whistle while you work

I wrote to a musical accompaniment this week. It rarely happens, because I seem to be very aurally distractible (as well as distractible in any number of other ways), so generally speaking my writing room remains a quiet place. Occasionally I’ll break that rule; if one of my characters is listening to a piece of music I will too, and I find there’s a different rhythm to those scenes: a rolling tumble of words, or a snaky langour, or an urgency.

This week my character listened to Bowie’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide while she was sewing. Her activity started, much as the song does, in measured calm. But the music took me to places I hadn’t expected. As it built to its hysterical end the song sent her stitching awry. The neat mend became a botched suture; she had been knocked off-course and sent to a far more interesting destination.

I wrote one scene to the panting backbeat of Laurie Anderson’s O Superman, a song which pulled my character into a fugue state. In another, she listens to Bowie’s Star, which prompts recollections of teenage nights falling asleep to Ziggy Stardust, a memory she and I share, which I’ve blogged about here.

There’s another way in which I use music in my writing, and it’s to do with the basics of character creation. A lot of workshops urge us to use linear processes to build character, written lists being a great favourite: what’s in your protagonist’s fridge? In her handbag? Who were her best friends at school? And so on. I know these tactics work for some writers – they even do for me, to a limited extent. But they never seem to stick in the mind much. More powerful are visceral, sensory ways of accessing character.

I use art a lot; the wall of my writing room is covered in drawings and symbols which will never trouble the judges of the Turner Prize, but which help me connect with my characters in a way which seems more holistic (in my Media Studies days I would have called it polysemic) than a written list could ever be.

Music is the same. For Jubilee I spent a long time working out what Satish and Maya’s CD collection would look like. When Satish recalled meeting Maya for the first time, she was singing along to the Pogues’ Bottle of Smoke; that – and Satish’s own reaction to the song – seemed to capture something fundamental about the differences between them.

Often, music never reaches the page*. I know that my protagonist’s husband used to sing Martha, My Dear to their daughter when she was small, though I still don’t know whether I’ll ever mention it in the novel. I can’t work out whether that same daughter ever does put up a poster of Jessie J and B.O.B. on her wall, but I know she wants to – and I know why.

I asked other writers whether they listened to music as they wrote, and the responses were fascinating. I’ve Storified them here (my first Storify!), so do read it if you want to find out who designs a soundtrack for every novel, who bans reggae, and just what it is that Piers Torday finds ‘extremely shaming’.


*This has nothing, of course, to do with the astronomical cost of quoting song lyrics, or the byzantine process of seeking permission to do so.

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