Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Words and Music

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: One of our regular backbloggers, Karen from Ohio, mentioned Tuesday that she could read almost anything while writing, but had to be very careful about what music she listened to, since she had a penchant for earworms, those snatches of melody and lyric that embed themselves in your conscious and Will. Not. Leave. (I once had a dear friend who would sing Karma Chameleon to me for the sole purpose of implanting the worm.)

Karen got me thinking about music and writers. We have a long history of being inspired by songs - in fanfiction, there's a whole form known as "songfic." When I was working on my sixth book, I SHALL NOT WANT, I was deeply entrenched in Bill Deasy's music, especially his Good Day No Rain, which felt like a soundtrack to the story I was writing. I actually changed a pivotal scene in that novel because one of his songs created such a powerful sense of place and mood--I wanted to explore that further.

Like many authors, I make up playlists for my characters, usually with songs particular to the individual book. It's a way of intertwining fiction with music that's only been available since the advent of digital music and easy-to-use playlists (there may have been some determined authors back in the day recording mix tapes on cassette for their characters, but that strikes me as the same obsessive attention to detail that leads to map-drawing and cutting out costumes from magazines, i.e., thankfully uncommon.)

I also insert songs into the work itself, all of which have meaning and deliver an extra message to the reader ("Let him who has ears, listen..") For instance, in my second mystery, A FOUNTAIN FILLED WITH BLOOD, Clare is snooping around a guest bedroom and has to hide in the en-suite bath. During the whole scene she is listening to the Dave Matthews Band on the suspect's CD player. The name of the album is Crash, which is exactly what's going to happen about a hundred pages on. The first song she registers is So Much to Say, which begins, "I say my hell is the closet/ I'm stuck inside/ Can't see the light/ And my heaven is a nice house/ In the sky..." It's a bit of a poke at the fact she's literally stuck in a [water] closet, but it's meant to echo her own constraints- she's in the closet as to her feelings for the town's chief of police, and she will continue to have to "Keep it locked inside/ Don't talk about it."

Yeah, as soon as we get ebooks with add-in soundtracks, I will be all over that. How about you, Reds? Music: inspiration, while working, in the story, out of the story? What's your preference?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  Thank you, not, for Karma Chameleon.  Which is now in my head. I was also, for a time, a sad victim to Let It Go--let it GO!--and now it's going to happen again,  I fear.

JULIA: I know, right? All you have to do is see the title and it's 1984 again and Boy George is hanging out in your head.

HANK: I am so suggestible, I cannot have one bit of music when I write. Not even without words. It's too distracting, WITH words, completely impossible, as the words take over my brain. Without words, is...okay. But I'd rather have quiet.

Music while reading? Nope. (I've seen Jonathan, though, read and hum along to classical. Even--read and conduct. No way could I do that.)

LUCY BURDETTE: I'm with Hank, can not, absolutely not listen to music while writing. My characters don't have playlists and neither do the books, for better or worse. The only time I've really gotten hooked on using a bit of song is for the forthcoming FATAL RESERVATIONS. I was in the Miami airport and saw these words tattooed on a young man's arm: I used to disregard regret, but there are some things I can't forget.

I was so taken by the words, I had to ask him about it. Turns out this is a line from a song by MAKE DO AND MEND, a band I'd never heard of. So it's not the music that became an important part of the book, it was the words.

It's always all about the words, one by one. Sigh.

And it's kind of interesting, because in my reporter job, it's constant chaos and noise ,and it doesn't bother me at all. And thinking about it, I can write in a coffee shop, or on a plane or train. So conversation around me, I can tune out. Music, I can't.  Wonder why that is?

HALLIE EPHRON: Music while writing? Me neither. Nope. Never.

And right now Taylor Swift's Shake It Off has wormed its way into my head, along with Carole King's PIERRE from her songs for Really Rosie. DO NOT listen to it. You will never shake it off.

HANK: Players gonna play play play play play play....  Sigh. ALL DAY.

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: It's so funny that all of us are the same — can't work with music on! Like Hank, I can work anywhere — airport, train station, cafe, and conversation is no big deal. But music? No, absolutely not.

Funny side note — we live near and know Robert Lopez and Kristin Anderson Lopez, who wrote "Let It Go," and Kiddo used to play with their daughter, who sang the first few lines of "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?" in the film/soundtrack. (OK, great, now I'll be singing that all day...)

