By the end of July this year, my book was becoming a monster. Not in size, but in how much it was haunting me, stalking me, consuming me. I had too many characters, quite a few subplots, way too much backstory & exposition. Whole chapters spent at a character’s job, going through their daily tasks, trying to “humanize” them.
I needed to rein things in. Currently I’m in my third (or fourth, or fifth depending on who you ask…hint: ask me) attempt at writing a book, and I still couldn’t get things straight on the page. I had an idea for a story, but I still didn’t have a story.
I took a break at the beginning of August to start over and reassess what it was I wanted to say with this book. Instead of writing, I spent time brainstorming, reading & re-reading writing style books like Thrill Me! by Benjamin Percy and Writing 21st Century Fiction by agent Donal Maass. I also spent time listening to music that’s already inspired me, and looking for new music to inspire me further.
I think the playlist I’ve got now is pretty solid and I’m happy with how it covers the gamut of my story, setting, and characters. Here’s just a few of the highlights:
- In a Black Out by Hamilton Leithauser & Rostam
“I live in a nameless town. No need to wander around.”
This song sets the stage for my story, set in a small fictional Minnesota town called Mission Lake. It’s a town with shady characters & secrets despite its idyllic appearance and location on the map. The song is quiet & reflective, though sung by a voice straining to break out, wanting someone to hear him.
- Pain by The War On Drugs
“I’ve been pulling on a wire, but it just wont break. I’ve been turning up the dial but I hear no sound.”
This song underlies the mood of main character Lee Blank, who lives in a house he’s emptied & trying to move out of—except he can’t. He’s still obsessed with finding his missing wife, Rachel, who’s been gone three years. Though some signs point to her simply leaving him, Lee’s pride won’t allow him to accept it yet. This song is layered with acoustic & electric guitar playing off each other, both hopeful and angry, highlighting the warring moods inside Lee.
- When the Night Is Over by Lord Huron
- The Night We Met by Lord Huron
I love how haunting yet lovely Lord Huron’s music comes off, whether it’s in the first song (“By the stars above, I know we were in love. I have only ’til the night is over.”) or the second (“I had all and then most of you, some and now none of you. Take me back to the night we met.”).
The first song sets Lee in the present, trying to understand and deal with the pressures of his secret friendship with Denise, his brother-in-law’s ex-wife. She’s just alone as he is and wonders when Lee will be ready to let go of Rachel and move on—and he knows it.
The second song is set in the past, and introduces Rachel’s point of view for the first time. The scene is at their wedding, when both Rachel and Lee were most in love and at their most fearful about their future. The song is reflective and nostalgic, both painfully so.
- Lay Down In the Tall Grass by Timber Timbre
“I dreamt you found me out in a field. You tripped over my site and you dug me out of this shallow grave with your Swiss Army knife.”
It’s time to bring my main antagonist, Adam, into the mix, and this song pretty much covers the mood I want him to set when he’s introduced. He shows up from out of nowhere on the church steps with a gunshot through his stomach, yet he’s still alive. What’s keeping him conscious? What kind of power is lurking beneath his skin? This song is mysterious in its chipperness and incredibly creepy on headphones, when the calliope instrument can only be heard in one ear, off in some unseen distance.
- Swansea by Lemolo
“I didn’t know all I needed to do was let go of the light. I didn’t know at the time that as long as I float I’ll be fine.”
From Rachel’s first introduction, I wanted to make it apparent there was a sense of wonder and curiosity always stirring inside her. There’s also a deep well of sadness and darkness there, too. This song sticks the landing in both aspects with its hopeful message, anxious percussion, and repetitive chorus telling Rachel she’ll be fine even if she were to let go of all her anchors.
- Cross My Heart and Hope to Die by Me and That Man
“I ain’t come here for forgiveness. I’m not paying for my sins. I betrayed you my sweet Jesus. I have chosen hell on Earth.”
Adam’s character is deeply flawed in his wants and desires and can be quite weak at times, but I still wanted him to have a sense of strong agency over his life’s direction—especially because for most of it, others have directed how he lives. This song’s dark Western quality (the percussion in the beginning always sounds like heavy spurs hitting the gravel to me) casts a mood of a villain being a hero in his own story, especially as it’s a folk song sung by heavy metal icon Nergal. Adam knows his path to self-righteousness only goes one way, but he’ll still go through hell and leave bodies behind to get to its end.
- Angelina by Night Moves
“Would you still want me should the thought begin to settle in time? Should you still need me if my pages start to read the same?”
I knew I needed to get Minneapolis band Night Moves on here somewhere. This song comes off their latest album “Can You Really Find Me?”, released just a few weeks ago, and it felt like serendipity as I was trying to cement Lee’s relationship Denise. I know that each time they meet, I want to forget everything else about the story (Rachel’s disappearance, brother-in-law Jacob’s meddling, Adam’s evil work) and just focus on the relationship between them. This is a touching song that some have said sounds like a Stevie Nicks ballad, and that makes me love it that much more.
- The Yawning Grave by Lord Huron
“Oh you fool, there are rules, I am coming for you. Darkness brings evil things; the reckoning begins.”
Lord Huron makes a return later in the playlist, this time covering Adam. After his turbulent beginning, I wanted a spot for Adam to become reflective after some time living in nature and the haunted places of his past. This song still relishes in Lord Huron’s powerful, confident style of folk music, but has one of the darkest messages I’ve heard in any song. It’s a message of an eternal, almost supernatural source coming after a person (fitting a theme I’m working on about ancient deities returning). Though the song personifies the voice (using “I” phrases, like “I speak to birds and tell them where to fly”), I also get the sense that it’s being sung by a person’s amorphous past that they’re trying to outrun.
- Alone by Heart
“And the night goes by so very slow. I hope it won’t end, though—alone.”
This song is unlike any other on the list, but it’s here because it’s the chorus of my book. It’s the song Rachel & Lee first dance to and keeps popping up at odd times in their life. Its got a message that’s appropriate at various times throughout the book (especially the creepy stalker vibes), and it’s a fucking awesome 80s ballad I love through and through. Even if you didn’t happen to pay attention to the words, the powerful vocals and impressive structure of the music will blow you away every time. I’ve cried listening to this song, though it’s always been from joy, goosebumps running up my arms.
I’ve listened to this playlist while walking my dog, taking bus rides across the city, etc. Each time I do, I get something new from it—a new idea, a new visual. I even think of the “movie trailer” and what pictures I want to show while each song is playing. I get my characters’ motivations from the music and sometimes set them on new paths I hadn’t thought of before. It’s such a powerful weapon to me, and I’m kicking myself for not having it handy months ago.
Next time you’re stuck with your writing, might I humbly suggest pushing the Word doc to the side and pulling up your playlist (Spotify, Google Play, KaZaa, I won’t judge). Start looking for songs that mark chapters or scenes of your book. Find theme songs for each character. Do whatever it takes, just remember to enjoy the solid tunes along the way.