Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Your Story's Soundtrack

While prepping the next few episodes of Reading in the Attic (one just posted, two more coming) I found myself scrambling for music.

I've got the theme music for the podcast.  I don't know why I suddenly need songs for each story, too... except I find that I do.  And I've been adding small sound effects here and there....

Maybe it's just the frustrated movie maker in me, but I find that, now that I have the chance to present the story formally to readers/listeners, I am recalling certain elements of the creative process.  You could say that it's really the frustrated writer in me.

On every writer's board out there, there will be long discussions of the music writers listen to while writing.  For some, it's just background noise and mood music that they hardly hear.

Or for those like me, I will sometimes listen to a certain playlist -- actually listen to it -- before a writing session.  The songs may evoke certain feelings or moods. They can get me into the story.  And the music will often seem wrong for the story, but is right for me.

For instance, when writing Have Gun Will Play -- which is a western -- I would listen to Herman's Hermits, "Something Tells Me I'm Into Something Good."  Which might seem strange, except that song is Mick thinking about Casey.  So in spite of the shoot outs and mysteries to be solved, and all that, THAT is the song that puts me immediately into Mick's mindset.

I have a number of songs like that.  A friend on Twitter sent out a call for songs to set the mood for herself while writing a scene with her heroine deciding/preparing to go after some bullies.  I had several (they were my theme music for work when I had a day job) -- Bob Seger's "Shakedown" and Abney Park's "Below the Radar." (Abney Park is particularly relevant to anyone writing Steampunk, as they are a steampunk band.  Airship Pirates and all that.)

Music can be great for setting any mood.  I listen to Patsy Cline when walking (even if I'm not "out after midnight"), also Nancy Sinatra (even if I'm not wearing boots made for walkin') or The Proclaimers (even if the distance I'm walking is not "500 Miles" or 500 more).

(Pause to put the playlist with The Proclaimers and Bob Seeger.....)

The thing about mood playlists, is that they can be completely you.  You don't have to explain how Herman's Hermits applies to an old west gunslinger. 

Furthermore, when you're writing fiction, you can imagine what your characters are listening to.  (It is tempting to overdo this, of course.  Your listening to it is NOT the same experience that your audience will have.  Remember that a lot of your audience may not know the songs, either.)  But it can spark a scene. 

I'm thinking of the middle of The Man Who Did Too Much, when George -- who has had a very bad day -- shows up at Karla's door, depressed.

There was music playing inside--some bouncy alternative rock classic.  He knocked again loudly, and it was only a moment before she flung the door open.

"George!  What are you doing here?" she said.  She seemed exceedingly happy, which was suddenly very annoying.  Even worse, she had a sock puppet on her left hand.  It was bouncing and singing silently to the music as if it had a life of its own.

I didn't mention what the song was, because George probably didn't know and he was in no mood to listen anyway -- even if it was a song with a message he needed to hear.  But for me, knowing George's mood and Karla's whole lifestyle, it was good to have just listened to her whole playlist.  And to know that the song she was listening to, was "Tubthumping" by Chumbawamba.  ("I get knocked down, but I get up again, you're never going to keep me down....")

It was enough to know that, and for characterization, it was enough for the audience to know for the sake of characterization that it was upbeat alternative rock.  Especially because immediately after this is a chapter break -- and a change in point of view Karla, so I DO name the next song....


He looked awful.  Hair mussed, unshaven, rumpled.  He had this stiff tight-lipped kind of expression, and a gleam in his eye that made her think that she should see that his day didn't get any worse.

She cleared some tapes from the end of the couch where she had piled them for sorting.  He looked at the spot like he didn't know that a couch was to sit on.  The music player switched to the next song, and Judy Garland broke out into "Come On, Get Happy!"  George frowned at it.

"Weren't you just listening to punk rock?"

"I have eclectic tastes," said Karla.  She turned the music down.  "Would you like some orange juice?"

"If it's got vodka in it.  And you can hold the orange juice."


 I named the Judy Garland song here for two reasons.  One is because we're in Karla's point of view, and because she knows the song in detail, and she knows how badly it conflicts with George's mood, so she will thinking in specifics. She would never think "a Judy Garland song" or anything generic like that. 

The other reason, though, is characterization.  Karla is someone who listens to Chumbawamba and Judy Garland (and Kermit the Frog, and Edith Piaf) on the same playlist.  And furthermore, all these songs belong together to her.  The message, ultimately, is "Come on, Get Happy."

And as with everything in Karla's life, George struggles to grasp that.

And... that leads to a third reason I named the song, though it's not something overt that the audience will necessarily get: Come On, Get Happy is a song about washing your sins (and troubles) away in the tide and going to the Promised Land.

George has headed for Karla's house because it's the Promised Land.  He's flailing his way across the River Styx here (and has been for pretty much all of his life).

So the song has a thematic meaning that makes it the one which, in the end, I decided to name.  It's a subtle thing, and not flag I want to wave up front. 

Which leads me to why I'm thinking about this.

