Yesterday my short story, You and Me and Mars, came out on
I started writing this story a long time ago, over seventeen years, but I can still summon every essence of that story by a method that isn’t discussed much but is an invaluable tool to many writers. I have a musical index.
If the subject ever comes up, most writers will tell you that music is indispensable to them. Some writers need a background sound to block out the usual sounds of mundane reality. It’s often just music, classical or drum sounds or even weird experimental stuff. Writers tend to not listen to actual songs while they are writing, since the lyrics can be distracting, although I’ve known a few who do not mind lyrics, so long as it is distracting from spoken voices. Although I have heard of at least one person who listened to talk radio as they wrote. Sometimes sounds that sound like words but aren’t differentiable into meaning will do the trick, like metal or Nirvana. My personal choice is silence. I’d write in a stone temple on an island filled with mute animals wearing cotton mittens if I could. But music definitely has its place in my writing.
For every story I write, I develop a playlist of songs that encapsulate scenes, atmosphere, theme or emotion. Not every song stays in the playlist as the story evolves. Sometimes I’ll hear a discarded song in some random context and I’ll think, “Oh yeah, that was the song when my protagonist was going to use x to conquer y. Ah nostalgia.” Of course no one would have a clue to what I was talking about, but if you’re a writer who uses music to keep track of the emotional content of your story, you have an idea of what I’m talking about.
This story, being one of the first stories I wrote, has a long soundtrack. But here are the songs that most define it as it evolved, and the ones that upon hearing can instantly transport me into this story’s world:
“Run to the Water” by Live. This song is the theme song, the song that, if it were a true soundtrack, would be the intro and outro. Every beat of this story is contained in this song. In fact, if you put this song on repeat and read the story, you’d find the theme echoed in every refrain. The speaker was burnt to the core, but not broken. (I have no idea what the writer of this song meant, but it will never mean anything but the successful transformation of Mars by a single human to me)
When the speaker becomes part of the mission, and especially when she is contemplating their purpose, during the takeoff:
“Is It Like Today?” by World Party.
“Don’t Give Up On Us Baby” by David Soul is the song that encompasses the speaker’s literal and metaphorical increasing distance from the person she is addressing in the story, which echoes the shift from romantic love to heroic love to familial as she realizes none of those could be possibly be returned.
The speaker’s try/fail attempts to release the drones has “Rock Me Gently” by Andy Kim playing in the background.
This song is longer than the scene it accompanies but “Walk On” by U2 expresses the idea of taking a leap forward without assurance, knowing that even though you don’t have to do it, if you do, there is no going back.
“Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen is pretty obvious, the joy of exploring a new world and the memory of exploring a first love.
“Flood” by Jars of Clay for the storm and “SOS” by ABBA for the try/fail sequence in which the captain dies.
“If You Only Knew” by Shinedown followed the speaker’s try/fail cycle of sickness and adaptation and learning to terraform the planet on her own, as well as initiating the transition from the singular to the plural you.
Sometimes I would listen to “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac when I wanted to get in touch with the loneliness that the speaker felt as the decades passed. This would also define the transition when the singular ‘you’ transforms to the plural ‘you’ of humanity that she is preparing the world for.
There are a lot of versions of this song, and I think I have all of them in my music library, but “Feeling Good” by Muse is the one I listened to as I thought about the speaker’s discovery of the body of water.
I had a few others I listened to over the years, but as the story evolved, they didn’t fit as well, and so I no longer visualize elements of this story when I hear them.
So rest easy, baby. Rest easy. And recognize it all as light and rainbows, smashed to smithereens. And be happy. Because maybe somebody's out there, building a paradise for you, on the off chance you might make it there someday.