Monday, 13 March 2017

Writing to Music - Sarah Parke

For the latest in the Writing to Music series, I am delighted to hand over the blog to author Sarah Parke:~

Creating a Novel Mixtape

Listening to music is an important part of my creative process. I know a lot of writers who listen to music while writing and there seem to be two camps: those who write to instrumental music, and those who listen to music with words. There’s quite a bit of debate over whether lyrics distract the writer from their own words. Personally, I like my music wordy enough to drown out my nagging inner editor.

Music can also be a helpful tool in your writing toolbox.

Each time I begin a new novel project I spend hours “getting to know” the cast of characters I’ll be working with. I write out character sketches, conduct interviews, and locate photos that help me visualize my characters. I also create a mixtape or soundtrack with a song for each major character.

I wish I could claim the idea for a novel soundtrack as my own. But the idea came from my high school English teacher who once gave us an assignment to create a soundtrack for The Great Gatsby. It was the most fun I ever had with a school project, and I’ve adapted it to fit my needs as an author.

One of the things to consider for your novel’s mixtape is music genres. If your novel takes place in the Gothic South, you might want to limit your song selections to country music, blue grass, or Christian music. By contrast, if your novel’s setting is India under British Colonialism, your soundtrack might consist of Bollywood music and British waltzes. The point is, consider all the cultural and historical attributes of music.

My current novel is an alternative history for a Young Adult audience, so I find myself turning to the alternative rock genre. It was my preferred genre when I was an angsty teenager, but alternative music also deals with a lot of YA themes (love, heartbreak, disappointment, anger, and independence). The tempo (fast or slow) and mood (solemn vs. energetic) are important factors when choosing music for my novel’s mixtape, but the lyrics are more important for my purposes. I pay close attention to the words in a song, looking for particular lines or refrains that speak to my characters’ motivations, or a painful memories from their past.

As an example: My main character, Mallory, is a sixteen year old girl born with goat horns and hooves in an alternative version of Victorian England where Napoleon won the Coalition Wars using Dark Magic. She is an angry-loner type because London society shuns and fears her deformity. I chose “Pieces” by Sum 41 as Mallory’s song. It has an upbeat tempo, but conveys a message of loneliness and not fitting in. The line “I tried to be perfect / But nothing was worth it” is particularly appropriate for Mallory, who struggles to find her place between two worlds throughout the novel.
Pieces - Sum 41 (Youtube)
The novel’s anti-hero, Mallory’s uncle Archibald, is a fun character to write because he is a bit of a black hat with good intentions. Archibald is a recovering magic addict. The song I chose for him was “The Pretender” by Foo Fighters. The lyric “I’m the voice inside your head/ you refuse to hear / I’m the face that you have to face / mirrored in your stare” speaks to the two sides of Archibald’s psyche that are warring with each other.
The Pretender - Foo Fighters (Youtube)
The right song creates an almost immediate connection to a specific character for me, helping me to “hear” a character’s voice when I’m writing dialogue or emotionally intense scenes. This sense of connection is especially important when I am dipping in and out of drafting mode in 20 minutes sprints during a long week of working full time. Sometimes all it takes for me to fall back into the grip of a scene is to listen to some songs from my novel’s soundtrack.

Music can also help your story’s pacing. If you’ve ever watched a horror film and gotten that fluttering sensation in the pit of your stomach as the character on screen walks down a dark hallway, you can thank effective sound design for your anxiety! Movie and television soundtracks are meant to convey tension without words and they can help improve the pacing of your scenes.

My current novel project has several fast-paced fight scenes. Oftentimes I’ll reread a “quick” scene and find it overly wordy. Then I’ll read over the scene with a fast-paced song playing in the background and I find myself cutting words and tightening sentences. A frenetic tempo forces me to write shorter sentences; abrupt banter; quick paragraphs. The pace of my writing conforms to the pace of the music. It’s a great revision strategy!

The internet has made it easier than ever before to search for free music and create playlists. The following sites require you to sign up for a free account, but you can stream music with limited ads: YouTube, Spotify, and 8tracks.

And while you’re building your novel’s mixtape soundtrack, you can also play around with creative album art with online graphics programs like Canva or PicMonkey.

Just remember that your novel’s mixtape should be a tool to help you stay invested in your story. If you find yourself spending your writing time reading music lyrics, you should probably turn back to that blank page!

Happy Writing (and listening)!


Sarah Parke is an author and editor. When she’s not writing about monsters in Victorian London or supporting the publication efforts at Globe Pequot Press, she enjoys spending time with her husband and their menagerie of animals. Follow Sarah on Twitter, @SParkeAuthor or visit her website at
Her first novel, The Mourning Ring, is a Historical Fantasy about the teenaged Brontë siblings. You can order it on:
Barnes & Noble


  1. I love this. I have a CD tower filled with my favorite mood music. Half of it is movie music. Film composers are masters of using musical sounds to elicit emotions. A few selections from Stephen Warbeck, John Barry, and Michael Nyman are certain to send me into the moods I need to write any scene.

    1. Thanks Christinma,
      I'm with you on movie music - I too have a whole stack of movie soundtracks, from Ennio Morricone to the most recent Robin Hood film. John Barry is a particular favourite - although Out of Africa makes me stop writing, stare out of the window, and drift away... :-)