by Zoë Sharp
Last weekend I attended the CrimeFest convention in Bristol, which was great fun, with some highly entertaining panels, not least of which were given by the guest of honour, Jeff Lindsay – he of Darkly Dreaming Dexter. I was particularly interested to hear of the initial reaction from publishing professionals to Jeff’s serial killer anti-hero protagonist.
It also made me realise there’s another point I should add to my DO/DON’T list for conventions: ‘If you spot someone you want to talk to, and they’re in the midst of a conversation with somebody else, DON’T just barge in and start speaking. It happened several times over the course of the weekend, and I can’t tell you how annoying it is.
The final panel of the event, – Laurie R King moderating Simon Brett, Natasha Cooper, Jeff Lindsay and Ian Rankin – included in the title ‘Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll’. Laurie dispensed with the first two items on that list fairly smartly, but the third has stuck in my mind, mainly because two of the panellists said that music played no part in their writing at all.
Now, I can’t help thinking that’s a great shame, because it plays a huge part in mine, even if it never appears on the page. I’m not just talking about having the characters sitting around listening to blues, or jazz, or country and western, come to that. My characters very rarely get the opportunity to relax enough to do so. I’m talking about the actual business of writing.
For me, nothing creates mood or atmosphere faster than music and I exploit this phenomenon to its fullest extent whenever I sit down to write. We have a huge collection of CDs – everything from Gregorian chants to Zydeco, via Philip Glass, Linkin Park and Goldfrapp. I finally dragged myself into the twentieth century recently when Andy bought me an iPod. All I have to do now is work out how to download all those CDs onto it. Instinctive? Hah! Mind you, this comes from a person who can re-plumb a bathroom or dismantle an engine more easily than she can add a new programme to her computer …
But the prospect of being able to take most of my music with me when we’re on the road, which is when a fair amount of my writing is done, and simply plug the iPod into the car so as to have the right music for any given scene, is a very tempting one. To me, it’s like poetry that plugs straight into your nervous system, with added visceral effect. The hairs are up on the back of your neck, the lump is in your throat, before the poet opens their mouth and delivers that first line.
In my youth I played guitar – classical mainly, and none too well. But I was always trying to write songs. Now, these were usually the kind of angst-filled dirges, the equivalent of teenage poetry, and I cringe to think of them now. But I find the music that lingers, the artists I keep coming back to, are the ones where the lyrics are as evocative as the melody. Examples? Here are just a few, and I apologise if I’ve only listed the singer, rather than the lyricist in all cases.
"I am breathless from the mercy of a smile" Jann Arden, ‘Saved’
"Oh, I really should have known … by the vagueness in your eyes … by the chill in your embrace" Jann Arden, ‘Insensitive’ words by Anne Loree
"Do you keep the receipts / for the friends that you buy?" Oasis, ‘Where Did It All Go Wrong?’
"If you were to kill me now … I would burn myself / into your memory … I would live inside you / I’d make you wear me / like a scar" Suzanne Vega, ‘In The Eye’
"Just three miles from the rest stop / And she slams on the brakes … She said – while you were sleeping / I was listening to the radio / and wondering what you’re dreaming when / it came to mind that I didn’t care" Matchbox Twenty, ‘Rest Stop’, words by Rob Thomas
"The night is my companion / solitude my guide / would I spend forever here and not be satisfied" Sarah McLachlan, ‘Obsession’
"You know if I leave you now / it doesn’t mean I love you any less" Sarah McLachlan, ‘Wait’
In fact, just about any song by Sarah McLachlan has the most fabulous lyrics.
"It’s rising at the back of your mind" Vertical Horizon, ‘Everything You Want’, words by Matthew Scannell
"Step out the front door like a ghost / into the fog where no one notices / the contrast of white on white" Counting Crows, ‘Round Here’, words by Adam Duritz
"In the middle of the night, there’s an old man threading his toes through a bucket of rain" Counting Crows, ‘Omaha’, words by Adam Duritz
"A struck match faded like a nervous laugh / beyond the halo of a naked bulb … eventually your world will shrink within four walls / of neglected debts and stolen stereos" Del Amitri, ‘Move Away Jimmy Blue’
"I turned on a TV station and / lip-read with the sound turned down / it was pro-celeb mouth-to-mouth resuscitation / with Esther Rantzen / playing the one who’s drowned" Del Amitri, ‘You’re Gone’
Country singers are a whole different ball game when it comes to clever lyrics, and Brad Paisley is among the best, IMHO, showing quiet wit and a sharp insight:
"I work down at The Pizza Pit / And I drive an old Hyundai / I still live with my mom and dad / I’m five foot three and overweight / I’m a sci-fi fanatic mild asthmatic / never been to second base / but there’s a whole ‘nother me / that you need to see / go check out MySpace" Brad Paisley, ‘Online’
I’m sure everyone has their own examples of lyrics that get inside their head and won’t let go. I happened to catch a snippet of a Take That reunion concert on the TV in a hotel over the weekend, and even their popcorn fare contained the words, "In the twist of separation / you excelled in being free" and I thought, what a great line! That’s a lesson to me never to dismiss anything, isn’t it?
The Brad Paisley is a great example, though, of telling a story in a very sparse number of words. You know everything about that guy from those few lines. Pages of description seem very unnecessary in the face of that honed little character sketch.
So, what are your favourites? Do you listen to music while you write, or do you have to have silence? Do you have your characters listen? Does it work for you when other writers mention what their characters are listening to?
After all, someone’s choice of music can be made to say a lot about them, both good and bad. A documentary I saw a few years ago about SS General Reinhard Heydrich, who was one of the masterminds of Hitler’s Final Solution, showed the man calmly discussing the practicalities of genocide, but becoming strangely sentimental about the Adagio of Schubert’s Quintet in C major.
Sometimes it seems to be those little touches of humanity, as evinced by their taste in music, that can really give a character depth and texture. Villains don’t have to lack culture in order to be truly nasty pieces of work, and it can be that refined edge, that appreciation of the arts perhaps, that brings the depravity of their actions into sharper focus. It makes them jump off the page, all the more shocking, and turns them from men into murderers.
This week’s Word of the Week, is seric, meaning silken, or with a silky sheen.