Note: Originally posted on Boston Blooming.
For a lot of writers, music and words are pretty closely entangled, and I’m no different. Each novel I write comes with an accompanying soundtrack of songs that have become associated with some portion of that novel. Usually, the songs are a combination of those referenced in the actual text (songs important to the characters in one way or another) and those that become tangled in the writing process (mood, theme, my own energy as I write, etc).
I’ve never built a playlist for a novel before writing it. The soundtrack just sort of organically grows as I plan, take notes, outline, draft, and edit. Often, a book takes many drafts over several years to write, and the playlist blossoms out of those years. Recently, however, I set out to build a playlist for the novel I’m about to start work on. It’s not one I’m starting for the first time – the first draft was completed last fall – but it’s also not even close to final product. At the same time, the ideas that went into this novel have been bouncing around in my head for roughly seven years now, and I have a very good idea of where I want to take this story. So I built one, and listened, and refined, and became closer to my novel as I did so, writing notes and sketches, re-envisioning scenes for Draft 2 of Maldralith. In the end, the soundtrack totaled seven songs related to three different parts of this novel’s process.
Stories come from somewhere, and for me, they are often sparked from music, dreams, and little ah-ha moments. My playlist has a bit of all three, though as of yet, it’s missing a song to represent the fourth and final dimension that really made the novel come together (building a religious system based on the evolution of human psyche. Find a song that matches that, and also matches the tone of the book, and I will love you forever!).
• “I Am Anastasia” – Sponge – I’ve always been kind of obsessed with the Anastasia story, and the first seed of creating my own came when I was listening to this song back in 2007ish. It was the original spark, though it needed several others to really make the story come together.
• “Friends and Love” – Nicholas Hooper – The second spark came from a dream I had maybe a year later. It was silly, some strange story about Hermione Granger and Draco Malfoy meeting in the Forbidden Forest, only he didn’t know it was her, and she kept her face hidden from him. She hated him, but he fell in love with her, and when she began to like him, she knew she could never safely show him her face. The Harry Potter aspect of it was uninteresting to me, but the idea of being forced to hide your identity from someone you cared about gave me the second dimension of this novel. This instrumental from the score of Half Blood Prince is all unfulfilled longing, a good fit for the tone of the book as well as a fun admission: why yes, Harry Potter did (obliquely) play a part in building this book.
• “Ne Me Jugez Pas” – Sawt El Atlas – In 2008, I described my general idea of this book (below) to a fellow book blogger, and he said it reminded him of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I’d never thought about it that way, despite having studied the conflict quite a bit at that point. This brought about the third spark, and when I built my two religious cultures, one loosely draws on Arab culture and language, the second on French culture and language (as I’ve studied quite a bit of French as well). Oddly, I just happened to own and love a Middle Eastern pop song sung in both Arabic and French. How’s that for serendipitous?
Theme is where the playlist got trickier. Normally, my thematic songs come out in the writing, often referenced in the text itself. Maldralith takes place in an entirely different world, however, so I decided to pull together a bunch of songs that hit on various themes that I was writing about, and see what worked. In the end, only two remained. The others, while they made sense thematically, just didn’t fit the tone of the book well.
• “Unsown” – Umbrella Brigade – There is almost always one song written by Whitey Sterling in these playlists. I’m very glad this song matched the tone, because it really speaks to the main protagonist’s situation, as everything she knows about the world is upended.
• “Vessel” – Zola Jesus – Honestly, adding this song was a joke. My protagonist is referred to as a Vessel, so the title fit. And then…it worked. Really, really well. I’d only ever listened to the song once before, and now, I’m completely in love with it.
I could not have put this part of the playlist together if I hadn’t already written a first draft. Tone is so important to a book, and from that draft, I know exactly what my story and world feel like. All of the above songs match the tone, and I added two more that were purely tone-based.
• “Pieces” – Claire Voyant – My friend Chris sent this to me years ago, and I fell in love. The words are lovely, but it’s the music, really, that makes this one special (and a perfect match for Maldralith).
• “Escape Artist” – Zoe Keating – Jason picked this one for me. I wanted another instrumental, and I thought cello would really work for the tone. I had yet to listen to Zoe Keating’s music, and so Jason, who is very familiar with it, picked one out that he thought would fit. Oh my. This is one of my new favorite songs! There’s this one moment 2/3rds of the way in where the music stops for a second and then reenters on this low, raw note that rips my heart to shreds. The whole song has this dark, brooding, dangerous undercurrent with these bursts of frenetic panic on top, and it is perfect perfect beyond perfect, the very best way to round out and finalize Maldralith’s playlist!
I’ve been listening to these seven songs on repeat for the last few weeks as I build notes for the next draft of novel. Under their influence, Draft 2 is taking shape, and I hope to put the first words down on it as soon as my family has resettled in Boston.
From my Writer Page:
Mage doesn’t know that she is the last living vessel of the goddess Maldraise, meant to lead her people into divinity. When war ripped through her childhood, she buried the knowledge and her memories in a family heirloom, and has since been raised in the opposing religious culture, enslaved by those who formerly worshiped her. Now, with the world on the brink of a new war, Maldraise leads Mage back to her memories and charges her, contrary to all she’s been taught, to unite the two sides of this religious conflict.