Looking back over the four books I've had published (and a fifth coming out next year), it's struck me how important music is to my writing.
That's not a huge surprise, because I love music. I'm one of those people who still has a physical CD collection, and laments the days where you could get an insight into a new friend by having a look at what albums they own. Asking to scroll through the songs on their playlist isn't really the done thing, and it's not quite the same.
I tend to listen to music without lyrics while I'm doing the writing itself - film scores, classical, jazz - but quite often I'll reference the music a character is listening to in a car, or that's playing on the jukebox in a bar. Readers have sometimes commented on the fact my books have a cinematic feel, which I take as a big compliment. Music is part of that - I like to think about the story as a movie, and what kind of music would enhance the scene.
I thought it would be fun to use this as a jumping off point for a series of blogs looking at the songs and artists I've namechecked in each book, and how I use them to set the atmosphere and comment on the story.
Since it's the first book, I thought The Killing Season would be a good place to start.
Nebraska | Bruce Springsteen
Killing Season ranges across the Midwest, taking in several states, including the one this song (and its parent album) is named after. It's one of the very best Springsteen albums. The stripped-down, mostly acoustic style creates a haunting atmosphere that's a world away from his stadium-filling anthems.
The subject matter song is appropriate for a thriller, because it's a true crime story, based on the case of teenage spree killers Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, who murdered eleven people in Nebraska and Wyoming in the winter of 1957/58.
Told from the point of view of the killer on Death Row, it resonated with me as I started to write the novel. One line in particular stuck out: when the narrator is asked why he did the things he did, he responds simply "there's just a meanness in this world."
I liked that so much I used it as an epigraph, although I didn't find out until later that you have to pay to do quote lyrics in a book, even just for a couple of lines.
America | Simon & Garfunkel
I've always loved this song. My mother had the Bookends LP and I'd heard it at an early age and then forgotten about it until it was used in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous.
I started writing Killing Season in January of 2010. I knew I wanted to set it against the backdrop of the big, wide-open spaces of America. The first chapter of the book is told from the point of view of a man who is a passenger, being driven across open country. I had this song in my head, as it's one of the most evocative road songs I know.
As the chapter progresses, you start to realise the character isn't a romantic drifter like the characters in the song, he's a convicted murderer being transported to his execution. But just like the characters in Paul Simon's lyrics, he ends the chapter going to look for America.
One of Us | Joan Osborne
Unlike the two previous, this song was kind of a one hit wonder, but it was utterly ubiquitous on the radio in 1995.
I've always found something enjoyably sinister about the song. It reminds me of the way some psychopaths see themselves as gods among a sheep-like mass of humanity. A serial killer is also one of us, after all.
It inspired a nice little scene around the midpoint of the book where the villain Caleb Wardell toys with a waitress who suddenly realises who she's found herself alone with.
I try to avoid quoting lyrics these days, but I like to scatter references to songs throughout the books. It helps me build the atmosphere, and hopefully it adds something for readers who are familiar with the music, or are inspired to go check it out.
- Buy 'Nebraska' by Bruce Springsteen
- Buy 'America' by Simon and Garfunkel
- Buy 'One of Us' by Joan Osborne here
Next up, Dylan, Cornell and Young in The Samaritan.