Many things inspire my writing — games, art, film, folklore, real life events, even dreams. In this article I’d like to discuss the various ways music can infiltrate, dramatize, and add dimension to writing. Some people require music in order to visualize what they are writing about because it aids creative flow. Other people need absolute silence because music is a distraction. Then there’s people like me, who are a little bit of both. When I’m drafting something, I usually play music suited to the scene I’m writing. But when I’m editing, I require silence, or I will start singing along with the lyrics or envisioning new scenes! We can’t have that during final edits, now can we? There is no right or wrong here. Do what works for you and your situation.
Music is as much in my blood as writing and art. I’ve played several instruments over the years — none proficiently, but I enjoy trying anyway. I’ve always been a huge fan of several music genres, likely and unlikely. And I have fan-girled a wee bit over a few musicians. (*cough* Bedroom wall plastered from ceiling to floor with posters of various favourite music artists in high school. *cough*) My mother named me Melody because music is a universal language. This is a bone-deep truth for me. Even if I don’t understand the lyrics of a foreign language, I can still admire the sound and the emotion or style that the singer brings to the performance. I can listen to music from one culture and hear similarities to others, which leads me to believe that music isn’t necessarily a culture thing as much as it’s a human thing. Drums, for example, exist in every culture I know of. My Navajo neighbor once told me, concerning traditional sweet grass dances, the drum represents the heartbeat of the earth itself and all of life. And yet I can listen to “Trøllabundin” by Faroese singer Eivør Pálsdóttir and be taken to that same sentiment. If I want my writing to be complete, I try to include words and events relating to sound, not just touch or sight. This becomes even more necessary when writing for a musical character … like a bard.
So, how can music help your writing, both in process and in output?
While writing my invented elven language, I listened to a lot of Faroese and Icelandic music. I don’t speak or understand much of either, but I love how it sounds, and the similarities between Old English and Old Norse fascinate me. Ditto for Scottish and Irish Gaelic. So, when I needed vocabulary for Thályntól, I leaned on these languages, and a few related others, as banks for etymological kinship and sounds. My invented language isn’t meant to be exactly like anything that inspired it. But I wanted a cousin-language feel to it, since elven folklore originated in Scandinavia and traveled down through Germany and the U.K., changing as it went from culture to culture, being reinvented as something unique to each region. This is how all folklore evolves. This is how language evolves. And this is how music and culture evolve, as well. So, when looking for possible linguistic ties while writing fiction, don’t neglect music as a sound source.
2. Atmosphere and Imagery.
Since my elves are based largely on Norse and Celtic mythology, listening to Norse and Celtic music while drafting puts me in the frame of mind to try to paint an ancient, yet timeless, culture in my settings. (Adrian Von Ziegler and Vindsvept have a lot of instrumentals appropriate for this mood.) When I switch to modern Paganfolk or game soundtracks which are influenced by those sources, too, I can get a feel for a more modern, yet still somewhat antiquated, tavern-like atmosphere. (The Witcher 3 soundtrack was worn out during my drafting process.) But I don’t want my elves stuck in the past, so I bring them further forward into an alternate modern time without losing that earthy feel to their magical nature and culture by looking up Victorian music and steampunk music (Steam Powered Giraffe’s “Brass Goggles” was a good airship song. The Sherlock Holmes movie soundtrack and an old music box version of “Luna Waltz” were good “wandering Brinnan” songs, while Johnny Hollow’s “Alchemy” was good for exploring Castle Bloodstone, the undercroft, Ysmé’s lab, and reading her letter.) It’s an odd combination, but it works for me. My goal is not to be “consistent”, but imaginative.
I hunt down tribal drumming, war chants, movie soundtracks, and sometimes even industrial music for writing fight or action scenes. I came up with the fight scene between Trizryn and Kassí in the sacred grove at the Gate of Min (in The Changeling) while listening to a particular “screamo” song that had me thinking in terms of dark green flashes of lightning in some kind of nightmarish blackness with skeletons rising from the ground—like trying to fight the undead under the effects of a strobe light. (Psyclon Nine’s “Parasitic”) Hopefully it translated half-blind and horrific enough for the reader. Dungeons, of course, need to be suspenseful and “off-key” somehow to indicate dark, creepy, abandoned ruins. (Nox Arcana gave me a lot of good dungeon music.) I looked for soft Gothic or emotional music when it comes to sad scenes. (BrunuhVille’s “Celestial Temple” was one of several songs I listened to while writing K’tía’s funeral scene.)
