Do you hear what I hear?

I’m frequently asked about process, and one of the questions that crops up most often is whether I listen to music. I know there are writers who don’t–and, stranger still, writers who can go out in public and write with ambient noise swirling around them. I’m the opposite. I need a peaceful atmosphere with the perfect soundtrack.

I’ve spent years compiling the best writing music, and it falls into two categories: general and book-specific. The general music is anything that supports the writing state; book-specific tracks are the ones I’ve chosen for a particular project and rarely reuse.

Creating a project playlist seems like a fun thing, but there’s a sound reason for the frivolity. A proper soundtrack helps the imagination establish the mental landscape of a book. Some of my books will always call to mind a particular piece–SILENT IN THE GRAVE is Bach’s “Wachet Auf!” (“Sleepers Awake”); A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS is Duke Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo”. But the music I love the most is the sort that disappears into the background, weaving itself into the work seamlessly.

The best writing, at least for me, is created in a state of flow, that gorgeous, out-of-body place where I am no longer aware of the world around me in the slightest. All that exists is the scene I am writing. I see it; I hear it; I smell it. Oddly enough, the best music for this is not music I am actually aware of hearing. The best music for establishing a state of flow is always instrumental and frequently pulled from soundtracks. Often I’ll find a particular track or two to be so effective, I just hit “repeat” and keep that piece playing on a loop while I write, perhaps a few thousand times over the course of a draft. Within a few days, it creates a Pavlovian effect; I hear the music, I slip into a flow state.

There are a number of soundtracks that writers swear by: The Last of the Mohicans, The Piano, Out of Africa, Sense & Sensibility, to which you can add the more recent Anna Karenina and Penny Dreadful. They’re all splendid to write to, and there are certain composers–Jane Campion, Patrick Doyle, Alexandre Desplat–who are tremendously reliable for good soundtracks and they feature prominently in my writing music. But last year I found a composer who fits so beautifully with my writing style, it’s as if he creates music just for me.

As soon as I saw Crimson Peak, I made a beeline for the Google store to buy the soundtrack and sulked for two weeks until it was available. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve left a movie theatre and headed straight for the “Buy Now” button.) When I finally got my hands on the soundtrack, it was even better than I had anticipated–by MILES. Watching the film, I noticed how lush and beautiful the music was, but it wasn’t until I started writing to it that I appreciated the subtlety. I work best to strings, and this particular composer is particularly gifted with strings. One of the drawbacks to writing to movie soundtracks is that they are often  made up of lots of little tracks of incidental music; you’re lucky if you can find more than two pieces in excess of four minutes. But this soundtrack has one piece, “Allerdale Hall”, that clocks in in excess of thirteen minutes–thirteen minutes of uninterrupted, glorious moody music! I listened to that track alone when I was rewriting A PERILOUS UNDERTAKING, hundreds of times over five weeks. It never once failed to put me in a perfect state to write.

I was so taken with the soundtrack that I tweeted about it, and the composer, Fernando Velazquez, very kindly tweeted back at me. We started chatting, and it was a lovely bonus that he is every bit as gracious as you would expect. He was genuinely delighted that I was using his music to help further my own work, and he very kindly suggested a few other compositions of his that he thought I might like. (He was right. The Adventurer: The Curse of the Midas Box has a superb score, as does The Orphanage. I bought The Adventurer, but The Orphanage–as Fernando told me–is unfortunately available only through YouTube clips.)

I could rave for days about how gifted Fernando is and what a joy his music has been to use, but it will probably sum it up better if I tell you this music has been so integral to my work that he’s in the acknowledgments of my upcoming book. I read an article some time back that broke down the mental effort required to write a novel, stating that the only similar activity is composing a symphony. Whether it’s notes or words, there are themes and motifs and patterns and structure, all of which must be blended together in a bit of strange alchemy, conjuring mood and escape and drama and emotion. When you find someone whose alchemy matches yours, the gifts are innumerable.

Fun bonus: when I went to see Pride & Prejudice & Zombies last month, I was smitten with the score from the opening credits. It was a delightful surprise when Fernando’s name scrolled by and I realized he had written yet another score to add to my collection. Highly recommended.

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