information about my characters and then suggested I find dulcimer music for Shoe and Bonne Raitt for Soleil. The next morning he surprised me by handing me a tape he’d made for me the night before.

For the next four weeks of the residency, as part of each day’s writing preparation, I’d start by playing the music for my character. I was amazed at how it helped ease me into the work. Since then, with each book, I have selected pieces of music that for me hold the essence of the characters.

Often we are asked what actors we see playing the characters if our books were made into movies. I never imagine actors as the people I’m creating, but I can tell you what music represents them, whether jazz, classical, ragtime, blues, or pop.

Do you listen to music while you are writing? Or do you find it distracting?

If you listen to music, does it change depending on the story?

What music would you chose for the motifs of your characters?

Is there a tool you find useful to slip into various characters?

Do you write with an actor in mind who you imagine as playing your character in a film? 


THE HALO EFFECT by Anne Leclaire
It was supposed to be a typical October evening for renowned portrait artist Will Light. Over dinner of lamb tagine, his wife, Sophie, would share news about chorus rehearsals for the upcoming holiday concert, and their teenage daughter, Lucy, would chatter about French club and field hockey. Only Lucy never came home. Her body was found, days later, in the woods.
The Eastern Seaboard town of Port Fortune used to be Will’s comfort. Now, there’s no safe harbor for him. Not even when Father Gervase asks Will to paint portraits of saints for the new cathedral. Using the townspeople as models, Will sees in each face only a mask of the darkness of evil. And he just might be painting his daughter’s killer.

48 comments:

  1. What an interesting thought, having a musical representation for each character.
    Is the musical voice of your characters something you discover early in your writing or do you need time for the story to unfold before you know their music?

    “The Halo Effect” sounds intriguing; I’m looking forward to reading it . . . .

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    1. I usually think about the character and the mood of that person's story then run through a mental play list until I hit the right piece. It usually takes about fifty pages until I can know enough to do this. But it is amazing how it can help each time I begin writing a scene or chapter with that character.
      I hope you enjoy "The Halo Effect."

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  2. What good advice! And how kind of him to make you a playlist. Listening to music has always been a central feature in my life. Even when I was a little kid, my mother put special music on the record player to help me go down for a nap. To this day I don't think I've ever managed to stay awake all the way through to the end of Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun." I learned to write while listening when I wrote continuity for a country radio station, and had to keep one ear tuned to make sure we were still on the air. So, yes, when I attempt fiction, I often do listen to music, either to get into the mood of the story or as research into time and place. It really helps to have access to a broad, deep range of musical styles, like your split between dulcimer music and Bonnie Raitt. And all best wishes to your Mr. Wagner. I'll have to wade through pages and pages about that other guy if I'm going to find anything about him at all, online. Does he have a website? Does he write for wind ensemble?

    Best wishes for your book. I'll keep an eye out for The Halo Effect.

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    1. If you mean Shoe, that was the name of one of the characters, the young girl, although I like the idea of it being the name of a band.
      My mother was a pianist and so music filled our home. I could always tell what kind of mood she was in by what she was playing. Always thought that would make a good short story.

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    2. I love that story about your mother! I think many of us wish we had a handy way like that to read our parents' moods without coming face-to-face. As for "that other guy" I meant the other Richard Wagner. You know: the one who wrote operas. Reams of stuff on him, but for a contemporary composer named Richard Wagner? Seriously, the man needs to go by his initials, or call himself Rick or something because Google will only cough him up to the very, very patient. I work for a professional classical wind ensemble, and we love contemporary composers, so I thought I'd check him out.

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    3. The down side of having a famous name. I did wonder at the time how he would carve out his own identity in tha world. Kudos to you for diligence in locating him on the depths of the nether world of the internet.

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  3. That's a great story. I haven't (yet) used music to anchor me when I'm writing characters, but then I haven't (yet) strayed from single POV. And when asked about actors, I always go blank, so that's a no on that question, LOL. Best of luck with The Halo Effect!

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  4. Thanks, Edith. And I use that tool for single character stories too. Just sets the mood for me.

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  5. So interesting... I can't listen to ANYTHING while I'm writing. And if I do whatever it was sticks in my head and replays all night. AGH! I'm a completely visual person so when I try to get into a character's head, my prop is a picture of a person that I find on the Internet who feels to me like my character. I keep a little Rogues gallery of those pictures near the keyboard. If I can visualize someone it helps me hear their voice.

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    1. Funny but I use quotes and music as triggers for characters but using photos is distracting for me.

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  6. Fanfare: And I just added to the blog, Anne's THE HALO EFFECT burst out of the gate and shot to #1 on the Amazon bestsellers list!

