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Words and Music

Music has always been a big part of my life. My mother tells me that when I was very small I used to sing to myself in bed at night. When I was a little older, I sang in the car. I had a fixation on Johnny Cash when I was about six, and cheerfully belted out Fulsom Prison Blues and Ring of Fire as we drove along. Later I learned to play guitar and fell in love with Celtic music. I enjoy other musical genres as well, but the simple, heartfelt tunes I can play and sing myself are closest to my heart. Luckily for me, Nova Scotia has a wonderfully vibrant music scene.

I suppose it’s inevitable that music has found its way into my writing. Martin Rainnie, the hero of McShannon’s Heart, is a talented fiddler who also sings. He gives up his music when his wife dies in childbirth, but finds the will to play again thanks to his baby daughter and Chelle McShannon. Whenever I think of Martin, I think of this tune, She Moved Through The Fair. It’s a haunting story of lost love.

Some authors I know choose music that suits their characters or settings and play it while they write. I don’t – I think I’d find it too distracting – but I do find that my characters evoke songs. Or is it the other way around? If I could score a movie of McShannon’s Chance, this tune, Shady Grove, would be there somewhere. I think Trey would like it.

One of the secondary characters in Chance is a teenaged girl, Holly Greer, who has aspirations to be a professional singer. I gave Holly this tune to sing at the Wallace Flats concert. It’s an old tune I first heard at the Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival about fifteen years ago, called Siuil a Ruin. I’ve heard it done as a slow lament, but I think Holly would sing it with less pathos and more youthful defiance. She needed it. I like this version.
It’s an iffy thing, putting music in fiction, but I couldn’t resist. Do you associate music with fictional characters? Do you listen to tunes while you write? Do they influence your writing?


  1. Michelle Helliwell
    May 19, 2010 at 11:51 pm

    Hi Jennie,

    I'm great post! I'm a big music person when it comes to writing, but like you, I can't listen to music when I'm writing. But I do have songs or instrumental music that evokes characters or scenes (like my own personal soundtrack). Music is a very powerful creative force for me…I've imagined whole scenes while listening to certain pieces of music. I think it helps your imagination relax and do it's job.

    Great Post!


  2. Janet
    May 20, 2010 at 12:30 am

    Music is also very distracting for me, Jennie. I like the silence so all those characters in my head can tell their stories.

    A work in progress (or should I say a work in standby) is about a female jongelier in medieval France. I've had a great time researching the songs from that time period and found a group of singers called Medieval Babes and went out a bought their CD – first time I've ever done that!

    But my other work is music-less. Hmm, maybe I should fix that (it would give depth to both my characters and the story).

    Great post – very thought-provoking. Love Sinead O'Connor – and I have all The Chieftians CDs 🙂

  3. eeva.rislakki
    May 20, 2010 at 4:59 am

    Hi Jennie,

    great blog, and yes, I do associate music with my characters, although I may not write it in. I create a profile of all my characters, their likes and dislikes, hobbies, early history, even how they're eventually going to pass on. It's a way to try and make them as alive as possible. The taste in music is a part of this profile.

    In my book Entirely Yours my lead character Mike, who on the surface comes across as shallow, or cold and cynical, shows an interest in classical music, in live performances of big symphony orchestras. The aim was to show that there's a lot more to him than the eye can see, and I think it worked-to a point that when I sat in the last concert about two weeks ago I caught myself thinking that 'I wonder if Mike would've liked this piece of Mozart?' :D!

    I can't listen to music when I write, but when I think about a story, you know, go over the possible plot development, I very often listen something, varying from the most extreme hard rock to classical music – depends totally on what kind of story I'm trying to create.

    Into my latest novel that's still under work, Under the Italian Skies, I included an aria of Puccini – it's there as a little side track about the power of love 🙂

    Eva/ E.R. Haze

  4. Historical Writer/Editor
    May 20, 2010 at 7:17 am

    Hello, I like your blog and became a follower. 🙂

  5. Jennie Marsland
    May 20, 2010 at 9:23 am

    Hi Michelle! Music evokes scenes for me, too. There's an Irish tune Matt Minglewood recorded ages ago, called The Patriot's Game, that would b a great opening theme song for Chance. 'Come all ye young rebels and list while I sing, for the love of one's country is a dangerous thing." In my mind, I hear it playing wile Trey drives through some picturesque Colorado scenery on his way to meet Beth. It doesn't hurt to dream, right?

    Janet, your WIP sounds fascinating. I've read far too few books with medieval settings.I think women played larger and more varied roles in society then, as opposed to later. I'd love to hear that CD.

    Eeva, so glad to hear from you! One of the reasons I like using music in my writing is to show character. I really like what you did with Mike, bringing out the softer side of him. Music serves the same purpose for my Martin. If not for his music, he'd be a lot less sympathetic – just a surly, burly farmer who drinks a little too much and ignores his child.

    HWE, thank you for returning and for following me! make yourself at home.

  6. Kelly Boyce
    May 20, 2010 at 3:14 pm

    I can't play music when I write. I'm like you – too distracting. But sometimes I'll play certain songs to get me in the mindframe I need to write a scene.

  7. Jennie Marsland
    May 20, 2010 at 5:00 pm

    Hi Kelly. There's no way I could write with music playing, but I know some people do. They'll choose a song for a scene and play it over and over. Works for them.

  8. Julia Smith
    May 23, 2010 at 2:08 am

    LOL – I'm listening to music right now, and basically use it to shut out the world while I get into my writing cave. I listen to things that have nothing to do with the story I'm working on, yet I tend to load songs onto my playlists that echo the internal landscapes of my characters. When I really want to write to a mood, I use classical music.

    Loved these songs, especially Sinead O'Connor's amazing performance and The Chieftains. Loved them!

  9. Jennie Marsland
    May 23, 2010 at 10:04 am

    Hi Julia, great to see you here! Glad you liked the tunes. Isn't Sinead O'Connor amazing?