Caleb Pirtle III lives in the present but prefers the past. He has written more than 85 books, mostly travel and historical nonfiction, but has focused on fiction for the past decade. He has produced the Ambrose Lincoln thrillers, set against a backdrop of World War II, the Boomtown Saga, three novels concentrating on the discovery of oil in East Texas during the Great Depression, and The Man on the Run series featuring rogue CIA agent Roland Sand. Pirtle lives in Fort Worth with his wife Linda and standard poodle, Piper.
Time to chat with Caleb!
What is your latest book?
My latest book, Eulogy in Black and White, will be released May 1, 2022. It is the story about a stranger come to town, a stranger who wanders into Magnolia Bluff in the Texas Hill Country and finds a job cleaning the press and sweeping out the town’s newspaper office. Graham Huston has no car. He walks to work. He spends a lot of time in the cemetery. And he discovers that almost every soul in Magnolia Bluff is a lost soul who has a secret. The town lives in fear of May 23. Someone always dies on May 23. A violent death. Murder. But which secret triggers a serial killer to act on the same day of each year? Everyone is afraid. Everyone is a suspect. And Huston just may be cursed with the most explosive secret of all.
Is your recent book part of a series?
Eulogy in Black and White is book two in a series: The Magnolia Bluff Crime Chronicles. A group of ten authors have joined together to write the series, which debuts in April of 2022. We have established a fictional town. All of the books will be centered around the life and times of Magnolia Bluff. And we will all be using the same characters who populate the small town. A new book will be released each month from April through December, written by CW Hawes, Cindy Davis, James R. Callan, Richard Schwindt, the writing team of Roxanne Burkey and Charles Breakfield, Kelly Marshall, Linda Pirtle, Jinx Schwartz, and me. There’s trouble brewing every month in a town where the size of the population is decreasing while the size of the cemetery is always increasing.
You’ve written a lot of books. Do you have a favorite?
I’ve been a writer all of my life. As soon as I realized I was too ignorant to dig ditches, I became a writer, working on newspapers large and small, as travel editor of Southern Living Magazine, and as editorial direct for a Dallas custom publisher. That means I’ve churned out a lot of words and published more than 85 books. During my early career, I wrote primarily travel and historical books, all nonfiction. For the past decade, I’ve turned my focus to fiction, including the Ambrose Lincoln historical thrillers set against the backdrop of World War II and the Boomtown Saga, a series of historical mysteries built around the discovery of oil in East Texas during the Great Depression. My favorite books are probably the Boomtown books, Back Side of a Blue Moon, Bad Side of a Wicked Moon, and Lost Side of an Orphan’s Moon.
I grew up on the cusp of the East Texas oil boom. My father worked in the oil patch and I heard stories day after day about those early day wildcatters who dared to drill in land where the big oil companies had hit 17 dry holes. Dad Joiner hit a gusher just outside of my hometown, Kilgore, and broke the economic back of the Great Depression. Dad raised money to drill by reading obituaries and driving to Dallas to meet with rich widows. He said, “Every woman has a certain place on her neck, and if I kiss it just right, she starts writing checks.” I could not let those stories go to waste. Thus, from out of the past, was born my Boomtown Saga.
Do your books begin with ideas for characters or plots? Something else?
My novels are always character driven. I have no idea what the plot is when I begin. I sit down, write the first sentence that pops in my head, and see where it takes me. Like real life, what happens is never as important as the people who make it happen. I don’t know who all of my characters are when I start on a new novel. I just let them come into the story when they’re ready, and then I don’t move forward until I let them tell me their backstory. I just follow along and write down what they do and what they say. They know the story better than I do. It’s really happening to them. I’m just standing on the sidelines watching. And on more than a few occasions, I’ve had a minor character walk on for a scene, then refuse to leave. Those are the characters I like best. What do they know that I don’t know? And when will I find out? On a 300-page mystery, I’m usually 280 pages into the novel before I know who committed the murder, and it’s so clear, I wonder why I didn’t realize it 200 pages earlier. I feel as though the writer is the camera.
We must let the reader see the scene as clearly as we do. So I probably add more description than some writers do. But the critical part of a character is not how he or she looks, but what the point of view character is thinking as the story races along. I think the primary difference between a bad story and a good story is the way we handle internal dialogue. That’s what makes books better than movies. On the motion picture screen, we see the characters, but never know what they are thinking.
Some writers edit excessively as they write; others wait until a novel is finished to do the bulk of the editing. How about you?
I edit while I write. My process is really quite simple. I write my 1,500 words, then come back the next day and edit and re-write those 1,500 words until I have the scene or scenes exactly the way I want them, and then I’m back into the heart and soul of the story and can see the next 1,500 words waiting to be written. Sometimes, I leave the last sentence I write for the day as an incomplete sentence. By finishing it the next day, I am again thrown back into the story.
Once in a while, after finishing a book, I care so much about the characters that I write a sequel for them in my head. Do you ever know what happens to your characters after the book ends?
I don’t know what happens to my characters when the book ends. But I worry about them. I want to know where they are, what they’re doing, what kinds of danger are the facing, and will their next mile be their last mile. That’s why I write series. My characters may not like me, but I have really grown attached to them and just don’t want to let them go. What if their next adventure is better than their last adventure, and I miss it? I’m convinced I should be there. So I sit down and write the next book in the series.
How important is the choosing of character names to you? Have you ever decided on a name and then changed it because it wasn’t right for the character?