For Trizryn’s vampire-related scenes, I found myself leaning toward soundtracks that have relative themes. (“Das Tir en Mir (Wolfen)” by E Nomine was a favourite, even though it’s about werewolves. So was “The Undertaker” by Pucifer and songs like “Kelling” by Valravn.) For bard songs, I consider the bard’s personality. I like listening to bands like Faun or Irish pub songs when writing for Shei. (Faun’s “Wind und Geige” and “Karuna” inspired a couple of scenes, as well as Gaelic Storm’s “Darcy’s Donkey” and actually looking up You Tube videos of people playing old lute melodies.) But I prefer listening to traditional Asian-inspired music when writing for Kielanai. (Game soundtracks like “Schala’s Theme” from Chrono Trigger and Shenmue’s “Shenhua” were favorites.) When Kielanai dances, however, music box songs inspire light, delicate, flighty words.
Sometimes songs define characters, other times they define events and places. The bonfire scene in The Dragonling was written to repeated replays of “Walpurgisnacht” by Faun, as I sifted through memories of various similar festivals I’ve attended over the years. … The scene where Aija and Trizryn admired the subterranean garden in the overgrown corridor of Absin’navad and had their first real talk on an amicable level near the end of The Changeling was written to “Corridors of Time” … and ONLY “Corridors of Time” from the Chrono Trigger soundtrack. Most of Absin’navad’s other scenes, Trizryn’s and Aija’s escape into the tunnels beneath Brinnan, where they fought the lindworms, and a lot of the Deep Warren’s travel was written to an old download I have from a now-defunct band called Paranoid Space Machines. That CD is synonymous with the Deep Warrens for me.
Other times, I skip the music altogether and listen to atmosphere soundtracks. When I write outdoor hiking through snow scenes, I listen to windy tracks. Camping? Campfire tracks. Are they in the belly of a ship? A creaking ship on the ocean is perfect. What about swimming underwater? Yep, there’s underwater soundtracks, too. I even looked up “mermaid sounds” when trying to pin down how Kai’s speech might sound when he and Gaellyna converse, and the search led to something truly creepy sounding that gave me the idea for … Well, I can’t saying anything more without spoilers, since The Dragonling hasn’t been published yet. :3 … For atmosphere, I will use anything that can help me describe movement or bring the senses to life becomes the aural paint for my keyboard paintbrush.
3. Lyrical Attributes
Sometimes it’s not the tunes, but the lyrics that can add something to the story. You can’t copy song lyrics into a story without breaking copyright laws. However, song titles can be referenced, as can published musicians. But even one line of a song lyric can cost you licensing fees because songs are so short. This is why I can mention Aija sings “Puff the Magic Dragon” (by Peter, Paul, and Mary) at the thieves den (much to Shei’s chagrin), but I can’t actually print the lyrics in my book without permission. However, sometimes a song title or a lyric strikes me as being very relative to my story, so I flesh it out and bring it to life. I was listening to Big Bang’s “Beautiful Hangover” when I drafted the scene in which Aija intentionally annoys Trizryn the morning after he got drunk at the pub in Pranýa. I was amused writing the scene because she does sing a little ditty about a sailor very loudly into his ear, line for line, but her lack of sympathy for his hangover sharply contrasts previous scenes where she admires his beauty, both to herself and aloud (accidentally). It kind of summed up that humorous/romantic slip of the tongue for her and served as payback for his egotistical teasing.
Of course you are free to make up your own lyrics when characters sing, as J.R.R. Tolkien often did in his novels. (Good lords, who wasn’t moved during Pippin’s rendition of “Home is Behind” in Return of the King, or the dwarves singing “Misty Mountain” in The Hobbit?) Things like that can lend authenticity to the moment and the characters. But if that’s too distracting and lengthy, you can always do quick summaries by simply using music and sound words to describe the song and reactions. My editor for The Changeling wanted to know the name of the song Shei was singing, so I gave it a title based on the song I listened to for inspiration, which was better than just saying, “He sang a song.” Shei also sometimes sing-songs his words, so I indicate that in the tag words for his dialog. I have a definite tune in my head when I do this, but since there is no way to translate a tune to the reader, I guess the reader will have to create her own on those. 🙂
4. Writer’s Block
Finally, sometimes when I’ve been writing or proofing so much that my mind wanders, I stop everything, close my eyes, and just listen to music, giving it 100% of my attention. It lets my ears take over guiding my thoughts and imagination while my eyes rest. Usually, I eventually hit upon an idea that fits in with what I’m supposed to be working on, so I can return refreshed enough to keep going, or be brave enough to remove what’s been blocking me and start over with a new plan. Sometimes, music inspires me to stop writing one one project and start working on another, but as long as I am writing something, one will usually end up contributing to the other. Either way, time is not wasted on writer’s block.