Risky Regencies

Soundtrack Of Your Life

Let’s talk a bit about an aspect of movies that is often not even really noticed, but which can make or break a story–the soundtrack.

Something of a tangent, but not entirely: last weekend I went to see Elizabeth: The Golden Age. I was really looking forward to it, since I liked the first Elizabeth film. The Elizabethan era is one of my very favorites. In grad school, I specialized in Elizabethan poetry, so I know that the history in that movie was, well, a big crock of almost total nonsense. I expected that would be true of The Golden Age, as well, and also that the costumes would be stupendous (if sometimes a bit silly–what was up with that gigantic flower??). I wasn’t disappointed by either. What I didn’t expect was that it would be something of a snooze-fest. It even made Mary Queen Scots and the Armada dull going, and even Clive Owen (looking quite yummy in his scruffy-explorer Walter Ralegh get-up) seemed to be sleep-walking through it all.

The first movie was highly suspenseful, dark, almost claustrophobic. It captured the danger of the times so well, and also the lavishness and the delicious bawdiness. Christopher Eccleston was an intensely menacing Duke of Norfolk; Cate Blanchett an astoundingly perfect queen (as she also was in TGA, though far too young-looking). That tension was lacking in this new film. It gave me way too much time to eat my Sour Patch Kids and ponder such stream-of-consciousness matters as–“Why does Phillip II persist in giggling constantly? Why does he only have such lame lines as “What of the Jesuit?” And which one is the Jesuit anyway? Rhys Ifans? Or that crazy kid who looks like a Calvin Klein underwear model? No, I think he’s supposed to be Babington. Maybe. Why get an actress of Samantha Morton’s caliber to play Mary Queen of Scots if they’re not really going to use her? She should star in her own movie. Mary: Age of Extreme Foolishness. I would definitely go see that. She’d have to lose that weird Scottish accent, though, and sound French like she’s supposed to. Wow, I do like that gown Abbie Cornish is wearing. Wonder where I could get one?”

Anyway, the point of all this is that there were a few scenes I liked. The one where the crazy underwear model tries to shoot Elizabeth; Mary’s execution; the one where the storm that will destroy the Armada (not, as the movie would have us believe, Clive Owen) is brewing, and Elizabeth walks out on a cliff in a flowing white chemise. Oh, and the Volte dance bit. I do love bits with dances. Those scenes had a power lacking in much else, and one of the important reasons was the very effective use of music.

Another movie that did this very well was Marie Antoinette. I liked it despite the very bad screenplay and the less-than-stellar acting because, aside from looking gorgeous, it sounded weirdly great. The montage of life at Versailles set to Vivaldi; the masked ball where dancers twirl around to Hong Kong Garden. Terrific, if also very, very odd.

I like to set my books to soundtracks, too. This is a great way to waste time not writing while also feeling like I am doing something productive for my creative process. My current WIP is the second in my “Muses of Mayfair” series, Clio’s story, set in Sicily in 1818. Here are a few songs I’ve found for it:

1) Albinoni’s Adagio

2) Dave Matthews Band, Crash

3) Mozart, Der Holle Rache (the Queen of the Night’s second aria), The Magic Flute

4) Nickelback, Rock Star (I’m usually contemptuous of Nickelback, I admit, but this one has a Big Dumb Fun infectiousness, much like that “tell me what you want what you really really want” Spice Girls song. Maybe I should include that one, too)

5) The Cure, Pictures of You

6) BowWowWow, Aphrodisiac (stolen from the Marie Antoinette soundtrack, which I like to listen to when on the treadmill)

7) Mascagni, Intermezzo sinfonico from Cavalleria Rusticana

I need something for a skinny-dipping scene, too, if anyone has any ideas…

If you did a soundtrack for your own WIP, or your favorite book, what would it include? Anyone seen any good movies lately???

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Diane Gaston
15 years ago

I need something for a skinny-dipping scene, too, if anyone has any ideas…

How about Handel’s water music????

The very first book I composed (entirely in my head; not a word on paper) was an improbable historical set to the music of The Planets. When I hear the music now, I still remember my scenes.

I don’t use music now, though…

Susan Wilbanks
15 years ago

I still like to listen to the CD I made for my Peninsular War romance manuscript. It was a mix of more-or-less period folk songs like “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” “Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier,” and “The Trooper and the Maid,” along with songs that just fit the mood of the story or certain sections thereof. I had “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman” for when the hero realized he’d fallen for the heroine, “On My Own,” for a time my heroine thought she’d never see the hero again, etc.

