Music as Muse

untitled-1Appropriate timing for this week’s blog challenge: Music to Write By, as I was just a guest on Roz Morris’ Undercover Soundtrack earlier this week, talking about songs that inspire my books.

I’m also participating in the #authorlifemonth challenge on Instagram, where a few days ago the topic was writing music.

Each of my books has a playlist, which you can listen to on Youtube:

But when a scene doesn’t have a specific song, I fall back on about a dozen or so movie scores that always work for me (see picture on the right). I love listening to movie scores for a few reasons: 1) I can’t listen to music with lyrics when I write; it’s too many words in my brain at once, 2) they have built in moments of emotion and drama due to the storylines they go along with, and 3) I see stories in my head when I hear classical music. Even if I know what scene a song goes with, often my mind gives the music a totally different story. In this way, the music acts as inspiration.

A few others not pictured that I love:

  • The Last of the Mohicans
  • Becoming Jane
  • The Dutchess
  • North & South (BBC 2004)
  • Mansfield Park (1999)
  • Jane Eyre (2011)
  • Northanger Abbey
  • Wuthering Heights
  • Cider House Rules
  • Chocolat
  • Pretty much anything scored by Alexandre Desplat, Rachel Portman or Nico Muhly

What is your favorite music to listen to? Do you like film scores? If so, which ones? Do you imagine songs to go with your favorite books? If so, what’s on your list?

PS – Yes, I skipped last week’s blog challenge. I was busy and it was about hobbies – I don’t really have any outside of reading, writing book reviews, and research, which are related to my writing. 🙂

Who Are Your Literary Mentors?

When I was in college as a business major (my second major was English), there was lots of talk about finding your mentors, those people who would take you under their wing and groom you for future success through advice, modeling positive behavior, and extending opportunities to grow.

The other day I got to thinking about how this applies to my life as a writer. While we tend to have fewer in-person opportunities with our mentors because of geographic distance (as opposed to working in the same office), the internet, and social media in particular, has given us greater access to those we admire.

To truly call someone a mentor implies a special sort of relationship that goes beyond admiration into having changed your life in tangible ways. For that reason (and for the sake of brevity) I’ve narrowed my list to three.

Writing Craft Mentor: Michael Hauge
Michael-Hauge-headshot
Having written six books, it may sound weird for me to say I just recently discovered someone who can explain the craft of writing in a way that makes sense to my brain, but it’s true. I’ve tried many books, attempted to worship at the altar of other people’s writing gurus, but nothing seemed to work for me.

I knew the basics of storytelling already, but I didn’t truly understand the three-act structure or the interplay between inner and outer motivations/goals of the characters until a few weeks ago. That’s when I watched a DVD by screenwriter Michael Hauge called Grabbing the Reader in the First 10 Pages. Boom! In an hour or so understood what you need to know and convey about your characters re: goals, needs, etc. Then he tweeted this article on story structure. *Lightning bolt from heaven.* I now understand story structure, plus how the character arc evolves alongside (and intertwined with) the plot.

I’ve spent the last few weeks revising Madame Presidentess based on what I learned and I am in awe of how much better my MS is. This stuff is possible to learn, once you find someone who speaks English instead of Greek. I can’t wait to go back and revise my other books now. In that way, I’m fortunate that I haven’t been published yet.

I have to thank my local RWA chapter for introducing me to Michael Hauge and my DIY MFA program for making me purchase and watch his DVD. Maybe now I can revisit the other people’s works with greater clarity. I am so going to fangirl when I meet him at our October meeting.

Author Mentor: Deborah Harkness

Deb Harkness and me, August 2014

Deb Harkness and me, August 2014

Many of you know that I was fortunate to attend a week-long creative writing course last year taught by Deborah Harkness. I chronicled my learnings from her on this blog, so I won’t go into the details. Oddly enough, as I write this, her second group of students from that class are just returning from their own life-changing week.

But that amazing experience is only part of the story. Long before I was fortunate to meet and learn from her, Deb’s writing inspired me. It’s something about her style, her seamless way of weaving past and present, reality and fantasy into a face-paced story with characters I wish were real. Granted, she’s certainly not the only author to do this, but something about her books has always been special to me. Then when I found out she’s a history professor at USC, I dreamed of taking a class with her. Little did I know I would, but it would be about historical fiction.

