“Do you write to music?” “Do you have a soundtrack in your head as you plot out each scene?”
Writers and artists get asked this from time to time. I suspect every one of us would have different answers if there were enough different answers to go around. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. For what it’s worth (about nothing at all), I wrote this piece to a soundtrack of The Boxer Rebellion. Not because it’s ‘mood music’ or somehow putting me in the right headspace for what I’m saying here, but because… well, because I like them.
Truth is, what I listen to and whether I listen to anything at all depends on where and when I’m writing. Sometimes, music and headphones are a good way to block out background noises. A good playlist can help me with certain scenes (action scenes in particular). I prefer to listen to music without headphones and there’s only so much my family are prepared to tolerate. All these things are factors.
What I do often have are theme songs for characters. For the most part, these are emergent properties: a moment of realisation that a particular song resonates with a particular character. Once that clicks into place, the song informs the character and becomes an anchor for them. If they seem to be wandering off-script, it helps remind me who that character really is. I’m sure there are other writers/artists who’ll relate to this, and just as many others who’ll think I’m utterly mad.
Zafir, from the Memory of Flames series, had Ruiner by Nine Inch Nails, but it was only in writing Dragon Queen (the fourth book in which she appears) that I realised that this was her song, and that Tool’s The Grudge belonged not to her but to the dragons.
The Moonsteel Crown (due to be published by Angry Robot in February), revolves around four characters who are all stuck in places they don’t want to be, either victims of circumstance or of their own actions. Their songs came early…
There’s Fings, the burglar, who just can’t help himself when it comes to relieving other people of their property. If you asked Fings to pick his favourite piece of music, he’d probably go for something with a bit of strut and funk to it. He’s good at what he does and he knows it. It’s not his fault that all the money he steals ends up slipping through his fingers like sand, right? Obviously he needed that lucky charm made of old bones and string. Worth every coin, it was, right? With Fings, what you see is what you get, and what you get is powerhouse of turning other people’s money into useless trinkets. Fing’s song is Superstition by Stevie Wonder. I think he’d like it, although he’d complain bitterly that his lucky charms work, thanks.
Orien is another what-you-see-is-what-you-get character: an ambitious fire-mage who can’t seem to set anything alight except himself, who nevertheless has glorious plans, somewhat let down by the gap between how great he thinks he is and how great he actually is. Orien professes to like Indie music but is secretly into eighties hair-metal. Orien’s song is Judas Priest’s Turbo Lover. Orien’s problem is that he thinks he’s getting this unironically.
Seth, the would-be priest, kicked out of his order for repeatedly treating the word ‘forbidden’ as a challenge rather than a proscription, would tell you he’s into Bach and Shostakovitch and a few names that are supposed to make you think he’s educated and intellectual but only make him sound pretentious. He’ll never admit it and you’d never catch him at it either, but when he puts the headphones on, that ‘obscure Nineteenth century opera classics’ playlist he’s racked up on Spotify is actually full of Linkin Park’s Lies, Greed, Misery and Slipknot’s Unsainted and other angry shouty metal (Seth and Zafir would understand one another, if the could be bothered to try and managed not to kill each other first… but I get ahead of myself). Yes, Seth has a whole bunch of angry self-hate songs for when he’s in a righteous mood. But deep down, Seth’s real song Depeche Mode’s Never Let Me Down Again. Is he talking about himself? Fings? The world? Probably all of the above.
Last but very definitely not least, there’s Myla, the sword-monk with a fondness for drink, on the run for letting her temper get the better of her and maiming someone, and The Moonsteel Crown’s chief protagonist. Myla, Myla, Myla. Of all the characters here, Myla’s song landed first and stuck hard and fast. Myla, whose taste in music is any talented folk guitarist who happens to be playing in the local tavern and has an alcohol problem, gets Tool’s Pneuma. Even now, I’m not entirely sure why this is specifically her song, but the song itself is quite certain. Because it’s complicated and difficult and builds slowly and is utterly relentless when it finally hits its stride? Because it manages to combine a sense of spirituality and of staring off into the horizon even while it’s punching you in the face? Probably that. Probably some other things too. Probably because there are sides to both Myla and her song that I haven’t discovered yet. Music and writing are like that. Both are alchemies: three parts craft, one part sorcery.
There’s another character in The Moonsteel Crown who has a song. They’ve had it for a very long time and they’ve appeared in at least one previous novel of mine. The song is Touch of Evil by Warlock. It’s not a great song, but that’s just the way this works. The first person to find me on Twitter, tell me who the character is and where they appeared before wins a free copy of The Book of Endings (the sequel to The Moonsteel Crown) once it’s out or (if you prefer), a signed copy of The Moonsteel Crown with a unique doodle of Fings, Myla and Seth arguing about pointless shit.
The Moonsteel Crown by Stephen Deas is out now from Angry Robot.