Music is forever; music should grow and mature with you, following you right on up until you die. ~Paul Simon
I was updating my playlist last weekend and started to think about how music defines our lives, how one song can instantly take you back to a place, time or feeling. I recently found an old country song on YouTube that my dad played for us as kids; listening to it again transported me to the bunk bed at the cottage when my sister and I would request it to be played each night. It was a real tear jerker (Don’t Cry Joni by Conway Twitty) and, to a budding romance writer, still one of the most (tragic) romantic songs I’ve ever heard. That darned song still makes me cry thirty years on. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be the inspiration for a story at some point in the future.
Many writers talk about how they have a “soundtrack” they write to—a collection of music that seems to correspond to what they are writing and helps to inspire them. EL James even made a few bucks off it by selling a crossover CD of the music that inspired Fifty Shades of Grey. I’m the same way. Music is such a part of my life that of course it’s going to spill over into my writing. I’m a huge audiophile—my tastes range across all genres and time periods—and I’ve often thought that if I was stuck on a desert island I could do without books (because I can make up stories in my head) but I could never live without music.
So it’s no wonder that music often serves as an inspiration for me. Sometimes the song comes first, and the story builds around it. In my novella Fourth and Long, the characters dance to the song “Secret” by Heart. That becomes their theme song. I was going through an eighties phase at the time and as soon as I heard it, I knew I had to work it into a story. It seemed ideal for a Pretty in Pink style dance and bingo, I had the climax of my story.
Other times I will hear a song and immediately think of a character or story already percolating in my head. In those situations, I use the music more to put me in the mood—oftentimes as I’m listening I have a montage of the story running through my head as though I were directing a music video. I’ve been working hard on a historical novel set in the American mid-west and it has built up quite a playlist which includes of all things, Annie’s Song by John Denver, and Distance and Arms by Christina Perri.
Whether it’s just dumb luck or not, I’ve noticed that it’s the more melancholy stories that end up with a soundtrack. Even when there’s pop tunes involved, it’s still my sadder characters that I associate with them. For some reason the happier ones don’t need it (Adam and Joe in Inseparable, for example don’t have a song). So what is it that brings a story and a song together? It’s usually a combination of melody and lyrics that draw me to a song. Sad love songs are the best, because the more feeling behind them, the more it translates into my writing. If it makes me tear up then I know it’s going to work. But generally it’s still mostly serendipity; I don’t go looking for the right music–it finds me–but when that perfect match happens… it’s magic.