Music has always been a major part of my life, despite the fact I am fairly tone deaf, can’t carry a tune in a bucket, and lack the manual dexterity to play any kind of an instrument. Not that any of that has ever stopped me from loving music in just about every incarnation and genre that can be offered.
My shelves contain everything from classical to heavy metal, country to rap, alternative to folk, and in each, I can find something beautiful and profound. In any genre there is something about music that can move the soul, and inspire the listener. That is the magic of music.
As a writer, and a creative person in general, I’ve always relied on music to help me guide the stories I craft, be it novels or D&D campaigns. Were I a more talented person, I’m sure it would guide my art as well, but I can’t even draw a passable stick figure, leaving the images in my mind relegated to only the words I can string together as a means to convey them. Still, it is in music that I most often find the means to bring those to life on the page, and give them substance.
When I picked up my almost twenty year old idea of a mute warrior priestess and decided to try my hand at making it work, yet again, I turned to music to help me guide the world building, characters, and emotions I wanted to convey in the narrative. Always my faithful friend, music did not let me down, and this time, I got the story right, leading to it being accepted for publication.
I cannot deny that without the influence of the music I listened to, it probably wouldn’t have gone as well as it did. I am not a great writer, fit for the ages, but a storyteller, and my imagination, for all it is fascinating in its oddity, can easily lead me astray when I am not focused. In music, I find the focus I need.
A song can shape a character, as much as it can a narrative. War Witch is a massive narrative, six books in length based on my notes, with an equally daunting cast. It’s easy for a mere storyteller like myself to get lost in all of that, letting not just the narrative, but the characters themselves, wander from their intended course.
As I worked on Rise, the first book in the War Witch saga, I found there was a collection of songs that spoke not just to the major characters, but to the narrative as a whole, and the individual arcs contained within that. Songs that helped me keep everything moving in the right direction, true to themselves, and focused my imagination to the rather overwhelming task this series presented.
I’ve shared that list of songs on Spotify, but I wanted to take the time, now that the book has been out for a bit, to give each song its proper due. Not just to compliment the artists behind the music, but to talk a bit about how their works influenced me, and shaped my first publisher accepted novel.
Needless to say, there will be spoilers here for Rise, so if you don’t want to be spoiled, you might want to wait to read this. If you’ve already read it, or don’t intend to, then read on, because this is really about the music and the way it can drive an overactive imagination such as mine.
The first song I wanted to look at was the one that really brought the entirety of the first book together, Giving Up, by one of my favorite bands of all time, Sick of Sarah, from their album, 2205.
From the beginning, the story I wanted to tell with War Witch was of Ramora and Chara, and the bond between them. It’s rare enough to see a fantasy novel with a woman as the leading character, but to have two, and for the emotional core of the story to be about how much they loved each other, is all but unheard of, even today, making the writing of it something that was often difficult.
I say difficult, because there was very little I could look to as a good example of how to tackle the ideas and emotions I wanted to put forward. Lesbian fiction is still considered a niche market for reasons that baffle me, and fantasy is held as a male dominant market, for reasons that are even more baffling to my way of thinking. All of which meant I found myself in more or less uncharted waters with this concept.
It’s not uncommon, I’m sad to say, for many publishers to insist one of the characters be changed to male in order to make a story like this more acceptable. While this is a thing that is beginning to fall by the wayside, I’ve had this story in my head for almost twenty years now, so you can see how I’ve had to sort of feel my way along without any outside frame of reference, and pretty much zero interest from the publishing community until very recently.
By which I mean last year, when War Witch was accepted by Booktrope. I am eternally thankful to them for not caring that both my leads in this fantasy epic are women, much less that the heart of the story is about how much they love each other. It was something I was never willing to compromise on, and I am thankful I never had to.
Yet, I struggled with finding the right way to capture not just how much they loved each other, but the frustrations and sorrow of both characters when the relationship they should have had was subverted and destroyed by an outside influence. Specifically, a rather unsavory demigod, Rakiss, who has plans for Chara that Ramora doesn’t figure into.
