How I Write – Alison Layland

This week Crime Cymru’s Alison Layland gives us an interesting angle on the popular topic of How I Write by taking us on a musical journey

How I write (or an aspect of my process): inspiring music

Music has always been an important part of my life. Back in the days of LPs and cassettes, I was a maker of themed mixtapes. Add to this the fact that I’ve always had songs that I associate with whatever I’m working on at the time, it goes without saying that ever since the tech has been available – music software on my PC or MP3 player and more recently Spotify – I have made playlists for my novels, short stories and even some translations.

As my writing journey progressed, I enjoyed seeing that other authors do the same, although people use music in different ways. Sometimes music is used in a novel to portray aspects of a character and the playlists quite literally reflect this. Others, as I do, use music to capture or explore the atmosphere of a scene in the novel, or a feeling of a character or relationship. When I look at others’ choices I not only enjoy making the links to the work in question, but often discover some new music myself – a passion second only to discovering my next favourite read!

I pick up on atmospheres, and fragments of lyrics that suggest an idea, mood or atmosphere, plot point or character. Random play has a part in this, too – it can be the mix, a jarring juxtaposition of songs that would not normally be heard in the same place, that can inspire an idea. Sometimes, a line of a lyric can spark an emotion quite separate from the rest of the song – often, I’m sure, not at all how the songwriter intended.

Maybe surprisingly, I don’t usually listen to the songs while I write. Each song, verse or line on my playlist reflects a specific aspect of the novel, and so as the songs came round, they might not be appropriate for the particular section I’m writing at a given time. And indeed, I’d find anything with lyrics just plain distracting from my own words. Rather, my novel playlist serves to keep me “in the zone” when I’m doing other things and can’t be at my desk, or to get me back into the flow if I’m stuck. It can also remind me of my intention and direction if I feel I’m losing my way with a particular aspect. Here are a few selected insights into my Riverflow playlist – turn up your speakers or reach for your headphones and join me on Spotify here

Setting the scene, my main characters, Elin and Bede Sherwell, are pursuing their dream of a sustainable life on a smallholding on the banks of the Severn. Several songs combine to portray this, To The Country by Laura Veirs for the dream of an idyllic life, The Pioneers by Tunng, which suggests the inventiveness of forging your own path, and Downstream by Pumajaw, invoking the passion and togetherness, yet with a hint of menace. As the novel turned darker I often turned to the more positive songs to remind myself of its heart. However, right from the start, the river floods, turning to an angry beast that takes away Bede’s uncle, Joe, and threatens to destroy much of what they hold dear. My Hurricane  by the Blue Aeroplanes evokes the chaos. The river, its moods, beauty and threats, grew to become a central character in the novel, as in The Riverboat Song by Ocean Colour Scene. I also imagine this as the kind of song that newcomer to the village, Silvan, would play with his band back home.

Uncle Joe’s presence throughout the novel – the novel opens with his drowning, which Bede refuses to believe was an accident – is evoked by Kate Bush’s haunting Watching You Without Me, and his diary, recollections of a flawed man almost as lost as the nephew he takes under his wing, played out in my mind to Man of the World by Fleetwood Mac.

A central theme of the novel is environmental protest and the threat of destruction of the natural world. The river’s flooding is a natural disaster, but made worse and more frequent by climate change. There is also the threat of fracking hanging over the community. Central to the playlist are songs on this theme such as the haunting Ballad by New Model Army, and another old favourite of mine, Wond’ring Again by Jethro Tull. Protest, past and present, also plays a part. Elin and Bede met at a road protest in the 1990s, to which Uncle Joe took a reluctant Bede. This was inspired by the Newbury bypass protests, and others, evoked by New Model Army’s Snelsmore Wood. Looking back at songs I’ve known for a long time, sometimes decades, made me think how sadly relevant they still are today, a sentiment expressed in No Change by the Levellers. This sowed the seeds in my mind of Bede’s disillusionment with it all, and he and Elin argue about the effectiveness of protest. As he descends into a destructive depression, she insists it is all worthwhile, beautifully expressed in Kitty Macfarlane’s Man, Friendship, yet is increasingly unable to reach him, like the subject of  Karine Polwart’s Firethief.

Without giving too much away, there is of course redemption, and Justin Sullivan’s Apocalypse Dreams, with its darkness reaching for the light – ‘maybe it’s time to turn this ship around’ – was going through my head as I wrote the novel to its close. Although I don’t usually listen to my playlist while writing, I do sometimes write to instrumental music, often longer pieces. Weather One by Michael Gordonwas brilliant for evoking the atmosphere of the flood scenes. Steven R Smith is a longstanding favourite of mine with his inspiring instrumental music that I often write to. He writes and performs in various guises and I was delighted to get his consent to use the music from his Ulaan Passerine EP New Evening for the wonderful video made by my daughter, Trina.

I hope you enjoy listening, and maybe find something that appeals to you, and that you want to find out more about. Do you have a playlist, or particular songs that have inspired your work? Let us know in the comments!

Alison is a writer and translator, and has told herself stories for as long as she can remember, though she first started writing them down when she moved to Wales in 1997 and learned Welsh. 

Raised in Newark and Bradford, and having lived in various places around the UK, she now lives with her husband in the fascinating landscape of the border between Wales and Shropshire. 
She studied Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at Cambridge University, and after a brief spell as a taxi driver worked for several years as a chartered surveyor before returning to her first love – languages. She translates from German, French and Welsh into English, and her published translations include a number of successful novels. 

Her debut, Someone Else’s Conflict, is a novel of trust and betrayal, storytelling and war, that sweeps from present-day Yorkshire to the 1990s conflict in Croatia. Her second novel, Riverflow, takes floods and fracking on the banks of the River Severn as the setting for a psychological thriller of community tensions, family secrets and environmental protest.

Byddwn i’n hapus i siarad neu gymryd rhan mewn digwyddiadau yn y Gymraeg.

Riverflow is published by Honno Press, and can be bought from your local bookshop or online at:, or

Find out more about Alison Layland at her website or her Crime Cymru page []

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