Listening to Your Inner Voice

(Image Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons)

I am still working away — in fits and starts — on The Lake Effect, my genre-bending novel. I became stuck a couple of weeks ago on what is a common problem for writers. There was something about the narrative that I didn’t like. It had to do with the backstory. I had been dropping parts of it like breadcrumbs throughout the narrative and it kind of worked. I decided, however, was that I have no business putting something out there that “kind of” works if I want someone to spend their time and lucre on it.  I wasn’t quite sure how to fix it or even if it could be fixed without some major surgery.

I was at about the same time conducting an unofficial Taylor Sheridan film festival for myself. Sheridan’s name may not be familiar to you but his fingerprints show up here and there as an actor (he had a recurring role for a couple of seasons in Sons of Anarchy) and as a screenwriter (the films Sicario and Hell or High Water, and a television drama series named Yellowstone). Sheridan’s main strength as a screenwriter is in his dialogue and character development. I wasn’t looking for hints when I started binging his work. I was just watching all of it because I like it. I kept coming back, however, to a movie he scripted named Wind River. 

Wind River is a contemporary western set on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. The plot is simple enough. Cory Lambert is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife tracker tasked during a bitterly cold winter with tracking down a predator which is slaughtering Reservation livestock. While doing so he comes upon the bruised and frozen body of a young Native woman named Natalie Hanson. She is ill-dressed for the weather — barefoot, in thin clothing — and miles from any building. An autopsy concludes that Hanson died of exposure but also sustained head trauma and sexual violence.  FBI Special Agent Jane Banner is assigned to investigate the case, which ultimately cannot conclusively be found to be a homicide. Banner is a fish-out-of-water — she is a Florida native and assigned to the Las Vegas FBI office — but her lack of preparedness for Wyoming’s winter weather and relative inexperience in investigative matters is more than made up for by her drive to make sure that the right thing is done on Natalie’s behalf. 

The film does a good job of simply but effectively presenting the clusterfig that federal and tribal jurisdictional differences create as Banner decides to pursue the case, even if she is probably on shaky legal ground in doing so. She persuades Lambert to help her, given his knowledge of the area. Their investigation moves in a straight line but seems to reach a dead end. The audience meanwhile knows nothing more than Lambert and Banner do. About three-fourths of the way into Wind River, however, the present segues smoothly into the past, and the audience learns what occurred over the course of a very intense few minutes that led to Natalie’s tragic end. The story then reverts to the present and a few seconds later all hell breaks loose, again and again. My description does not do justice to what occurs, but on the off-chance that you borrow the video from the library (it also pops on and off the streaming services from time to time), I don’t want to even come close to spoiling the plot for you. 

I watched the movie four times over a period of an equal number of days before it hit me that the solution to my dilemma was in front of me. Rather than drop flashback breadcrumbs throughout the story, I gathered them into a small loaf, coated that with a bit of garlic butter, and served it up warm, steaming, and all at once about two-thirds of the way into my own narration. It worked wonderfully. Thank you, Mr. Sheridan. 

I am sure that my primary reason for watching Wind River over and over was that I like it. I do the same thing with Hell or High Water, which I previously mentioned here. I have concluded, however, that it is entirely possible that my subconscious was trying to steer me toward a possible solution to my writing problem. It just took me a bit of time to pick up the visual and verbal cues. It figures. I have always been a slow study. 

How about you? Has an outside source — one that you were drawn to by chance or whimsy — given you an unexpected solution to a difficult problem, or at least a different way of looking at/approaching something? If so, please share your episode with those of us here assembled. Thanks as always for visiting.



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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.

