Nancy: A Little Mood Music

Swan Lake sheet music from

Swan Lake sheet music from

Last week, Elizabeth talked about ways to tell stories other than with the written word. I have to admit, I’m not a photographer, a painter, or a knitter/crocheter. My stories really do come out with words. Still, I’ve learned that during the discovery phase, the more non-verbal ways I tell the story to myself, the better the creativity and ultimately the words flow.

One of the tools I use to tap into the creative energy of a story is a playlist. While I always used music as part of my writing process, for a long time I just used it as background noise. Several of my writing friends swore by their story-specific playlists, so I took their advice to try it and once I started, I never stopped. Now when I start mulling over a new character or storyline, songs often come as part of the introspective process, so I keep a running list of song titles with my story notes.

If I think I need more songs for my playlist, I find them by setting my iPod to random shuffle, streaming a ‘station’ online with a particular type of music, or using the actual old-fashioned radio when I’m in the car. I take note of any song that resonates with my in-process story, buy it if I don’t have it, usually with the press of a few buttons, and add it to the audio file. As I’m currently in different stages with multiple writing projects (yes, it sounds like a recipe for disaster, but sometimes my writing brain works this way), I’ve been making multiple playlists, which got me to thinking about the different ways I use music for different aspects of my writing.

Meeting a character. The songs I hear in my head when I’m getting to know a major character tend to come intuitively, as part of the ‘mulling over’ process. At that point, I’m not in playlist receptor mode actively seeking out songs, so when they do show up, I take them seriously. And here’s the really weird thing – I don’t necessarily like every one of these ‘must-add’ songs. For example, one of these days I’m going to start writing a mystery novel set in Copenhagen with an American/Danish protagonist, Nick (short for the Danish name Nicholai). When I was just getting to know Nick, learning about his parents (both ‘rock star’ scientists), his practiced underachieving ways, and his casual and too-frequent love affairs, I started hearing ’70s stadium rock in my head. Although I’m sure I could come up with a song or two in this style that I like, I’m not a fan of the overall genre. But it feeds into a feeling of Nickness, so Styx and Rush each have a song on the ‘Nick’s story’ playlist.

Walking in a character’s shoes. These are songs I add to the list because the character, at least as I envision her/him, listens to them. Sometimes there’s crossover with the ‘meeting the character’ song list. But often I’m seeking out specific songs that fit a character I already know. When I wrote best friends Eileen and Maggie in My Girls, I knew they were 80s music fans, while their new and much younger friend Sarah was more into indie singer/songwriters from the aughts. And of course I added two road-trip songs (Rascal Flatts’ Life is a Highway and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Road Trippin’), because I’m sure they played them in Eileen’s restored ’68 Mustang on their all-girls road-trip to Vegas.

Building a world. The songs I choose for world-building become really important to me during the editing phase. By this point in my writing process, I know my characters and the major plot points pretty well, but what I’m often missing are the nuances and details that make their world feel real and concrete. I’m not looking for songs to provide those details, just ‘mood music’ to put my mind in the right state to flesh out details that will help readers get a grip on the story setting. For My Girls, this list included Honkytonk Blues by the Rolling Stones because Maggie runs a dive bar and the women spend a good chunk of time there, and Viva Las Vegas by Elvis, for obvious reasons. (Yes, playlists are allowed to get cheesy when necessary. This is art, people – we do what we have to do!)

Getting words on the page. Once I’ve listened to a playlist multiple times with the intention of focusing on my story, I’ll have trained my brain that hearing a few songs of the playlist means it’s time to get the work. But if I’m having one of those days or weeks or months when getting the words on the page is just too damn hard, I’ll revert to my original catch-all playlist: Andre Watts playing The Chopin Recital. This CD (or mp3 file) would definitely have to be one of my must-haves on a desert island. It has gotten me unstuck in a story – in many stories – more times than I can count. In fact, I think I’ll be playing it a little later today.

What kind of music inspires you when you’re writing? Do you have a playlist you’d like to share?

