Influential Books and Films

I wonder, are writers born with the gift of lying…uh, natural storytelling on paper, or is it inspired by some event in our lives?

In my opinion, a lot of it has to do with our interest in reading and gathering a lifetime of stories. Anyone who’s heard me speak knows I grew up in rural Chicota, Texas, where the old men up at the store loafed on the porch and talked about the world while I drank RC Colas and listened in silence.

My maternal grandparent’s little frame farmhouse had two bedrooms. Back in my larval stages, I slept with my mother in the room with two beds. My grandmother slept in the other. Being country folks, we turned in with the chickens and after lights out, they talked quietly in the darkness while a soft breeze and the call of a whippoorwill flowed through the rusty screens.

And I absorbed every word from every one of those old folks.

I think all those stories planted a seed that morphed into the obsession to spin my own fictional tales. Choosing what to write about might have been hard for some budding authors, but not for me. I fell into mysteries before migrating to thrillers and now, westerns both traditional and contemporary.

Looking back, my life and ultimate genre choices came from books and movies. Stephen King can point to the comics and horror movies he read and watched as a youngster. I’d bet a dollar to a donut that John Grisham writes law thrillers because of his profession, though I imagine he always wanted to be an author. Louis L’Amour wrote his westerns because he loved cowboys, honor, and the west.

Mine came from different sources.

I guess I was pretty malleable back in 1963 when the Old Man took me to see a movie that significantly impacted my life. Y’all likely know the story that started with Earl Hamner Jr.’s novel and eventually became the successful television series, The Waltons. The original movie, though, was filmed in God’s Country, the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, and featured Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara.

In Spencer’s Mountain, Clay and Olivia Spencer are the fourth generation of a family living on Spencer’s Mountain in the Snake River Valley. Though a solid family man with high morals, Clay distains religion while Olivia raises their nine children in the church. They live with his parents, and he promised to build her a dream palace on the mountain to replace their small house.

Their goals are redefined when Clay Jr. is the first Spencer to ever graduate from high school at the top of his class. He wants to continue his education so he won’t have to work in the quarry like his father, but money is issue. Clay Jr.’s teacher, Miss Parker, and the newly arrived Preacher Goodman, do what they can to help him achieve his goal.

An engaging, yet simple movie, but here are my similarities. Dad promised to build mom their dream house, but due to financial difficulties, it never happened. I went to college to become an architect (they helped and I paid the rest), the Tetons are my favorite place to visit and I was once offered a principal’s position in nearby Jackson (which I turned down when I found they had the lowest income and the highest cost of living in the state). I was the first on Dad’s side of the family to graduate college. I live by Clay Sr.’s moral code, though up until I met the Bride I wasn’t much of a churchgoer. I was inspired to read and write by teachers who took an interest me. Clay and I love to fish, especially for trout, and like him, I don’t mind a drink or two…

So, did that movie become the foundation for my life, like the often-seen framing structure of the Spencer house? Did that story spark an interest in becoming an author? Houses and the land are always significant items in every book I write. Hummm….

Before we recline on the couch while a doctor lights a pipe and takes notes, let’s look at another significant movie in my life, Junior Bonner.

One of Director Sam Peckinpah’s lesser successful novels, this rodeo picture skewed me into an entirely different direction the year I graduated in 1972.

Junior Bonner is an almost over the hill rodeo rider. He first appears on the screen taping his injuries after an unsuccessful ride on an ornery bull named Sunshine. He returns to his home town to ride at the annual Fourth of July Prescott rodeo in Arizona to find his brother Curly, a disreputable real-estate developer, is bulldozing the family home in order to build a trailer park. Junior’s womanizing father Ace, and down-to-earth, long-suffering mother, Elvira, are estranged. Ace dreams of emigrating to Australia for once last chance at finding his fortune, but he’s broke.

Junior eventually floors his arrogant brother with a punch and bribes rodeo owner Buck Roan to again let him ride the bull that broke his ribs, promising him half the prize money. Buck thinks he must be crazy, but Junior actually manages to pull it off this time, going the full eight seconds.

Junior walks into a travel agent’s office and buys his father a one-way, first-class ticket to Australia, asking for it to be delivered with the line, “Tell ‘em Junior sent you.” The film’s final shot shows Junior leaving his hometown, his successful ride on Sunshine continuing to put off the inevitable end of his rodeo career.

