Music is probably the single greatest source of creative inspiration for me. Whenever I listen to music, my brain goes into overdrive, and ideas begin to take visual form. The more I listen, the more characters, settings and details go into those ideas, until they become just like movies.
Once I can see the entire story, I hit the keyboard and translate the vision into words. I don't ever lose the story, either -- all I have to do is listen to the song that inspired it and the story movie plays out in my mind exactly as it did the first time I imagined it.
I have no musical preferences, and have come up with novels based on every type of music, from Mozart to Nine Inch Nails. The only strange thing is that I see images but I never hear dialogue, so in that sense, the movies in my head are silent (I'm sure it has something to do with the fact that I prefer to compose dialogue spontaneously while I'm writing.)
If you've never tried visualizing story to music, here are a couple of tips on the process:
1. Fresh music won't have any associations for you, so try picking up some albums by musicians and bands you've never heard, or tune into a new station on the radio.
2. Listen when you're in a relaxing or quiet situation. I listen to CDs when I sit on the porch, take a bubble bath, fold laundry, or go for a drive in the country or down by the lake. The more relaxed you are, the more likely your imagination will want to come out and play.
3. Don't try to force it. Keep your mind open and let the images come to you in response to the music. If you're still having trouble envisioning things, try to imagine what colors would best express the song you're listening to. Once you have a palette in mind, imagine those colors defining something about a character or setting.
4. If you choose to listen to music that you've heard before, avoid songs that have bad associations, or that for whatever reason depress or upset you (unless that's a good writing mood for you, then go for it.)
5. After you've listened to music, go spend a little time on the keyboard. Write about whatever you thought of while you were listening. Don't worry about making it perfect, just describe what you saw in your head. I don't listen to music when I write because I find it actually becomes a distraction, but if you don't have a problem with that you can also play the song while you're writing.
Don't be afraid to experiment, either. About half the music I listen to is made outside the United States, and by trying bands from other countries I've discovered some terrific artists that normally don't get air time on our radio stations. I think I have a thing for Canadian bands in particular; Nickelback, The Golden Dogs, and Wintersleep have practically owned the CD player in my car for the last couple of years.
Let's hear what you have to say about music and story -- in comments to this post list a song that inspired you creatively (or if you're new at this, just throw your name in the hat) by midnight EST on Monday, June 4, 2007. I'll draw one name at random from everyone who participates, and grant the winner a musicwish* along with a copy of the Nickelback album that inspired me while I was writing Night Lost, my personal notes about the songs involved, and a signed copy of the end result. This giveaway is open to everyone on the planet, even if you've won something here at PBW in the past.
*A musicwish is any music CD by any artist you choose, provided that the CD can be 1) ordered from an online source and 2) costs up to a maximum of $25.00 US dollars. I'll throw in for free any shipping and handling fees that are involved.
Laurence O'Donnell's excellent article Music and the Brain.
Music and the Brain: Processing and Responding (A General Overview) by Feyza Sancar explains some of the nuts and bolts involved with the brain as it processes music.