Music as Inspiration…


I wish I knew far more about music than I do. I love to listen, but cannot play. I love to hear all kinds, but like everyone, I have my favourites.

Music speaks directly to the soul without the need of words. Thoughts, memories, dreams and emotions—all can be expressed with music.

In literature you have those funny marks on a page which must be translated by the brain and cannot directly penetrate the heart. You must decode their meaning with thought before you can be moved. Not so with music, which can hit like a blow to the solar plexus, leaving you—gasping for air.

Music is the shorthand of emotion.  ~Leo Tolstoy.

And so, how does music become the inspiration for writing? If you’re like me, you’ve struggled with characters who are flooded with emotion. You’re at a loss to know just how to express the way they feel or explain the way they act.

Perhaps in the new world of enhanced ebooks this will no longer be a problem. With just one click, you’ll be able to play the background music to a scene in a novel or hear the character humming in the shower. But I’m more interested in the effect of music upon the writer. Can it actually inspire him/her to craft a scene? Sure, why not?

When I was writing my first novel, Conduct in Question, the first in The Osgoode Trilogy, I was wrestling with a character—a serial killer, who most of all wanted to experience the feeling of compassion. Strange? Not really. I think by giving a violent antagonist a touch of humanity he becomes all the more frightening. We cannot say that he is in no way like us.

I was trying to choreograph a scene in which this character was stalking a young boy in a house and down a set of stairs. I wanted to create an atmosphere of insane fear and tension. It so happened that I went to a concert that evening. The orchestra was playing The Pines of Rome by Respighi. In this music there is much drumming which actually, as I listened, seemed to capture the mad, relentlessness of my character’s march down the stairs. In fact, it was the bare control of the violence and the determination expressed by the music, which so inspired me in writing the scene. The murderer is at the top of the stairs and he is about to claim his next victim.

The [killer] took two more steps downward. The razor lay open in his bloodied palm, its gleaming blade exposed. “You know you’re going to die, boy. Soon that scrawny neck will be slit open, just like Frank’s.”

Donnie lit the rag. The single flame glowed and caught the [man’s] patient smile, which became a look of confusion as he grasped the banister. Donnie crouched and touched the flaming rag to the carpet.

Searing heat flashed upward. Donnie dove across the floor. Flames danced red, blue, and yellow up each step. The banister crackled and sparked in the heat. Curtains, engulfed in flame, funnelled black smoke up the staircase.

Through the conflagration strode the lawyer’s blackened, blazing form. His laughter rang out as he reached the bottom step. With the razor flashing, he cried out, “You’re going to die, boy!”

Donnie scrambled to his knees. Shirt aflame, he towered over the boy. His eyes glowed with madness, as he sang softly, “Time to die, boy. Just like all the others.”

Suddenly, Tony staggered in confusion. Pounding his chest to kill the flames, he dropped to the floor. Donnie rolled away.

The lawyer’s hand shot out and clutched the boy’s leg. The lawyer’s smouldering form rose up. He was on top of Donnie. One hand ripped back the boy’s neck and fixed his chin. The other held the razor high.

Donnie grasped the small bottle of turpentine. Fingers dug into his neck. He was fading. Soon he would be unconscious.

Tony brandished the razor. His hand swooped down.

Tearing one arm free, Donnie thrust the turpentine bottle high and doused the lawyer’s hair, which caught on fire. A piercing scream was followed by low keening. The lawyer’s body ignited, stiffening straight upward. With his hands clutching his head, his  body wavered for a moment in the flame. The acrid smell of blazing hair filled the house. His body shuddered, then slumped to the floor.

Donnie struggled to his feet. The blackened body convulsed and twitched as the fire burned upward. The lawyer’s shrieks rose above the crackling blaze. The razor dropped from his hand and his eyes grew flat and cold.

Donnie sagged to the floor. Everywhere, he saw black. Unable to breathe, he clawed at the air.

And so, the boy outsmarts the killer. From beginning to end of a scene which I wrote many times over, until it seemed “right”, I played in my head Respighi with the pounding of the drums. Music definitely can be an inspiration and that’s the way it was for me.

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About Mary E. Martin

Mary E. Martin grew up in Toronto, Canada. After earning an Honors Degree in History at the University of Toronto, she graduated with her law degree from Queens University, Kingston, Ontario. In 1973, she was called to the Bar of Ontario and began the general practice of law in Toronto, with emphasis on real estate, wills and estates and elder-care law. This law practice of more than 30 years was a great inspiration for The Osgoode Trilogy ("Conduct in Question," "Final Paradox" and "A Trial of One.") Her fourth novel, “The Drawing Lesson,” will be the first in the next trilogy, provisionally entitled “The Trilogy of Rmembrance.” She is also a photographer particularly with respect to her travels. She has had two commercial photography shows. Married in 1973, she and her husband live in Toronto. They have three adult children.
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