Music to write crime by…

by Luca Veste: Then She Was Gone Column 3

I have a ritual when I’m sitting down at my desk in the morning to write. I’ll have usually been up a few hours, made breakfast for my two daughters, then filled their lunchboxes. Waved them off, as my wife (Emma) takes them off to school. I’ll wait for Emma to return, then we’ll watch whichever US sitcom Channel 4 are showing at around 9am when she gets back and have breakfast ourselves (weetabix for me, usually). I’ll sit down at my desk at around 10-10.30am, ready for the day’s writing ahead.

I’ll do a few things then. I’ll check email, make sure no one has emailed since I checked on my phone thirty seconds earlier. Reply to anything that’s urgent. Check the news and sports websites, just to make sure nothing has happened in the now one minute thirty seconds since I checked my phone last. Then, fire up Spotify or Youtube and start the music.

The first thing I do is perhaps a little strange. I’ll listen to the two songs that I’ve had stuck in my head lately. Most recently, this has been No Matter What Tammy Said by My Darling Clementine (an ace country band, who I saw perform live with Mark Billingham recently) and Better Be Home Soon by Crowded House. I’ll open up the word doc containing the latest draft of the new book whilst they play and start preparing for what’s to come in the next five or six hours.

Now, listening to music whilst writing isn’t something out of the ordinary for many of the people I know in my line of work.

(Plus, if anyone was at Bloody Scotland in Stirling this year, they will have noticed I have a deep appreciation for classic pop songs of the late nineties/early 2000s… but that’s another story.)

I decided to ask some of my fellow crime writers what they listened (or didn’t listen to) to during that part of the process. The answers were illuminating and proved that I wasn’t alone whatsoever. However, what they said also proved (if it needed proving any further) that writers each have their own process and there is no *correct* way. For instance, Cass Green (The Woman Next Door) says “I always do. I sort of have to, now. I like Library Tapes, Sigur Ros and (the bizarrely named) A Winged Victory for the Sullen. It’s all great writing music” and Neil White (Cold Kill, The Domino Killer, From The Shadows) added “I listen to a country and western radio station from Bristol, Virginia… The guitars are good enough to be interesting but never good enough to make me stop.” Brian McGilloway (Little Girl Lost, Hurt, Preserve The Dead) said something which I found very interesting when he said “Always. I set the tone for the novel with the music that starts it”, which makes sense to me. I use different bands and genres which match the feel of the kind of setup I’m going for. So, for a violent scene I’ll stick some Rage Against The Machine on, or some of the heavier Muse stuff. For calmer scenes, I’ll lean back on some of the early Pink Floyd tracks, such as Echoes or Any Colour You Like (most of the Dark Side of the Moon album is great personally to write to).

Listen to full Spotify playlist of crime writers’ songs here >>

Having specific types of music was something which came up a lot when talking to writers about this subject. Instrumentals and classical music were very popular with CL Taylor (The Accident, The Lie, The Missing) saying “I listen to soundtracks or instrumental music that match the mood of the book I’m writing . . . Max Richter when I wrote The Missing and the soundtracks to The Night Manager and Broadchurch for the one that’s out next year.” Also Simon Toyne (Sanctus, Solomon Creed) adding “I listen to soundtrack music all the time. I find silence oppressive and distracting. I also pick pieces that suit the mood of whatever I’m writing. My last one, Solomon Creed, is set in Arizona so I pretty much had Ry Cooder’s ‘Paris, texas’ soundtrack on a loop for nine months.” The idea of writing to the same album repeatedly had me intrigued, something I hadn’t considered doing so before (and have since experimented with…the jury is still out, but it could go either way). Mark Edwards (The Magpies, Follow You Home) told me “I play the same album repeatedly while writing because it throws me into the right headspace…I wrote Follow You Home listening to Lana Del Rey’s ‘Ultraviolence’ on a loop.” Finally, in a similar mould, was Howard Linskey (No Name Lane, Behind Dead Eyes) who said “I can’t listen to anything with lyrics while writing because the words distract me so it has to be something instrumental.”

Another aspect which came up was listening to specific genres of music depending on what kind of scene they were writing (similar to me with RATM/Violence). SJI Holliday (Black Wood, Willow Walk) said “I did listen to lots of Goth rock when I was writing scary scenes in my first book!” and Ed James (The Hope That Kills, Worth Killing For) similarly separating out genres saying “I listen to anything when I’m plotting/outlining, but then instrumental deep house and dub techno and progressive house and drum and bass when I’m writing and editing.” A little more overt (and perhaps more work than I would personally be prepared to put in!) are those crime writers who go even further than randomness or single albums. Paul Finch (Hunted, Strangers) said “I have specific playlists for different subject matter: thriller, horror, historical. Mostly gleaned from movies or games, both overtures and incidental music. Sometimes, if I’m writing thrillers, I opt for rock playlists instead, as that often gives me ‘attitude’.” I really liked the idea of playlists, but it wasn’t something I’d considered before. It turned out to be quite commn however, with John Rickards (The Touch of Ghosts, The Darkness Inside) saying ” I tend to playlist things to vaguely match what I’m writing and then repeat the shit out of them so a sort of “right, work time” association builds up.” Another who will spend time ‘creating’ is Katerina Diamond (The Teacher, The Secret), who said “I build a playlist for each book on Youtube! So, whenever a song fits the mood or lyrically fits the book I am writing I shove it in the playlist and then I can put the music on to get me in the right mood for the project.” She also goes even further “I pick a song for each character”, which sounds incredibly cool. Although, I then spent an inordinate amount of time trying to decide theme tunes for all my characters. It is something I’m still thinking about! Similarly, someone else who has inspired me to try something different is Caroline Mitchell (Don’t Turn Around, Time To Die) who said “I love my Spotify subscription as they have featured genres such as ‘mood’ and ‘chill’ and I get to listen to so many new artists I wouldn’t have risked my money on before.” It never occurred to me to try writing to a playlist I’d not selected myself. Something I’ll be rectifying in the future.