Since then, she’s kept in touch with all of us from the class and has remained a model of how to live success with grace and poise.  I am honored to call her my friend and will continue learning from her for as long as she’s willing to put up with me!

Inspiration Mentor: Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert and me, July 2014

Elizabeth Gilbert and me, July 2014

Some people may say it’s easy to be inspirational when you’re a bestseller. Maybe, but I could name quite a few from whom I draw absolutely no connection. What makes Elizabeth Gilbert different? For me, it’s her willingness to share her personal struggles openly and to give back to the writing community. Her TED talks on creativity and inspiration were my first foray into her genius as a speaker and ability to move me creatively. Then I saw her interviewed a few times on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday and thought, “yeah, she’s one of my people.”

Elizabeth’s relentless optimism and genuinely held belief that we can all live creative, fulfilled lives is part of what keeps me going, especially when rejection inflicts its terrible sting. I call her my guru because it seems like no matter what has happened in my life, she has a quote that makes me feel better and remember why I’m doing this masochistic thing called writing for publication. One of my recent favorites reminds me not to worry about what is trending right now and write what’s in my heart: “Let inspiration lead you wherever it wants. For most of history people just made things and they didn’t make such a BIG FREAKING DEAL OUT OF IT.” Another reminds me not to get too caught up in the goal of publication and just write: “Your own reasons to make art are enough. Create whatever causes a revolution in your heart.”

I realize she is also promoting her next book, but Elizabeth’s sharing of these quotes as well as daily Facebook encouragement is what I need.  She’s someone who has been where I am: working for a living while trying to make it as a writer. She’s also been where I hope to be: on the top of the bestseller list. But more than that, she’s shown that a writing career can survive a bomb of a book (every writer’s greatest fear) and come back better than ever.

I cannot wait for the release of Big Magic in September. It’s all about living a creative life. I’m sure it will cement Elizabeth’s place even more firmly as my creative guru.

And let’s not forget the writers who inspire me to greatness every time I read one of their books: MJ Rose, Susanna Kearsley, Patricia Bracewell, Geraldine Brooks, Katherine Howe, Robin Lafevers, Mary Kay Andrews and on and on. I hope that this will be an ever-expanding list, growing as I meet and form relationships with more authors and instructors. The Historical Novel Society Conference, which I will be attending this week in Denver, will be a great opportunity for that. It’s funny, but I always found networking for my day job extremely nerve-wracking and awkward, but when it comes to writing, networking is as easy as breathing. I guess that’s yet another sign that it’s what I’m truly meant to be doing.

Who are your mentors, either as a writer or reader? Whom do you admire and why? Who has affected your life? I’d love to hear your stories.

15 Years of Guinevere

15th anniversary Guinevere

Warrior

Today is a very special day for me. It’s the 15th anniversary of when I wrote the first words to the Guinevere trilogy.  It’s interesting to me that in the 57 million revisions it’s gone through since then (including at least one almost total rewrite and several partial rewrites), the opening line and most of the prologue haven’t changed. I think that’s because when Guinevere came to me, she told me exactly how the series was to be set up, in words that resonate with meaning even over time.

I’m planning to recount the tale of how the book came to be in the author’s notes of the first novel, but wanted to share it with you here first. (Chances are good this is a longer version than what will end up in the notes, anyway.)

Guinevere came into my head in September 1999, when I was a junior in college. I had read Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon the winter before and, really disliking her portrayal of Guinevere, sought out other books that portrayed her as a main character. I read Parke Godwin’s Beloved Exile, which deals with her life after Arthur’s death. Though I didn’t think this storyline probable, it got me wondering happened to Guinevere before and after her life with Arthur – usually you only read about the stuff in between.

Priestess

Priestess

I can still remember the moment Guinevere first took up residence in my head. I was sitting in a quiet stone walkway on an otherwise unremarkable morning of the fall semester when she told me she had a story to tell, one different from anything anyone else has said. It was in that moment we struck a bargain and I decided to write my own version. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. This never really was my story; it’s always been Guinevere’s. She’s been calling the shots from the very first word.

