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Blighters and book soundtracks

Like many writers, I work to music. For me, it’s music that’s barely music – drones, washes, minimal thrum or industrial groan. I’m in awe of people that can work in silence. Some people swear by writing in coffee shops, which I understand – regular hum and chatter is better than no background noise at all.

The crime writer Ian Rankin often refers to albums that he considers totemic while writing, including Mogwai and Aphex Twin – they disappear into the background, a bed upon which ideas settle. My totemic albums change from project to project. While writing the first draft of my alien-invasion novella, Blighters, I played Biokinetics by Porter Ricks, Grapes from the Estate by Oren Ambarchi and Water Park by Dirty Beaches on rotation. For the revisions, it was A Fragile Geography by Rafael Anton Irisarri and We Know Each Other Somehow by Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe & Ariel Kalma.

I’ve taken to using music to support my writing in another way, too, though it’s also partly ceremonial. When I’ve completed a first draft of any project longer than a short story I create a playlist that, for want of a better term, I call a soundtrack. It’s generally unrelated to the music I’ve been playing while writing.

Instead, the playlist is an attempt to pin down the tone of the story – or, more often, the tone I’ll be aiming for during rewrites. Some of the track choices may be literal – named songs often crop up in my stories – and others are more about capturing a particular mood. I’m as much a film-lover as a book- and music-lover, so I’m unabashed about imagining the playlist as the soundtrack of the ‘film of the book’.

I’m the worst kind of nerd, the type that is a stickler for rules, however arbitrary. Here are my guidelines for creating a book soundtrack:

  • The first and last tracks ought to work as an accompaniment to the story’s ‘opening and closing credits’.
  • The playlist should include diagetic (i.e. in-world) and non-diagetic (i.e. conventional overlaid soundtrack) music.
  • Broadly, the tracks should reflect the mindset of the central character.
  • The ordering of the tracks should reflect the changing mood or plot events.
  • Despite Rule #4, the playlist should be listenable in its own right, without sounding jarring. Unless jarring sounds good.

Rule #3 is an important one. My stories are mostly 1st-person or close 3rd-person POV, so I need to have a pretty good idea what makes my main characters tick. The soundtrack usually turns out to be useful in this respect.

I had fun creating a soundtrack to Blighters. The first couple of tracks and the final one are choices made by the main character, Becky, rather than me – she inherited her dad’s passion for 70s prog rock. Three of the tracks are actually named in the book (‘The Temples of Syrinx’, ‘Cat Man’, ‘Hocus Pocus’). The rest simulate the woozy experience of coming close to an alien slug that, though terrifying in appearance, produces a radius effect of utter contentment. I think it’s fair to say there’s no right answer about the correct musical accompaniment to that.

You can listen to the soundtrack on Spotify – hopefully it works as a teaser for Blighters, as well as a companion piece for those that have read it. Here’s the full tracklist:

1. Children of the Sun – Billy Thorpe

2. The Temples of Syrinx – Rush

3. Almost Always is Nearly Enough – Tortoise

4. Treacherous Orb – Time Attendant

5. Cat Man – Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps

6. Vise – People of the North

7. Oo Nu Dah – Anna Homler and Steve Moshier

8. Parallelo – Anna Caragnano and Donato Dozzy

9. Domine, Libra Nos / Showdown – The Space Lady

10. Hocus Pocus – Focus

Blighters is out now!
Buy: UK|US|Rebellion Store

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Happy release day Ritual Crime Unit: Spirit Animals and Blighters!

Books! Come and get ’em, while they’re warm and papery (or virtually papery, anyway, if that’s a thing*).

We’ve got two corkers making their way out into the wild today. First up is Tim Major’s Blighters, a tale of armour-plated sluges from outer space and lager-swilling heroines with a penchant for ’60s vinyl. 

Then there’s EE Richardon’s long-awaited return to the Ritual Crime Unit with Spirit Animals, in which DCI Pierce’s past comes back to ritualistically disembowell her (not literally). Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Go forth, buy, and read!

*We’re fairly sure it’s a thing.

Ritual Crime Unit: Spirit Animals is out now!
Buy: UK|US|Rebellion 

Blighters is out now!
Buy: UK|US|Rebellion

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Cosy catastrophes and dormant threats

Blighters was inspired by a conversation at my parents’ kitchen table, sometime around Christmas 2014.

The story was this: my mum had been in the bath when a wasp had dropped from the Xpelair extractor ceiling fan. It had lain on the bathroom carpet, dozy from the heat, oblivious to my mum’s understandable panic. When my dad pulled the cover off the fan, several more wasps had dropped down, all dormant.

There was something about this combination of threat and utter benignity that sparked something. What if creatures dropped from the sky, rather than the Xpelair? Even if they were dormant, what if they were enormous and dormant? What if all of humankind, at least at first, felt as vulnerable as my mum in the bath?

After hearing the wasp story, the word ‘sluggish’ lodged in my mind right away, inspiring the choice of creature when I decided that wasps were probably too identifiable a threat, and wouldn’t it be more interesting if the creatures’ appearance tended more towards ugly than fierce? And how about if the apparent threat of the Blighters was counterbalanced by their exuding a sense of utter calm and contentment, affecting anyone nearby?

I read John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids around the age of 11, when I graduated from Doctor Who Target novelisations to SF classics. All of John Wyndham’s novels have been a big influence on my writing, but none more so than Triffids.

I’ve always felt that the ‘cosy catastrophe’ trope, identified as a weakness by Brian Aldiss, is a hugely appealing aspect of the novel. Despite the horrors of the situation, the main characters are intent on rebuilding a better world after the apocalypse. Their lives have become fraught with danger, but they have become simpler, too. A decade ago, when I felt frustrated about workplace bureaucracy, I reread Triffids and other catastrophe novels as wish fulfilment fantasies. There’s an appeal in the thought of starting afresh and being compelled to focus only on practical skills. I’m enough of a fan of ‘cosy catastrophes’ that I took the phrase as the title of my blog.

There’s another aspect of The Day of the Triffids that strikes me each time I read it. At the start of the novel, triffids are already a familiar sight for most people. The plants have been established worldwide, though their origins are unknown. They’re dangerous, sure, and at first terrifying – a predatory plant! – but they’re easily contained, so the public has grown blasé about the threat they represent. The ‘day’ of the triffids arrives only when an unrelated catastrophe weakens humankind. The triffids’ fate is the inverse of H.G. Wells’ Martians in The War of the Worlds, whose downfall –contracting the common cold – is equally accidental.

Wyndham’s concept of a dormant threat tied in nicely with my parents’ wasp story. In Blighters, I’ve enjoyed taking to extremes humanity’s shrug response to an alien menace. How would people respond to an apparently benign alien ‘invasion’ in the era of social media? How long would the news cycle be for such a phenomenon?

Becky, the main character in the novella, is preoccupied with her own problems – the arrival of the Blighters is just something that happened last year, and now they’re simply part of the way the world is. Just like everything else she sees on TV, Blighters happen in other places, to other people. That is, until one shows up near her home in rural Cumbria…

Blighters is out now!
Buy: UK|US