Soundtracks, and how songs wind up on them

Posted on January 8, 2012

When I write a book, I always create a soundtrack. Usually the process goes something like this:

1) I choose some movie scores to tie it all together; IMHO, movie score music is the absolute best for writing to. Usually I patch together some songs from the scores of two or three movies. The EVERNIGHT series, for instance, relied heavily on the scores for “Interview With The Vampire,” Tim Burton’s “Sleepy Hollow” and “Pan’s Labyrinth.” I hit on those because I knew I wanted something that would be lush and dreamy, and yet also deeply eerie; each of those scores fit the bill. Those I kept throughout the entire series. Now that I’m working on the SPELLCASTER series, I’m using the scores from Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” “Twin Peaks” and — of all things — “Tron: Legacy.” (All I can tell you is that it works.) There I always wanted some scariness, but a little more humor and action, plus that small-town-gone-very-bad vibe that “Twin Peaks” provides. In the case of BALTHAZAR, I kept some of the scores from the EVERNIGHT series but also tossed in the score to “Inception,” which worked about a thousand times better than I would ever have thought.

2) I also want songs with lyrics, though — including some songs that the characters could conceivably be listening to. So I begin throwing in things I’m listening to currently, and I add and subtract as I work. Now that I’m writing this post, I find that I’m not wholly sure how, exactly, I find the songs I’ve never listened to before — and yet I always do find them, and they always wind up being favorites I adore long after the book is done. BALTHAZAR almost hinges on “The Crow and the Butterfly,” and both Bat for Lashes and Vienna Teng are playing a huge part in the SPELLCASTER series so far.

The one book I haven’t touched on in the above is FATEFUL — by far the hardest to assemble a score for. I mean, the movie score was kind of obvious (thanks, James Horner!), but I had to find the songs that Alec and Tess would have been listening to and enjoying. I.e., I had to find popular songs from 1912 in recordings that I could listen to the several dozen times I would hear them while writing. So what was hip in 1912? George M. Cohan, for one — and I did listen to “Give My Regards To Broadway,” which would have been the hottest thing going around them. “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now,” “I Want A Girl Just Like The Girl Who Married Dear Old Dad” — it is harder to find zippy versions of these, to say the least. But one I found that I adored was “The Glow Worm,” covered by Count Basie, with lyrics obviously celebrating the days when electric power was still shiny and new.

One happy fact: the popular songs of that era included a lot of tunes about the moon. “Shine On Harvest Moon,” “By The Light Of The Silvery Moon” — what works better for a book about werewolves?

I listen to soundtracks most of the time I’m writing. First they set the mood; later, they recapture it for me — get me back into the same emotional/psychological place I was when writing earlier. Everything gets tied together through the music, eventually, and usually if I don’t feel like I have the soundtrack the way it should be … it’s a sign my thinking about the book isn’t the way it should be. It’s one of those mysterious things that shouldn’t work but does.