47 thoughts on “Listening to Your Inner Voice

  1. A good post with good advice, Joe. All the best with your new WP. I’m working on family history for my children. The closest I’ve come to what you’re explaining is when I tell a memory and it leads to something else I’d forgotten. My son became interested when I mentioned something that happened to my dad when he was in the navy. That was about the time of WWI. 🙂 — Suzanne

    • First! Thank you, Suzanne. Sometimes one story is all it takes to create a trail to follow. You never know. Thanks for sharing

  2. When I was first toying with writing a mystery, my daughters read some of it and told me it was a romance. I’d never read one, and had the same misconception that romances were all the short Harlequin contemporaries. (I called then Garanimals because of their color-coded covers.) I joined the only writing group I could find, a RWA chapter, which covered a lot more than writing romance, but I got comments like, “I don’t like your hero.” But he wasn’t the hero. Expectation was first man on the page has to be the hero. Hero and heroine have to meet right away.
    I discovered a book, a romantic suspense, by Linda Castillo–The Shadow Side–that showed me a different sub-genre, and everything made sense.

    • Terry, thank you for sharing your interesting writing experience. Sometimes the genre lines get blurred. I am concerned occasionally that the concept of strict adherence to particular genre rules — which keep changing — gets in the way of a good story.

      I hate to keep talking about Wind River but there is a romantic element in the movie that breaks a number of rules so wonderfully that it’s one of the reasons I keep watching the film over and over…

    • Here’s a secret I figured out after years of graduate school in literature, and reading a massive amount of the greatest literature in the world. The best stories are always love stories at their heart. It can be a couple romance. Or the love of family, friends, or country. Or a love of justice or some other truth that drives the main character through the novel. This love isn’t the goal, but the passion that pushes the story to the end. It’s what grabs the reader’s attention and heart and makes the story mean more than what’s just on the page.

      • Marilynn, you’ve summed it up nicely. That’s how I view every story I write. I rarely write something with a strong romance component (just personal preference) but I want my characters to be passionate about whatever other person or idea is driving the book. This applies to books with themes on fatherhood, friendships, or even a detective story.

        • I agree, BK, and Marilyn. Human love, whether romance, filial, of justice, of country, of nature and animals (we could go on), is the hole in our souls that must be filled, or life is meaningless. It’s been said that all stories are cowboy stories, but cowboys need to love and be loved, too.

          As my grandfather used to say to me when I asked him a hard question: “It’s just the way of it, little one.”

  3. Thank you so much for telling me that, Cindy. I’m glad it helped. If you wouldn’t mind…please help spread the word about Wind River. It’s not well known but in my opinion it’s a very important film, one to be enjoyed and studied. And Happy Weekend back to you!

  4. Thank you for this post. The most unlikely place I have found answers for a plot point was within the homily at church one Sunday. I don’t write inspirational, so it was a nice bonus. I really enjoy mysteries that alternate chapters midway through with the story of the victim’s last days/hours on earth so I will have to check out Wind River.

    • Thank you for sharing, Margaret. I can see where a homily could be inspiring with regard to a secular work. Alas, my own experiences to date could be summed up in this bit of doggerel:

      I’ve never seen my pastor’s eyes,
      although I’m sure they shine.
      For when he prays, he closes his…
      and when he preaches, mine.

      Thanks again!

  5. Happens all the time, Joe. Just the other day I was struggling with a scene. Something wasn’t quite working. Then I happened to see the trailer for the new Mel Gibson film, Fatman. Coolest premise ever, and it made me think, I need to risk more. I was playing too safe within preconceived notions.

    • Thank you so much, Jim. This film was kind of off of my radar, but thanks to you it is on the screen. I think the release date is November 20 and I can’t wait.

  6. Ok, had to jump back on because I just remembered the name of a novel by an amazing writer who did this so well. I read it at least 10 years ago. Such a great read! The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve.

    • Thank you, Margaret. I was aware of the book but hadn’t really looked at it. I will now.

  7. “Hell or High Water” is a master class in understated storytelling. It’s perfectly cast, so I have to give a lot of credit to the actors, but the writing is perfect, too. or a month or more, I’ve been working on a post for TKZ that I call Writing in the White Space, meaning that so much of effective storytelling lies in what is NOT written. I haven’t yet been able to wrestle it into shape.

    Great post, Joe.

