The Killer in Me is the Killer in You

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.

34 thoughts on “The Killer in Me is the Killer in You

  1. Chris Hamilton

    The novel I wrote that’s a finalist in the Royal Palm Literary Award is called Stuck in a Moment. There may or may not be a song with the same name. It seemed an appropriate title for a book about a guy who couldn’t get past a specific moment in his life.

    The line that does it for me, though, is from Vertigo: It’s everything I wish I didn’t know. What a great line. I’ve got an idea for the third book of what I hope will be a series that revolves around that line.

  2. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    Music is a constant for me when I’m writing, and Evanescence and Sarah McLachlan are two of my favourite artists for creating instant mood. As is Jann Arden, Linkin Park, Staind … oh, the list is just too long to go into, and the number of songs that have meaning is too great.

    Terrific post ;-]

  3. JD Rhoades

    The term "Redneck Noir" first came to me while listening to Steve Earle’s "Copperhead Road" album, particularly the title track. A major character in the latest book came together for me while driving through Richmond County on the way back from court, listening to Drive By Truckers’ song "Cottonseed":

    I came to tell my story to all these young and eager minds
    To look in their unspoiled faces and their curious bright eyes
    Stories of corruption, crime and killing, yes it’s true
    Greed and fixed elections, guns and drugs and whores and booze


  4. Debbie Schubert

    I’m a songwriter as well as a novelist, which is the good news and the bad news. I absolutely can not listen to music while I write, because I get completely lost in the music. I’m unable to put it in "the background." Therefore, I need silence when writing. When I take breaks, however, I can listen and be inspired. Some of my own lyrics have found their way into my books. I love being able to tie my music in with my writing.

  5. Dana King

    I’m a little like Debbie; I was trained as a musician, so I generally need silence when I write, or I end up listening too closely to the music. I can sometimes do drafts with music playing, but editing requires silence, as I’m going for a certain sound and cadence in my head.

    What’s a little off is, when i do listen, the types of music are wildly divergent. When I was working on a first person PI novels, I would listen to Bruckner, Mahler, and Wagner. The recent multi-POV stories are written with jazz in the background, if anything. Not a conscious choice. it’s just worked out that way.

  6. JT Ellison

    Bear with my brevity, folks, I’m typing on my phone…

    Chris, excellent suggestion, and a great line! And good look with the contest!

    Zoë, I’m not at all surprised that we’re inspired by the same music. Not at all.

    Dusty – Steve Earle and the Drive By Truckers are big in our house too. James McMurtry as well – talk about telling stories!

    Debbie – I can’t write to music – I’m a silent type too. When I use music, it’s before I actually write. Strange, huh? And I love you use your lyrics in your work. Great cross-pollination.

    Mike, Cake takes the, well, cake. I adore their music. Thanks for the link, that’s an awesome song! And good to see you!

    Thanks, Paul, I’ll check it out!

    Dana, maybe that’s why I can’t listen to music as I’m writing, I grew up playing instruments too and I catch myself dissecting the music. Hmm… never thought of it that way.

  7. Jessica Scott

    I’m absolutely one of those writers who needs music to write to. When I have silence, the words struggle to emerge. Give me some good tunes and the words flow. And when I have the perfect set of songs for a book, I keep going, over and over until the work is complete. I’ve written 8 books today (the first three are a trilogy my agent is getting ready to pitch this month to editors) but each one has had different music.
    I’m currently working on a book about a soldier who has volunteered to deploy and has been gone from his family for nearly 4 years. The soundtrack is dark and seedy, Digital Summer, Evan’s Blue and Hurt. Those songs have set the tone for this book and continue to drive me through the revisions.
    Great post!
    Jess Scott

  8. Alli

    I have soundtracks for the mood of the scene I need to create. But if I’m revising then I tend to stick with Sarah McLachlan, Dido, The B52’s "Funplex", Jack Johnston, the list goes on. I definitely need music as background noise – I don’t think I’ve ever lifted any ideas from lyrics, but maybe now I better pay more attention because if I get stuck, I might find some inspiration from the music.

    Jessica, good luck on your submissions!

  9. James Scott Bell

    I love movie soundtracks, and have mood lists. If I’m writing suspense, which is most of the time, I can’t go wrong with Bernard Herrmann (Hitchcock’s main composer) and scores like Road to Perdition and Burn After Reading.

  10. Allison Davis

    Y’all make me feel old…I can’t listen to rock while writing (I like to dance too much) and don’t have most of the music mentioned (ok, I can go get it on iTunes). I use music to create a space in which to write. I work 50-60 hours a week, so I only have snippets of time to write, which is deadly for focus. I find that if I play the same two or three Bill Evans CDs (the trio with Motian and LeFaro, all recorded live at the Village Vanguard), after the first few measures, I don’t hear the music, my mind is in my book, and I can concentrate and focus on the book for the next 45 minutes or whatever I have. A kind of behavior modification training. James Hayman writes about his "writing space" on this week and says he goes to the library, can’t be around his beautiful home and others say a aesthetic cell would be best. My writing room is Bill Evans in my head…music’s on, I’m writing, no matter where I am, what time it is, how badly the laundry needs doing….Rather than a mood, it creates a space.

