A Little Birdy Told Me


Inspiration, as has been often discussed on this spot, comes from strange places. Anyone who has put cursor to screen for more than a few sentences also knows that inspiration is but the very important start of any story, long or short. One needs interesting characters doing interesting things, or characters who have interesting things happen to them. Sometimes, when dealing with the latter situation, authors find themselves with a character who is not only painted into a corner but also glued to the wall. There are times when that happens where one must give up, go back a couple of pages, and do a re-write. Another alternative, however, is to step back, look at what is around you, and see if the world around you provides a solution. That alternative was given to me on Wednesday by happenstance.

My wife loves wild birds. We have feeders in the back, front, and side yards, and birdhouses in the front yard tree. We have so many feeders that the Franciscan monks send money to US pay for seed (just kidding). We do get a lot of birds around the house, though,which means we don’t leave doors open. Birds don’t like to fly into buildings, but they sure wind up in a lot of them. Go into any big box store, particularly one of those giant supermarket operations, and look up. You’ll probably see a bird or two flying by. When I was a wee lad attending Catholic grade school nothing would crack the eighth grade girls’ choir up faster than a starling dive bombing the loft. Yeah, birds are like cats in that way: they try really hard to get in somewhere, and then decide they would rather be somewhere else, like outside. This is of course selectively true across the biological kingdom — and no more so than among the males of any species — but today we’re just talking about birds, and the noise in my house.

I was working on a tale a couple of days ago, a story which begins with a guy waking up in the middle of a desert and having no recollection of how he got there. He realizes after a few moments that he is surrounded by something really unpleasant and potentially dangerous. He gets out of that problem and jumps from one problem to the next. My unfortunate fictitious friend possesses neither firearms nor adaptive skillsets so he can’t fight his way out of predicaments, and they’re not really the type of situations that he can think his way out of, either. That doesn’t leave many alternatives, but his creator (that would be me) did a little of this here and a little of that there and before you know it my character was leap-frogging pans and straddling fires like no one’s business. I then reached a point where I painted him into that corner I mentioned earlier, and couldn’t figure out a way to get him out of it that would be consistent and, more importantly, believable when one considered what had happened before. I really liked the pages leading up to the dilemma, too, and was loathe to rewrite them. Benign neglect of a few minutes’ duration seemed to be in order. Then I heard THE noise. It was coming from right above my basement office, which is beneath our attached garage. I went upstairs, opened the door leading from the garage to the house, and got dive-bombed by a cardinal. I’m not referring to the kind that lives in a cathedral but takes a vow of poverty; I’m talking about the feathered type. It had gotten trapped in the garage and couldn’t find a way out. I managed to get the door to the house closed behind me before it flew deeper into the residence (that would have been really interesting). It seemed that a little common sense was in order so I opened the garage door. I was worried the bird was going to damage the garage and I would have to call someone like https://balancedgaragedoors.com to come out and repair it! I’ve had a few issues with my garage door before and I was hoping I wouldn’t have to pay out for a repair again. Repairs can be really expensive! Luckily the bird didn’t damage anything so it saved me some money, but I know a few great garage door companies who I would’ve called if I needed to.

Cardinals, it seems, will never be employed at Oak Ridge doing atomic research. This bird, like my protagonist, couldn’t find its way out, despite the wide open garage door that was present just a couple of feet behind it as a careened posterior over elbow all over the garage. It was too frightened to see the way out. It struck me, after watching my new bird friend for a few minutes, that my story needed a similar exit strategy, one that would have been obvious to an observer who was not panicked but that my hapless protagonist was overlooking in his fright and haste. I started thinking creatively along those lines while I watched the bird and as it finally realized that 1) the door was open and 2) it was open to OUTSIDE — worms, seed, sunlight, and all it could want — it flew out. I put the garage door back down and spied it a few moments later as it sat on the bird feed outside the front window, pecking contentedly at seed. I was content, too, as I had solved my creative dilemma.

I doubt that the cardinal learned anything, but the lesson for me was that you can learn a lot, and even occasionally solve a problem, by watching what is going on around you, even when at first it doesn’t seem to be relevant. Does anyone have similar stories? What do you do when you’re writing and get stuck on a problem? Do you back up and take another path, or do you bulldoze your way through it?

This entry was posted in Writing and tagged , , by Joe Hartlaub. Bookmark the permalink.

About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

22 thoughts on “A Little Birdy Told Me

  1. I find that my unconscious mind is often a better problem-solver than my conscious mind. Usually, if I think about what has me stymied before I go to sleep at night, a solution presents itself as soon as I wake. I keep a notebook beside my bed to catch ideas before I wake up completely and the insights evaporate. Taking a long walk along the lake shore also helps. I see lots of birds, but so far none of them has given me any bright ideas.

    • You’re fortunate, Lisa, as my unconscious mind doesn’t work that way, unfortunately. I do, find, however, that a change of scene or consciousness helps. I call myself a 3AM thinker as I’ll frequently wake up, start thinking of a problem and come up with a solution. Maybe. Anyway, thanks for sharing.

    • That sleep-on-it strategy also works for me, Lisa. It’s like magic. On the other hand, I have bird feeders all around my place, and the only lesson I have learned is that if you put them close to the water, you attract Canada geese that eat your feed and ruin your lawn. If you move them to the front, close to the house, you attract rodents. Neither of those critters are in my thoughts as I awake with answers to my writing problems.