After seeing that movie a couple of times, I launched a brief, unsuccessful rodeo career that ended when a doctor taped my own ribs after being thrown (familiar, huh?). “You need to find another job, kid. You’re not too good at this one.”

The  movie, Junior Bonner, also taught me pacing, style, dialogue, and action. There are tiny moments in that film that have made their way into my work. If you haven’t seen it, buy the blue ray and listen to the comments, especially about a scene involving a typewriter. It’s an education in filming, directing, and character motivation.

I think both of these films helped me see my work cinematically as it progresses through the evolution of a manuscript. Reviewers often comment that my novels have a cinematic quality, and the comes from watching well-crafted movies.

You won’t get that with today’s super hero pablum.

What I am good at is collecting ideas and writing, and I have the feeling those movies, experiences, teachers, mentors and friends have all guided me toward my success. Oh, and don’t forget those early books I read like The Old Man and the Boy by Robert Ruark.

Now that book truly did change my life and sparked a dream to write novels.

The Two-Ton Albatross by William C. Anderson, Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp (eventually filmed as Die Hard), Leaving Cheyenne by Larry McMurtry, and Recollection Creek by Fred Gipson, and dozens, if not hundreds more, established a solid path to writing.

So the question is to published and budding authors alike. Do you have a movie or book, or a combination of both, that sent you on this interesting and frustrating road?

Oh, and I have a follow up. Is there a movie, or book, that mirrors your life?

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About Reavis Wortham

Two time Spur Award winning author Reavis Z. Wortham pens the Texas Red River historical mystery series, and the high-octane Sonny Hawke contemporary western thrillers. His new Tucker Snow series begins in 2022. The Red River books are set in rural Northeast Texas in the 1960s. Kirkus Reviews listed his first novel in a Starred Review, The Rock Hole, as one of the “Top 12 Mysteries of 2011.” His Sonny Hawke series from Kensington Publishing features Texas Ranger Sonny Hawke and debuted in 2018 with Hawke’s Prey. Hawke’s War, the second in this series won the Spur Award from the Western Writers Association of America as the Best Mass Market Paperback of 2019. He also garnered a second Spur for Hawke’s Target in 2020. A frequent speaker at literary events across the country. Reavis also teaches seminars on mystery and thriller writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to writing conventions, to the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, SC. He frequently speaks to smaller groups, encouraging future authors, and offers dozens of tips for them to avoid the writing pitfalls and hazards he has survived. His most popular talk is entitled, My Road to Publication, and Other Great Disasters. He has been a newspaper columnist and magazine writer since 1988, penning over 2,000 columns and articles, and has been the Humor Editor for Texas Fish and Game Magazine for the past 25 years. He and his wife, Shana, live in Northeast Texas. All his works are available at your favorite online bookstore or outlet, in all formats. Check out his website at “Burrows, Wortham’s outstanding sequel to The Rock Hole combines the gonzo sensibility of Joe R. Lansdale and the elegiac mood of To Kill a Mockingbird to strike just the right balance between childhood innocence and adult horror.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review) “The cinematic characters have substance and a pulse. They walk off the page and talk Texas.” —The Dallas Morning News On his most recent Red River novel, Laying Bones: “Captivating. Wortham adroitly balances richly nuanced human drama with two-fisted action, and displays a knack for the striking phrase (‘R.B. was the best drunk driver in the county, and I don’t believe he run off in here on his own’). This entry is sure to win the author new fans.” —Publishers Weekly “Well-drawn characters and clever blending of light and dark kept this reader thinking of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” —Mystery Scene Magazine

32 thoughts on “Influential Books and Films

  1. Ah, good questions, Rev. I know exactly the book that made me long to write stories—Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs. It was the first “grown up” book I read, and I remember getting so caught up in it, so absorbed, I didn’t want it to end.

    Movies? The Adventures of Robin Hood and Zorro (Tyrone Power, and Guy Williams TV show). Made me want to write about noble heroes.

    Movies that mirror my life? There aren’t many movies about a Baby Boomer growing up in the San Fernando Valley, playing basketball. But one movie I connected with on a visceral level was a great old soaper, The Young Philadelphians starring Paul Newman. He’s born a bastard, works his way up to law school and ends up defending a friend who has fallen on hard times (the Supporting Actor nominated Robert Vaughn). Justice! I wanted to do that. So off to law school I went. I never got a witness to confess as I conducted a brutal cross-examination, but I helped some small fry get out of legal jams. Now I pursue justice in my novels. My series hero, Mike Romeo, is partly based on Paladin from another TV show I loved, Have Gun, Will Travel.

