Family, Beta Readers, Music, and Werewolves: My Writing Essentials

By David Anthony Durham

Writers get asked straightforward questions like: “What’s your writing routine like?” or “How do you research?” or “What’s a typical writing day like for you?” A lot of writers have correspondingly straightforward answers. I, on the other hand, have caveats: “Well, depends on which book you’re talking about” and “It used to be this but I don’t really do that anymore” and “Typical writing day? I’m not sure I have one.”

For me the writing process is ever changing, each project a weird creature that I have to figure out how to work with. Usually that means I need to find different things each time to help me get the work done. I used to call them “crutches” – but what I really mean are the things that I can lean on, that help me in some small way to move forward with each project. I’d flounder without them. I suspect that when my projects fail part of the reason why is that I didn’t find the right support rails to grasp on to.

What, specifically, am I talking about? Here are some examples, book by book between my novels and my Wild Cards contributions:

Gabriel’s Story. My debut novel, a black Western. 

What helped: My wife said she’d support me for six months until she stopped work, but after that I’d have to get a job. Also, she was pregnant. We were living in France where she had temporary work. I didn’t speak French. Didn’t have internet. Didn’t have friends. Didn’t have a book deal. What I did have was a ticking clock and a partner who required that I hand over my day’s writing each evening for her to read. Luckily, this combination of things worked!

Walk Through Darkness. My fugitive slave novel.

What helped: Getting a book deal for Gabriel’s Story, which to my surprise included a second book that I’d mentioned to my editor but had no plans to actually write yet. But there it was in the contract, with a specified time frame to complete it in. Also, I had a baby girl to support!

Pride of Carthage. My novel of Hannibal’s war with Rome.

What helped: Music. Before this novel I’d always written in silence. I thought of music as a distraction, something that would clutter my head and disturb the stillness from which stories emerged. But Hannibal’s story shaped up to be too big, with movements of hundreds of thousands of people, death on a massive scale, individual characters caught up in world shaping events. For the first time, music – specifically Elgar’s Cello Concerto – became a needed soundtrack of the novel. I don’t know that I could have written Hannibal’s army marching across the Alps in winter – with elephants! – without Jacqueline du Pré’s magnificent handling of the crescendo.

We even went to a live performance of it in Perth, Scotland (where we were living at the time). The cellist was no Jacqueline du Pré, but it was sitting there with barely contained calm in the audience, that I imagined the scene wherein Hannibal’s younger brother, Mago, meets his death, overwhelmed by a mass of Romans stabbing, stabbing, stabbing him, their elbows popping up and down in rhythm to music written a couple of centuries later. Elgar wrote the concerto in the aftermath of the First World War, so maybe I was tapping into something that he’d captured about war. 

Apparently music wasn’t just a distraction. It was needed inspiration instead! One thing I was sure of, though; I didn’t want to hear singing. No words. That would surely be distracting.

The Acacia Trilogy. My epic fantasy.

What helped: I needed help with this epic story times three, and I found a lot of it in the form of my former MFA students stepping up as my Beta readers. For the first time, young writers whose work I’d critiqued took up the editorial pen and – armed with their expertise on all things epic fantasy – whipped my manuscripts into shape. They caught and suggested things even my editor didn’t!

Music. Yes, music was important for this series, but not classical music. Instead, I needed music from around the world to help as a dreamed up a tapestry of diverse peoples, races and cultures. My go-to artists were Ali Farka Touré, Cheik Lo, Cesária Évora, Ravi Shankar, the Afro-Cuban All Stars, Omara Portuondo, Buena Vista Social Club, Ibrahim Ferrer, and Mariza. Yes, these included singing, but I decided that as long as it wasn’t in English singing was all right.

Fort Freak/Lowball/High Stakes. The first Wild Cards triad of novels I contributed to!

What helped: My kids. The first hurdle to joining the consortium was creating a calling card character that George liked enough to give the thumbs up. I’ve mentioned the difficulties of this in an earlier blog post. [Perhaps link to it?] The short version is that Maya and Sage (about 9 and 7 at the time) were better than I was at thinking up superheroes and mutants. They’d been doing it on their own, giving them powers, origin stories and comic worthy names. With their help, Marcus Morgan (aka The Infamous Black Tongue) was born!

Lowball Wild Cards book cover

The Risen. My novel of the Spartacus rebellion against ancient Rome.

What helped: The path behind my house in Massachusetts. That sounds weird, doesn’t it? What I mean is that there was this stretch of path in the woods that I’d go to when I was feeling really stuck. I’d walk along it really slowly, looking at the ground. It was like I was searching for something written in the dirt, entangled in roots or sprouting in the foliage. Strangely, for no reason that I understand, I often had breakthroughs this way.

Music. Anything that seemed like it included a werewolf. That also sounds weird, doesn’t it? What does Spartacus and ancient Rome have to do with werewolves? I’ve touched on that in another post. [Perhaps link to it?] Songs that helped me connect with Spartacus’s inner wolf: Of Monsters and Men’s “Dirty Paws,” “Miguel’s “Don’t Look Back,” Eels’ “Fresh Blood,” AWOLNATION’s “Hollow Moon,” Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf.” To be honest, I also found wolves in songs that had nothing to do with wolves; such was my state of mind.

Texas Hold ‘Em, which includes my story, “Drop City.”

What helped: Music, Psychedelic House, Trance, Dubstep, and Future Bass. The roots of the inspiration for “Drop City” goes back to the long nights I spent clubbing in DC and Baltimore (sometimes both in the same night) as a teenager. But that experience needed to be updated to present day and injected with the wild card virus. Enter DJ Tod, a musical maestro with beats that are… Well, let’s say they’re transformative.

To get myself in the writerly trance, though, I needed musical inspiration, which I found in long mixes on Youtube. I’d close the door and turn it up and do my middle aged version of my teen body’s moves. The story came out of that.

The Shadow Prince. My forthcoming solarpunk middle grade novel set in a fantastical ancient Egypt.

What helped: A hot afternoon, iced tea, and a book. This is the only novel that I can name the precise moment the concept came to me, seemingly fully formed. It was a hot summer day in our house in Massachusetts. I’d just come in for rest after mowing the lawn. I sat down with a cool drink and picked up a book that my son, Sage, had borrowed from our neighbor. It was a glossary of ancient Egyptian gods. As I flipped through it, I was struck by the shapeshifting, half-animal, mysterious and unique traits of the gods. They jumped off the page and into my head as the powerful, scary, comic, contradictory characters of a kid’s book. 

Pairing Up, a Wild Cards collection which will include my story, “The Wolf and the Butterfly.”

What helped: Reno! I set the story in Reno, Nevada, where I’ve lived and taught – at the University of Nevada Reno’s genre-inclusive MFA program – for the last four years. The quirky-cool character of the city became the setting, and it was great fun imagining my new home town populated with ace, joker, and joker/ace students. 

Music. In this case just random playlists on Spotify. It’s weird, but the same person who required (or thought he required) silence to write now seems to just want something playing. Anything. My recent playlist history features De La Soul, Thundercat, Linkin Park, Oasis, Amadou & Mariam, Evanescence, Mos Def, Fine Young Cannibals, Christine and the Queens, Burna Boy, Anderson .Paak and Free Nationals. I didn’t mind hopping from one type of music to another, from rap to rock to world to pop. Didn’t mind lyrics in English. I just felt like bobbing my head and tapping my foot as I wrote. 

I seem to be loosening up in my old age.