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  7. Congrats on "The Halo Effect," Anne! I love the fact that an artist in a different art form gave you useful advice. It reinforces the notion that we can learn from each other regardless of our respective mediums.

    I don't listen to music when I write since I find it too distracting, but I'm intrigued by the idea of creating theme music for different characters. I'm working on a stand alone at the moment, as opposed to my usual series, and it would be the perfect time to tweak my approach.

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    1. Be interesting to see how it works for you. Do let me know.

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  8. HI Anne! And hurray! We were together at the fabulous I CAN, right? Do you still do that? (And I'm with Wally Lamb again Saturday!)
    Anyway--this is terrific, and I cannot wait to read it. As for music, though, no. It's incredibly distracting to me.

    Two things, though-once (in a very first world problem) I had to write at a picnic table at Tanglewood, while off in the not-so-far distance, the BSO practiced Rachmaninoff. I was writing a big dramatic scene, and I have to say I have never typed so quickly as I did with the bellicose music in the background. Wow, I thought, this is great! And I tried to reproduce the situation (with a CD) at home. Total failure.

    And I already forgot the other thing. Welcome to my life. But standing ovation!

    But yes to photos. A few. Amazon number one! Got to love it. xoxo

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    1. Writing at Tanglewood sounds like a dream. Please say hi to Wally for me. What a team you two will make. Lucky audience.

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    2. Will do! And hope our paths cross again in person soon..xoxo

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  9. You know, I've had soundtracks for characters before, but I've never thought of that as a way to get into the character's head come time to write. I'm particularly intrigued by the idea of using music without lyrics - like the dulcimer music - to mark off each character as an individual.

    Anne, the description of THE HALO EFFECT sounds as if your novel is full of painting and music. Has working alongside other kinds of artists at The Virginia Center for Creative Arts influenced you? Or have you always worked the other arts into your writing?

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  10. The Halo Effect sounds interesting. I just bought the Kindle version. :)

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  11. The Virginia Center sounds like heaven!

    I usually listen to music when I write, but I hadn't thought of linking it to characters. I'm going to explore that. I usually listen to whatever seems to fit the mood of the scene I write. I often write in Starbucks and Panera, and am frustrated when I forget my headphones because the music playing there usually irritates me when I'm writing -- it may be music I like but just doesn't fit with what I'm writing.

    I'm intrigued by your new book and will definitely check it out!

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    1. Isn't it fascinating how some of us can write in coffee shops or libraries and others of us find it too distracting. Same with music. I can't write in public places and even if someone comes into my studio with a question, it breaks the stream.

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  12. How lucky, that you got this advice just when it was most necessary, Anne. Don't you love that kind of serendipity? I'm fascinated by how the music changes the way you think, too. Great idea.

    Many years ago I was trying to finish a book (nonfiction) on a deadline, while raising two active young children. I could not listen to music with singing--too distracting, but I found myself getting right into that sweet spot, the "zone" of nearly automatic writing, if I listened to piano music. I had two cassette tapes (that's how long ago it was) that I played constantly, and they made a huge difference. A couple years ago I found one of the two albums on CD, thank goodness.

    Congratulations of your new book being such a hit! Looking forward to reading The Halo Effect.

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    1. Thanks, Karen. Two young children and a deadline! I remember those days. It's a wonder we got anything done.

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  13. Anne, congrats on the book. Switching voices like that - wow. That's impressive.

    I don't know that I've deliberately used music. I generally write at work on my lunch hour, so that would be hard (although it has conditioned me to be able to write no matter the noise level). I will, however, be listening to music and I'll start thinking of a particular character. It often helps me puzzle through a problem or sticky part in the story later.

    Mary/Liz

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    1. Writing on your lunch hour?! Your discipline is impressive. I always admire writers like Hank who take advantage of whatever time is available to write. I seem to need to know I have a large block to write. Maybe because it is hard to get going and then once I begin I don't want to stop.

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    2. You take what time you have, right? But yes, sometimes it's hard to stop!

      Mary/Liz

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  14. It can be playful. And even if you don't end up actually using the music, the exercise of thinking about what kind of music would capture the personality and story of that character can be enormously helpful.

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    1. Anne- this is so true. I do use music to help capture the essence of my characters, especially if I am stuck in a scene and not sure how they should respond to their situation. Really looking forward to reading your mystery!

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  15. What an interesting idea! I have to think about this. I don't listen to music while writing. Music with words is a complete distraction- I end up hearing their words in my head instead of mine. Instrumental is a waste. I stop hearing it altogether once I am really writing. However. I use music a lot to get through the borng chores, like spell checking (I am a terrible typist) or copy editing. Power singers, like Bonnie Raitt or Cher. Logical music like Bach. Loud orchestral like Wagner overtures. Sing along, like Bette Midler or Rod Stewart singing American classics. It's all energizing.

