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How It Happens: It Starts With…Music!

It’s the same for writers all across the globe. People will ask, “Where do you get your ideas from?” And a lot of times, that’s a tough question to answer. For myself, there are a zillion different ways–I can see something in real life that triggers a burst of inspiration, something can come up in a conversation that I latch onto and build upon, I can be motivated to explore something in my writing by reading the newspaper…hell, there have been a fair amount of times when I’ve just closed my eyes and enjoyed a quick “mind movie” that gave me a great idea for a book.

But usually? I catch the fever while listening to music.

Since my father was in the radio business for decades, music was pretty widely available to me in all formats. The old man would bring home tons of albums, and my younger brother and I would spin ’em and give ’em a decent listening-to. It started out as rock or what passed for soft rock in those days: Chicago, Bread, Three Dog Knight, Seals & Crofts, America…you get the idea. My brother continued with that evolution and graduated to Led Zepplin, Pink Floyd, and Aerosmith. Me? I unexpectedly played a record of a different kind that my brother thought was hideous, but which struck a chord with me creatively.

That album was Gene Page’s score for the blaxploitation flick Blacula. (Which I just now found on YouTube–pardon me while I have a psychedelic flashback, man.)

Yeah, okay. Not the most awe-inspiring piece of music ever made. But as I listened to the rest of the album, I stumbled onto something that would prove useful to me in later creative endeavors, and it was this one thing: I can really write like a mutha to movie soundtracks. Pink Floyd and Ted Nugent and Todd Rundgren put out great, masterful albums–but they’re only good to listen to while I’m hurtling down the highway at 80+ miles an hour. When I write, I need something that has more variety, but which is grounded in a common element.

What I’m talking about here is thematic unity, where a single theme or a collection of themes reoccur throughout a body of music. Not necessarily in every track–that would be boring–but enough so that the score has been branded with a particular identity, something that lends itself to evoking imagery that I can make use of when plotting out a story. There are times where tracks can help me not only create a scene in my mind, but assist me in blocking it out by providing me with a sense of dramatic timing that’s just plain invaluable. I know many writers who wrestle with things like this, writing and rewriting and rewriting again as they try to figure out the proper tempo for a scene. I have to say, I rarely have that problem. (But of course I can’t spell, so that makes for a more hostile writing environment.)

So after Blacula, I started hunting around the radio station library for more soundtracks. Found some fantastic picks, too: Enter the Dragon by Lalo Schifrin, The Towering Inferno and Earthquake by John Williams, Airport 1975 by John Cacavas, The Hindenburg by David Shire. But when scores like Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the incredible Superman hit the street–John Williams was simply on fire during this run, and especially with Superman–soundtracks and writing were officially going steady.

But then, I discovered Jerry Goldsmith. More eclectic than Williams and Barry and the others, more atonal, able to write music that not just reflected what was happening on the silver screen, Goldsmith grabbed me by the lapels and slapped me silly with tracks from Logan’s Run, Coma, Capricorn One, ALIEN, and of course, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. After I started listening to his stuff regularly, soundtracks and writing skipped the engagement and ran off and got married.

So that’s how my Idea Machine usually gets engaged, from a snippet of music, or from an entire score. It almost always happens to music; for instance, the idea for The Gathering Dead popped into my mind when I was listening to The Haunting, specifically the track “Finally Home” at around the 2:37 mark (how’s that for accuracy). The image it invoked was of some military folks standing on the rooftop of a skyscraper in NYC and looking out over the city…while the streets below was flooded by the hungry dead.

I know some other writerly folks who say this is cheating, that using one medium to jumpstart work in another must break some sort of cardinal rule. I think this is boolsheet, because at the end of the day, I get words on paper–I don’t really suffer from writer’s block, which is just another excuse not to write. But when I find the right tunes, not only can I write, I can crank stuff out until the cows come home. I don’t think my approach is at all atypical.

And hey, guess what? I works for me!

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