How Music Helped Me Write A Novel

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When I set out to write my novel, I had only a vague picture of my main character, Noah.  I could see him and I knew most of his story, but the stuff that hides deep inside a person remained a mystery until I started constructing his character profile.  After a mess of notebook pages and scribbling, I realized character building takes more than just pulling things out of my imagination.  I needed to grab onto something concrete in order to get a real sense of this guy’s soul.  As it turned out, music was the key to understanding him and his journey.

I started by scanning through my iTunes library and randomly listening to songs of all genres.  I asked myself what Noah would blast in his car or what he would listen to when things didn’t go his way.  As I listened, I wrote down song titles when they made me think “That’s Noah.”  It didn’t take long for a very distinct profile to emerge.  Noah was all about good ol’ rock n’ roll, grunge, and a thumping beat.  He has strong emotions that he keeps locked up, so his music had to have the same vibe.

Noah’s Playlist:

Precious Declaration – Collective Soul

Allison Road – Gin Blossoms

Waiting For The End – Linkin Park

Propehcy – Remy Zero

Iridescent – Linkin Park

Shine – Collective Soul

Unwell – Matchbox 20

Gone Missing – Maximo Park

Long Day – Matchbox 20

For What It’s Worth – Buffalo Springfield

Against the Wind – Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band

Alive – Pete Yorn

Heavy – Collective Soul

Anything by John Mellencamp and Eric Clapton

– – –

Each of the above songs helped to flush out the subtle nuances of Noah’s character regarding mood, temperament, attitude, and emotions.  On days when it was hard to find him, the music put me into his head and it helped me see things through his eyes.

Once I found songs for Noah, I looked for music that fit his story, a soundtrack of sorts.  The feel had to be similar to Noah’s Music, but it didn’t necessarily have to be something he’d crank up on the radio.  The music was more for me as his creator and narrator.  I looked for songs that lyrically told part of Noah’s story, while also encompassing his personality.  The soundtrack had to be strong enough to trigger the mindset I needed to be fully immersed in the story, even after a long day at work. Just like music creates mood and tone in film, it can do the same thing for the process of writing.

Story Soundtrack:

Angry – Matchbox 20

Life is Life – Noah & the Whale

All at Once – Pete Yorn

The Way It Is – Bruce Hornsby

Robot Boy – Linkin Park

Your Life is Now – John Mellencamp

Shadow of the Day – Linkin Park

Acoustic #3 – Goo Goo Dolls

Better Days – Goo Goo Dolls

Listen – Collective Soul

Bed of Lies – Matchbox 20

Counting Blue Cars – Dishwalla

Fake Empire – The National

Bittersweet Symphony – The Verve

– – –

While this is only a small selection, each song relates directly to major turning points in my novel. They all inspired something like a plot point, an emotional response from Noah, or a subtle shift in tone.  I’m usually a slave to outlines on large projects, so I needed a constant reminder not to be so rigid.  The music got me thinking in different directions and gave me the spirit to let Noah and his story evolve in a more organic way.

c.b. 2011

34 thoughts on “How Music Helped Me Write A Novel

    • Deborah the Closet Monster

      I’d pretty much like both of those soundtracks to be on discs waiting in my car right after I get off work. That’s not so much to ask, is it?

      I really like this approach to connecting with your characters and the story!

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  1. I know you’ve mentioned your itunes list before but having your process written out really makes it come to life. Are you making a new list for the next book?

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    • Yes! It’s a big departure from Noah’s Playlist, which tells me I’m on the right track because my second novel is a different genre from the first. So far the new playlist includes: Delerium, Mysteria (not the metal band), and The Beatles (my main character has an obsession with The Fab Four). I’ll write about it when the list becomes more complete. 🙂

      Thanks for reading!

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  2. what a great way to look at it. i love that you included the playlists in your post. it made me imagine what noah might be like. and now i can’t wait to see what the *real* noah is like! 🙂

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    • Oooo, that’s what I want to hear! I only gave partial listings (b/c the entire list is close to 60 songs!), but they are the main songs that shaped Noah. I’m thrilled to hear he’s coming through and I hope I’ve written him just as successfully.

      Thanks for reading! 🙂

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  3. Absolutely fascinating! That’s a fantastic idea. I’ve always used music to help put me in the right mental mood as I write, but I’ve never tried anything like this before. You’re a plethora of creative ideas. : )

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    • It’s a process I’ve used over the last few years. Sometimes its pretty easy and sometimes it proves to be a challenge. For “The Way Back” I had to make recordings of buskers on Youtube, which turned out to be a really cool experience. The story really benefited from hearing street performers sing with raw emotion.

      The funny thing is I can’t seem to delete playlists once I make them (so much work goes into it). I still listen to them and they instantly transport me to whatever piece they helped inspire. 🙂

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  4. I also make playlists when I write — I love to read that it’s not just a “me” thing. Very cool! Those songs are great and I’m looking forward to learning more about Noah and his story!

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  5. C.K. Dexter-Haven

    Hey, just browsing around as i 2 am thinking about startin up a world press site. Just wanted to say that I was so shocked to see this type of post. I AM THE SAME WAY! ‘cept my inspiration is more Beatle related. I’ve started writing and then I’d think, hey that reminds me of that Beatle tune and bam, it’s become my chapter title. Maybe we both think along the lines of novels turning into movies and needing a soundtrack ! lol

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  6. This is awesome- I do the same things with my books. It really helps to “gel” the character and story in my mind. I’m glad to see it someone else does it the same way. I have done it with every manuscipt I’ve written except one.

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    • Just last night, I discovered something new about a main character I’ve just started to create. I had my iPod on shuffle while working on something else and BOOM! I heard a song that inspired what is now a crucial aspect of this character. I love it when that happens! It’s so great to know other people work in the same way! 🙂

      Thanks so much for stopping by my blog! 🙂

      Like

  7. It’s great how music can shape our characters and stories so much – I do the same to figure out where my story is going and to really dig deep into scenes and emotions. I’m really thankful that my car radio shows the names of songs because half the time I hear the perfect ones for my story when I’m driving around! I’m that crazy person at the lights trying to write down songs in a notebook before the light turns green. 🙂
    Great post!

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  8. I find that instead of listening to certain music for certain characters, I listen to music for different scenes, and it ends up playing out like a movie inside my head. A little crazy, maybe, but I find that it helps me to find a tone and feeling for whatever I am writing. Some Hans Zimmer, Javier Navarete, Howard Shore, they all inspire me in one way or another.

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    • At the moment, my current novel’s playlist is lot like yours. The story is playing out like a movie in my head and I keep hearing a “score.” I combed through my music until I found something similar to what I was hearing. I love it when that happens! 🙂

      It’s not crazy at all!

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      • Ah, good. I usually just have my iPod on shuffle, and a song might come on while I am writing, and suddenly, I’m going at a different pace for that scene. I might even play it again to try and keep consistent. Sometimes though, I know exactly what I need to write a certain scene, so that’s when I find that song or that melody. I love music anyways, so it’s not that hard sometimes to find songs for me, because each tells it’s own story between the melody and lyrics. 🙂

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  9. Great minds…. 😉 For me, writing “Spiritkeeper”, the soundtrack included many bits by neo-romantic composer John Adams. David’s “weaving” theme appears in his Piano Concerto; a reprise of it appears, wonderfully enough, in the concerto’s slow movement (and the heartbreak scene in the book.) And then, Radiohead’s “Give up the Ghost” turned up…my closing credits.

    How long have you been creating soundtrack for books and characters?
    -lynn

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