Hearing the Soundtrack of your Novel

hearing and writingMy discovery of the week:  hearing is a crucial sense. A novel needs a soundtrack just as much as any movie does.

I’ve always known that the sense of smell is important when I imagine the worlds of my novels.

But I’d never previously thought much about sound, though I savour it enormously in other people’s writing. (There may even be another blog on that!) I think I did put it in, mostly. Well, a bit. And not just conversation, either.

But somehow I’d forgotten when it came to my latest novel. So over these last few days I’ve been on a roller coaster of exploration and experiment – and revision!

Obstacles and Encouragements to Write

writing and hearing - deadlineTo put this in context, I’m adrift on my (self-imposed) deadline. I really need to finish this book.

But I’ve been busy with lots of practical things and my body kept throwing obstacles in my path – first recurring flu, then horrible back pain.

Yet recently, I have been thinking and talking about  writing much more than usual. First I went on a retreat with other writers, who are as encouraging as they are pitiless. (Kurt is coming along, guys, honestly!)

Then I went to a brilliant talk by historical novelist Jean Fullerton on her writing process. And I spent some fantastically stimulating time with novelist and biographer of Georgette Heyer Jennifer Kloester who has been visiting Britain all too briefly.

Workshop Refuel

writing and hearing - Marco PoloThen last week Joanna and I ran one our Explorer workshops for writers. This is quite Zen. It’s all about letting go of barriers (and crutches) and retrieving that sense of your imagination in full flight. And we think a lot about the senses.

Preparing for the day is always intense. Our participants responded so brilliantly that the day itself was seriously high-octane. We were both wiped afterwards.

Nevertheless, it set my creative energy bubbling like nobody’s business.

Listening and Hearing

So I went back to the place where I had broken off from my book and read it from the beginning.

By chance I had listened to a fascinating talk (see link below) by Laurie R King, author of the Sherlock Holmes continuation, in which she pairs the genius detective with Mary Russell, a spirited scholar, less than half his age.  Among some fascinating insights, she says that she feels there is a reason for Writer’s Block (so do I) which she doesn’t really believe in.  (Me too, I think; well not as a sort of spiritual state, if you know what I mean. We cover that in the Explorer workshop too.) Her reason is that it usually hits her when she’s about to take her plot up a blind alley. So it’s a Useful Warning.

In my case I wasn’t able to go on because I had left out a crucial sense — hearing.

hearingMy heroine has returned to her ancestral home after three years in New York and the house  feels all wrong. Yet I hadn’t said why.

I knew. Of course I did. The moment I thought about it, I knew. She was waiting for familiar creaks from the library floor, clunks from elderly radiators, the rattle of heirloom windows that don’t fit as well was they should. And the house is utterly silent.

The moment I wrote that, I felt the book give a great sigh of relief and start to trust me again.

Hearing the World

As I continue through the book I am finding more and more places where the soundtrack is missing.

Reader Chemistry blackbirdShe says she’s become a country music fan in the States, but she doesn’t listen to any! Her beloved house is in the middle of the countryside — but she doesn’t notice the crunch of snow on her first morning, nor birdsong, the owl hooting as she walks back in the dark or even wind and thunder.

She makes a big fuss over the smart new American fridge in the kitchen but she doesn’t clock that it’s noiseless after the bronchial chunterings of the forty-year-old model it replaced.

So I’m adding the sounds that I always knew were there. My poor characters are now getting more to listen to than the sound of their own voices. My readers will have a full auditory landscape.

Interestingly, I’m able to cut more than I’m adding. Which is a nice test that I’m doing the right thing.

At last.

Sophie Weston Author


15 thoughts on “Hearing the Soundtrack of your Novel

  1. Sue McCormick

    Very. very interesting to me. I have been hearing-impaired all my life (now classifiably deaf without the hearing aids). So I would have assumed that sounds would be less important. Not so! As I followed your blog, I identified with each sound you mentioned. I would have noticed the absence of those sounds.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Delighted if it helped, Caroline. I sometimes think that I’ve learned so much in my writing career, some of the stuff I just knew when I started has been pushed off the wagon!

  2. Elizabeth Hawksley

    I’m absolutely with Sue on this one. Omitting sounds is like being two-dimensional instead of three-dimensional, or black and white instead of in colour. Bring them on!

    1. Sophie Post author

      Completely agree, Elizabeth. I obviously found it too easy to get stuck in my characters’ heads and just worry away at what they were going to do next. Doh!

  3. lesley2cats

    If I was braver these days I’d go to an Explorer workshop, and I wouldn’t have missed Jean’s talk. And where was Laurie R King’s talk? Very fond of her books. Just wish the reason for my block would jump out at me…

    1. Sophie Post author

      I imagine that Laurie King’s talk was recorded somewhere in Seattle, Leslie. But it’s on Youtube. You don’t have to come back to Libertà to play it.

      If you wanted to hear her in person, you’d probably have to hit the US – she has an events list on her website. (And I see she’s doing a Writers’ Retreat – “sisters in Crime” – in Vancouver in August.) http://laurierking.com/events/

      And you’re perfectly brave, as you’ve proved this very month. Also sensible.

    1. Sophie Post author

      God bless serendipity! Good news on the novel-planning front. A new Christina Hollis to look forward to, lovely.

  4. Elizabeth Bailey

    Yes, so important to ensure all the senses are there. And oh, so easy to forget one or some or even all of them on occasion. A very good reminder, Sophie, thank you.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Glad if it was useful, Liz. I’m not going to forget again in a hurry, I can tell you!

  5. Mimi Matthews

    A brilliant post (as always)! Books are so much richer when the author describes sounds and smells. It really puts the reader in the story.

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