The key to getting the first book right always lay not just in building up the emotions of Ramora and Chara, investing the reader in believing that their growing affection for one another was real and believable, but also in the grief both felt at being pulled apart by someone they didn’t even know was involved. An outside hand that made the gulf that grew up between them impossible for either to really understand.
As I was tinkering with the story and how to tackle the rewrites I knew I wanted to do, I happened across Giving Up, purely by accident. I sat, listening, and everything I wanted to do became clear, not just the how, but the why, and the way both Ramora and Chara would react, and feel about it.
It’s a heady thing for a writer, when an entire novel suddenly comes into focus. Not just the plot, but the characters arcs as well. The how and why of who they are, why they do what they do, and how it affects those around them. The moment it happened, I went and bought Giving Up off Amazon, and often listened to it on repeat as I wrote.
Rise, massive book that it is, clocking in at 216,000 words in length, was completely rewritten, from word one, in a month, with Sick of Sarah, and Giving Up always helping me find my way.
Call it kismet, call it fate, call it pure happenstance, but even the lyrics seem to fall in line with what I wanted to do in this novel. They reflect both Ramora and Chara’s emotions so perfectly, it is nothing short of amazing, and helped me keep them both on track.
Now hold me ‘til you fall asleep,
Not making it easy, no
We’re holding secrets underneath
Not making it easy, no
From the first drafts all those years ago to now, the scenes that brought these two women together always revolved around holding each other as they slept, taking turns easing the other through the sorrows of life, and the sense of loss each felt at different times, for different reasons. Yet, despite those tender shared moments, never really able to say what was growing in their heats, afraid that it was not shared by the other.
And you will always cross my mind
Not making it easy, no
And you could leave at any time
Not making it easy, not easy
Even after Rakiss pulled them apart and set them on different roads, they still shared a bond that held them together, never far from each others thoughts. Even when Ramora knew Chara could go her own way, yet never did, she suffered in silence rather than risk hurting the one she loved.
Help us find our way home
And you asked me if I’ve been there
Have I been there,
I want to take you along
This I know, I want to live forever this time
Well I guess I’m giving up again
For Ramora, the pain of being so close to the person she loved, yet so far away was the knife that cut too deep, prompting her to finally give up on the dream she had of the two of them being together, and finding a place in the world to call their own. Even when she knew she faced an enemy in Draco she could not hope to defeat and survive, when she thought of Chara, she wanted to find a way, even if it meant giving up on her own goals of avenging her family.
It is a common refrain in the world of War Witch, among the Blessed, to say, “Who wants to live forever”, as they know they will all die in combat against the forces of evil. They know their lives will be brutal and short, yet it is a sacrifice they willingly make for the good of all who live, that they may know a world free of the influence of the Demon Gods. So, hearing those words, I want to live forever this time, sung out at me, was beyond perfect.
It was the heart of the story I wanted to tell. Ramora, knowing she will die young, would forsake her duty, because she would rather live forever, by Chara’s side. The one place she finds she can never be.
My heart, I wanna live forever
Well I’d love to see your face again
I love you still, I love you still, I love you still
I love you
Even when Chara moves on with Esteban, this is the essence of Ramora. Even if she dies fighting Draco, it is with the hope that she will some how, some day, see Chara’s face again, because no matter what, she loves her still.
In music, we can find clarity, hope, and inspiration. In this song, I found the right way to tackle a story that for so many years eluded me. The epic fantasy of two women caught in a war between Gods, and just want to be with each other.
This is not the only song that helped me, not by a long ways, but it is the song that helped me find the emotional heart of the story. Without that, no story is truly complete, and no tale can ever really be considered epic.
My thanks to Sick of Sarah. Your music truly does inspire.
I’ll be back next week with the song that helped me keep Ramora on track, and speaks to who she is as a character.