How Did THAT Slip In? The Subconscious Realities that can Sneak into Novels

DeathtoStock_Medium8I’ve completed and published two novels, while a third is currently being revised. All three stories involve women of various ages figuring out their lives and what they really want. Which I guess makes sense, as I feel like I’m figuring out new things about myself all the time. I try to write what I know, and then fictionalize it.

But here’s something that’s been bugging me lately: while both of my first books have very strong music themes—Living by Ear is about a female musician trying to reclaim her career and love life after a failed marriage, and Leaving the Beach is about a lonely bulimic woman with an unhealthy (and sometimes dangerous) obsession with rock stars—my new novel contains almost no music.

Which, from a marketing standpoint, is kind of a bummer! Up until now, various marketing people I’ve worked with have encouraged me to brand myself as both a women’s writer and someone who writes unique stories about music. They’ve suggested that I write lots of blog posts about music, which I’ve tried to do. I also host a blog series for guest writers called Music Tuesday, and try to stay active in various music communities, both in the real world and on social media.

But now! Now I’ve got this third book coming out in the fall, and there’s no music theme. And I’ve been wracking my brain trying to understand why. Why hasn’t more music crept into the story, as it did with the other two books? For example, when I got the idea for Living by Ear, I wanted it to be about a woman trying to find passion again after being in a long, unhappy marriage. And, since music is one of my strongest passions, it only made sense for that character to be a musician. Likewise, as a former bulimic, my first thought when I started writing Leaving the Beach was that it’d be a story about a bulimic. Then, as I developed the main character, I realized that she also shared my love for (and occasional obsession with) music.

So why is it that the main character in this new story—a twenty-five-year-old woman—barely thinks about music at all? In many ways, she’s similar to me when I was younger, and I’ve pretty much been a “music person” all my life. As a baby, the only way my parents could get me to sleep was by dancing me around the house to Count Basie records. In elementary school, I couldn’t get enough of American Top 40, and in high school, I became enamored with rock icons like David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen. As for the various periods of my college and post-college life, I often differentiate between them by remembering the musical artists I discovered during each period. I could go on, but you get the point.

And then, the other day, I realized that the answer to my question lay in the specific age of the main character in this new novel: twenty-five. Shortly after I started sketching out a plot for the book, I decided that she’d have to be twenty-five. Yes, the story is set primarily in 2012 and I turned twenty-five in 1989, but I recall my twenty-fifth year as being a particularly angst-ridden one, and the woman in this story is dealing with considerable angst. But when I thought again about my days as a twenty-five-year-old, it occurred to me that that year was also the least musical one of my life. 

Why? Well, first of all, I was very busy with my job as a teacher, a job I adored, by the way. I also didn’t own a car; hence I rode a series of trains and buses to work–the commute took over an hour each way–and I never thought to bring a Walkman with me. In addition, the eating disorder that I’ve written about many times was at its worst. And, perhaps most importantly, I was in the final stages of a terrible relationship. Therefore, most of my time—when I wasn’t at work or correcting papers—was spent agonizing over the bad relationship, talking to friends and roommates about the bad relationship, and being sick. I may have gone out to a concert or two that year, and of course I had a stereo in my bedroom, but aside from that, music was truly in the background for a while.

Therefore, I think I’ve come to understand why there’s almost no music in this new novel, which is tentatively titled Amateurs and Radios. (And don’t let that word “radios” fool you. I won’t go into detail now, but the radios in the title don’t play music!)

How about you? Have you discovered something in your written work that reveals part of your life that you didn’t intend to reveal? If so, I’d love to hear about it.

Happy writing!


About Mary Rowen

My three published novels, LEAVING THE BEACH (a 2016 IPPY Award winner), LIVING BY EAR, and IT DOESN'T HAVE TO BE THAT WAY focus on women figuring out who they are and what they want from life. Music and musicians have a way of finding their way into the stories. I live in the Boston area with my family and pets.
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8 Responses to How Did THAT Slip In? The Subconscious Realities that can Sneak into Novels

  1. Sheila says:

    Great post! So interesting to peel back that layer through the character…and also, millennials aren’t listening and sharing music in the same way that we used to..looking forward to this new, latest work Mary!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mary Rowen says:

    Thanks, Sheila! As you pointed out in your terrific blog post the other day, millennials most certainly aren’t sharing music like we used to. And people, if you haven’t seen Sheila’s recent blog post on Huff Post about the death of the mixtape, here it is. Definitely worth reading!


  3. I love when these insights happen! It sounds like a really interesting story – can’t wait!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mary Rowen says:

      Thank you, Carrie! I hope it’s interesting. I’m in that phase right now where I’m doing a lot of doubting. Hoping to get past that phase soon. I hope you’re doing well and finding time to write. I love the short story (The Selfish Gene) that you posted on your blog recently.


  4. jan says:

    I don’t think you should limit yourself to just writing about women obsessed with music. But then what do I know? My main characters range from 18 to 37 and there’s a huge difference between how they think. I never have insights about myself except that I’m a coward (I’ll tell you why offline!) ; ))

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mary Rowen says:

      Jan, you’re no coward!! I love your writing and your characters, especially because they’re all very unique. Sometimes I feel like my main characters are too much like me. And I’m up for a chat any time!


  5. DenaRogers says:

    Great post, Mary. As you know, I touched on this a while back and even now as I’m editing my current work, I’m finding more and more things that I can attribute to my surroundings. Although we may not mean to let those things slip in, we can’t help it. I’m going to have to get Leaving the Beach, it sounds like something I think I’d like.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mary Rowen says:

      Thanks, Dena. I also think I’d like Drive Me Sane a lot and have it on my reading list. Yeah, the experience of writing this novel is pretty interesting. I’d thought that writing about a person much younger than I am now would turn out much differently. But in this revision, I’m learning that she’s a lot like me at twenty-five. Happy Tuesday, and thanks again for your comment!


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