Her basic command was this: Her reputation has been ruined by generations of storytellers who have reduced her to a wanton temptress, taking away her agency as a woman and a queen. My duty was to restore her to her former glory. (No pressure.) But it’s a challenge I happily accepted.

I thought it was only going to be one book. I outlined it that way, with three parts. But by the time I got to the end of the first “part,” I realized it was as long as an average novel. That was my wakeup call – the moment I realized this could be something real, something more than a hobby. I started researching publishing, querying, and started this blog. The rest, as they say, is history.

Lover

Lover

So many years later, with two of the books finished (at least until an editor gets a hold of them) and the third with a solid first draft complete, it’s hard to believe it all started out so simply. I guess most dreams do.

While I still can’t share the book with you, I can promise that you will see it eventually. It may be later than we all desire, and may come about in a way that no one expects, but it will happen. All I ask is that you hang in there with me, or should I say, us. Guinevere is still here and she’s just as adamant that her story be told today as she was 15 years ago. It’s a story the world needs to hear.

What are you most interested in reading about when the Guinevere books finally are published? 

Pinterest, Pandora and Inspiration

My Pinterest board for Guinevere-related pins.

My Pinterest board for Guinevere-related pins.

I had the good fortune to attend Deb Harkness’ book signing last week at my local library. During her Q&A session, someone asked who she pictured as the main characters. She gave a very PR-positive answer that she drew bits and pieces from different people and wouldn’t reveal who they were until such time as one or more of the component people are cast. Her reasoning was that she didn’t want any actor have to face the “but Deb said she envisioned so and so” question.

I get that and I totally respect that. I think Deb is doing the exact right thing. The only thing is, I don’t function that way. As many of you know, I tend to write my characters with a certain actor or actress in mind because it helps me envision the specifics of vocal inflection, facial expression or gestures. These things in turn, help me craft more layered, realistic characters. I can certainly write a character without an actor in mind (I was in book 3 of the Guinevere trilogy before I finally found a Guinevere), but when I do find that right person, there’s a special little extra “click” in my brain. It’s hard to explain.

I know not everyone works this way. And I certainly want my readers to envision the characters however they like. The people I “cast” are just the inspiration; sometimes it’s the way they look or a certain quality to their acting that I’ve seen that helps me unlock or convey a quality of a character. That they helped me in no way means that they are the only person who could ever play the role. But I also don’t think I can be cagey about who inspires the characters. Heck, I have whole Pinterest boards dedicated to my characters, so it’s not something I try to hide.

My point is that I don’t know how well I would write without Pinterest or Pandora for inspiration. On Pinterest I have boards for books I’ve written, am writing and have yet to truly conceive beyond the most basic notion. Some are secret if they would make the topic too obvious, but most are public because I believe we draw inspiration from one another. For example, some of my favorite bits of He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not, were inspired by objects or quotes I found on Pinterest. Annabeth’s boyfriend, Victor, came to life thanks to a photo of a model whose identity I still don’t know.  I never know where I will find inspiration, and truly look forward to a daily trolling of the boards, just waiting for something to tug at my subconscious and say “Hey, I’m going to be important.”

As I write this, I’m listening to a station I created on Pandora while I was writing He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not. Because I listen to audio books in the car, I very rarely listen to the radio. That means Pandora is my way of being exposed to new music, whether it’s at home while I’m writing or at work. While I was cleaning out the freezer earlier (I lead such a glamorous life), it served up a song I’ve never heard before that is perfect for the wedding scene if when HLMHMN gets a sequel (it’s a standalone, but I have ideas for two possible sequels). Then a few minutes later, it handed me “Glitter in the Air” by Pink, which is totally perfect for Annabeth’s POV where the next book would start. Some of my favorite scenes from the first book were inspired by or complemented by music that Pandora gave me.

