5-18 Powell's City of Books, World's Largest Indie Bookstore by Judith Ashley and Sarah Raplee

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Writing to the Beat

The influence of music in my writing

One of the unexpected things I've enjoyed since I started writing fiction a few years ago, has been exploring a character’s unique voice and personality. It's a magical thing as a writer, when the ordinary words you're tapping into a keyboard suddenly start coming out in character. When a distinct voice or turn of phrase emerges that's not really my author-self speaking.

Something that's helped me find that character voice has been music. It may be a cliché to talk about a song being part of the soundtrack to your life, but I think there's truth to the idea. Everyone reading this blog can probably think of a particular song or album that can send them hurtling back to a moment in the past, complete with emotional reactions attached to that memory.

I’ve found a similar thing when hanging out with my characters. I know I'm on the right track with a story when I'm writing and out of the blue (or the murky recesses of my mind) I can picture my heroine walking down the street or sitting in her apartment...and there's a song in the background. A real song that I know is the type of music she’d listen to.

This is exactly what happened when I began writing my debut novel, Girl on a Plane. The story centres on the character of Sinead, an Irish flight attendant. She's quite a bubbly, hopeful person with a strong backbone underneath the glamorous surface, as she's tackled difficult personal issues in the past.

A few songs that popped into my mind reflected Sinead’s character:
  • It's Beautiful by Spiderbait, with an ethereal, floaty sounding female vocal and pop beat which I could imagine her listening to on a plane.
  • Nothing Compares 2U by Sinead O’Connor, about woman who has loved and lost, who may eat her dinner in a fancy restaurant or do whatever she chooses, but she's still blue.
  • My Angel Gabriel by Lamb, the perfect song for evoking Sinead’s feelings when she finally falls in love with our hero, Gabriel.
I ended up keeping an open file of songs that I thought suited the character, and started building a playlist in Spotify to listen to when writing specific scenes. In the end, I had playlists for both main characters. Sinead’s has a pop rhythm. Gabriel, the gruff but gorgeous Aussie CEO who she meets in First Class, has quite a different emotional feel.

Gabriel was a tough character to write, because he hides his emotions. He even hid them from me, the author of his story! By finding music I thought Gabriel would be drawn to, I actually found a window into his character. He’s also had a difficult path in life, but being a man, perhaps is angrier and more determined to succeed career-wise than Sinead. His songs come from artists including Nirvana, Hilltop Hoods (Aussie hip hop group) and the moody Nick Cave.


Excerpt from Girl on a Plane 

Music was an important element in this scene from Girl on a Plane:

“Not bloody Kylie,” he whispered. The singing budgie wasn’t his favourite Aussie export. He rubbed his temples with both hands.
Sinead was centre stage with a microphone in one hand, doing the weird dance from the music video. Even though he wasn’t a fan, it was the type of song your brain absorbed by osmosis. She wasn’t wearing the famous white jumpsuit with the plunging neckline, but he pictured it anyway. She already looked damn fine up there, shimmying and shaking, even sexier than when she’d danced to the Macarena song back on the plane. The Kylie outfit would be the icing on the cake though.
La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la…
She launched into the song and as she started on the lyrics, he had to admit she wasn’t half bad. At least she was giving it everything she had.
Gabriel’s ears pricked up at the words of the song. Could the lyrics be meant especially for him? She couldn’t get some guy out of her head, and his loving was all she could think about.
This song wasn’t so bad after all. Sinead strutted across the stage like a real rock chick. Her tight jeans gave him a fine view of her assets, along with every other bloke in the bar.
One guy yelled out. “Hey Kylie! Wanna do the locomotion with me?”
Laughs broke out from the punters near the stage. A jolt of jealousy struck him like a punch in the gut. He couldn’t stand the idea of these guys looking at her, let alone laying their hands on her. Weird, seeing as he’d never experienced anything like it. Ever.
Sinead seemed to be oblivious to the effect she had on the guys in the crowd. She was in the zone. Now Sinead sang about wanting the guy every day and every night. Asking him to stay.

Christmas music in Heart Note


When writing my romantic comedy Christmas novella, Heart Note, seasonal music was a big influence on the story, setting and mood. From Mariah Carey's All I Want For Christmas Is You, to the new Gwen Stefani Christmas album, Christmas music was on my Spotify playlist while writing the draft. 

I even incorporated a crazy but fun flash mob scene into the book, based in a department store perfume counter just before the holidays. The fast-paced beat of the music also influenced the rhythm of the scene. 

I’m interested to hear from other writers about whether music plays an important role in your writing. And readers, do you ever imagine a soundtrack to go with your favourite book? Comment on this blog and let me know!

P.S. You can check out my complete music playlist for Girl on a Plane on my website - and click through to listen on Spotify.

About Cassandra O'Leary

**Winner of the global We Heart New Talent contest. Nominated for Best New Author in the 2016 AusRomToday Reader's Choice Awards for excellence in Australian romance fiction.**
Cassandra O'Leary is a romance and women's fiction author from Melbourne, Australia, drinking coffee, dreaming of Italy and Spain, and raising two mini ninjas with her superhero husband.
In 2015, Cassandra won the global We Heart New Talent contest run by Avon Books/HarperCollins UK and her debut romantic comedy novel, Girl on a Plane, was released in July 2016. She was also a 2015 finalist in the Lone Star contest, Northwest Houston Romance Writers of America, and a 2014 finalist, First Kiss contest, Romance Writers of Australia.
Read more at 


Sarah Raplee said...

Hi Cassandra,

Loved your excerpt! Interesting about music. I have theme songs for my main characters when writing. For example, Gloria Estefan's 'Anything for You' fit the heroine of my first book, who vows to give up the man she loves 'if that's what I must do to make you happy.'

The hero's thee song is "Desperado" by Cling Black: 'Your prison is walking through this world all alone."

A whole playlist is daunting to me. I'll have to check yours out!

Cassandra O'Leary said...

Hi Sarah,
Thanks for your comment. I just start with maybe one or two songs but I find them spinning around in my head after a while. I'll have to start a new playlist for my next novella. Fun!

C.D. Hersh said...

We used a lot of music and developed a play list for our book "Can't Stop the Music." it starts at Woodstock69 and the heroine is a music teacher. We had lots of fun revisiting the music of the 60s.

Cassandra O'Leary said...

Hi C.D. That does sound like fun! It's tempting me to write a period set story in the 1970s or 80s. Maybe one day...

Maggie Lynch said...

I know a lot of people relate to music and many have it playing while writing. I do agree that music shapes our lives and sometimes there is a particular song that fits the mood.

Though I love music, I need silence to write, or background noise that is meaningless to me (sports or news my husband is watching). However, being married to a musician, I have an intimate relationship to how music is made and how two different people can interpret a lyric or a melody. In my Sweetwater Canyon series, each book has a new song associated with it. I write the lyrics and sometimes I write a basic melody (not always) with my basic keyboard. Then my husband takes it and actually finishes the music for it with melody and guitar chords. My hope is to eventually release a music CD of all the music done through those novels. Maybe by the last one we will have it together.

I don't know that I could do it again though. Writing lyrics that I KNOW will be made into an actual song is added pressure to writing the novel. On the other hand, it provides something I can share with my husband in this work together. Now if I could only sing decently. :)