Writing a new story is like inhabiting a new world. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing about high school crushes or aliens or high school crushes on aliens, there are strangers you’ve never met, unfamiliar landscapes, traditions you don’t yet understand. And the trick is, you don’t just need to get to know this new world, you have to make it come to life in full technicolor glory.
Some people suggest that when writing crucial scenes in your book, you should employ at least three out of the five senses. As in: “Sara listened to the computer hum impatiently while she tried to think of a good example. She stalled, grimacing as she took a gulp of bitter coffee-gone-cold. The shiny, smooth keys of her computer beckoned her to be brilliant, but alas, she wrote this instead.”
This is a great technique and I like to expand it to the story creation process. Because unless the world feels real to you, in all five senses, it’s not going to feel real to the reader. Bringing your fiction into the physical world anchors you in your character’s voice and setting in a way that nothing else does. So in the past I’ve talked about building dioramas, collecting shoe boxes full of stuff my character loves, and, most importantly for me, finding a soundtrack to my story.
In my last project, I incessantly listened to the soundtrack to Battlestar Galactica, letting its Taiko drums and wailing flutes build tension and tone in my writing space. I can’t help but feel that the words are infused with a sense of that music, much like honey is flavored by the flowers that bees visit.
So when I started a new story, I felt lost without music for my new world. I started avidly listening to the radio, asking friends what they were listening to, paying attention to soundtracks in movies. At the same time, I was searching for the voice of my main character. For a while, writing was frustrating, my words feeling more like an outline than a book. Then I found Sigur Ros.
This Icelandic band has a raw tone that feels bleak and wistful and, occasionally, soaringly hopeful. The first song I heard by them stunned me. I could literally see one of my key scenes unfolding in my mind. It was like being given a key to this world I had been circling and spying on for so long. Suddenly, I could walk with my character through the streets of my story. Amazingly, when my husband heard the same song later, he had the same experience. For weeks I’d been talking about this world, about this character, bouncing ideas off of him, and this song triggered the same emotions in him as it did in me. Now I could not only visualize my world, I could hear it too. And in the space of one song, my story had come to life.