How I Use “Soundtracks” To Help Me Write When I’m Not Writing

“The Official Motion Picture Soundtrack.” How many of those do you own? I know I owned a few soundtracks on cassette tape when I was growing up. Some of these albums were a central part of the film for which they were recorded, like Purple Rain (which I wore out listening to) or [insert musical title here] (which I did not own…because I don’t like musicals).

Purple Rain

But most soundtracks were recorded to provide an audible background intended to enhance the movie by putting the audience in the right mood or frame of mind at just the right time, so they would experience the film the way the director intended.

Remember the title track to Jaws?….Of course you do….It works, doesn’t it?

For movies, sure, but what about books? They don’t have soundtracks. They rely on the author’s ability to put words on the page to set the mood or guide the reader’s frame of mind. There’s no help from an awesome John Williams score to prod the reader into seeing the point the author was trying to make or feeling the emotion he was trying to evoke.

That’s all on the back end, though, after the book is published. What about before that point? When the book is being written? Does an author have an “Official Printed Page Soundtrack” while he’s putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard, creating the next New York Times Bestseller?

I DO. I mean, I don’t have any delusions about getting on the NYT list anytime soon, but I do put together a soundtrack for each writing project.

Movies of the Mind

I talked about how I like to have to outline a book project on several different levels before I start writing in Planning: The Importance of Outlining (for me, anyway). I also mentioned in that post how the outlining process usually takes me a few months to get through. But for the outlining to work, I have to have an idea of where the story I brainstormed is going to go (how it will move from beginning to end…the middle part is always the most difficult, but also the most fun to develop).

Just as important as moving the plot along, though, is how the characters–particularly the main protagonist and antagonist–will develop throughout the story. At some point, these characters are going to run into conflicts, and they will need to adjust in order to overcome those obstacles. How they adjust to each new situation is tempered by their own personalities and abilities.

Sure, they will likely have to step outside their comfort zone, and they may even do things, or say things, they never thought they’d do or say. Sometimes the personal or emotional consequences are good–sometimes not so good.

And for each of these situations, in both the plot and character development progression, there is an accompanying song that plays in the background of the mental motion picture playing in my head. Those songs help me stay focused on the mood and emotion I want to convey to the reader at each point in the story when I do start writing–especially when I am in the scene-by-scene outlining phase. I like to think of myself as the director of a movie in my mind, and the music helps set the tone.

Writing without a Pen

This is where the book soundtrack really does its work.

Millions of people spend an average of 400 hours on the road commuting to and from work every year. (I just made that up…but at least I can admit when I’m pulling statistics from my hind end, unlike [DELETED BY DIRECTION OF WH COMM OFFICE].) Many people use that time in the car to “read” by listening to an audio book. I did that for years when I had a no-kidding full-time job in the Navy, and I was attending the National Intelligence University at night and on weekends. I got through mass quantities of possible research material for class papers that way.

I obviously wasn’t writing those papers while I was driving, but I was thinking about things I may or may not use as references as I listened. That’s what I do with the soundtracks I put together for each writing project.

For The Complicity Doctrine, one of the songs on my playlist was “Duck and Run” by 3 Doors Down. In that book, the protagonist, Casey Shenk, is the victim and witness to a bombing that killed several people and injured many more. He was eating an onion bagel when the explosion happened. That traumatic event could have caused Casey to say, “F— this, I’m outta here,” pack his bags, and move out of the Big Apple and back down to Savannah where life was much simpler. But he didn’t. Like the song, Casey refused to “duck and run,” because that’s not who he was…and the book would have ended around page 53, which wouldn’t do me any good.

That song helped me shape Casey’s actions in the subsequent chapters and scenes, as well. And that was just one of the 20-plus songs I put together for that book. I will listen to the book’s soundtrack every time I’m in the car–I burn the iTunes playlist onto CD(s)–and as I’m listening, I am picturing how the characters will act and interact as the plot unfolds. I am writing the manuscript in my head as the background music plays. When I get to where I’m going, whether it’s work or home or wherever, I’ll write down notes on whatever thoughts came to mind during my commute.

So even when I’m not writing, I’m still “writing.” Thanks to book soundtracks.



Yo-Ho-Ho and a Bottle of Rum

I am a writer–but I’m also a pirate.

