The Music Behind the Words

Every writer on the face of the planet has at some stage sat behind a typer and pounded out those ever elusive words… And more times than not, they were listening to music all the while. Those notes filter through our hearts, our minds and out our fingertips and into words. For me, I listen to music through every part of the writing process. From staring at the wall and cursing myself for not being smarter and coming up with better ideas, to feverishly bashing out that first draft to carefully interrogating each and every word in order to justify its existence in each sentence. But how important is music in the creative expression of stories? For me, I cannot separate the two.

When I have an idea for a novel, the very first thing I do is spend a day playing through my playlists and records (yep, I still have ’em). What I am trying to do is find the musical personalty of the novel. When I wrote Dark City Blue a tale about a career cop who tears apart the police force to expose corruption, I had complied close to one hundred songs that I thought best musically represented that story.

Although there were many songs blasting out of my office during the writing of that novel, the following six were instrumental in the exorcism of Dark City Blue.



I knew the novel needed an opening that was as close to a literary kick in the balls as you could get. Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Killing in the Name’ was that and more. I couldn’t start writing until I had found that song and once I had, I couldn’t stop writing.



There were nights when I pulled the second shift at the desk and it would be 2.30 am, the street would be quite and I would put Springsteen’s Nebraska on the turn table and let it spin. The album is full of working class beauty, but ‘State Trooper’ was the one track that got more than its fair share of repeats.



I never write my action scenes to blaring rock ‘n roll or thumping Hip-Hop. I write my action scenes to ballads. A lot of Nick Cave, a fair share of Leonard Cohen and a dash of Johnny Cash in some of his more redemptive moments. Writing action scenes to songs of love and loss allows me to slow everything down so I can hunt out and discover those small details of human emotion that make a scene memorable.



Every story has a ‘all hope is lost’ moment. It’s usually close to the second act turning point and places the hero in a situation where it looks as if they will never achieve their goal. Peal Jam’s Nothingman was Dark City Blue‘s all hope is lost song and that thing played on repeat for the better part of a Thursday afternoon as the scene was written and rewritten, beaten down and rewritten again.



Enter Sandman was always my first song of the day on Dark City Blue. It filled that time between waiting for the laptop to boot up and typing my first words. Just me and the computer staring each other out like a couple of boxers while the neighbors were blasted awake by hard metal.



When I know I’m coming to write the final pages of a story, I’m talking about being able to smell the words END OF MANUSCRIPT, I pour myself a glass of Jameson’s (and I keep the bottle) and I choose a song that musically demonstrates what I want the reader to emotionally feel and I play that song until my glass is empty and there are no more words to write.

As every novel is unique, so is its musical DNA. I’ve moved on emotionally, intellectually and musically from Dark City Blue and I’ll probably never listen to those songs ever again. But one night, I might be at a bar or at a party and one of those songs may come out of the speakers and I’ll be transported back to those early mornings and late nights and it will be as if an old friend is whispering dirty secrets into my ear and I’ll smile at the memory of writing Dark City Blue.