A "Natural History of Dragons" Music Playlist by Marie Brennan


Marie Brennan is a former academic with a background in archaeology, anthropology, and folklore, which she now puts to rather cockeyed use in writing fantasy. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to many short stories and novellas, she is also the author of A Star Shall Fall and With Fate Conspire (both from Tor Books), as well as Warrior, Witch, Midnight Never Come, In Ashes Lie, and Lies and Prophecy. You can find her online at SwanTower.com.

I know authors who say they can’t listen to any kind of music while they’re writing, because it’s too distracting. Those people are aliens to me: music is what keeps me from getting distracted. It drowns out minor environmental noise, sets the mood for what I’m doing, and eventually becomes the Pavlovian trigger that gets me to think about the book.

Given the size of my music library, I couldn’t possibly pick a top five anything (songs, albums, artists, etc). Instead, I’ll talk about the soundtrack for this book.

I’ve been doing these since the first Onyx Court novel, as an outgrowth of the habits I described above and the soundtracks I had started making for role-playing games (one of my other hobbies). First I assemble playlists for the book, usually cued to events or moods, like “battle” or “creepy.” Then, piecemeal as I go along, with a bigger wrap-up effort around the end, I pick out individual songs to make what amounts to a score for the novel, complete with a new cover and new titles for each track.

For A Natural History of Dragons, I threw together three starting genres: pulp adventure to set the mood, Eastern European music to fit the setting, and anything to do with dragons (for obvious reasons). This amounted to several hundred songs, which I had on shuffle during the writing. The final track listing for the full score is:

The Memoirs of Lady Trent -- Cirque du Soleil, "O Makunde"
A Natural History of Dragons -- Cirque du Soleil, "Pageant"
An Unfortunate Incident with a Wolf-Drake -- How to Train Your Dragon, "Dragon Training"
Hunting Jacob Camherst -- The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, "Father Christmas"
The Great Sparkling Inquiry -- How to Train Your Dragon, "Forbidden Friendship"
Into the Mountains of Vystrana -- The Edge, "Lost in the Wild(s)"
Drustanev, Our New Home -- Warsaw Village Band, "At My Mother's"
The Incomprehensible Dagmira -- I Sell the Dead, "A What Which?"
A Silhouette in the Night -- The Edge, "The Fire / Breakfast"
My Artistic Skills in Action -- Dragon Age, "The Coronation"
Ancient Draconean Ruins -- Dragon Age, "Human Nobility"
The Tale of Zhagrit Mat -- Alexander Nevsky, "Pskov in Flames"
Our Great Discovery -- Mysterious Island, "Exploration"
Villagers with Pitchforks -- Star Trek, "Nice to Meld You"
In the Boyar's House -- Alexander Nevsky, "The Teutonic Camp (Peregrinus expectavi)"
The Laboratory -- Queen of the Damned, "Secret Passage"
Three Days' Flight -- Sherlock Holmes, "Not in Blood, But in Bond"
Calling the Dragon -- How to Train Your Dragon, "The Kill Ring"
Jacob Again -- Star Trek, "That New Car Smell"

I don’t have a top five in this, either, but I can pick out five about which there’s something to say.

To start with, I’ll cheat by combining the first two songs: “O Makunde” and “Pageant,” from the Cirque du Soleil show . They doesn’t actually fit into any of the three categories above, but I used them for the draconic character I played in an RPG once, and they have a great sound for this book. “O Makunde” is quiet, but with opening drums to provide a feeling of something grand about to happen. It segues straight into “Pageant,” which has this off-kilter beat -- it’s actually in 9/8, but instead of that being divided up into threes like normal, it’s 2+2+2+3, which makes it feel quirky and energetic and exciting. Also, it has accordions! Which probably doesn’t sound like a selling point, but trust me, it’s a great song. (Cirque du Soleil’s music in general is fabulous, and I recommend it to everyone.)

“The Great Sparkling Inquiry” is “Forbidden Friendship,” off the soundtrack for How to Train Your Dragon. In addition to being a wonderfully charming movie, it has a kickass score, and this track exemplifies one of the things it does best: bright, hopeful music that doesn’t sound like every other “okay, time for the happy montage scene” scoring you’ve heard in a thousand other films. It uses a lot of, I dunno, maybe they’re xylophones? Melodic percussion instruments of a variety of sorts, that give it a nice delicacy. Which fits the book; the Great Sparkling Inquiry is an early piece of naturalist work by my protagonist, Isabella, as she’s studying tiny dragon-like insectoid creatures in the fields near her home.

Originally the soundtrack from the film The Edge wasn’t even in my playlists for this book. But I started listening to it after I began writing, and while it’s not actually pulp adventure and the movie takes place in Alaska, “Lost in the Wild(s)” does a lovely job of evoking the sweeping (and freezing) grandeur of mountains. So that made it perfect for the characters’ arrival in mountainous, cold Vystrana.

I waffled a lot before choosing “At My Mother’s” by the Warsaw Village Band for “Our New Home.” The reason is that I wasn’t able to find the lyrics online (and I only speak about twenty words of Polish, all of them acquired after this book was done), so I have no idea what they’re actually singing about. Possibly it doesn’t fit the scene at all! But they play Polish folk music with modern elements, and Poland was one of the inspirations (along with Romania) for Vystrana, the country in which the bulk of the novel takes place, so their music helped me get the setting in my head, when the characters reach the village of Drustanev. I just hope the lyrics aren’t saying anything I’m going to regret....

Sergei Prokofiev is, of course, a great Russian composer, and Alexander Nevsky is a film about a great Russian hero. There are sort-of Russians in the novel -- Bulskoi, who are “Russian” in the same way that Scirlings are “English” and Chiavorans are “Italian” -- and the other track I took from the film is used for them, but “The Tale of Zhagrit Mat” is a Vystrani thing: a legend about an ancient king and a horrible curse. Very ominous, and “Pskov in Flames” is wonderfully brass-and-percussion grim. In other words, exactly what I needed for the scene.

Putting together these soundtracks serves multiple purposes for me. It’s fun to be able to talk about the music with people, and assembling a formal CD gives me an odd sort of souvenir from my work, but it’s also true that these scores amount to a musical outline for the book. Choosing what deserves a song, and what kind of music fits that place or character or event, makes me think through my story from a different angle, in a way that’s very useful. I have to be careful not to give major spoilers in the new song titles, but it’s the sort of thing readers can look back on and see what I was hinting at. If you have any of this music on hand, or think it sounds interesting enough to obtain, hopefully it will add something to the story for you.


By Marie Brennan (Website, Twitter, Goodreads)
A Tor Hard Cover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-3196-0
On Sale: February 5, 2013
Available here:
Powells, Walmart, Overstock
Cover Art by Todd Lockwood

5 comments:

  1. I am not surprised tracks from How to Train Your Dragon wound up on the playlist!

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  2. I love seeing which songs authors listen to while they write, very interesting!

    ~Ailsa

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  3. I like how Marie renames existing songs to form a soundtrack that reflects events in the book and how she says doing so lets her think about the story from a different angle. I might give it a try now, even though I don't usually listen to music while writing.

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