  11. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Dig the topic. It’s weird, but I was just thinking about this yesterday, about how important music is. It’s EVERYTHING! (That was the epiphany I had while driving in L.A. traffic). It really is the thing that brings everyone together. All cultures, all races. I’ve played music since I was a kid, and was a Jazz Studies major for a while in college (saxophone) and I could always disappear in the music, with a group of other musicians, and be as close to them as I was with any good friend, even if I just met them that night.
    Music has been a big part of my world. I can’t really listen to music when I write, because I end up LISTENING to the music, and I can’t get any writing done. However, if I find myself blocked, occasionally I’ll blast some music on my headphones and just let myself type, without thinking, and allow my subconscious to work things out.
    Eminem always works for me. His music has so much life-passion. Another one I listen to before I start writing for the day is Bob Marley’s "No Woman No Child." Then the Fuggees version. I can listen to every version of that song, by every artist who sings it.

  12. Cornelia Read

    In my teens and twenties, I HAD to listen to music to write–papers for school, poetry, stories. I used to worry that longer pieces would end up all weird because parts would be fueled by Mozart and parts by Jerry Lee Lewis or very early Stones (England’s Newest Hitmakers.)

    Now I can’t listen to music at all while I write. To get anything good, I have to get so deep into the zone that I can’t hear anything that’s going on around me, and music I like keeps that from happening.

    I *might* be able to listen to Bach, but probably only Glenn Gould’s earlier recording of The Goldberg Variations. Or maybe Yo Yo Ma doing the cello suites.

  13. Louise Ure

    Miranda Lambert and Pink are good for getting the hard-boiled heroines in my books going. But like you and Cornelia, JT, I can’t actually listen to their music while I’m writing.

  14. toni mcgee causey

    I envy those of you who can listen to music and write something clean–I can listen to music while I’m brainstorming, and first-drafting, but anything after that takes silence. I do the same thing as JT and others have described, though–put a song on replay and listen to it many times. For some reason, that will unblock whatever it is I’m working on and will inspire. Right now on the play list is Cold Play’s Nobody Said It Was Easy, Death Cab for Cutie’s I’ll Follow You Into the Dark, Jeff Buckley’s version of Hallelujah, Falling Slowly (The Fames version) and Dancing in a Minefield by Krista Detor.

    However, I find that if I edit with music playing, I will think a sentence has a certain rhythm or flavor that later, in cold silence, it lacks. Especially with humor, I’ve got to hear the rhythm of the phrasing or it’s just not as funny.

    With the exception of the finale of book 3, which was written with the drum cadence music which would be playing in that scene. (It is sufficiently common that I’m pretty sure anyone who’s ever heard a drum can hear it in that moment.) That sequence was fueled by those drums, and became much better for it.

  15. Allison A. Davis

    Stephen, thanks, don’t feel so old anymore. I also like Eminem — and Kayne and Dr. Dre. Best pump up music when I’m feeling down? The soundtrack to Slumdog Millionaire. But can’t write to that…want to dance.

  16. J.B. Thompson

    I have to have music playing too, but nothing with lyrics. Rather than inspiring, I find that type of thing too distracting. My favorite genres are classical or anything orchestral (especially movie soundtracks) – I let them go and they get into my head and free up my thinking without influencing me with words, and once I get lost in the writing I don’t even realize the music is there (until it stops and I have to change the CD). In the current manuscript (on submission), one of my main characters paints to classical music – maybe I put a little bit of me in her?

    Great post as usual, JT!

  17. Eika

    For fun- not because I expect to get published- I’ve been writing a series for years. Multiple viewpoint characters, present tense, complete fantasy, multiple plotlines and subplots. It’s great fun for me, but it breaks about every rule out there at some point. I mainly keep going on it because I can see how I’ve improved as a writer- the first book should be burned, the second and third might be okay with a complete rewrite, fourth with a partial rewrite and heavy editing, but the fifth and sixth might be publishing quality (though we’ll see how I feel once I’ve written the seventh- I thought I was hot stuff when I wrote the first one, but I learn by doing, and boy have I learned!).

    Anyway. One of the main characters- the heroine of the series (though depending on the book she’s secondary to the hero- I told you it breaks rules!) is very religious, and very protective and loving of her family (she’s fourteen). Then, in one move, I kill her father under circumstances where she could blame herself and destroy her religious belief.

    Her theme song is now Tourniquet by Evanescence. Because of just how much depression she goes through, and frustration, and everything.