RHYS BOWEN: I'm with the other Reds. I have to have silence when I write. But my grandson did an interesting experiment at school last year. He gave a math test to students with silence, with music in the background that they knew or with music that they didn't know. Turns out they scored highest when music that they knew was played. If it was music they weren't familiar with they paid attention to it.

I am a huge victim of earworms. If I get a song in my head it won't go away, haunting me day and night. Yes, I wake up singing it. Right now I've been so focused on tax that there hasn't been a square inch of brain for even an earworm song.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I've been very inspired by different kinds of music when writing specific books--several books revolve around music (opera, Gregorian chant, and rock. Go figure.) --but I CANNOT actually listen to music when I write. Not even Bach or Mozart, the things that are supposed to trigger creative centers in your brain. Sigh. So frustrating. (And so interesting about the studies, Julia.)

But I love the whole play list idea, and actually made one for The Sound of Broken Glass. My favorite song for that book was Good Riddance by Green Day. Now I have to go play it so that I can dislodge the latest earworm--Wherever You Will Go by The Calling. Rick is learning it on the guitar and now I hear it in my sleep... Maybe it will go in the NEXT book.

JULIA: You know, Rhys, there is that song about the Taxman by George Harrison...

How about you, dear readers? How do you combine - or separate - words and music?


  1. I am absolutely not a fan of silence . . . I can read [or do anything else] while music is playing. Of course, I am particular about the music, classical is good, opera is not and neither is rock. My preferred go-to music is Il Divo or Jackie Evancho or Julie London . . . .

  2. Wow. I can't listen to music while I write, either. And now I'm not writing because I'm listening to Paul Simon's "Rewrite" which I don't think I've ever heard before. Love it, but there's this WIP waiting... ;^)

  3. Add me to the needs-silence-while-writing group. Side note: this is much easier to achieve now that I have to wear hearing aids. Just pop those puppies out and it's instant quiet!

    But Julia--what's obsessive about making maps? Now those I really couldn't do without for a WIP. Floorplans, either.


  4. I can't listen to music when reading or writing. For me, music is so very powerful and I find that I need to pay attention.

    But I do pay attention to music when it is referenced in books I read. I remember reading A Fountain Filled with Blood and making that Dave Matthews connection later in the book. Many of my favorite authors do things like this and it can be very effective.

    I did once use a Rosanne Cash song quote to begin a review (Louise Penny's The Long Way Home). I found it a very convenient way to express what I felt from the book before delving into why.

  5. I must have a weird brain. I love music - but it never interferes with what I'm doing. Reading or writing. If I'm really into a book, it's white background noise. If I need inspiration for a scene or a character, music to the rescue. I've used the soundtrack for Pirates of the Caribbean for countless action scenes. I recently wrote a shorter work where when I wanted to get in the head of the narrator, I listened to Fall Out Boy.

    Once I get in the zone, the words of the music fall away and all I'm left with his the psychic energy.

    Maybe this is why I am not overly prone to ear worms. I get them, but not often and they usually don't last a long time.

  6. Sorry, this isn't about writing and music, it's about being grateful to Julia for the gift of Bill Deasy. He is a treasure, and I discovered him through "Russ". Now he's on my Miller's Kill playlist. This was a fun blog read!!!

  7. I am so impressed by anyone who can listen to music with words while writing. I need either silence or words without music - I often listen to the classical station in LA, but mostly I listen to Miles Davis' "Ascenseur Pour l'Echafaud." As I write this I realize that I have been listening to this same CD while I write for 25 years. I never get tired of it and it helps me stay in the writing trance.

    And to follow up on Jayne's comment, I love discovering new music through fiction. I recently discovered Art Pepper (specifically the widow's collection) through Michael Connelly and now I'm addicted. I'm now off to discover Bill Deasy!

  8. Kathy Lynn,

    I once met a young woman who was going to write a book JUST as soon as she had the map of her imaginary town and its environs finished. When I spoke to her, she'd been working on the map for five years...

    I suspect your mapmaking is a lot more quick and practical than that!

    And yes, everyone should give Bill Deasy a listen.

  9. My brain must run parallel to Mary's. I often put music on, when I write. Sadly, it becomes white noise, though, because when I'm in the zone, a whole album (remember when music came on those weird round, flat discs?)can go by and I never notice.