I don’t have a soundtrack for my adventure/alternate history WIP yet, but I know it’s going to have bits of the Gladiator and Fellowship of the Rings soundtracks. And some Celtic music, the up-tempo stuff with fiddles and bagpipes rather than the ethereal atmospheric music.

Susan Wilbanks
15 years ago

I forgot to mention that I think making soundtracks is for me what collaging is for a lot of writers–it lets me access a different part of my creativity and view the story and characters from a different angle. I tend to pick up quotes and scraps of poetry for each of my major characters, too.

Keira Soleore
15 years ago

Some songs are so evocative of entire 3-D scenes filled with sounds, action, smells, and people, all of which have nothing whatsoever to do with the actual song or the lyrics.

A recent one for me is Loreena McKennitt’s “The Lady of Shalott” from her album The Visit with words from a poem by Tennyson. It brings up a scene from medieval Scotland for me: Imagine warriors in plaids with clamores on their backs, dirks in their hands, running and running over the wild heather-covered mountainsides, the North Sea crashing below, the clash of swords in the distance, the whinnying of horses, and the stench of blood on the breeze.

I write to the soundtracks by Patrick Doyle and Bach. For some reason, so far, I have only written to instrumental music, not vocal music. New Age stuff doesn’t work either.

Ammanda and Susan: How do you go in search of individual songs?

Cara King
15 years ago

Keira wrote: For some reason, so far, I have only written to instrumental music, not vocal music.

When I first started writing, I couldn’t write to vocal music — the rhythms would throw off the rhythms of my dialogue. At certain points, I wouldn’t even write to anything that was very rhythmic in any way…comedy rhythms can be hard, and certainly subtle, and that’s what I was doing then…

Though nowadays, I don’t have as much trouble when I’m drafting — only when I’m editing, and have to know exactly how something sounds. When I draft, often listen to an energetic song on eternal repeat, which I find less distracting… πŸ™‚


Amanda McCabe
15 years ago

“I forgot to mention that I think making soundtracks is for me what collaging is for a lot of writers–“

I think this is true for me, too. I don’t do collaging, aside from finding pics of actors or famous people I think resemble my characters (though maybe this is an excuse to look at yummy actors??), but I love music, and sometimes the mood or words helps me set a scene in my head.

“A recent one for me is Loreena McKennitt’s “The Lady of Shalott” from her album The Visit”

Keira, I love this song! It makes me want to do a Scottish medieval. πŸ™‚

“Ammanda and Susan: How do you go in search of individual songs?”

Hard to say. I don’t usually “search” for them, they just happen to come to me. It may be a song or piece I already love, or something I hear on the radio that strikes me .

For my last book (A Sinful Alliance, out in April!), it was set at the court of Henry VIII and I used a lot from a CD called “Pastyme With Good Company: Songs from (you guessed it) the Court of Henry VIII” πŸ™‚

“How about Handel’s water music????”


Susan Wilbanks
15 years ago

How do you go in search of individual songs?

With the Peninsular War manuscript, I had a scene where the hero and heroine happen to meet in the shadows near a campfire early in the story and end up dancing together. I needed a song, ideally one that fit the story somehow. So I found a folk song website that listed lyrics to Child Ballads and the like and picked two songs for my scene.

The site had midi files with the tunes, but they sounded terrible. So I went to iTunes and found good versions. The rest of the soundtrack kinda grew from there. I listen to a lot of Irish and Scottish trad music, which is a good fit for the kind of stories I write, and the rest were songs I liked that reminded me of my story and characters.

Susan Wilbanks
15 years ago

Oh, and I don’t write to music so much as listen to the soundtrack as I go about my everyday business to keep my story at the forefront of my mind.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon
15 years ago

Since I write contemporaries, I try to figure out what type of music my characters would like listening to and then I listen to that as I’m writing. I’ve had heroines into country music, salsa and classical.

Oh and I totally agree with your review of Elizabeth, Amanda. Both of them.

Keira Soleore
15 years ago

Cara, yes. The words throw off my words. And any music that has a really driving drumbeat makes it difficult for me to think usually, but that primeaval sound does work for, um, ah, certain scenes.

Ammanda, how about this and this special music for skinny-dipping?

Thanks much, Susan and Ammanda.

Amanda McCabe
15 years ago

“Oh and I totally agree with your review of Elizabeth, Amanda.”