I really don’t know what I would do without these two resources. Obviously, I have an imagination and I use it, but getting the little nudges from the muse through electronic means is something unique to this period in history and I intend to use them to the fullest. As a reader, I know I love being able to see what an author was imagining/listening to when he or she wrote a book. Even if it doesn’t match what I envisioned, it gives me an insight to the story that I otherwise wouldn’t have. And that’s my goal in being candid about my visual and musical picks with all of you. If I someday am advised to change that, I guess I’ll do what I have to, but until then, you have an all-access pass into my creative brain, which I hope you enjoy and I hope it makes you all the more excited for the day the books are released.

What do you think about authors sharing their inspirations online? Do you want to know who they cast as characters or do you prefer to make your own choices? What about playlists – do you find them interesting or helpful? What else would you like to know about my books? I’m open to any suggestions you have for seeing into my world (although I can’t usually share excerpts).

S is for Songs that Inspire

“I remember, I remember everything – all the tracks that shaped and changed me.” – Kill Hannah, “Songs that Saved My Life”

Some of you may have noticed I have a playlist section on this site, even for books I haven’t written yet. When a song truly inspires me, it goes on there. Most of the songs listed have specific scenes or sections of their respective book that go with them. I’ll reveal those once you can read the books. But for now, here are a few of my favorites and a bit about why I chose them (or rather, they chose me).

Sting – A Thousand Years – I couldn’t find an official video for this song, so this a beautiful fan video.

This song has been the theme for the Guinevere trilogy pretty much from the beginning. The lyrics remind me of the hundreds of incarnations the story has had over the last 1500 years. But despite all of the changes, the love between Guinevere/Arthur and Guinevere/Lancelot remains at its core. There’s something haunting about the circular rhythm of the music that reminds me of the enduring power of legend.

 

Hana Pestle – Need – Official video

Hana got a lot of attention for this video when she was considered for the New Moon soundtrack. She didn’t make it there but she made it to my playlist. I can’t tell you which two characters this is about, but for me, this was the perfect soundtrack to first heartbreak, when you just know you are supposed to be with someone and then your whole world is ripped apart. How do you live without the one who makes you breathe?

 

Florence and the Machine – Heavy in Your Arms – Official video (sorry for the ad at the beginning)

Can you tell I was a Twilight fan? This song made the Eclipse soundtrack, but for me it’s Elaine’s theme. She’s not a sane girl. Her mind is fragile and she craves love, but is burdened with crushing amounts of guilt, even before she does anything to feel guilty about. I will tell you that her mind slowly unravels throughout the series, until finally she makes her dying confession, which is inspired by this song.

 

Kill Hannah – Promise Me – Official video

Kill Hannah is my all time favorite band, so it was only a matter of time before one of their songs made it into my books. This a rare ballad for the band, but it grabbed my heart from the opening chords and never let go. Again, I can’t say which two characters have interplay with this song (it’s not who you would think), but I can tell you it’s a scene of intense pain, resignation and regret, tinged with the knowledge that love will live on in the heart, even if the relationship does not.

 

Katharine McPhee – Run – No video, just audio

I’d heard this song about a million times before in its original version by Snow Patrol and it never affected me. But when I saw Katharine McPhee sing it on Smash, I literally saw the scene of Arthur’s death in y mind. All I can say at this point is that it is the culmination of so much of what builds in the first two books – in more ways than you can know. It will, of course, be very emotional, but it is more than just the sadness of tragic death, it’s also the loss of a dream, the end of an era. I’m a long way from writing it, but I can promise you I see it the exact same way every time I hear this song, so I won’t forget it.


What music inspires you? Do certain songs fit with certain books for you? If you’re a writer, what do you listen to when you write? Have you ever had the experience of hearing a song and seeing a scene from your story materialize in your head?

Musical Inspiration on Dublin’s Streets

This is a first for me as a crazy writer. My characters actually told me a particular song should go on the Book One playlist. How did this happen?

While I was in Dublin, we went to an area called Temple Bar, hoping to get to hear some authentic Irish music. Ironically, most of the pubs we passed were playing American music, and not particularly good songs, either. We eventually stumbled upon a street jam of Celtic music. This is exactly the kind of stuff I listen to when I write. No words, just pure energy.

The band is called Mutefish. When this particular song (“De La Ferme”) started, two of my characters, Guinevere and Aggrivane, started yelling in my head, “This is what we danced to in the Beltane scene!” (Which will make so much more sense when you can read my book.)