    • Ah, grown up books. The first two I can remember were because of “bad words.” I read Drums Along the Mohawk back in the sixth grade, and when I came across “whore” I went straight to the school library dictionary. Yeah, I’d heard it, but I needed to see a real definition.

      Then came The Dirty Dozen, and wow! What a huge novel that sucked in this eighth grader like a whirlpool. That’s where I first saw the F-bomb in print, and not on a bathroom stall. I was riding in the truck next to my mother who was driving. I read and re-read that paragraph half a dozen times with the book turned so she wouldn’t catch that one little four letter word in such a tome. I bet she wondered what was up with her number one son who was twisted so far around my back was against the door.

      Have a great weekend!

  2. As always, Rev, a great start to a Saturday. Basically, my answer to all your questions is a simple “Nope.”
    I never wanted to become a writer. I ran out of room on my walls for needlepoint and needed another creative outlet, which I found through fanfiction. By then I was into my AARP years, but I enjoyed the challenge and stuck with it, branching out into original works. There’s a lot of Duncan MacLeod in the first draft of the protagonist of What’s in a Name? I’m still learning as I go.

    • We’re all learning as we go, in my opinion. I teach a lot of writing classes and talk about the process, but yesterday I told the Bride that I can’t explain how it works in my head. It just flows won’t help budding writers.

      later gator

      • I think a person who aspires to write has to learn the trade and it isn’t easy I don’t think.

        A month after I moved to Long Beach back in the seventy seven, I was watching teevee and the subject was a farrier up in the San Fernando Valley who was trying to find some diligent young person to carry on his trade. I thought then that it sounded easy-shoe a horse, how hard could it be?-but it would take years to learn that trade, not to mention having a deep seated love and empathy for the subject material and a knowledge of the dangers involved.

        I got started late with the writing and I’m still working on it. There’s no easy way for most folks to learn a craft that involves mind and hands and heart.

        And there are limits that you do not discover until you have served your time and pushed it, such as, not everyone who picks up a guitar can become Jimi Hendrix and not everyone who rides a bicycle will become Greg Lemond and not everyone who picks up a revolver will be Elmer Keith and not everyone who picks up a pen will ever be Ernie Hemingway.

        Of course it helps mightily to have a day job that gets you used to writing and deadlines as EH did.

        On the other hand you can, in this day and age, invent your own day job that does the same thing. Maybe nobody’ll read your blog but you’re teaching yourself your chops.

        I never thought out loud “I want to be a writer.” but I realized a few years ago that I wanted to tell stories about people. That’s where I am these days, plugging away at it.

        If there was one novel that has stayed with me over the years it would be George V. Higgins’ “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”. I remember when it came out I started reading it, stunned, thinking “This. This is real.” I was also involved in reading things by Clive Egleton “Last Post For A Partisan” and a little book by Airey Neave called “They Have Their Exits”.

  3. It wasn’t a specific book as much as a situation. I first started writing to express my feelings, feelings I couldn’t speak aloud but needed to share with my parents. When it worked to open a dialogue, I kept writing. Years later, in my early twenties, I had an unruly boyfriend. And so, one night I wrote a children’s story with him as the main character. The story he read and said, “Am I Vinnie the Squirrel?”

    Through the years I wrote twelve more children’s books, but I never thought of writing professionally until we moved north to the country. Surrounded by tranquil beauty, I couldn’t help but notice all the places where a body might never be discovered. That created an overwhelming urge to learn the craft and write a thriller. 🙂

    • …all the places where a body might never be discovered.

      I do that all the time, driving down a highway or country road. I’ve often wondered how many shallow graves there are in the Trinity River bottoms just south of Dallas.

      Heard an author say once that when mystery writers are talking to people, they’re usually figuring out a way to either kill them in a book, or make them disappear.

  4. I do remember the book that sparked my writing journey. I was ten and couldn’t understand difficult adult problems swirling around my small world. The wussy children’s stories in school didn’t relate to me. One day I snuck The Exorcist from my parents’ den and read it. The book drew out and mirrored my emotions even though the fictional situation was completely different; I felt understood. I didn’t know books could do that. That’s when I decided I wanted to grow up and be a novelist.

  5. I wrote and illustrated my first book when I was six. I always knew I was a writer, though I haven’t done much with it lately except fill endless boxes. My daughter recently sent me a copy of one of my guest columns for our local paper – An Anaconda in the Living Room – that was her favorite. It made me realize how quickly time passes when your attention is elsewhere.