Listening to music while working was by no means the dominant position however. A number of crime writers I spoke to had very different views! Ruth Ware (In A Dark, Dark Wood, The Woman In Cabin 10) told me “I don’t listen to anything – I used to be able to write in front of the TV, the older I get, the more intolerant I am of any kind of interruption, particularly speech-based stuff.” A view shared by Mel Sherratt (Taunting The Dead, The Girls Next Door) who said “I can’t write at all listening to music. I have to write in total silence, shut myself in my office.” Also, Tony Schumacher (The Darkest Hour, The British Lion) added “Silence is golden… I just don’t like noise when I’m thinking!”

Others used music as a way of setting themselves up, before writing in silence such as Steve Cavanagh (The Defence, The Plea) who said “Nothing on when I’m working. If It’s an emotional scene coming up I listen to The Flame (by The Black Keys), or if I’m trying to wake myself up (normally I am trying to wake up) I listen to Stack Shot Billy or Thickfreakness.” Another who works in this way is Steph Broadribb (Deep Down Dead) saying “I usually have a song or couple of songs I listen to that get me in the mood for writing whichever character’s POV I’m in that day. Then have silence as I actually write.” And finally Jay Stringer (Ways To Die In Glasgow, Old Gold), who said “When I’m researching I’ll listen to music that ties into the period or location. And when I’m getting ready for a writing session I’ll listen to songs that evoke the mood I need to be in for the character or scene. But when I’m putting words on the page I need to write in silence, so that I can hear the voice of the book and characters.”

We also have writers such as Sinead Crowley (Can Anybody Help Me, Are You Watching Me) who adds “I like either silence or ambient noise e.g. Coffee shop. I’m perfectly fine with strangers yammering in my ear but can’t write at home if family members are talking” and Marnie Riches (The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die, The Girl Who Had No Fear) saying “I write in silence but there are musical references throughout my George McKenzie series, often hidden within the narrative and there for smart arses to discover.”

One aspect I wasn’t expecting however, was those who use television. Beth Lewis (The Wolf Road) told me “I occasionally listen to a few particular songs which set the mood and atmosphere in my mind before I start writing but I don’t listen to any music when I write, I can’t concentrate. Weirdly, I tend to put the TV on which clears my head, then I pause it and start writing. I write an awful lot with the TV on pause.” The one unexpected answer was from a few writers. Jenny Blackhurst (How I Lost You, Before I Let You In) said “I watch TV while I write. If I needed silence I’d never write a word! I have to have mindless rubbish on though, nothing I’m interested in.” Also, Eva Dolan (Long Way Home, Tell No Tales) who added “I have news24 on in the background just too low to hear, because I weirdly need the movement out the corner of my eye. Only listen to music during prep work.” And finally, Nick Quantrill (The Dead Can’t Talk, Broken Dreams), who said ” I need noise as I work. As much as I love music, I tend to go for the radio on low (there’s an excellent mid-morning show on BBC Radio Humberside) or 24 hours news in the background.” Which only goes to prove my original point… we all have a very different process! Although, maybe these three writers are onto something, given how great there books are. It’s something I may try in future.

Personally, I need music. I hate silence. Always have. I can’t do any task in silence, quickly getting bored. I’m easily distracted at the best of times, so if there was only silence, I’d wonder what that creak was, investigate…and then fifteen minutes later find myself eating fruit or something wildly unhealthy in the kitchen. I need music. Just on in the background, not filling the room. Simmering away in a part of my brain not conscious of what I’m writing. I particularly liked what Simon Toyne had further to say…

“I find it becomes Pavlovian and the sound of the same piece of music helps me get quickly back into the world and the writing mode. It’s particularly helpful when I’m travelling because the music sets the mood so it doesn’t matter that I’m on a train or a plane or wherever and the earphones cut out any other distractions.”

That’s very similar to the way I feel. I’ll play my two current favourite songs, prepare myself for the day’s work ahead, then stick on the same huge list of songs I’ve got playlisted on Spotify or Youtube and get down to business.

Below are a list of a bunch of different tracks I listen to (all from my current playlists). This is by no means extensive (and not including those days I’ll listen to musical soundtracks such as ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, ‘The Little Shop of Horrors’ or ‘Moulin Rouge’). Hopefully there’s something down there to inspire or explain why some chapters have weird vibes about them! Also, you’ll notice I have a very eclectic taste in music…

Listen to the Spotify Playlist here >>

Tubular Bells – Mike Oldfield

Echoes – Pink Floyd

The Whole of the Moon – The Waterboys

The Handler – Muse

Core ‘Ngrato (Catari) – Enrico Caruso

Parisienne Walkways – Gary Moore

Anyone Who Had A Heart – Cilla Black

The Globalist – Muse

Walkaway – Cast

Wires – Athlete

Drive – The Cars

Road To Nowhere – Talking Heads

Then She Was Gone by Luca Veste is out in paperback on 1 December.

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