How To Find Your Story Soundtrack

I write to music most of the time. Sometimes it’s a defensive screen against my daughter’s television or the garbage truck outside; sometimes it’s the shortcut to getting inside my writer headspace. I’ve gotten scenes and sometimes even plot twists from music. Whole characters have come out of a single phrase. I can’t explain how that works, and I wouldn’t even attempt to figure out why. What I can explain is how I find music, and I can give you a window into how I go about setting up my story playlists. I do this assuming very few people will make a playlist the same way that I do, and that it’s unlikely my method would work part and parcel for another author. However, there’s nothing like something that’s almost right but not quite to ignite that creative spark, so here’s to my method inspiring you the way to your own.

My greatest asset in soundtrack creation is my own music collection. On my computer at this moment I have 42 gig of music. iTunes tells me it would take me 24 days to listen to it all. That’s a crapload of music, is what that is. This is nothing, however, compared to my husband’s: the network just told me his music clocks in at 138 gig, taking 68.9 days to listen to. Some of our stuff is doubled, but overall? Much less than you’d think. His is a collection of over twenty years; mine is, too, but with less aggression, and I didn’t hit CDs until 1995, so some of my past is lost. I’ll admit this is a huge asset that most people won’t have. I’ll also acknowledge that unless you’re independently wealthy, it’s not going to work to just go buy everything. There’s a piracy question that rises in here, which I will leave lying right where it is, except to say that karma is important. The world is not as black and white as corporations or even artists would like us to believe (says someone who is fully aware that in a few months her book WILL be a pirated eBook); however, make sure your karmic scales balance, or they will be balanced for you. But even as I acknowledge my advantage in content volume, I’m going to tell you that every single WIP that goes anywhere demands its own purchases at some point. Sometimes I get lucky and buy something I’m not sure why only to find its use later. Sometimes a WIP is content mostly with odd bits that are lying around my hard drive. Usually, though, I have to go find at least one new album to make up the backbone.

iTunes is your friend here, more now than every because of Genius Playlists, though I will warn you the Genius Recommendations tab could be the death of your wallet. For the novel I’m planning to write for NaNoWriMo this year, I got the main vein of the soundtrack by pure accident: I made a genius playlist of "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)" by Beyoncé. I’d intended it to be a peppy break after finishing another edit of another story, and I wanted to clean my mental palate; instead, I started seeing scenes explode. Many of the songs have already fallen away, replaced by others (recommended by the deadly tab), but that was the genesis.

(The Double Blind playlist as of this morning. "Single Ladies" is, ironically, probably about to be yanked.)

Start with a song. Start with an idea. Start with a sense of tone. Troll iTunes and listen to sound samples. Play movies that have the right feel but don’t watch and try to ignore the dialog: just hear the stuff that floats in the back. Because that’s what you want: sound that disappears but catches you all at the same time.

I like a mix of "exciting" songs and "soundtrack" songs. I generally have a main body playlist that gets so long that it’s over 100 songs long; I play this stuff all the time, and on repeat, so I need a lot of sound. When I get in the heyday of writing, I will start parsing it out more narrowly, making shorter playlists for specific scenes and sometimes putting one song on repeat for several songs in a row. I’ve actually always written this way, even before technology made this so easy; I remember begging Dan to find particular downloads of MP3 players on the web so I could still put things on repeat. Nothing ruins your mood more than having to stop and hit a "back" button. The name of the game here, though, is volume and variety, while also staying under an umbrella of tone.

Usually there’s a particular album at the heart of my playlists. Usually they’re instrumental, and they’re often soundtracks from movies, very often from movies I haven’t seen. When I get stuck in a story, if I don’t have a soundtrack at the heart of the playlist or the one I have feels wrong, I go to iTunes and browse the soundtracks and get ready to apologize to my husband for spending too much money. In the last story I wrote I didn’t get a feel for the heart of it until I found the soundtrack for the movie Partition. I have no idea what this movie is about, but I know the beautiful sound of "Naseem’s Journey" and "Tears of Joy" were the very soul of my story. I’ve also milked the soundtracks from Battlestar Galactica for everything from gay sex on the beach to epic battles for the soul of a world. E.S. Posthumus (an artist) is good for almost any moment when you need sweeping, cinematic drama. Everything by James Newton Howard and of course the beautiful Hans Zimmer will eventually be good for something.

One of my most go-to soundtracks is Michael Clayton by James Newton Howard. I knew the whole soundtrack before I even saw the movie; the movie was okay, but the music is much better. In the film you hardly notice it, which is your first clue to how good it is. It will fit over almost any story where you need mystery with a bit of melancholy and a side order of menace. It’s light, it has a motif, and it varies. I just this morning put it into the playlist for Double Blind, and I think it’s going to be a winner. The other instrumental pieces in that story are coming from Ocean’s 13 and a few songs from Mark Ronson, and those are great for representing Randy’s wicked cunning, but Michael Clayton is going to represent not just Ethan but the dark underlayment of intrigue and intent that will dance beneath the pissing contest of the poker tournament.

This playlist is still in flux; I’ll likely add at least twenty more songs to it before I finish, and I’ll likely remove at least thirty. It began with Beyoncé, Rhianna, Duffy, and Heather Small; Greg Laswell and James Blunt gave it some emotional edge, Lady Gaga gave it some raunchy sex, and Madonna came in with introspection. (Yes, you read that right.) Yesterday I added Ingrid Michaelson, bridging something between Laswell and Blunt and Madonna; I’m hoping for a Will Young song to get in here, too. It will grow and change with the novel, and in the end, for me it will be as integral to the story as the words. On a practical note, these soundtracks are very handy when someone sends you an email saying "Please fill out this contact sheet for your characters/plot so we can make a cover for your book" and you have not thought about that thing in MONTHS. Four songs of the old playlist, and it will be all over your head just like it never left.

I find a lot of music from iTunes, but I find a lot from friends, too. Hands down my biggest influence comes from my husband, but I get some of my finds from his own original sources, too. XO’s Middle 8 is an excellent, excellent music blog and he has a killer blogroll of more sites, including another friend, Paul. is also another place I get recommendations, both from friends and from the site itself. Essentially, just like when hunting down story, you get it wherever you can. You play it as smart as you can with money, and you watch your karma. Oh, and if you’re published or trying to get there, save your receipts. Your playlist is tax deductible.

However you get there, best of luck, and I’ll catch you on the chorus.

Heidi’s NaNoWriMo page
Heidi’s website

Previous NaNoWriMo articles:
Prepare More Than Just Your Story
Prewriting, NaNo Style
Why I Love NaNoWriMo

4 Comments on “How To Find Your Story Soundtrack

  1. Wow, 100 songs is a long soundtrack! I’ve just been looking and most of mine are about 24 songs, so just under two hours. Hmmm, might have to blog about this myself to figure out why…
    Wish was free in Australia but they started charging earlier this year (while still being free elsewhere) so no soup for them from me.

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