Since I was a kid, I have been fascinated with the history of pirates. From fictional accounts such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, to the writings of Captain Charles Johnson, A. O. Esquemeling, Howard Pyle, Marcus Rediker, David Cordingly, and more, I devoured anything I could find about the Golden Age of Piracy (roughly 1690 to 1730).

In 20 years as a naval officer, I had the opportunity to sail many of the world’s oceans, including two-handing a sailboat from Puerto Rico to Key West. I experienced firsthand the challenges of life at sea while plying the very same waters that Thomas Tew, Edward Teach (Blackbeard), Charles Vane, and others sailed in search of their next victim.

As a boarding officer in the Persian Gulf, I had a taste of the pirate profession by stopping and boarding ships in open water. I would be lying if I said every time I climbed a rope or scaled a pilot ladder onto the deck of a sometimes less-than-compliant dhow, cargo ship, or tanker, I didn’t have visions of going on the account and capturing a prize.

I have also published two feature articles on piracy (modern and historical) and was invited to participate as a panel speaker at the 2009 European Conference on Maritime Piracy in London, England.

USNI articles.png

Hell, I even have a parrot tattooed on my left shoulder and Blackbeard’s flag on my right!

If all that doesn’t convince you of my fetish for attraction to all things piratical, I don’t know what will. Oh wait, yes I do…

Yesterday, I started a part-time job at the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum!


Okay, I’m not one of the costumed tour guides (yet), but I got my foot in the door–the front door, to be exact…just through the gift shop at the entrance to the museum proper. If that didn’t tip you off to the nature of my new swashbuckling adventure, I’ll tell you: I work the cash register.

Pirates don’t work cash registers!

True, Jack Rackham or Charles Vane likely never scanned price tags on t-shirts or sold admissions tickets, but they made change (sort of). You see, when a sailor went on the account (gone a-pirating, if you will), he knew just how much he would earn as a share of whatever plunder was taken during his time aboard. For example, if a seaman was promised a 1/10th share of the loot on any given take, he would walk away with 1/10th of one share of the sugar captured out of Martinique. Now that’s not 1/10th of the sugar haul, but 1/10th of a single “share.” By contrast, the navigator may get 3 shares, or 30x what the seaman received. Got that?

Enough math. The point is, the pirate captain was making change. The poor sack who had his cargo taken gave the pirate captain a twenty (the captured booty), and the captain gave each crewmember whatever he didn’t keep for himself. Instead of a ball cap with a cool skull and crossbones, though, the captain of the plundered vessel was usually happy to hand over the money just see another sunrise.

It’s all a matter of perspective, see? To outsiders, I’m just a cashier, but from my perspective, this new part-time gig is just like being on the account, without the mortal hazards.

Fine, I’m still a cashier. But I get to work with this guy,


…which beats working here:

cubicle work

Just sayin’….

“Come,…let us make a hell of our own.”

So for now, I will still be writing (my full-time profession), but I will spend a part of some of my days with the pirates. My wife has graciously stepped up to fill the kid-taxi void that emerged with my new-found employment. It ain’t gonna be pretty at times, but as Blackbeard said–according to Captain Charles Johnson–“let us make a hell of our own.”

I know it will be hot (we live in Florida, and it is almost summer), but I think this new “hell” will only make us stronger as a family. And less time means less wasted time, so perhaps the next book will be done a lot sooner than anticipated.

Until next week, Fair Winds and Following Seas, y’all.

PTM register duty

(Note: This post is going out a bit later in the day than my previous posts as I try to determine the optimal time of day to reach the most number of people. Remember, I’m still new at this blogging stuff 🙂 )





Planning: The Importance of Outlining (for me, anyway)

Just like the Russians, according to the late Fred Thompson in the film version of Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, I also need a plan. Maybe not to use the toilet, but I definitely need a detailed outline before I start the daunting task of writing a novel.

Planning vs. Pantsing

I didn’t start out that way, in writing, I mean (I don’t think I’ve ever “planned” how to answer the call of nature). When I came up with the idea for Open Source, I was living at the office in Naples, Italy, where I worked. My family had moved to California ahead of me, and there was really no other place for me to stay. So what did I do when the rest of the folks went home for the day (except the 24/7 operations center watch)? I decided to try my hand at writing a novel.