  18. kit

    oh, wow! a storyline has been playing out in my head for a while now…..but it wasn’t until today…I really started to write the ideas down. It’s been *nagging* at me for quite a while.
    I had been on facebook earlier, noticed a friend had posted some folk music….we share a love of all types of music, so I shared some I remembered from my youth. In the process, ran across a song I loved as a kid.
    This was way before videos……like 1968….it ran across my mind, today, to wonder why this song meant so much to me…but I would fashion stories around it, I was 9 when it came out…didn’t have the life experience for the song at that time….but for some reason it always stuck out.
    Today, I’ve been playing it over and over and the ideas are coming together to form something solid where before they were just bits and pieces floating around in my brain.
    I’m taking a break from brainstorming, read your blog…and oh my gosh, it just so fit.
    The song, this isn’t a very good video, but you can get the gist:

    the tune is a from a Russian Folk song…..
    Right now, I’m so…all over the page on it all. I have been surfing the net, to check stuff out and then jotting down quick notes before anything slips by, have about 6 windows open to various pages.
    Good blog, and I hope this makes sense.LOL

  19. JT Ellison

    Jessica – 8 books? Congratulations! That’s one hell of an accomplishment. Keep the music flowing, I say! Good luck to you!

    Alli, I used to used ye olde mix tape for that effect. Thank goodness for iTunes!

    Jim, I can see how anything remotely Hitchockian would be a good influence – the pace and reveals are exemplary.

    Allison, my hat’s off to you and your deadly focus. Good for you scratching out that time to write!

    Stephen, that’s the problem. I revel in the artistry of the music, the lyrics, the tune, and end up thinking about the person who wrote it, what they were thinking, how they struggled – and then I’ve accomplished nothing. But maybe I’ve just created a new character… hmm….

    Cornelia, that’s so strange. In high school and college I’d have the stero on, the television, and still study and retain like a champ. I guess it’s an age thing. Blech on that.

    Louise – as much as I hate to admit it. Avril Lavigne and Kelly Clarkson are good for that too…

    Toni, I highly suggest Crash Test Dummies to add to your list.

    JB, you know it, sister! We all put tiny bits of ourselves in books – that’s half the fun, seeing if anyone notices. Good luck on YOUR submission too!

    Eika, sounds like you might be ready to submit yourself – or close to it. You obviously have the discipline to finish, which is 90% of the writer’s war. Think about it…

    Kit, I’m so glad I touched you today. Great minds think alike!

  20. Andrea McElwain

    This is a perfectly timed post for me, since I just found a song a few days ago that works perfectly for the book I’m writing. I’m one of those people who can’t listen to songs with lyrics while I’m writing, although I do usually play music – right now I’ve been using Zoe Keating’s amazing albums. But I’ve started doing the same thing you described, listening to this one song a couple times before I start. The one that I’m using – It Will All Make Sense in the Morning by Halou – doesn’t have a lot of lyrics, but something about the feel of the song and the words fits the mood completely. I think it does help me get into the space I need to be more easily.

  21. Karen in Ohio

    It’s interesting to see how different we all are, isn’t it? I have to have piano or other instrumental-only music when I write–it helps me get in the "zone", and filters out other distractions. It really makes no difference what the music is, as long as it has no words associated with it to get in my way and create an "earworm".

  22. JT Ellison

    Karen, it’s fascinating. I know we’ve all done multiple musical inspiration posts, but I learn something new each and every time.

    Andrea, I guess that’s why they call it mood music – though I hardly think our list here today qualifies in the traditional sense. Mood for murder and mayhem, perhaps! ; )

  23. Tom

    My protagonist and his central dilemma came to me on the long drive home to Cedar Crest after performance nights at the Santa Fe Opera.

    All that music and drama resonating in memory, the wind and road sounds swirling around me with the sunroof open, and those bright-burning stars pouring down magic on 50 miles of the Turquoise Trail . . .

  24. BCB

    I love music, all different kinds — though I’m not especially fond of polka — and I almost always have something playing. Except I can’t listen to it while I write. Or edit. I’m relieved to hear many of you say you can’t either. I know so many writers who use it to fuel their creativity, I was starting to think I was the only one who didn’t.

    For me, language is a kind of music with its own complex cadence and tune. I can’t hear it clearly when I’m listening to other music. Though I don’t seem to have any trouble ignoring music if it’s there in the background while I’m reading for pleasure.

    Off topic, but I’ve also found I have trouble writing during the daytime. Being able to see all that stuff outside is so distracting…

  25. BCB

    Oooh, the chicken dance! Um, wait a minute, what is that? No, sorry, not ringing a bell. Unless… is that the one where I’m cleaning poultry and my kids are curious about various internal parts and pieces? Because, yeah, I’ve done that one more times than I care to remember. 😉 I only partake once it’s cooked to an internal temperature that precludes squawking.

  26. S. W. Vaughn

    Just wanted to say that I love all the songs you mentioned in this post. And I also have a tendency to listen to one song over and over (and over and over and over…) to evoke a certain mood while writing. 🙂

  27. jeux ds

    I like the songs whatever you wrote about. Well music is my passion and Blue band’s All rise is my favorite one. I like to listen it again and again when I work in home. It is nice to post here. I like this site.

  28. r4 revolution for ds

    The killer in me is the killer in you. It’s very good song. I heard every time when i free. It’s really mondo. You can doing good work on. But many time people are hearing only for fun or enjoy. who could you learn and implement, They are achieving a something new in their life.


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