    • White space can be understated dialogue or a moment in time when what has happened and been built up by the writer through the story is shown with painful clarity. I love how this is defined in a review from years ago. “Something so simple as a change of subject in a conversation reduced me to tears, the tip of an unseen iceberg of conflicts and desires that resonated to heroic archetypes.”

  8. John, thanks for your kind words. High praise indeed from the master. All of us I’m sure are looking forward to Writing the White Space (not to put pressure on you or anything).

    Re: Hell or High Water, my friends have gotten sick of me talking about it but to me, it’s the perfect film. It captures a morally ambiguous situation perfectly. I keep watching the last ten minutes particularly for the subtlety — a confrontation between two flawed but basically decent people — who are opposed to each other. I am so happy that there isn’t a sequel. Anyway, thanks again.

  9. Joe, Wind River was the last film I saw in an actual theater (given today’s world, WR may be the last film I ever see in a theater.). The big screen really enhanced the huge, endless, bleak winter in WY (similar in MT) and gave added poignancy of Natalie’s run.

    Putting on my psychoanalyst’s goatee, I’d venture to say one reason you like the film so much is b/c your subconscious likes it. When we write, certain themes keep bubbling up whether we’re aware of them or not. Clare wrote about that recently:

    My latest epiphany came when I was trying to figure out how an elderly outlaw on the run could get supplies to a hideaway high in remote mountains. On the net, I ran across a photo of a llama. Bingo, the perfect pack animal the character needed. He steals it, uses it to haul his stuff, then returns it, leaving behind two one-hundred dollar bills, b/c, although he had to become an outlaw, he’s an honest man. That provides my sleuth the clue she needs to find him.

    The subconscious is the writer’s superpower.

    Have a great day!

    • I can only imagine how Wind River looked in a theater. I would have especially enjoyed the scene where Cory casually stepped on the spider.

      Thanks for sharing that story about you WIP, Debbie, and how you solved your problem. That sounds like a terrific book.

      What did we do before the internet for research, inspiration, etc.? I know the answer to that question — the library, woolgathering, and the like — but the memory is fading…

  10. Serendipity. It’s real. Years ago, there was a news/entertainment show that was like a mix of non-political SIXTY MINUTES pieces and Charles Kuralt’s breezy, charming pieces on SUNDAY MORNING. One episode had a mix of history, psychology, science, and a character piece. Each story gave me vital pieces of information for the novel I was writing.

    Reality is far more malleable and helpful with clues than most of us realize. Toss in the offerings of our subconscious through dreams, and we only need to pay attention to find our answers.

    • Thank you, Marilynn. Paying attention to everything is important, in so many different settings. People laugh at the Yogi Berra quote, “You can observe a lot just by watching” but he was/is right!

  11. I love Wind River. It’s mesmerizing.

    I know what you mean about that pesky backstory. I’m using the crumbs approach but fear I’m summarizing rather than creating a scene.

    • Thanks, Nancy. I’m glad you liked Wind River. Please spread the word. And good luck finding your way through the forest.

  12. Off the top of my head, I can’t give a specific example, but yes, once in a while I will come up with a solution based on watching (and more often reading) something. Sometimes it just helps to step away from your own story that you are too close to and let someone else’s work inspire yours.

    I also think that’s a good argument AGAINST berating yourself too much about distractions from your writing. How many times have writer’s blogs pounded home not to spend time on things that distract from our writing? A worthy “rule”, but if we followed it completely, we’d miss light-bulb moments like this, inspiring our own work.

    • It’s all in knowing when to stop, BK. As used to be said, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” On the other hand, a vocational consultant once told me that “All work and no play makes jack and plenty of it!” There’s a middle ground somewhere in there where we can tap the brakes. The key is finding it. Thanks for the reminder.

      • Um, Sue, don’t feel like the Lone Ranger. I started watching Love Death + Robots the other night on Netflix and got through three episodes before I realized that I had watched them all as well as the entire first season. A mind is a terrible thing to lose!

    • Sue, just move Wind River over to your “Must Watch Again” list and you will be all set!