Yeah, I was really disappointed. πŸ™ But at least the costumes were interesting, and I saw some good previews (and ate some junk food)

LOL, Keira! MerBears, (snicker)

15 years ago

Some great music choices, ladies, and I should know. LOL I made a good bit of money singing Der Holle Rache! Lots of fun and a real killer. What a bitch she is! You cannot go wrong with Albinoni or Mascagni either. I DO listen to music while I write. I use the soundtracks to both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. I also have a couple of CDs of everything Ralph Vaughan Williams has written. Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis is amazing. There is a CD of John Dowland songs performed by Sting that you medieval ladies will love. Adagio for Strings and Overture to the School for Scandal by Samuel Barber are another two I use. The group IL DIVO have some wonderful love songs and as the songs are usually not in English it is not as distracting. Lately I have also been listening to Paul Potts debut album. He won Britain’s Got Talent, an unassuming cell phone salesman from Wales who sings Nessun Dorma like a young Pavarotti. For skinny dipping try Claude Debussy’s Apres une Reve or Prelude Apres Midi Une Faun. Very sexy. It is too true. Music can lay out entire scenes for you if you listen.

15 years ago

Thanks for all the recommendations, doglady!

I would often listen to music while working, back in my days as a grad student and then as a postdoc. Nowadays, I get interrupted too often to do that much. πŸ™

My experience was that different kinds of music were suitable for different kinds of work. If I was reading, instrumental music was better–music with words was too distracting from the words I was trying to read (which were often so painfully badly written that almost any distraction was sufficient to prevent my reading them). If was doing math, though, energetic rock music was better. πŸ™‚


Keira Soleore
15 years ago

Pam, thanks a ton for all your recommendations. I should try Paul Potts. I love Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma. I’ll go looking for Albinoni, Mascagni, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and the Sting and John Dowland CD (the price had put me off initially). I’ll try the samples for IL DIVO again. The ones I tried last month didn’t grab me.

Tracy Grant
15 years ago

I always create a mental a soundtrack for my booksusually with one key composer, but with bits from others. Beethoven is the composer I’d pick over all for “Secrets of a Lady”, but the soundtrack includes Mozart’s “Dove Sono”, the Act I duet from “Die WalkΓΌre”, Wotan’s Fire Music (from the same opera) and Ian Bostridge singing Noel Coward’s “Let’s Say Goodbye” as well as the Moonlight Sonata, Beethoven’s 9th, the Eroica, and Beethoven’s Sonata No. 2 in A major. My soundtrack for “Beneath a Silent Moon’ is mostly Mozart, but also includes Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive” (which actually inspired a whole scene).

Amanda McCabe
15 years ago

“For skinny dipping try Claude Debussy’s Apres une Reve or Prelude Apres Midi Une Faun.”

Excellent suggestions!!!

15 years ago

For skinny dipping you can also give REM’s Night Swimming a listen.

I’ve had a song haunting me for almost two years now. It’s Coldplay’s I Will Fix You. It got attached to a fiction book connecting two local tragedies that I’m planning to write but have not even started yet. I know I’m not ready to start it, and there are a couple projects in the pipeline ahead of it, but every time I hear the song, another layer gets added to the story in my head.

I can’t listen to anything while I’m writing. I need silence. I’m impressed with the broad range of inspiration all you writers have!

Megan Frampton
15 years ago


Thanks for the movie review. Sniff.

As for music, I think I’m going to do a post myself about writing to it–didn’t used to, have changed to wanting to. The music I choose has nothing to do with the period, and everything to do with the emotion.

Amanda McCabe
15 years ago

“The music I choose has nothing to do with the period, and everything to do with the emotion.”

Same here, Megan. Sometimes music of the period happens to match the mood or emotion of a scene, sometimes it’s something totally off the wall. But it gives me an excuse to try new-to-me CDs and bands. πŸ™‚

15 years ago

I’m currently obsessed by Goldfrapp – Felt Mountain. It’s kind of timeless and haunting and while there are words, you can’t really make them out. Oh – and it’s sexy. Perfect for writing to.

Elena Greene
15 years ago

I’ve never made a soundtrack but I do pick certain CDs to write by. Sometimes it’s an obvious choice, as when I had a heroine who liked playing Beethoven sonatas (Beethoven was considered too passionate for ladies). Sometimes it’s based on mood. I use a lot of Debussy and Ravel for sex scenes!

The one rule is writing music is always instrumental. Like others I find lyrics distracting.

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