The Soundtrack of My Writing Life


“Where and how do you write? Office? Coffee shop? Laptop? Notebook? Magic pencil?” I love to hear authors answer these questions from readers. Like most humans, I’m a sucker for a hot tip. I figure there’s a secret out there somewhere that’ll change my life, set me free, and up my word count. If I’m not the one being asked the questions, I’m taking notes.

John Steinbeck kept a journal while he was writing East of Eden. I read it a long time ago—looking for hot tips, naturally. There were many compelling insights, I’m sure, but here’s what sticks with me: The guy was obsessed with the pencils. Every morning, he’d line up 24 perfectly sharpened Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602s. “Half the pressure, twice the speed.” He swore by the Blackwings until they “let him down.” Steinbeck’s words. “They crack on me…and all hell is let loose.” So he switched to the Mongol 480 #2 3/8 round. For pages and pages, while he was writing a masterpiece of American fiction, John Steinbeck was running through 60 of those cedar pencils a day.

When I read this, I shook my head. “Poor John Steinbeck.” And hurried off to get myself some Mongol 480s. Didn’t work. I discovered John Steinbeck’s perfect pencil would not solve my particular problem. In fact, anything I believed I had to have or do before I could get started writing was a trap. What I needed to make my writing happen was to go ahead and write something down. Simple, right? Hardly. I would have preferred a magic pencil.

Noise-cancelling headphones

I do have a secret weapon now, however. I have a fine desk, with a lovely view, but my “home office” is a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. They fill my working hours with the perfect combination of isolation and music, a blend that fuels inspiration and energizes my imagination. What’s more, they’re portable. Once they’re clamped over my ears, I can write almost anywhere.

Finding this ideal music/writing environment didn’t come naturally to me. My mother, a teacher, was a relentless believer in the quiet, contained study environment. No snacks. No wandering about. No music. Nonetheless, once I left home, and after I started writing in earnest, I discovered that music could be a worthy companion for a writer. For one thing, it dampens the voice that whispers, “That is a very dumb idea.”

My go-to choice these days is music from the movies. Soundtracks by composers like John Williams, Hans Zimmer, and Ennio Morricone make the perfect soundtrack for writing a book. They have it all: inspiring overtures, creepy suspense, peaceful vistas, heart wrenching sorrows, and romantic interludes. By definition a soundtrack sets a scene, punctuates a moment, and builds to a climax. Like any plot line, it introduces characters and themes, ramps up suspense, jumps out from nowhere, and, at last, pronounces “The End!” with a sweeping crescendo. It supports—but doesn’t interfere with—what’s happening on the screen.

The wayback of my head

As moviegoers we’ve been trained to follow these cues mostly unconsciously. Repetition enhances this effect. A lot of my listening happens in the wayback of my head without any active participation from me.

Lately I’ve been playing John Williams’ soundtrack for Jurassic Park. It opens with that echoing drum beat—you know the one. The deep reverberation that made the cool ripple in the water glass when the Tyrannosaurus Rex walked up behind the jeep? Yeah, that one. My latest plot has a fearsome villain, and when I hear that ominous thud, it triggers the recognition: “He’s here.” And the main themes are reassuringly familiar. They provide a pleasant, familiar, energizing backdrop against which scenes can unfold because, after all, that’s a soundtrack’s job.

That’s what earworms do

Every once in a while, a single tune will come out of left field and earworm its way into a story. Last summer, while I was writing Murder to the Metal, the second of my “Somebody’s Bound to Wind Up Dead Mysteries” series, I happened to hear a recording of Frank Sinatra’s version of Wave by Antônio Carlos Jobim. It started playing itself for me, over and over, without benefit of headphones, because that’s what earworms do. When I got the recording and started writing to it, I understood it was the perfect description of the intimate world of darkness shared by Allie Harper and her fellow detective, Tom Bennington, who is blind. It’s the love theme of my soundtrack. So I got permission to include the first stanza as the epigraph of the new novel, and also to use it here:

“So close your eyes.
For that’s a lovely way to be
aware of things your heart
alone was meant to see.”

Wave by Antônio Carlos Jobim.

So what are you writing—or reading—that might be enhanced by a soundtrack of your own creation? And maybe some headphones …