Stories, songs make beautiful music together

While working on my third novel, I listened almost exclusively to The Royal Tenenbaums soundtrack.

Given the idiosyncratic nature of the album’s songs — not to mention the idiosyncratic nature of the movie itself — it’s perhaps no surprise that a friend of mine once responded, “Man, what kind of weird stuff are you writing?”

It hadn’t occurred to me that the music I listen to while writing could impact the words on the page.  Oh, maybe I was stirred by a turn of phrase here, a shift in dynamics there.  But do I gravitate toward a quicker tempo during action scenes and softer sounds for more poignant plot points?  Hmm…

One thing I can safely say is that my Defenders of Valor, a battle-scarred sword-and-sorcery novel, bears absolutely no resemblance to Wes Anderson’s familial fracas.

[Editor’s note: the book was ultimately released with a different title: Martyrs and Monsters.]

This song perfectly captures the adversarial relationship between Vincent, the protagonist of my novel If Souls Can Sleep, and his brother Daniel.

Whereas some writers find music (or any background noise) a distraction, I am fueled by the creative energy imbued in most melodies.  Occasionally, I write in silence—if, for instance, I forgot to grab my iPod or I’m so wrapped up in a scene that I neglected to notice an album ended.

Otherwise, bring on the aural stimulation!

Maybe it’s because I’m so often inspired by lyrics when away from my keyboard.  A random line from a song can send my imagination soaring.  I might construct a narrative from the verses or create an entirely unrelated story from a minor theme.

Some of my favorite songwriters are those whose tunes “read” like a short story.  The Decemberists, They Might Be Giants, Regina Spektor, Jonathan Coulton — my mind can’t help but get swept away with their short sagas.

It’s like listening to literature.

More recently, the relationship between my love of writing and love of music took an interesting turn.  During the time it took me to draft, rewrite, and edit If Souls Can Sleep, I started collecting songs that reminded me of aspects of my story: a character, a setting, a confrontation.

Then, without quite realizing it, I created a playlist for my book:

  1. “Quicksand” by Travis
  2. “Who Needs Sleep?” by Barenaked Ladies
  3. “Save Yourself” by Tarkio
  4. “Days of Elaine” by The Decemberists
  5. “I’m Only Sleeping” by The Beatles
  6. “Heimdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse” by Of Montreal
  7. “Am I Awake?” by They Might Be Giants
  8. “Lucid Dreams (Reprise)” by Franz Ferdinand
  9. “Great Hosannah” by Kula Shaker
  10. “Tattva” by Kula Shaker
  11. “Brother” by Murder by Death
  12. “Rain” by Bishop Allen
  13. “If You Can’t Sleep” by She & Him

Now it’s not amazing that two different art forms would capture themes of alcoholism, sleep deprivation, and a strained relationships.  But when I listen to the unofficial soundtrack for If Souls Can Sleep, I can envision which scene each song would accompany.  Some of the songs fit almost too perfectly.

It makes me wonder what songs have inspired other authors and what kind of an effect it might have had on the stories themselves.

It also makes me wish that some of my favorite novelists would include a suggested soundtrack in the back of their books.  After all, storytelling can take many forms.  If moving pictures can have soundtracks, why not the written word?



Filed under Writing

8 responses to “Stories, songs make beautiful music together

  1. Thomas P. Ramirez


    When I was writing a novel every ten days I did the same thing. Only classical, folk, Sinatra. I have 170 R2Rs, 120 cassettes, 200 CDs. Something was always playing in the background. To block out household noise, or put me in the mood.

    I’d think Dickens had a string ensemble sitting nearby playing Bach, whoever, while he wrote his timeless classics.

    Go for it.



  2. Thomas P. Ramirez

    Back again, David.

    Sure hope you are saving all these columns.

    I see a magnificent “How To” book here.

    Again: You should be teaching in a college somewhere.


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  4. I always play music while writing, usually a particular set/style of music for a particular book. For example, the background of my Celtic/Fairy novel was often Enya and Clannad. My Gothic stories often had bands like Fear Factory in the background.

    My current book–time travel/Svengali/WWII–has been fueled by a mix of Gothic, Industrial, and Synthpop. And just like you, while writing it, I’ve collected songs which fit in perfectly with the story in some way. For example, “Hypnotize” by And One and “The Time Traveller” by A Pale Moon. Some of the songs are actually referenced in the book because the protagonist is an Industrial fan.

    On one of your other posts, I wrote that I actually started this book many years ago in high school, its first incarnation, a novella. The muse hit me again–hard–a few years ago and I started rewriting it. In the first drafting stage, all I listened to was Goth/Industrial/Synthpop, even though I also liked hard rock. Whether I was writing or just going about my day, that’s all I listened to, because it fueled my creativity and got me into the mood for the book.

    And yes, sometimes a song will come on while I’m writing and influence how I write a scene.

    Not only does the music drive the mood and influence the scenes, but if I hear a song from my list on my MP3 player or web stream, I almost get hypnotized myself: My mind quickly goes into that creative state and scenes from the book fill my head.

    The chance of a book getting picked up by Hollywood is small, but now that we promote books on the Web, I’ve toyed with the idea of also releasing a soundtrack to go along with it. Or maybe posting a list of what songs go with the book.

    • Fascinating stuff. Maybe one day I’ll at least create a YouTube playlist, if nothing else.

      I also try to sneak in song references in my books because characters (like real people) often have music playing in the background of their day-to-day. For example, Leah Chedid turning on the radio to hear “Ride of the Valkyries” in If Souls Can Sleep.

      Not quite an Easter egg, but still fun for the writer and, hopefully, readers.

  5. Oh–I forgot to include: When I wrote the novella in high school, I played albums and songs back then, too, which still remind me of it.

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