11 thoughts on “Nancy: A Little Mood Music

  1. Playlists always seem like a great idea to me, but I find it distracting when I’m writing. I start paying more attention to the songs than my own words. Oh well, it’d be a boring old world if we were all the same.

    I do remember a curious time when I was obsessively looking for versions of “Go Your Own Way” by Fleetwood Mac on YouTube. This was during my first NaNo, and I still don’t know what the connection between that song and my story was — if there was any. It may have simply been an encouragement anthem. I would reward myself by writing my wordcount, then treating myself to a YouTube search.

    I’ve found I like New Age and also Techno when I’m writing. It doesn’t seem to matter if the songs have anything to do with my writing. Just something to lull my brain a little.

    • Asmodeus, the protagonist of Demon’s Design, is a total techie. He runs DemSec, the bureau in charge of outfitting demons for Aboveworld assignments. Can you suggest some good Techno for me to help me get his vibe, Michaeline?

      • Not exactly Techno, but what about Kraftwerk, who are all about the relationship between man and machine? Check out this article in the New Yorker.

        Kraftwerk are from the late ’70s / early 80s but they played last year at the Tate Modern art gallery and the scrum for tickets was insane. A friend of mine got one and said she was one of a handful of women there – the audience was basically very excited geeky guys, young and old.

        • Oh dear, I think I phrased myself poorly. It sounds like I’m a huge techno fan . . . and I’m not well-listened at all in the genre. I just found some stuff that really works for me, and I’m a huge fan of that. I just go to YouTube and type in Kollektiv Turmstrasse, and pick an album. Really hypnotic music. I haven’t figured out how to BUY the music yet; I heard them on NPR first, and then I couldn’t find them on Amazon on CDs from Amazon. Sigh, it’s tough being a techno fan who is also part Luddite.

          I’ve heard a lot of good things about Kraftwerk, too. There were some German bands on MTV in the 80s that I adored for their mechanical, industrial sound, but I can barely remember them. That’s the thing about the music — I can’t seem to hum a melody. I only remember the feelings left behind. That happens sometimes with books, too, doesn’t it? Can’t remember the details, just the feeling left behind.

          BTW, classical fans, there was an NPR piece on lost oboe concertos! VERY pretty music, with that kind of patterned frllly stuff that might make good writing music. I loved the piece they played out on . . . .

  2. I had a playlist for the first three books I wrote, which now live under my bed. They were a series about playful gods and their interactions with humans, and the playlist was a three-disc compilation of early (very fun and bouncy) rock and roll. I played that compilation constantly while I wrote, one disc after the other. I finished the books, and I’ve never been able to listen to that music again. Not sure I even have the discs any more, which is a pity, really. And since then, every time I try to play music when I write, I just find it distracting. Although when I work for my day job, I can sometimes listen to classical music, as long as there’s no singing.

  3. I don’t necessarily listen to the playlists during the actual act of writing, either, although I can. But I a kid who, even through college, did every homework assignment and wrote every paper while listening to music, so I probably hardwired that ability into my brain.

    These days, playlists help keep my head in the story when I’m not at the computer, and help me untangle knots and resolve problems. And I think just the act of putting them together helps me delve deeper into the characters and world I’m building. All that being said, there are definitely songs I get sick of by the end of a manuscript!

  4. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m such an extreme introvert and I have to turn my brain off, but when I’m writing, I am fine listening to music (only classical — Brahams channel on Pandora). However, when I’m not, I need music OFF if I’m going to think about my book. I’m not sure why. I love listening to music, just not when I’m sort of “off-duty” thinking about my book.

    And “Life is a Highway?” My kids were the perfect age for Disney’s Cars. I have heard that song more times than I can count and no matter what, I’ll always think of toddlers, dirty diapers, and my kids glued to the TV. 🙂 I *wish* I could think of road trips instead!

  5. Pingback: Michaeline: Story Bites for When You Just Can’t – Eight Ladies Writing

  6. Pingback: Michaeline: Story Bites for When You Just Can’t – Eight Ladies Writing

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