      • Nancy, if Canadian geese are attracted hawks will be as well. They love the geese eggs and never got the memo that Canadian geese are allegedly a so-called endangered species. It’s not a pretty sight.

  2. I agree with Lisa, our unconscious minds are better problem-solvers. I’ve read about creative dreaming and how it works wonders especially for writers of fiction. When I get stumped on something in my story, I push away from my laptop for a while and relax on my seat with my eyes closed. I often get something from the little birdies that way without totally falling asleep.

  3. Sometimes sleep helps me, Anna, though I need to be awake for a few minutes before anything kicks in. Or not. I will write something down that seems like genius only to wake up in the morning to find that my brilliant idea was “guy robs bank.” Thanks for sharing!

  4. Being the dishwasher in my house, I find “mindless chores” allow me to turn things over and over without committing anything to the story itself… I keep a piece of (wadded up) paper in my pocket most of the time and scribble what seems to work, taking it back to the WIP later.

    This seems to work when I’m raking leaves, or doing my “power walk” (outside amongst the birds), as well.

    Night scrawls are typically illegible ~ which is saying something, given my handwriting~

    • My night scrawls are illegible as well, G…maybe if I stopped writing in crayon?…I doubt it would help. Thanks for stopping by and contributing!

  5. Good morning, Joe.

    Like Lisa, Nancy, and Anna, I seem to find my best solutions at night – the boys in the basement, I believe Stephen King called them. Years ago, when I was designing a house, I was up often in the middle of the night to draw out my ideas.

    And I agree, those cardinals will never be employed at Oak Ridge, especially the males. Every spring when the hormones are flowing, the males fly into windows, attacking their reflected image, to drive off competitors. Unfortunately, we often find dead ones that broke their neck.

    I think I observe behavior around me, more for ways to get characters into trouble than out of trouble.

    Thanks for another great post!

    • Good morning, Steve! You design houses as well? That’s a bottomless well of talent that you are hauling around with you. My designs never advanced beyond the Lincoln logs or red brick stage, I’m afraid. I always ran out of supplies.

      Re: the cardinals…we have unfortunately had that problem as well. Or I should say that the cardinals have had that problem. Actually, now that I think of it, males of quite a few species bang their heads against unyielding surfaces with untoward results during mating season (particularly when the mating season never ends 🙂 ). Thanks once again for taking time during your weekend to visit with us.

  6. Sleeping on it helps me, too, Joe, but I’m currently writing a scene in my WIP about something that really happened and was darn scary — I blew a tire going 70 in the fast lane on I-95 and had to steer the across four lanes of traffic. Fortunately, a quick-witted Latina figured out what was going on and she honked and put on her flashers to warn the other cars — then stopped to see if I was OK. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quick-witted enough to get her name. But when I calmed down, I wondered — what if someone had deliberately slashed that tire?

    • Elaine, that actually happened to me on I-71 N just south of Covington KY several years ago. I still have the counter-indentations from gripping the steering wheel to prove it. I had just left a rest stop, so I have often wondered myself if it was deliberate (though I cannot imagine who would do such a thing to me, a man who wishes peace and good will towards all).
      Thanks for sharing your WIP. BTW, nothing but nothing gets the attention of drivers behind you like your rear car window exploding. But that’s another story).

  7. I actually get some of my best ideas in the shower. Maybe it’s symbolic of washing away the problem. You’re fully awake, even a little more invigorated, but you’re doing a rote activity that requires no thought. Your brain is disengaged and allowed to float free. Anyway, it works for me.
    I am reminded of Seattle Seahawk QB Russell Wilson two years ago. He started an important playoff game (redundant?) abysmally. Then towards the end of the first quarter a lightning storm delayed the game for almost an hour. During the break he took a shower “to wash the stink off” and came back when play resumed and was brilliant. Go ‘Hawks!

    • I like the shower idea, John. I’ll have to try it. Thanks! It will beat doing what I normally do, which is watching for spiders.

  8. Interesting story, Joe.

    The only thing that works for me is to walk away from the writing and let my mind wander into some other state. There was a great op ed piece in the New York Times last week by a novelist who compared his writing to solving crossword puzzles. (I love crosswords!). He noted that you can sit and stare at a puzzle for hours and not see the solution or a way “out.” So you have to walk away. And when you pick it up later, the solution — duh! — is right there staring at you. Same with writing.

    Or, in the immortal words of Frankie Goes to Hollywood…relax, don’t do it when you want to go to it.

    • Thanks Kris! I work on crossword puzzles the same way…I think about potential answers while walking across the room to pick up the page I’ve just thrown…

      Speaking of rock music lyrics…are you going to send an autographed copy of SHE’S NOT THERE, your new novel, to Rod Argent?

  9. Watching for spiders, Joe? Showering certainly seems more fun. To give you some encouragement, a house here in Missouri became so infested with Brown Recluse spiders that the owner burned it down to get rid of them.

    Sleeping on it works for me.

    • I saw the article about that house, Dave. I would have helped the guy. I’ve got a major phobia involving spiders, and it was compounded around forty years ago when I spent a week at a house in Santa Rosa that was infested with them. The shower was a major meeting place for them. Ever since then I remain vigilant.

Comments are closed.