    Little Women (when I was nine) and Gone With the Wind (my beach book when I was thirteen) were the books that made me think “I can do that.”

    Hopefully I still can.

  6. Very interesting & thought provoking post which sounds like something I need to journal more about later today. Books & TV (never been much of a movie watcher) definitely influenced my writing, but they just added to a desire to write that was already there. I grew up in the country, sparsely populated (which I loved) but it was in Maryland (which I hated). And I have always, always wished I’d lived in the 1800’s in the American West. My ideal life is heading to the grocery store on horseback and stuffing the supplies in my saddlebags with my beautiful chestnut horse hitched at the rail, not a traffic fight and elbowing a bazillion other people to get what I need and slog back through the traffic.

    Then watching westerns as a kid and reading Zane Grey, both of which took me far away to much prettier places, just stoked the fire. So like you, setting is a big deal for me in my writing (though I’m still learning how to use it well).

    So yes, books (and TV) were definitely influencers on my writing journey, but I think my desire for escape was probably the biggest factor.

    I can think of no book that would parallel my life–such a dull book would never have made it past publishing’s gatekeepers. LOL!!!!!

    • I think all kids have that inherent need to escape. It’s called leaving the nest. However, these days there are those who still reside in their parent’s homes up to and beyond age forty. They must have tamped down that gene somehow.

      Geography is a character in all my novels. I sketch it in on a first draft, and then color within the lines as the work progresses.

  7. Wonderful post, Rev. It’s hard for me to point to one book, or one movie. I absorbed so many. Certainly books like Black Sunday, The Great Gatsby, Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser and so many more inspired me. Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie started me in mystery.

    Movies likewise: The Great Escape, Star Wars/I>, Being There, and on. A very diverse mix.

    As for movies that mirror my life, it’s hard to find one, but, emotionally, I’d say October Sky. I come from a working class background here in the PNW, and was, like you, the first on my father’s side to graduate from college. The story of a young man passionate about learning, still speaks to me.

    Mostly what inspired me was a desire to create my own stories, like the many and so varied ones I’d read.

    Have a wonderful weekend!

    • Fritz Leiber, one of my favorite authors, caught my eye, above, then Holmes, and Conan. And October Sky: I loved that movie, especially the rocketry scenes. I did all that with my friends–mixing the propellant, loading the rockets, firing them off, eventually launching a two-stage version a week after Sputnik. I had to laugh at the ones in October Sky that exploded on the launch rig, just like a few of ours did.

    • Thanks Dale.

      Robert E. Howard was a big influence once, as was Karl Edward Wagner. Most wouldn’t believe I had a sword and sorcery phase. But then again Howard spun some of the best sci fi and horror in the business.

  8. Interesting post that sent me back to page 1 of my “Personal Writer Journal” (started in 2014). In which I write: “I really like adventures and also historical fiction. I like being transported to other places, other times. I ordered and started re-reading the first Tarzan book (“Tarzan of the Apes”) (Dover, unabridged edition, 1912). Loving it! And I’ve started formulating a plan about writing in this vein.”

    So, like my secret brother Jim, it was Tarzan of the Apes. But there’s more, which ties into your second question…

    My earliest memories of Tarzan include its most famous—to me—movie star: Johnny Weissmuller. Because Johnny was a swimmer. And I was a swimmer. In fact, when I was on the Univ. of Texas (Austin) swim team, I would climb up in the rafters of old Gregory Gym before a swim meet and let out a bone-chilling, near-perfect Tarzan jungle call. That was the start of my interest in theatrics. Which led to an interest in communication, of all types. Which led to multiple careers in magazine publishing, marketing, entertainment merchandising, and ultimately, long-form fiction writing.

    So yeah, it was Tarzan. I can’t do the jungle call anymore, but I still swim. And write.

    • Great to hear from someone who knows Texas!

      I let out a pretty darned accurate Tarzan scream not too long ago, but it was when my foot slipped and I straddled a log I was walking across a stream…

  9. The book that got me writing was The School Story by Andrew Clements. It was one of those nutmeg books we read in elementary school to gain useless points. I haven’t read it since, as far as I remember it’s no masterpiece. It’s a simple story of a seventh grade girl who wrote a book, snuck it into her editor mother’s pile of submissions and got published. I thought: I’m only a fourth grader, and I’m not going to get published, but I can try writing stories.