I was on fire for almost three weeks! I knocked out about 50 pages of a first draft (around 12,500 words) writing every evening and on weekends. But after that opening salvo, the guns went silent. I realized that I didn’t know where I was going with the story–or the characters–and I had visions of my previous failed efforts from my high school days.

In writing parlance, this method of sitting down, maybe with a cup of coffee beside you, and letting the story flow from your brain to the page, is called “pantsing.” It comes from the method of writing by the seat of your pants.

Problem was, I hadn’t done enough thinking things through to even know where the story was headed, let alone where it would end. So I scrapped the first 50 and started over. This time, I fell back on the method I was more comfortable with after years of schooling and publishing three feature articles in a couple of publications. Outlining. Three months worth, in the case of Open Source.

The opposite of pantsing is outlining, or “planning.” There are tons of articles and posts you can find online that argue the merits and/or pitfalls of using each method to craft a story, so I will not enter that fray here. I can tell you, though, planning worked in my case, and I’ve done it ever since.

Here’s an example of the planning/outlining I’ve been doing for my next WIP (work-in-progress…another writing term I’ve had to learn since I decided to take this gig seriously):


(You’ll notice some books in this picture, too. Besides the dictionary, I’ve used those other books for character and plot research. The maps I drew are necessary for keeping the geography and scene location of my fictional town both consistent and plausible. Oh, and the notebooks? I not only take notes and outline on paper, but I also write the novel longhand and type it into the computer when I’m done. This makes my writing office portable, so I can work from the bleachers at my kids’ soccer practices, in the waiting room at Jiffy Lube, or anywhere else I happen to have some dead time.)

So I’m a planner, not a pantser.

For the most part. I plan 95% of the book before tackling an entire manuscript. From broad outlines on a calendar to character bios to scene-by-scene storyboards (without the pictures), I can move things around or change/add parts as needed, without having to dig through an entire completed manuscript looking for holes that need to be filled, and the like.

But I also do some seat-of-the-pants writing at the very beginning. I learned that writing a little bit of the opening scenes/chapters (maybe not 50 pages, though) help to inform my efforts in writing the outline. I get a sense of how I want the story’s mood portrayed, and what the main character’s personality reads like on the page, and then I can get to work on outlining.

Overall, I generally spend about six months researching and outlining before I even start any serious writing. After the heavy lifting is done, however, it doesn’t take long before a completed first-draft manuscript is born.

So that’s how I do it. Bottom line, though, is do whatever works for you. I learned by trial and error, chances are most other writers did, as well. I mean, except Stephen King. That guy’s just a freak of nature…who writes…and scares kids…and makes a lot of money…and plays guitar.




Better Strangers?

Strangers- outlined with citation

Why did you choose “Better Strangers” as the name of your blog?

I get asked that question a lot. Okay, not really. I just started this blog on Tuesday, and pretty much my audience consists of my wife and my mom…and I’m not sure my wife actually read the first post. But since you asked (assuming you read this out loud), I’ll tell you.

I love Shakespeare.

Most people who are products of the American public school system have at least a cursory knowledge of one or more of the Bard’s great tragedies: Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, etc. To a lesser extent, I imagine, they may even know some of the comedies: The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing, The Merchant of Venice, or A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Whether categorized as comedy or tragedy, Shakespeare’s plays are great stories in their own right. But what makes them special is the language. Shakespeare’s plays are replete with fantastic wordplay that helped elevate the author to the master-status he so rightly deserves. An example from As You Like It (Act 3, Scene 2):


Jaq.     I thank you for your company; but, good faith, I had as leif have been myself alone,

Orl.     And so had I; but yet, for fashion’s sake, I thank you too for your society.

Jaq.     God be with you: let’s meet as little as we can.

Orl.     I do desire we may be better strangers.

Jaq.     I pray you, mar no more trees with writing love-songs in their bark.

Orl.     I pray you, mar no more of my verses with reading them ill-favouredly.

Jaq.     Rosalind is your love’s name?

Orl.     Yes, just.

Jaq.     I do not like her name.

Orl.     There was no thought of pleasing you when she was christened.

Jaq.     What stature is she of?

Orl.     Just as high as my heart.

Jaq.     You are full of pretty answers. Have you not been acquainted with goldsmith’s wives, and conned them out of rings?

Orl.     Not so; but I answer you right painted cloth, from whence you have studied your questions.