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    1. I keep the volume down and use it to seduce me into the work and character. Terrible typist! I'm in that club. And I just got a new keyboard and that really makes it worse.

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  16. I can easily see that working. I know music works so well to evoke memories of certain places and times from my memories for me, it should easily evoke a time and place for an author, too.

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    1. Scents, sounds etc all evoke memories. Let me know if you try it.

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  17. I am utterly enchanted by this author, her ideas, and THE BOOK!

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    1. Thanks, Denise Ann. I so hope you enjoy the book.

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  18. Welcome Anne, and congrats on the new book! I'm in the no music camp too. The idea of the month-long retreat is kind of fascinating to me, though I can't imagine wanting to leave my real life for that long. Hmmm, though the meals cooked for you and the forced work ethic are appealing:). Do you find that that time away helps you continue to write once you're back at home?

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    1. Artists residences are magical. The time and space are wonderful and being with artists and poets and sculptors and composers is highly stimulating. I get about four months worth of work done in four weeks. That flow continues when I get home for a couple of weeks and then real world intrudes.

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  19. Hi Anne! I've just bought The Halo Effect, which sounds fascinating. And I am very intrigued by your idea of using signature music for each character. I write in multiple viewpoint, and although I have used theme music for several books, I've never defined it quite so much. I'm going to make a list of my characters now and start thinking! (And listening...)

    I don't usually listen to music when I write at home, although I find I can listen when I write in coffee shops and most of the time I don't find it distracting. It just becomes part of the background buzz. I have always wanted to do a writers' retreat. But with one or two month long trips to England a year, and book tours, and conferences, I just haven't managed to work it in. But I have done month-long intensive writing while staying in London, and I've run away to hotels quite a few times for a week or two of totally interrupted work. Sort of the same thing, but without the creative fellowship.

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    1. Yes I've written in hotels. A wonderful luxury. One time had a room for a week at the Lenox Hotel in Boston and spent the mornings writing and the afternoons researching in the Boston Public Library across the street. Pre internet days. Treated myself to a glass of sherry in the lounge at the end of the work day. Because of this memory that has remained one of my very favorite hotels.

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  20. Theme music for your characters sounds like a brilliant resource. I know that some authors listen to certain music during their writing and even create playlists for it, but I don't think I've heard of theme music for each character before. I see it as quite helpful to an author, which I'm not. And, then there are surgeons who operate to certain music. That's actually reassuring to me.

    Anne, it's so nice that you visited the Reds today. I selected The Halo Effect as a Kindle First choice and am looking forward to reading it.

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    1. Music in the OR. I have conflicting reactions to that. Mozart might be good. The Stones, not so much.

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  21. I don't write stories so I can't say whether or not I would listen to music when writing.

    I know that listening to music while reading a book depends on just how deeply I get involved in the story. Sometimes I'll get so deep into the book that if I have music on it becomes background noise. But if I'm having trouble becoming absorbed in the story, if I have music on, I have to shut it off.

    And you can't listen to any kind of concept album because you find yourself splitting your focus between the story in the book and the story in the music. I've found that out when listening to albums from Savatage, Queensryche, Iron Maiden and W.A.S.P.

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  22. I need music while writing. When I was a student writing papers, I needed something upbeat to keep my working. Now that I'm working on my first novel, I've found that I don't want other people's words in my head, so it's mostly instrumental hip hop and orchestral video game soundtracks (I'm writing a murder mystery set at a comic book convention, so it totally fits the setting. Plus I love it).

    I like holing up in an empty classroom at work or going to a coffee shop because I'm easily distracted at home, which makes headphones and music a must. I'm just not as productive without them.

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    1. The video game soundtracks sound perfect for your book.
      I find the line between when music helps set a tone or is a soothing background and when it is distracting and intrusive is very fine.

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    2. Mia, that is fascinating! xoxoo See you at Malice!

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  23. Your book description gave me chills. Especially as I know a Fr. Gervase. Still trying to catch my breath over that one, and I am off to Amazon right this second!

    Silence is my lifeblood while writing, and I admit to the ability to pluck tattered corners of it around myself even when it doesn't exist. Yet while I read your article, main characters from movies and operas skidded across the stage of my memory each accompanied by their particular theme. What a wonderful, and effective technique. What a wonderful gift from your Richard Wagner.

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  24. Anne, I'm excited to hear about your new mystery. I'm going to badger (I mean, gently suggest) our library into buying several copies. I love various forms of music, and as I create character profiles I always include the type of music they love. If a character doesn't love some sort of music, they must be a soulless killer, right? Those certainly come in handy too.

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