I’m fascinated by the weird things that writers do to get their head in the game. Writing is a solitary and sometimes tedious effort. Some writers require distractions to pass the time at the keyboard. Others need quiet. I personally know three writers that usually have a TV in their office playing a movie or a DVD while they work.
I can’t do that. I need something to help pass the time, but it has to help me immerse myself in what I’m trying to envision and flesh out – rather than provide background noise and occasional distraction. For me, the ideal writer’s retreat is a well-lit room and an iPod full of ambient sound. Yes, writers are creatures of strange habits – second only to professional baseball players. I know that I’m probably preaching to the choir here, so I’ll spare you the eccentricities made famous by Hugo, Nabokov, Dumas, Kerouac, Faulkner, Wolfe, and Twain. I have my own odd habits. I alternate sitting and standing (I had additions built for my writing desk to accommodate the quick-change). I find that I can’t write with someone else in the room (or the house, for that matter). I only drink green tea while working.
But I also do this weird thing whenever I’m working on a piece of writing, where I create a custom iTunes playlist that is tailored to the period and the assumed music interests of the main characters in the story. This is something that I’ve been doing for the last year or so, and I find it enormously helpful when it comes to getting into the right frame of mind, seeing the world through my character’s eyes, and putting myself in front of the computer for a 3-4 hour stretch.
Brian Eno – musician, composer, producer and (in my humble opinion) genius – is the guy who is generally credited with coining the term “Ambient Music.” He first mentioned ambient at some point in the mid-1970s and included a definition of ambient music in the album notes for his 1978 release Ambient 1: Music for Airports. Eno said that ambient music should create “an atmosphere that puts the listener into a different state of mind.”
I whole-heartedly agree. And over the course of the last three months, this is why I’ve been rocking the neighbors to a playlist of the Allman Brothers, Eagles, Rolling Stones, the Who, Waylon Jennings, the Doobies, Creedence, Aerosmith, Patsy Cline, Van Morrison, and KISS.
At the moment, I’m working on a novel-length manuscript for a horror story that takes place in a small Kansas town in 1975, and I’m engrossing myself in the sounds of the season. As 1975 was a significant year in a turbulent decade, these selected artists help set the tone and the atmosphere for the story and breathe a little more life into my characters (and, by the way, I’m not all that fond of classic rock – it’s just an aspect of the job). Some find this strange. In fact, I had a moment a few weeks back where a friend who was riding in the car with me remarked that I’d been listening “to the same goddamn CD for the last two months.”
She was right. I’ve been listening to the same music – without fail – since I started the project, and I’m evidently driving the people around me a little bit nuts.
I tried to explain that it was all part of “the process” and told her that Robert De Niro actually spent three months working twelve-hour shifts as a cabbie to prepare for his role in Taxi Driver. Now that’s immersion! She was not impressed. I think she once told me that Titanic was her favorite film. Oh, well. She gave me the stink eye, punched the knob on the stereo and shut it all off.
Crazed “method writer” or not, my viewpoint is this: every story has unique characters and every story has a unique soundtrack. I go so far as to create the soundtrack playlist as I’m hatching the ideas and drafting the story synopsis. I troll the CD racks at the local library to research music from the period, and – especially in contemporary pieces – I often check out recordings that are a reflection of the political and social climate of the time. Everything goes into iTunes. I also tend to only read books and rent films within that same genre, time period and theme – but that’s another story altogether.
So, now I have a huge catalog of music to pull from (my librarian and Lars Ulrich both want me dead) and I have playlists for every story I’ve written of late. Some of the playlists include selections from horror film soundtracks (as I write quite a bit in that genre), and I also have quite the tidy little library of sci-fi-inspired music that I play when I’m working on Unknown Transmission. The sci-fi soundtrack is something that I can speak to at length – as we’ve been writing Unknown Transmission for just over sixteen months (at the time of this posting). Any film in any genre relies heavily on the music score to create atmosphere. In the sci-fi genre, great composers such as Bernard Herrmann (The Day the Earth Stood Still), John Williams (Star Wars), Tyler Bates (Watchmen), Richard Edlinger (Alien) and Vangelis (Blade Runner) helped convey the mood and emotion of the various scenes in the films upon which they worked. And I’ll bet that the screenwriters for each of those films would have loved some of their music in advance of the writing process.
As a former music journalist, I’m a big believer in the power of music in most any manner. But as a writer, I also believe that music has the power to both further and enhance the writing process. I’m not setting out to create a dramatic orchestral underscore for my stories (no one but the neighbors hear much of what I’m setting my scenes to) but I am trying to temporarily disassociate myself with the all-too familiar surroundings and put myself in another world of sorts. I think it’s a neat trick.
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About Steven: Writer, Author, Blogger, Steven J. Scearce is probably best known as one of the co-creators of the speculative science fiction web series Unknown Transmission and Station151. His printed work appears in a number of anthologies, including Rigor Amortis, Cthulhurotica, and the forthcoming IN SITU anthology from Dagan Books. Steven lives in Kansas City and occasionally admits this fact. Most folks think that he’s an average hard-working type that spends a curious amount of time in his home office doing… something.