Using music to enhance your writing

Music has always held an important place in my life. I grew up in the 60s listening to the sounds of my mom’s melodic 33 1/3 vinyl records fill our modest midwestern home. From the Beatles and Herb Alpert to Johnny Rivers and Elvis, their lyrics and tunes were a foundation of my childhood and influenced the formation of my identity. American Bandstand and Soul Train were staples of my existence, and every Saturday night, my family and I would wander down to the Legion Hall in our small town to square dance and country jitterbug to the moveable sounds of The Coon Brothers, a band from another nearby small town.

Some of the first money I ever spent was on a small, battery-operated, portable record player when I was seven or eight, I think. It was about 6”x12” with a sliding handle and removable cover that exposed the tiny turntable, capable of accommodating any record size. When I saw this beauty sitting on the shelf at our local electronics store, I made an arrangement with the owner that I would pay my $2/week allowance toward the record player, which cost $32. For 16 weeks, I faithfully took my $2 to Ellison’s, made my payment, and received a receipt that showed me how close I was to walking home with my coveted music maker.

After I got the record player, I bought a carrying case and started stocking it with 45s, which meant that I became the DJ for parties, lunchtime, and recess at school. While not as compact as an iPod or iPhone, I was able to cart my tunes with me wherever I went. “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Wild Thing,” “The Twist,” and “Sugar, Sugar,” to name a minuscule few, were the soundtrack of my childhood, and whenever I call up those songs now, the memory of them brings a nostalgic joy and takes me back to happy moments with my friends and family.

That feeling we get when we’re transported by a song from the past is called music-evoked nostalgia. It’s no surprise that scientists have studied the effects of music on our brains, and a significant discovery is that while music sparks emotional responses in us all, the same songs don’t affect us all the same. That is, based on our individual likes and dislikes and our past experiences with particular types of music and particular songs, different people will respond differently – at the brain level – to the same song.

Despite the ear scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, I still love “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Steeler’s Wheel. It was always a favorite of mine, with its catchy, upbeat melody, having been popular when I was 14 and pop music was a focal point in my life. The new association didn’t make me dislike the song – not in the least. It just made me stop and think about the lyrics more, how the song and the scene belonged together, and how there’s a discontinuity between the sound of the song and the story it tells.

Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” still strikes a chord of dread in me. Just the thought of it takes me back to the night I faked my way into the movie theater to see The Exorcist at 15, only to be scared out of my wits by Linda Blair’s demonic performance and the fact that my bed-side radio quit working – for just that night – when I tried to play it to drown out the sound of the song looping in my head.

Movies heavily rely on music to set the tone and help tell the story. Many directors and filmmakers lay music over the top of their films, and then some, like Jim Jarmusch, weave the music into his films. Some movies with music as a focal point of the story were novels first, like Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons, Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, and Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood.

In the case of these three, the novelists chose to make music a primary character in the story, and if we’re writing a story from a different era, a great way to set the tone is to reference popular music of the time.

Some writers use music to put them in the mood. To write, that is. And some need to have it playing in the background while they write, which would drive me crazy, but to each their individual own.

Music evokes emotion in the moment, cements an era in our hearts, and transports us back to the past, feelings and all. Music is part of the fabric of our lives and our histories, and we can use it to enhance our writing in a variety of ways.

How do you use music to enhance your writing, and what songs take you back to a place and time from the past?



How understanding the solar plexus chakra will improve your writing

A common expectation from readers is that we show them the development of our characters. Readers want to see characters learn and change. A common method for creating this expected arc is to create plot points that put characters in situations that will challenge their modes of operation, create friction, and require new decisions to surpass the obstacle and reach their desires.

When we embrace the elements of the third chakra – the Solar Plexus chakra – we can begin to look at our characters in a more complex way. We can take their awareness about themselves and the world – in relation to their responses to other characters – that we discovered by looking through the lens of the second – Sacral – chakra to allow our characters to turn those reflections from others back on themselves. This is where self-awareness comes from, which informs a character’s sense of agency in the world.

This is not to say that all characters will achieve high levels of self-awareness over the course of their individual stories, or even if they do, that they’ll use the awareness wisely. In fact, most of them will not. But as the writers of their stories, we need to be able to discern what we know about them and what they know about themselves, which will inform how much agency we give them. And we need to be able to impart those differences to our readers.

What do your characters know about themselves, and what do you know about them? Does your main character have a strong or weak sense of agency? That is, does she/he take action or just let life happen?

How understanding the root chakra will improve your writing

One of the first steps in creating a character is to understand their backstory. Whether we use the details about each character’s past in the actual story or not, we need to have a clear and compassionate understanding of our characters’ histories.

Oftentimes, we have an inkling of our characters – even when writing from real life experience in a memoir – and our tendency is to write and write until we stumble across their desires and the motivations for those desires. In fact, it is likely even more difficult to get to the core of characters in memoir because we’re so very close to it all – so emotionally attached to our version of the story.

Whether we’re writing fiction or memoir – or something in between – we need a way to approach characters’ emotional inner workings, and an effective method to accomplish this is to explore the Root Chakra because this chakra is about our origins. It will take you to your characters’ emotional underpinnings.

What do you know about your characters’ family of origin, and how does it inform her/his desires, motivations, and behaviors?

How understanding the sacral chakra will improve your writing


After we make a thorough and in-depth investigation of our characters’ backstories by way of understanding the Root Chakra, we can then begin to explore each character’s understanding and relationship with herself. A common practice to show readers a character’s view of herself is to use interior monologue – to take our readers inside the character’s mind.

Another way to accomplish this is by understanding the Sacral Chakra. It can shine a light on a character’s self-awareness by focusing on his relationship with others (how he relates to others based on his impression of himself) and on his ability to be creative, which can take many forms.

Give thought to how your characters support, interfere with, and reflect each other’s most vulnerable parts, including their ability to create.

How do your characters reflect each other through thought, action, and dialogue?

Fill-in-the-Blank Flash Fiction Friday – June 29

Here’s your Fill-in-the-Blank Flash Fiction Friday* opening sentence.

___________________ sat on the bridge, a stalled string of cars stretching out in front of her/him and the needle on the gas gauge slanting well across the the top of the ‘E’.

The “Rules”

  • Fill in the blanks.
  • Finish the story in 1,000 words.
  • Post your story in the comments section below by the next Friday.

I’ll post the winner** on my social media sites AND

you could wind up in the Fill-in-the-Blank Flash Fiction Friday book
I just might maybe publish at the end of the year

Sending you mad writing mojo….


*Writing is serious business, but sometimes it’s fun to have fun.

**Selection of the winner is arbitrary and depends on my mood, what I’ve eaten or haven’t eaten, how much sleep I’ve had, and my constantly shifting tastes…