I’ve uploaded two additional videos I shot during the street jam on my YouTube channel, in case you’re interested. I think I have the song titles right, but I’ve only listened to the CD a few times since I got back, so if anyone can confirm or correct me, I’d appreciate it. (Eventually, I’ll update my book trailer and upload it to my channel as well.)

So what do you think? Did you like the music? What music inspires you?

Living in a Fairy Tale World

Coleen Moore's fairy tale castle at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago

Last week I was driving to work and listening to an audiobook when something in the book reminded me of this really cool exhibit I saw at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago last year. It’s a fairy tale castle with elaborately decorated rooms like a giant doll house, commissioned by silent film star Colleen Moore and built by some of the greatest architects and craftsmen of the 1930s and 1940s. I can’t find a photo to do it justice, but it’s about 8 feet by 9 nine feet (way bigger than my office) and every surface is painted with painstaking detail. Some of the art was done by world renown artists like Walt Disney and it holds a number of valuable miniature treasures, including a book of famous autographs, 1,000 year old carvings and other historical, religious and political artefacts. It has real working lights and plumbing that shoots tiny streams of water in the bathrooms and garden, too.  Just looking the online tour takes me back and makes me happy. If you’re in Chicago, be sure to check it out. (The whole museum is much more interesting than I thought it would be, especially since I’m an English/history person, not math/science.)

The dining room of the castle reminds me of Arthur's Round Table

Why am I telling you this? Well, for one it’s cool and I want people to know it exists. But more importantly, we’ve been talking about sources of inspiration lately and I’ve realized this is one of mine. Call me the little girl who never grew up, but I could easily spend all day staring at it and imagining storylines from the beautiful miniature decorations. (I just bought the book that goes with the exhibit, so pretty soon I’ll be able to do just that.) Anyone who knows of my fascination with castles won’t be too surprised that I love this beautiful representation of the world my brain lives in 90% of the time. And it also reminds me of my new favorite show, Once Upon a Time.

What about you? What are some of your more unusual sources of inspiration? Have any of you seen this exhibit? What did you think?

PS – Let it be known that someday I will own a miniature castle like this (okay, maybe not as big) and decorate it to be my own version of Camelot. Maybe it could even be part of my real castle – because you know I’m going to live in one. Hey, if you’re going to dream, dream big!

Accessing the Divine – Celtic Inspiration

Brigid is perhaps the most well-known Celtic goddess whose gift is the fire of inspiration

Last week’s guest post on inspiration got me thinking more about the source of all our artistic endeavors and how that relates to Arthur, Guinevere, and the rest of the Celts.

Did you know the word inspiration comes from the Latin inspiratus, meaning “to be breathed upon?” It’s little wonder then, that we as humans have always looked outside ourselves for inspiration. And no matter the time or place, inspiration almost always leads back to a higher power. The Greeks had their nine Muses. The Hebrews considered poetry and prophecy of divine origin, as did the Norse.  And and from the first Pentecost, Christians have been inspired by the Holy Spirit.

But what about the Celts? The most commonly invoked goddess of inspiration was Brigid. Worshiped on the Celtic holy festival of Imbolc, Brigid is the patroness of poetry, inspiration, fire, metalworkers and childbirth. She’s most commonly associated with Ireland in modern thought (thanks in large part to St. Brigid, her Christian counterpart) but she was worshiped throughout most of the Celtic world, including the areas we know as England, France and Spain. Other Celtic goddesses associated with inspiration include Druantia, a Gaulic goddess who is sometimes called “Queen of Druids” and is associated with fir and oak trees; Cerridwen, the Celtic goddess of death and the Underworld who tends the cauldron of knowledge; Canola, the Irish goddess of music and dance; and Cebhfhionn, who guards the well of knowledge and intelligence.

Celtic mythology gives us the Salmon of Wisdom/Knowledge, who according to legend, started life as an ordinary salmon. Then he ate nine hazelnuts that fell into the Fountain of Wisdom from the nine hazelnut trees that surrounded it. After eating the hazelnuts, the salmon gained all the knowledge in the world. In turn, the first person to eat his flesh would in turn gain all of his knowledge. The legendary warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill was said to have gotten his wisdom this way, as was the poet Taliesin, who is sometimes associated with Merlin in Arthurian legend. (I personally always feel smarter after eating salmon, but that might be the Omega-3s.)