  13. Inspiring post, Joe! I love the serendipity of your watching this movie by one of your favorite filmmakers and suddenly recognizing the solution to your own writing dilemma. The water for our creativity can indeed come from many different springs.

    For me, when I was working on my urban fantasy novel Empowered: Agent, I had trouble energizing the narrative. I’m big on narrative drive as a writer and as a writer, and don’t like a slow pace in a novel. It came to me all at once, to have the novel paced like a thriller, a genre I enjoy reading. It worked.

    My developmental editor at the time, Mary Rosenblum, helped a huge amount by going over the advance outlines for that first book and the first two sequels, Empowered: Traitor and Empowered: Outlaw, and stressing where they were slow paced, especially the openings. Her feedback combined perfectly with the inspiration to ramp up the narrative drive in those books, and I strove to continue that in the final two novels.

    • I’ve taught urban fantasy and took apart the first “Dresden Files” urban fantasy for another course. (It’s now online. My name should link to my blog. Click on the “Jim Butcher” label.) Anyway, urban fantasy always has a mystery/suspense/thriller plot. You name a type of mystery, and I can tell you an urban fantasy that’s a good example. For those who have read lots of fantasy, understand world building, and love a good mystery, urban fantasy is a good secondary market.

  14. Thank you, Dale, particularly for the nuts and bolts description of how you worked your way through your roadblock. I found it really helpful and I’m sure those TKZers assembled will as well!

  15. Checking streaming services for “Wind River”…

    I was struggling with a scene in my New York 1609 saga where the Native American father is playing with his children in a strawberry field. (Yes, Manhattan was full of wild strawberry fields 400 years ago!) I let the scene sit and went for a swim at my outdoor fitness pool. While swimming backstroke, I began studying the clouds above me, and it hit me! My characters end up lying on a warm, flat boulder and playing the “What does that cloud remind you of?” game. Problem solved.

    • Thanks for sharing, Harald. That’s a heck of a story. I am sure that folks were engaging in cloud interpretations long before 1609 so that’s not a stretch at all.

  16. Good afternoon/evening, Joe.

    Sorry I’m so late to the party.

    Great point and great post. I had to think all day to come up with an answer.
    I just published my third book in my middle-grade fantasy series. My beta readers were all high school girls. They wanted better character development and more description. I went back to all my books on character. I was reading Deb Dixon’s GMC book. She mentioned Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer. I reviewed some of his material on scene and sequel. Then, while keeping my wife company, while she was indulging her addiction to Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, it struck me that Gabaldon does much of her character development with dialogue during sequels.

    So I’m trying to use sequels to break up the action and reveal more character. We’ll see.

    The Lake Effect sounds like it will be interesting. Good luck with finishing it. I’m eager to read it.

    Have a great remainder of the weekend.

    • Good evening, Steve. You’re not late to the party because the party never stops at TKZ!

      Thanks for sharing your methods for improving character development and the roads you took to get there. I like the idea of using sequels to do that.

      Enjoy your weekend and week. Thanks for once again coming to the party1

  17. I think Wind River is/was one of the most underrated films of the last few years. All his stuff is terrific, and all of it offers much to the writer looking for insight. He’s also the guy behind Yellowstone (third season on TV just completed), which drops off a bit, but still compelling.

    • Thank you, Larry. Yellowstone was never supposed to be a hit series. Sheridan was (and to an extent still is) hamstrung by the attitude that no one was interested in watching a series about cowboys. He has proven them wrong. His attitude when writing a script is “What rule will we break today?” I like his attitude. Enjoy!

  18. Great topic. For me, it was a piece of music. I couldn’t find the right opening for my novel. I wanted that hint of trouble to come, and I wanted the promise of action/suspense. I couldn’t feel the beats or the emotional flow of the scene I planned. Then I listened to Audiomachine’s Blood and Stone. As soon as I heard it, I knew exactly what to do.

  19. Thanks so much, K S. Audiomachine was totally off of my radar. it’s an interesting concept and “Blood and Stone” is a stirring piece of music. I’m going to check out a few more of their pieces before the night is over.

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