Jaq.     You have a nimble wit: I think it was made of Atalanta’s heels. Will you sit down with me? and we two will rail against our mistress the world, and all our misery.

Orl.     I will chide no breather in the world but myself, against whom I know most faults.

Jaq.     The worst fault you have is to be in love.

Orl.     ‘Tis a fault I will not change for your best virtue. I am weary of you.

Jaq.     By my troth, I was seeking for a fool when I found you.

Orl.     He is drowned in the brook; look but in, and you shall see him.

Jaq.     There I shall see mine own figure.

Orl.     Which I take to be either a fool or a cipher.

Jaq.     I’ll tarry no longer with you: farewell, good Signior Love.

Orl.     I am glad of your departure; adieu, good Monsieur Melancholy.

I hate Shakespeare.

Was this your response after reading the sample above? I bet some of you had that thought before you even got to that part. A natural reflex, probably, if your only exposure to Shakespeare was in your middle- or high-school days. But did you notice something different?….Okay, I’ll tell you. No footnotes!

And that’s how you have to read Shakespeare to really enjoy it. Don’t read the footnotes. Just the words. I learned a long time ago that the footnotes (which can be as much as half of the printed page in some texts) usually tell you 1) something you already knew or figured out from the context of the writing or 2) something you don’t need/care to know.

If you read that passage from As You Like It and had to stop every four or five lines and drop your eyes to the bottom of the page, the pace of the verbal exchange would be totally destroyed. And trust me, this exchange in particular was meant to be a rapid swapping of not-so-subtle insults between the two men. Any pause ruins the intended effect.

I do desire we may be better strangers.

Brilliant! This is one of my favorite lines from…well, from anything, really. Orlando and Jaques clearly dislike each other, but are compelled by the decorum of the day to refrain from blatant mudslinging. Instead, they mask their insults with wordplay. Orlando’s quip is a fine example.

In Shakespeare’s play, “better strangers” is used to mean the speaker wishes he and the other man never crossed paths in the first place, and he sincerely hopes they never meet again.

As the title of this blog, Better Strangers is meant to be an homage of sorts to perhaps the greatest playwright who ever lived, as well as a bit of humor. Unlike Orlando in his encounter with Jaques, I hope you (the reader) and I can become better strangers in the sense that we will likely remain strangers–a product of internet interaction (that’s just reality, folks)–but perhaps we may get to know each other better. Or you may get to know me better, at any rate.

(Unless I truly don’t like you. Then I refer you back to Shakespeare’s turn of the phrase.)


A Writer’s Life in the Balance

I am a writer.

It took me a while to embrace that label. For the longest time, I was a “sailor.” Writing was a hobby–and not a hobby I engaged in very often.

I started writing in Mrs. Cole’s English classes in high school, completing various writing assignment from time to time. I even took a creative writing class at the U.S. Naval Academy (yes, they actually offered one) sandwiched between weapons systems engineering and naval history. So I got a chance to write some more–again, for a grade.

These structured forays into the world of writing were instructive, but they did little to make me believe I was a writer, amateur or otherwise. But they did keep the pilot light lit.

By the time I finished my first novel, Open Source, I was married with two kids and a dog. Oh, and I was still a sailor. Anyone who’s served in the Navy can tell you the job is full-time and then some. Writing was just a hobby.

But, damn it, I wrote a book! Beginning, middle, and end. One hundred and eight thousand words! I was on my way.

Now, over a year into retirement (from the Navy, anyway), with two more books under my belt, I can confidently say that I am a writer. I even put that as my occupation on my tax return this year. Not because I make a steady stream of income from writing (I don’t…not yet), but because writing is what I do. It’s no longer just a hobby.

This blog is part of that transition from hobbyist to professional writer–“professional” because writing is now my profession. Better Strangers isn’t meant to be an instructional or advice-filled site on how to improve your writing and get published (I’ve only self-published my work thus far–more to come on that), but I want it to give you a glimpse into my own writing journey, from how I got started to how I can balance writing full-time with being a husband and father.

There will be other pieces in between that will hopefully serve two purposes: 1) give readers an idea of who I am as a person and 2) give me an outlet to express my opinions when my kids or the dog have no interest in hearing what I have to say. Be warned, there will likely be humor and sarcasm riddled throughout.

You can read a little more on where I am coming from on the Who is this guy? page of the blogsite. And now that introductions are done, we can move on to the fun stuff!