I was extremely honoured to be invited by the internationally famous Lindsay String Quartet to write a story to be included in one of their concert pieces. I listened to a piece of music by a composer called Debussy, his Quartet in G minor, and immediately pictures starting coming into my mind – I could see somebody running, searching for something. I could see streets of houses, and then dark moors. I could see a night sky. I could hear a refrain that made me think of the words midnight man, and I could hear another refrain like a dog barking softly. As I was listening to the music I was writing all this down, and then I drew a line under the words Midnight Man and started straight away to write the story-poem.
The Lindsays performed the piece at their Christmas concert, with actress Romy Saunders reading my words. Because the pictures in my head were so strong, I wondered if The Midnight Man might make the text for a picture book. I sent it to Walker Books and they said yes straight away. Very soon they sent me Ian Andrew’s ideas for the artwork and I knew that he and their designer were going to make a beautifully atmospheric book of it.
The following year the Lindsay String Quartet invited me to write another story for their Christmas concert. This time I listened to a haunting piece of music by Smetana, called In My Life. I was listening to it in my car, sitting overlooking the Derbyshire hills, and it seemed to be so much part of that landscape that I knew I wanted to write a story that was set there. The music moved between the emotions of joy and sadness, loss and finding, sometimes it seemed to be about dancing, and sometimes it seemed to be about loneliness. I could hear a refrain in it, voices asking Where am I? Who am I? Where are you? I could see ice and darkness and sunlight, and I thought about the caverns nearby where a rare and beautiful stone called Blue John is mined. I decided to invent a character called Blue John, a boy created out of stone, and to make up a kind of fairy story about him.
This time I worked very closely with the music, listening to it many times and following its moods exactly. I followed the notes in the score and wrote the story to fit in with the stops and starts, the quiet and loud parts, and sometimes allowed the notes and the words to fit together exactly, so the actor and actress would read it like a spoken song.
So Blue John had two lives – a piece of music, and a story. I wanted to know if, like Midnight Man, it could have three, so I sent the story to Puffin Books, and they commissioned Tim Clarey to illustrate it as an exquisite picture book.
Music and stories can work the other way round, too. One of my daughters is a professional musician, and she set Midnight Man to her own music, so that my speaking voice, her singing voice and the voices of the harp, the violin, cello and flute weave in and out in a sort of sound picture. I had been inspired by Debussy, and she in turn was inspired by my words.
She also set a shortened version of my novel Daughter of the Sea to music, singing sections of the text without making any changes to the words at all. This is a concert performance with me reading, Sally singing and four instruments playing. You can listen to an excerpt of it on this page, and you can order the CD from Sally’s website.
For their Christmas 2001 concert the Lindsays commissioned another story, based on a piece by Janáçek, called the Kreutzer Sonata, and it inspired me to write a story called The Spell of the Toadman, about a child who rescues a wild green horse from a spell of enchantment.
Music is a very powerful inspiration. If you want to try writing to music yourself, I advise you to find a piece that you don’t know, otherwise you’ll hum along to it. It mustn’t have words, or they will distract you. As you listen, jot down the pictures and the moods that come into your head. Just let the words flow – don’t try to shape them into sentences or into a story. Then look through them and see what you’ve got. Listen to the music again, building up the ideas. Then just write, without the music. Let the words sing.
The Midnight Man, Walker Books, 1999. Illustrated by Ian Andrew.
Blue John, Puffin Books, 2003. Illustrated by Tim Clarey.