by JT Ellison
I know I’m not unique in the idea of a theme song for each novel. We all use music to drive us, some more than others. I know many authors who have to have music blaring to write, others who need silence.
But I’m always looking back to the very moment when I decided to be a writer. And I have to admit, even before I read John Sandford and decided to try it for myself, long ago in a land I’d rather forget, I heard a song that got under my skin.
It’s called “Disarm” by Smashing Pumpkins. There is a line in the song that goes:
The killer in me is the killer in you
That line mesmerized me. I listened to the song over, and over, and over. That line got under my skin, into my brain. Hubby and I watched a lot of Profiler and Millennium in those days, and I was beginning a true fascination with forensics, profiling and police work. The song felt like it was speaking to me, telling me something. It stayed with me for years, niggling at the back of my brain. I never did anything with it, just let it sit back there, all gargoyle-ly, gathering moss and rot and black mold.
It was a sign of things to come, though I had absolutely no idea at the time.
It happened again when I was writing my first attempt at a novel. The song was “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails. It’s rough, and rude, and violent – and my villain worshipped the song. Worshipped the lyrics. They drove him to his ultimate purpose – to hurt, violate and kill.
You can imagine how I might have been a little worried about this whole getting inspired by music thing.
Now that I’ve harnessed my bizarre little fascination, channeled it into writing novels about good and evil and all the places in between, you’d think I would be better at understanding the why behind the stories. But I don’t. The ideas come when I least expect them. They make themselves known, perching on windowsills, scratching at the glass, each one stumbling over the next in a vain attempt to get inside, vying desperately for my attention.
I love them. Truly, I do.
Sometimes the ideas come from nowhere. Other times, they come from snippets of songs. I’ve learned to take them as they come, write them down, and let them ferment. Sometimes, they actually grow into something worthwhile.
There have been other songs that speak to me. If it weren’t for Evanescence, I might never have finished THE COLD ROOM. I was on a flight to Denver, and I’d been struggling, really struggling, with the book. I couldn’t get myself from point A to point B, much less from A to Z, which is where I needed to go. I had my laptop open, trying to work, and it just wasn’t coming. Frustrated, I turned on my iPod, put it on shuffle and shut my eyes. Evanescence was the first song that popped on. It was “Bring Me to Life.”
As I listened to the song, a spark began in my chest. When it finished, I played it again. And again, and again. And suddenly, all those stupid lost threads fell into place with a bang.
I flipped the laptop back open and wrote the scene toward the end of the book where Memphis and Taylor are talking. I won’t share about what, but it’s a major, significant scene, both for the book, for Taylor’s character, and for the series story arc. Hugely important. And if I hadn’t gotten frustrated and given up, if even for a few moments, I wouldn’t have made the leap. Yes, I might have gotten there another way, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as rich and satisfying to the story.
Now I know my MO. Each book has to have its own song. There’s always a classical piece that’s the daily go to (THE COLD ROOM plays heavily on Dvořák’s New World Symphony) but more and more I’m using songs with lyrics to inspire me. THE IMMORTALS theme song was “Ariadne” by The Cruxshadows. I already had a character named Ariadne, so when I stumbled over the song, it fit so perfectly I couldn’t help myself.
I’m working on a new book. It’s had fits and starts. It keeps getting interrupted to deal with earlier titles, the way this time of year always plays out. But at long last, THE PRETENDER has a song too, one that’s terribly melancholy and sad, but uplifting, in its way. It’s “Angel” by Sarah McLachlan. It’s perfect for the tone of the book, the setting, the topic, everything. Every day when I sit down to work, I listen to the song and read the lyrics, and it puts me in the right, well, mood is the best word for it. I usually listen three or four times, letting the words wash over me as I think back to what I wrote the day before, and where I want to go. Then I can write.
Bizarre, these little idiosyncrasies we writers have.
So writers, do you have a special song that has meaning you and you along comprehend? And readers, do you use a theme song in your daily life?
Wine of the Week: Frozen Strawberry Margaritas
Which explains why I’m not as attendant as I’d like today, so please forgive me. I’ll check in as often as I can.