The Songs That Tell the Story

I like having music play while I’m writing, but I usually stick with instrumental/ambient because I find the words too distracting. I like classical, particularly music of the Baroque. When it comes to ambient, Timothy Wenzel and Brian Eno are favorites. Takashi Suzuki. 2002.

But sometimes a song with lyrics triggers something with respect to the story I’m working on. A scene. A feeling that reinforces a story line. And every so often, a character. I don’t go looking for these songs–like wands and wizards, the songs find the characters, and not every character gets a song. In my Jani Kilian series, no particular song found Jani. Each of the men in her life, however, had one find them.

Lucien Pascal, my engineered sociopath-assassin–has had a lot of darkness in his life. Some of it, he brought down on himself. But too many things were done to him at too young an age, and he alludes to them during his rare moments of self-reflection. When I hear Depeche Mode’s “Walking in My Shoes,” I think of him:

Now I’m not looking for absolution
Forgiveness for the things I do
But before you come to any conclusions
Try walking in my shoes

John Shroud, Jani’s on-again off-again lover, sees himself as a benevolent force, a benefactor. His song is “Time of the Season” by The Zombies :

What’s your name?
Who’s your daddy?
Is he rich like me?

Niall Pierce is Jani’s best friend. He’s come a long way since the criminal life of his youth, but there are times when his past and present collide. His song is “Stolen Car” by Beth Orton:

You were sitting
Your fingers like fuses
Your eyes were cinnamon

Unlike the Jani books, the supernatural thrillers I wrote under the name Alex Gordon had specific theme songs. I forget when, over the course of writing Gideon, I first heard Vashti Bunyan’s The Train Song, but I remember it was used in an NFL commercial, eerie images of athletes marching into a stadium. The song inspired thoughts of a more private search, a journey that would end in confrontation:

It’s so many miles and so long since I’ve met you
Don’t even know what I’ll find when I get to you
But suddenly now, I know where I belong
It’s many hundred miles but it won’t be long

I found “Shivers,” the instrumental that served as Jericho’s theme, in a more roundabout way. A favorite show is A Chef’s Life, about Chef Vivian Howard’s life in Eastern North Carolina. The incidental music caught my attention–I hunted online, and found it had been composed by the North Carolina band Shark Quest. So off I went to iTunes, where I found their albums, played various excerpts, and found “Shivers.” It has a country feel, with the bell-ringing guitar that I love. Outdoor music. Walking in the woods music.

I listened to both songs over and over as I wrote. According to iTunes, I’ve listened to The Train Song almost 300 times. I only listened to “Shivers” 55 times, but I didn’t find it until Jericho was well on its way.


About Kristine Smith

Kristine Smith is the author of the Jani Kilian series and a number of SF and fantasy short stories, and is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. She worked as a pharmaceutical process development scientist for 26 years, but now writes full-time. She also writes supernatural thrillers under the name Alex Gordon. Check out her BVC bookshelf


The Songs That Tell the Story — 4 Comments

  1. I’ll have to try the Depeche Mode song to see if I can winnow Lucien out!

    I listen to soundtracks and Dexter Britain for the same reason–I want a soundtrack to writing. If I put on an opera, I start listening to the opera. Though I did use the magnificent fifties recording of the Ring Cycle, played on my terrific speakers, back in the seventies/early eighties when writing a space opera with a friend. (When we wrote it over for publication, I played a lot of Jimi Hendrix and some sixties rock, also X and punk bands.)

    Characters have had songs over the years, too. And certain songs bring back writing experiences.

    • I used to be able to listen to certain kinds of alternative rock: Lush, St Etienne, Ivy. The easier listening side of things. I can’t do that anymore. I start focusing on the lyrics too much.

      Never thought I would come to enjoy ambient music as much as I do. Funny how tastes change.

      I just reread the lyrics to “Walking in My Shoes,” and yes, it’s a good song for Lucien. There’s a dose of self-justification there–he hates how Jani makes him feel off-balance.

  2. I need music in the background to drown out the ringing in my ears. I choose background music to fit the mood of what I’m writing. John Serrie for space opera, Gary Stadler for Pixies and Faeries. A lot of new age.

    I too tend to listen to the words and not write during vocals, so Sarah Brightman, Josh Groban, and Katherine Jenkins are in the cycle because they rarely sing in English. Right now I have Yanni’s “Winter Light” on because it is winter and it is snowing.

    • I have slight ringing too, esp. in my right ear. For some reason–for which I’m grateful–it usually doesn’t bother me.

      I like New Age as well–Timothy Wenzel may fall into that category more than ambient.