    And I think I'll be looking up some new-to-me music, thanks to this blog!

  10. I can write anywhere, but prefer to be in a quiet room with a 90s pop station playing. I went to high school in the 90s, so I know most of the songs, but by and large my choice listening music is country (Hemingway's Whiskey is one of my favorite songs). Put Kenny on while I'm writing, though, and I can't think to save my life. I have no idea why is has to be 90s pop to write by, but it's the only thing that works. Strange, right?

    Soundtracks for books: the summer I wrote the first draft of Front Page Fatality, I must've listened to Kenny Chesney's Greatest Hits v.II 768 million times (just not while I was writing). Any song from that album, but especially "Be As You Are," takes me right back to that summer.

    Fun discussion today!

  11. In my "Whimsey," Willie Nelson's music is fairly prominent because my protagonist loves his music. And, he makes an appearance. As much as I love music especially Willie! I cannot listen to music while I'm writing - or reading. I can tune out the world around me entirely too well says Don Barley, but music can find a way to sneak into my brain

  12. Once, though, I "had" to work on the book when we were at Tanglewood. Jonathan went to the concert while I sat at a picnic table with my laptop. It was Beethoven's sixth, I think--and I was typing like crazy!

  13. What's really funny is that not only can I write in cafes and coffee shops, but if they are playing music it doesn't bother me. I quite like it. But if I play it while writing at home, my brain totally freezes.

  14. I often wish that I could listen to music while I read, but I just can't. Hank, I noticed that you included needing silence for reading as well as for writing, and I'm right there with you. And, I require a music-free zone when I write, too. I'm just too easily distracted by the music and wanting to sing along with well-known songs. Joan, lucky you, that you are able to incorporate music into your activities without it overshadowing what you're doing. Same for you, Mary Sutton and FChurch. I envy you three.

    I do enjoy knowing soundtracks for a character or book or an author's soundtrack while writing it. Debs, would you be willing to share your playlist for The Sound of Broken Glass (one of my favorite book titles ever)? Oh, and I love references to songs or performers in books, like Julia's Dave Matthews. Lucy, what an interesting tattoo that young man had, and I'm so glad you asked him about it. And, it's interesting that most of you say you can work at airports or other busy places, but not music. I've been able to read in busy places, too. I guess that there's something personal in music that demands my attention, while in airports, it's more like white background noise.

    Rhys, I was intrigued by your grandson's experiment in the math classroom. What a clever study. I might pass that idea along to some of my English teacher friends. Susan, how cool that you are friends with the "Let It Go" composers. Hallie, thanks for the Taylor Swift earworm that will be with me today now.

  15. Has anybody here tried BookTrack? Service that creates a playlist for a story. I keep getting spam emails. Never tried it though.

  16. I can have old TV shows on and totally tune them out while reading or writing (not that I am a writer ;-) _ but if music is playing I end up paying more attention to that.

    I used to have a very long commute. On my way out one of my co-workers would often sing very softly, in his best Elmer Fudd voice - "dwivin' in my car, turn on the wadio…." So that's what would be in my head for 70 miles.

  17. I can listen to music when I'm just thinking about my characters or my story, and I find it inspiring. My main character's ex-boyfriend is a rock critic, so she's got that point of reference. But I get too distracted listening to music when I'm writing. The lyrics get stuck in my head and distract me!

  18. Hey, wait! What's obsessive-wrong about making maps? I even put mine on my website, since the publisher didn't have money in the art budget to put them in the books, and readers seem to like them. I have a map of the Orchard, where Fresca's mother lives, and floorplan sketches of her house, Erin's cabin, and in my Seattle series, Pepper's shop and loft. Happily, maps of Seattle already exist, and they hang on the inside of my office door....

    But while I know my characters's favorite music, I, too, can't listen while I write.

  19. Oh. Just saw Julia's comment about the woman who spent 5 years making the map and never wrote the book. Okay, I get it!

  20. Oh, Hank. Me too. No music. Just me, my mac, and chopstick with the dragon tattoo.

  21. How did I miss this? All day yesterday I was at the Cincinnati Flower Show, volunteering in the Children's Pavilion. Guess I forgot to check in.

    So funny, that none of the Reds can listen to music while writing. The only kind I listen to is carefully curated instrumental stuff that is 1) quick-paced, and 2) mostly repetitious.