Monday, February 19, 2007

The Music of Words

Posted by Lisa

Parts of New York City are similar to Montreal. Last weekend, the area near my hotel (the Hilton on 53rd Street) reminded me so much of the city where I grew up. Nothing in New York is the same as Montreal’s Old Port or the McGill Student Ghetto with their signature walk-up apartments with balconies. But some busy streets remind me of Crescent Street or Ste. Catherines. The chi-chi shops, the cave-like restaurant hideaways. And the idea, indeed much of the plot to some future novel came to me. With it came memories: the smell of a Montreal metro – not unpleasant, but distinct, the icy blue of the Montreal sky in winter.

One of my characters in this imagined novel lives in rural Quebec. Having spent my teen years growing up in such a place, I know there’s a ‘feel’ to it, and French Canadian Folk Music brings it all back to me. I HATE to try to describe its sound as I won’t do it justice. It is fiddles and foot stomping and joie de vivre. It is midnight feasts on Christmas Eve. Spring parties with sap running and maple syrup bubbling and burning. It has the quickest beat.

In Sherry Ellis’s book, Now Write, novelist and Grub Street Creative Director, Christopher Castellani, describes an approach to writing wherein he listens to the music of the era: “It’s a quick and powerful path to the empathy you are always striving for as a writer. You imagine yourself as a character responding to the lyrics or the emotion of the music.”

Hear the music in Christopher’s prose (from A Kiss from Maddelena):

“Vito scanned the crowd: the girls in their sundresses rubbing their arms, the men counting and pooling their bills, Maddelena in a pack with Carolina and Ada and Fiorella. Her hair, unpinned and freed from the hat, lifted and fell onto her bare shoulders as she talked.”

As I work on my contemporary novel, set in New Hampshire, you can imagine the radio stations Rose, my protagonist, must endure as a passenger in her dad’s car. (Poor thing, she can’t afford an IPod). It’s unreal, to me, the power of music when I write. It takes me there, where I need to be.


Ghost Girl (aka, Mary Ann) said...

Lisa, I know just what you mean. For my current WIP, I often listen to the soundtrack from THE PIANO. The main theme has that urgent, yet wispy melody that really echoes the sense of my mc's main struggle. I also have a playlist that I often put on while I am getting ready to write. Since I often drive 25 minutes up to my office at the college to get some quality, quiet time to write (away from dogs and kids and everything else), I use that time to listen to these songs. Several Nickel Creek songs lend a voice to my mc. They just sound like him. Many of the songs are about writing or echo some theme I am building in my story.

Another soundtrack I listen to is from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. My book is a historical fantasy, so there are a lot of influences here.

Even today, as I was coming home from the grocery, with my kids in the back seat, and my ipod plugged into the radio, one of my "writing" songs came on, and I instantly had the itch to get back to the book.

I really couldn't live without music. It is in my head at all times.

Melissa Amateis said...

I use this technique. When I wrote my Regency historical novel, I listened to classical music. Lately, since I'm working on WW2 stuff, I've really been into big band, swing music, and the standards - Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Rosemary Clooney, Ella Fitzgerald, etc. I LOVE listening to Sirius or Yahoo's radio stations for this music.

Anonymous said...

Lisa, I love this post. I listened to Mozart's Requiem. It set just the right tone.

Therese said...

This post grabbed me: the ways in which music is both created and utilized is one of the themes I used in my novel!

(Makes it sound quite intellectual, eh? Never fear.)

I also used some carefully selected lyrics quotes, which are costing me a fortune. :-)

Music is so primal and evocative, and surely an essential tool for getting a writer into the writing mood.

Unknown said...

Hi Lisa

Fascinating stuff! Thanks for bringing it up.

Maybe the music is a way of tapping into that meditative space faster--getting into that dream space where we can imagine and return with stories that other people also imagine.


Michelle Zink said...

Oh, I have a soundtrack (or score, actually) for every book I write.

I listened YA Gothic, and to this day, it's an easy way to climb back into the "head space" of that book when I need to for editing.

For me, writing and music go hand-in-hand...

The scores to Harry Potter ARE wonderful for writing, but then again, pretty much anything by Willimas is fantastic!