Real Theme Music

I'm going to read an excerpt from The Man Who Did Too Much on an upcoming episode of the podcast.  And, as I mentioned up top, I have taken to picking a little music intro and ending for each story I read as well as for the podcast as a whole.  Just a little something to separate the chatter from the story itself, and to set the mood.

The ironic hipster in me would like to choose something like the Proclaimers as the theme music -- because that's a song about a guy who, like George, is prone to do too much (walk a thousand miles just so he can fall down at his girlfriend's door).  But that's under copyright, and I don't necessarily want to be that overt.

The song for the Mick and Casey story was easy. I looked through hundreds of royalty free clips to find one that suggests western but not either too grim or too hokey.  And I found what I think is perfect in this Irish tune: Connemara 9

It's got Mick McKee written all over it.  It's strummy and cowboy-ish -- and very laid back -- every bit as laid back as Hermans Hermits, but not anachronistic.  And, of course, Clarence Francis "Mick" McKee is of Irish ancestry.

But The Man Who Did Too Much flummoxed me.  First of all, the mood of the story is not George's mood. The story is a cozy mystery mixed with a madcap adventure.  George is a fish out of water.  But the story is also about him.  So should I choose action hero music?  No, because that's not the sort of story (I'd be doing the ironic hipster thing again - at the expense of the audience rather than for their benefit).  Also because the bit I'll be reading (the opening) is not really adventure at all.  It's kind of anti-adventure.

And I honestly could not think of any kind of music that would, just by style, evoke a quiet Michigan beach town.   So, since the excerpt does focus on George, I might as well go with him....

George is kind of an exotic guy -- an action hero who does a lot of work in Asia -- so what about a foreign theme?  Something kind of moody and Asian?  And hey, there's one of those in the same collection I bought for the Mick and Casey theme: Que Lie.  I like that one a lot, but I think that it kind of misleads or confuses the reader/listener.  Yes, it hints at some cool stuff to come, and actually has some connections with the story the reader might not expect, but that isn't in the excerpt.  So... I think maybe not.

So... back to action hero.  There's moody action hero music, isn't there?  Like, the James Bond theme would be too flash, but something reminiscent of the title songs (Goldfinger, Sky Fall, Live and Let Die)?  But maybe a little smaller and more personal? 

So I started looking at odd things, maybe more cinematic things, and I came across something that started weird and cinematic but ends up.... strangely suitable in nearly every way.

It's a tune called Point Piper 2, and after the weird opening, it breaks into ... a beach song.  Well, really just some guitar strumming which shifts from minor to major scales and is really both moody and uplifting and relaxed.  The kind of thing someone in any group on the beach might play.  Exactly the mood I'd want to evoke.  (I'll be cutting off those first few seconds and going for the beach with this.)

Phew.  Now I just have to pick something for Harsh Climate -- a story about two teenagers who have to battle freezing weather and a gang of kidnappers.....

See you in the funny papers.

6 comments:

Lee McAulay said...

The novel I've just published features music in a big way, as one of the characters tinkers with a cinema organ (way back in the days of silent cinema). The first tune she plays is "La Marseillaise", which sums up her character perfectly. And when I wrote one of my earlier non-published "practice" novels I always listened to Jeff Wayne's War Of The Worlds, because the mood seemed to fit the story.

The Daring Novelist said...

Sounds perfect!

I think the key with using music right within the story is to remember that, while listening to music will make you feel a certain way, _mentioning_ the music will just give the reader information -- it does not act as a soundtrack, manipulating emotions. (The emotions may follow the information, but it's a different experience for a reader hearing _about_ it than for a writer listening to it directly.)

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I'm always fascinated by this topic...I think because I'm the odd man out here. I was contacted once to contribute to a project a writer was doing on music and inspiration and had to tell her that I couldn't listen to music either before or during writing or else I was really distracted. Plays havoc with my focus. I must have adult ADHD or something...

The Daring Novelist said...

I can see that in that I have a hard time listening to music during a writing session. (And I can _imagine_ that extending to just before.)

Imaginations are weird. What it takes to concentrate can be very quirky and personal.

Kyra Halland said...

Cool insights into that part of your creative process! I rely heavily on soundtracks to get me in the zone for whatever I'm working on and keeping me there - I'm definitely a listen-while-I-write person; silence is distracting to me. I have songs for the characters (like the one you mentioned for Mick, his mindset thinking about Casey), scenes, and the overall theme and feel of the story. Spotify lets you embed playlists you make on your blog (or post a link to your playlist, if your blog won't let you embed a script) so I do that. It's true, though, the songs that evoke certain things to you might not do the same for your readers, but it's fun to share them anyway. Writing other-world fantasy kind of precludes actually mentioning the songs, so I don't have to worry about that!

Thanks for the tip towards that royalty-free collection! Sometime when I don't have too many other things going on, I want to try making a book trailer for Daughter of the Wildings, and I need royalty-free music for that.

The Daring Novelist said...

That particular series has, like, 150 albums. They seem to be from Australia (or maybe New Zealand) going by the most common names of songs.

The one thing I don't like about them is that they don't sell physical copies, so you've got nothing in hand (no copyright notice, no company name) that proves who the heck actually owns any of it.