Music: where your ideas come from
I wrote the other day about the various processes of inspiration that helped me start and finish Fire in the Sea. I mentioned then that Sadie, my main character, was inspired by a song. Music really deserves its own post, I think, when it comes to inspiration.
Music is always the starting point, for me. It always has been. It’s music that gets me excited about a project and music that keeps me company when I complete it. Part of this, I think, is wanting to capture something intangible. Or, perhaps, I mean that it comes from wanting to write something to match the mood and emotions that good music can evoke. As such, music gives a novel its tone.
I think the real lure lies in the ambiguity and passion of a great song. You understand the emotion of a song, even if the lyrics are opaque. Because you don’t know the details, you can’t really know what a song is about, you can’t help crafting a narrative. Also, pop music tends to give you a very pure insight into somebody’s character. Pop music is, really, a canon of conversations that are never going to happen.
If you’re in love with someone who doesn’t love you, you’re not going to sit down with them and say: “I dream of you every night, I wake thinking about you, you’re tearing me apart inside, every breath you take, I want to share…” Not if you ever want to see that person again, or if you want to avoid a restraining order. But this is the stuff of pop lyrics. Pop songs are unselfconscious honesty, a bearing of the soul. If you’re interested in what makes people tick or, more importantly, in what makes people FEEL, then pop music will get you going.
I think I always liked music that created its own world, music that tilted the world on its axis or created its own gang. Music that only made sense to you and a select few others. For a new project, I’m designing a world to fit in with that sort of music. Specifically, I’m writing it to fit in around an album from 1994 called Dog Man Star, by a British band called Suede. It was an album that I listened to every day between 1995 and 1997 and then rediscovered two years ago when it was rereleased. It has a heightened, romantic, slightly fantastical air but is very much built from suburban, ordinary things. Its highlight is a stunning song called The Wild Ones. It’s very much your typical “let’s run away from all this” song, but there are lines like “we’ll fly from disguised suburban graves/we’ll go from the bungalows/where the debts still grown each day”. Very real, slightly grubby, oddly beautiful. The album offers a slightly hallucinatory, sci-fi version of reality, where you can literally feel the pull of broken love from across the city and “two silhouettes by the cash machine make a lover’s dance”. It’s music that makes everything seem glamorous and appealingly melodramatic.
Really, that’s a world I want to spend time in. Glamorous, gothic, slightly scary, deeply romantic. Sign me up. I’ll write that book.
Going back to Fire in the Sea, it ultimately took more than one song to find Sadie. One song isn’t going to get you through a whole book. But it was the starting point. I started to build a playlist around that first track. And I felt it was going to be made up of raw sounding music. Music that felt dry and heartbroken. Each new song gave a different way of looking at Sadie. There was one called Civilian by Wye Oak that had nice balance between plaintive and strident. There was a lyric about keeping your baby teeth in our bedside table, with your jewellery. That spoke to me of someone who wasn’t able to let go of something, even though that time is gone.
There’s a sense that Sadie feels defined by her music. It’s more important to her than to any of the other characters. Many of these songs she has inherited from her parents and remain her best chance of connecting with them.
She mocks Tom early on for listening to music that doesn’t mean anything. He’s living in this big house in a posh suburb called Dalkeith — what’s he getting out of listening to New York ghetto rap? Of course, he enjoys it. Maybe it has its own glamour for him. But that’s not how Sadie connects to music. She doesn’t enjoy music. She needs music. It connects her, to the past, to herself, to an imagined life.
If you have Spotify, you can listen to a selection of songs I listened to here.
For the sequel, I’ve had to create a whole new playlist. It took a while to realise this. For a while I was still listening to some of the same songs. But I needed to rediscover the characters, in order to make them interesting to me again. I need to find a new tone, for a new book.
I don’t listen to these songs while I’m actually writing, of course. Way too distracting. When I’m writing, I tend to listen to instrumental or classical music. During the writing of Fire in the Sea I started listening to film scores — something I’d always been a bit sniffy about. I actually found this really helpful, particularly when writing an action scene. It helps to get the adrenaline pumping.
What sort of music inspires you? Why?
Do you listen to music when you’re writing? Or reading? That’s a point — what is good music to read by? Can you choose a soundtrack for a book someone else has written?
(PS. Parts of this post were inspired by a panel I took part in for the Perth Writers Festival with author and illustrator Gus Gordon.)