I think a character’s name is really important. For example, I believe the main character’s name should be different enough to be remembered. That’s why I chose Ambrose Lincoln for my lead character in the World War II thrillers. And Eudora Durant is the heroine in the Boomtown Saga. You don’t see a lot of men and women known as Ambrose or Eudora running around these days. I don’t change a character’s name, but sometimes the character does.
In Night Side of Dark, the beautiful blonde Partisan fighter in Poland had been named Lisa. But when she stepped into her first scene, she introduced herself as Devra. And Devra she became. I don’t know where the name came from, but I checked a list of Polish first names and, sure enough, I found Devra. When I wrote Last Deadly Lie about the trials, tribulations, and battles connected to a church fight in the Deep South, I had one character who bore the brunt of ridicule, humiliation, and animosity in his determination to get rid of the preacher. He finally loses the fight and is left in shame and disgrace. It was my wife who pointed out to me that I had given him the last name of “Lynch.” She thought I did it on purpose. I didn’t. The subconscious is a powerful tool to have.
How much research was involved in writing your book? How did you go about it?
I have written a lot of nonfiction that required mountains of research. However, I find that I do just as much research for a novel. The story may be fiction. But I think it is more believable when you connect incidents within the novel to actual events, especially when writing historical fiction as I do. I learned early on when Ambrose was carrying a Glock into Germany in 1939. My editor called and said, “Sorry, but the Glock wasn’t invented until the 1950s.” I learned a hard but timely lesson. From then on, I have tried to tie everything in the story to a thread of reality, whether it’s weapons, cars, music, or clothing. Never have a train traveling to a town that has no railroad tracks. And what kind of press did newspaper publishers use in 1931? I fear some reader will ferret out my mistake, and my credibility is shot. In Night Side of Dark, a train roars into Pulawy, Poland, to pick up a load of Jewish families and carry them to a work camp, a death camp. I researched until I found the name of the company who owned the actual train that went to Pulawy. Most will probably think the name is fiction. But I know it’s true, and that makes me feel better.
Do you have any secrets for effective time management?
I think my years of working for a big city newspaper has left me terribly regimented in my writing schedule. I worked for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which had the largest circulation of any newspaper in Texas. I worked the police beat. I needed to be in the office at 9 o’clock in the morning. I went to work at four o’clock. Why? In case a big crime story happened overnight, I needed to be at the police station to interview the police officers and detectives who handled the case before they went home at five. I had four deadlines a day. I could not afford to miss any of them. I realized that at a certain time every day, I had a job to do. I still feel that way. I get up every day at five o’clock and load our Website with the indie books we are promoting that day. At 8:30, I run all of our Website stories for the past two days, along with some of our own books, through social media. At 10 o’clock, I clear out emails and answer the messages I have received. At 11 o’clock, I spend an hour researching information for the book I’m writing. At noon, I eat. At one o’clock, I read on a book I intend to review. At 2 o’clock, I sit down to write for the next three hours. No phones. No distractions. One break.
I walk my dog for two miles at three. I re-write and write until I am another 1,500 words into the story. I hear a lot of writers say, “I’ll write when I have time.” You never have time. You make time. You carve out an hour or more at the same hour every day, and tell yourself, “Now, I will write.” Don’t look for any distractions. You will certainly find them. For those who work every day? I tell them to spend an hour and write two or three pages every night. I can guarantee that the story they write will be much more entertaining than anything they see on television.
What is the worst writing advice you’ve ever received? The best? Any advice you’d like to offer to readers?
The worst advice I’ve ever received? I hear it over and over at writers conferences. Speakers stand for hours and list the rules for writing. Rules for writing an opening sentence. Rules for writing dialogue. Rules for writing point of view. Rules for writing first person. Rules for writing romance or a mystery. Rules for how long or short a chapter should be.
The best advice I’ve received came from Neil Gaiman who believes there are no rules. He said: “The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.”
Where do you live now? If you had to move to another city/state/country, where might that be?
I presently live in North Fort Worth, Texas. If I moved, it would be to some small town in New Mexico. There is something magical and mystical about New Mexico. You feel it as soon as you drive across the state line. I think it has something to do with the spiritual past of the Native Americans who found a home in the desert and a path to an otherworldly realm somewhere beyond the high country.
What’s your favorite film of all times? Favorite book?
My favorite film of all time, the one I have watched so often I can quote dialogue along with the characters, is To Have and Have Not. Why does it fascinate me? Well, first, there’s never been a heroine quite as sultry as a nineteen-year-old Lauren Bacall in her first movie. Bogart is Bogart, and that’s enough. But what really fascinates me is that the film is based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway, and the screenplay was written by William Faulkner, two brilliant writers who thoroughly disliked each other.
Care to brag about your family?
My wife, Linda, was a long-time English teacher who moved up through the ranks to become a high school principal. She never worried about the six-foot, five-inch, two hundred and seventy-five pound thugs. She said, “Deep within their chest beats the hearts of seventeen-year-olds, and if you can outsmart a seventeen-year-old, you don’t need to be in education.” When she retired, she could never understood why I spent a great deal of time in front of the word machine spitting out novels. So I dared her to write a book. She did, a nice little cozy mystery called The Mah Jongg Murders. She sold a bunch. She had a lot of friends asking when the next one would be finished. It became an addiction Linda could not escape. She has now published four cozy mysteries and has two more in the works. There is only one difference between us. I write every day. She writes on Wednesday.
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