The Druids were said to gain their inspiration through dreams and various forms of divination. Several sources tell of the Druid practice of secluding themselves in a cave or other very dark place to facilitate inspiration. I’ll be honest and admit I’ve tried this one myself, but to a lesser degree. It’s very hard to get a modern room dark, with all of our gadgets and streetlights, but if you use enough black duct tape, you can get close. I’ve found that the darkness and lack of distraction does make it easier to collect my thoughts, but for overall useful plot ideas, I have better luck with meditation.

In Greek thought, inspiration was an otherworldly, ecstatic state (furor poeticus, the divine frenzy or poetic madness), in which a poet or artist would be transported beyond his own mind and given the gods’ or goddesses own thoughts to embody. The Celts had the similar concept of Awen, although that word comes from eighth century Wales, which is well beyond the timeframe of the Celts in my books. Call it what you will, I believe every artist has experienced it at one time or another, that feeling of not being in control of what they’re creating. For me, its like the words flow out of my fingertips as though I’m taking dictation. Or sometimes scenes just come to me, especially if I’m doing something with my body I don’t really have to think about, like cleaning my house or driving a familiar route.

I don’t think we’ll ever understand the true nature of inspiration, where it comes from or why it is. But that’s really the point. Inspiration is all about awe and wonder, and the drive to create something out of nothing. If we lose that, life loses its mystery and the creative act, its purpose. For we understand the world through that which we and others create.

Whatever your source, I pray your muse will bide with you and breathe upon you so that you may experience many moments of furor poeticus.

Courtney Marquez: Find Your Inspiration

This is the first in what I hope will be a series of posts by other authors. Today’s blogger is my fellow writer and friend Courtney Marquez. She’s currently writing her first book, historical fiction based in early 1900s Oklahoma.

Hi, my name is Courtney and I’m a writer. Of course, the word “writer” can encompass a broad range of activity. There is the poet, the songwriter, the novelist, the essayist. Then there is a whole host of corporate careers in communication requiring the skill of a wordsmith.

I don’t fit all of those categories, but we all have one thing in common: inspiration. It seems like such a simple term for the complex emotion and action that come with it. You see, inspiration seems like a very active word to me. You must act on it or its time will pass, leaving in its wake an empty void.

The other day I was pondering why I write and the answer was very clear. I’m inspired. And that inspiration comes in so many forms. For me, a writer who spends a lot of my time in historical fiction, it can be something as simple as an old photograph, the front page of a newspaper from 1934 or the marriage license found in a stack of family documents.

Those objects get me to thinking about the people, our grandparents and great-grandparents, who were once our age. They once had dreams and aspirations—or maybe they didn’t. Who knows now? They weren’t “famous” and their lives weren’t documented closely. When you start digging into their history, you are left with only the few documents that mark their high and low points. Birth, marriage, military service, procreation or death. As the pastor who spoke at a family funeral recently said, “There is a lot of stuff that goes with the hyphen between when you are born and when you die.”

So, that’s where I’m inspired to imagine what might have been.

Those aren’t the only things that help the creative to surface in me. Music plays a huge role. That would be why I own nine days worth of music in my iTunes library.  There are moments when I hear a song and it carries me to the place where words flow from my fingers. God Bless those artists. (A big shout out to Amos Lee, The Punch Brothers, Johnny Flynn and, in moments of angst, Fiona Apple)

Inspiration is tricky though. If you are open to its flights of fancy, anything can be inspiring. A movie, a book you read and pieces of art are easy. Some of the best inspiration can come from unexpected corners. The next time you drive down the highway take a look at the couple in the car arguing. Imagine what they might be saying to each other. Go sit in a park for an hour and watch parents interact with their children. Volunteer at the local homeless shelter. Talk with a stranger. Or simply take something you feel like you’ve always known and try to take it out of its box and reimagine it.

Of course, then you must act on it.

– Courtney Marquez

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