    The movies that inspired me to work hard and find the magic of storytelling were Iron Man and Thor. Thor is not my life by a long stretch, but watching Loki’s struggle hit home really hard and really painfully. Especially since he didn’t get any forgiveness.

    • Many of the other novels that inspired me weren’t art, literature, or even well written, but either the subject matter or Voice caught my attention. I still have hundreds of old paperbacks that I look back on and attempt to re-read, but there’s no way. I start editing them in my mind.

      But they were there at the first, like kindling that started this fire that’s going strong to this day.

  10. “…they talked quietly in the darkness while a soft breeze and the call of a whippoorwill flowed through the rusty screens.”

    Dang, Reavis, you shore can write!!!

      • Thanks for a great post. I went back and read the entire post one more time. Lots to see:

        “You won’t get that with today’s super hero pablum.”

        Amen. Superheroes are deus ex–where Apollo or whatnot would jump out of a box at the end and rescue the hero. I’ve eaten a lot of pablum (my M.D. dad used to get free samples and I’d take them home and eat them). Superheroes are not near as good.

  11. Great post, Rev. Interesting stories.

    I read a lot of books as a young boy growing up in a small Ohio town, where the elderly librarian led me to “more important” books when she saw I was reading all the Hardy Boys books. But, it wasn’t until Junior English, when a new teacher, Miss Warner, taught us to write short stories, that I got excited about writing. Since she didn’t know the students well, several of us created a ghost student, John Kauffman, and turned in assignments for him. When Miss Warner read John’s stories in class, and John got an A for the year, it was the first time I even thought about writing.

    But, my interests turned to math and science, and it wasn’t until years later that I became serious about pursuing writing. My father was turning 90, had dementia, and his rough draft of his memoirs was almost lost. I spent the summer editing his book, and decided then to begin studying the craft.

    I can’t think of any movie or book that inspired me to write. It was more a succession of experiences that gave me the bug. And, I haven’t yet found that book or movie that mirrors my life. It would be too boring.

    Have a great weekend!

    • So many times it was that teacher that sparked an interest in us…and not for that fresh new teacher right out of college.

      Hope you get to hear one of my talks someday that involves my elementary school librarian, Miss Russell, and my sophomore English teacher, Miss Adams.

      Both laid a solid foundation upon which my writing rests.

    • Ah, the Hardy Boys. I think the first purveyors of justice I can remember reading about. 😎

  12. Almost too many books to list – I’m one of those omnivores.

    But the spiritual ancestor to my mainstream trilogy is definitely what Dorothy L. Sayers did with Lord Peter Wimsey (her detective) and his pursuit of the woman in the dock for murdering her lover, Harriet Vane. She details the history of a relationship from an impossible start, to the most romantic story I’ve ever read. And she started with terrible material – those early Wimsey novels show a prig in a monocle with a habit of pontificating.

    Busman’s Honeymoon, the last in the four-novel series that has this embedded, is full of details that show how good Sayers was at it (and have made readers wonder where she got it – once she finished with Peter and Harriet with a couple of short stories, she went on to write theology!).

    Down deep in my mainstream trilogy, I’m honoring what I’ve learned.

    • I should be embarrassed to write this, but the first “real” book that caught my interest after Cowboy Sam was the Bobbsey Twins. I still have its crumbling remains. I wonder if I go back and read that one, there will be something familiar that I’m still using today.

      Might have to get a cup of coffee tomorrow afternoon, turn on the light beside my chair, and get to reading.

  13. I love reading everyone’s comments. It wasn’t a book that pushed me into writing. I was 35 and couldn’t sleep when one night a man appeared in my vision. He stood looking out a window that had smokestacks billowing, and then he turned to me and said, “This isn’t the way my life was supposed to turn out.”
    When I couldn’t sleep, I told myself stories about what had happened to him. Then other people came to live in my head and they wouldn’t go away until I wrote down their stories.

    I believe learning to write is a lifelong journey.

    • Writing should be an evolutionary process. Some favorite authors I’ve been reading for years have refused to entertain that idea and are now growing stale and losing me. All things change, and most for the best. If it isn’t good, they can always change back.

  14. Harriet the Spy made me want to write. I started my own Journaling of people, places, and events on May 28, 1978.

    Louis L’Amour Education of a Wandering Man, inspires me that I can do it.

    Shawshank Redemption with its dialogue, acting, and setting, makes for a perfect movie. “Get busy living or get busy dying…”

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