EAST TEXAS AUTHOR HAS SPENT MUCH OF HIS LIFE TELLING THE STORY OF TEXAS
Writer: BETTY WATERS | Photographer: SARAH A MILLER | Tyler Morning Telegraph
The greatest moments growing up in East Texas for Caleb Pirtle III were sitting on the front porch, listening to his parents and people who dropped by for a visit tell stories.
Pirtle realized he wanted to tell stories, and by the time he was in sixth grade in Kilgore, he knew he wanted to be a writer. A high school teacher was the first person of authority who assisted him in learning the writing business.
For more than 55 years, Pirtle has been telling stories in different forms – newspapers, magazines, film and books.
Later, Southern Living magazine hired Pirtle as its first travel editor.
“I did not write the traditional style (of travel writing),” Pirtle said.
He traveled all over the South an average 22 days a month, researching stories for Southern Living, many of them about Civil War battlefields, antebellum homes, historical museums and other sights.
Pirtle won three National Discover America awards for his travel stories in the magazine during a 10-year stint based in Birmingham, Alabama.
Southern Living published his first two books, one about Callaway Gardens in Georgia and another on the history of the American Cowboy. It became the third best-selling art book at the time because of illustrations by the Cowboy Artist Association of Texas.
Desiring to spend more time with their son, Pirtle and his wife, Linda, an educator, moved back to Texas where he freelanced five years.
Then Pirtle normalized his life more by becoming editorial director of a custom publisher in Dallas for 25 years. In that capacity, he wrote numerous travel and historical books and cookbooks.
Among them was “Texas Outback: Portraits of a Wildly Weird Country,” a book about the Big Bend country, and several corporate historical books, such as a history of the Daily Oil Tool Co. that revolutionized the oil industry. Pirtle wrote the copy for travel cookbooks about the distinctive foods found in Texas, Arizona, Missouri, Massachusetts and Colorado. A food editor tested the recipes for each cookbook for each state.
Pirtle also wrote four historical books on Kilgore for the Kilgore Historical Preservation Foundation.
Pirtle had started his career in high school by spending summers writing for the Gladewater newspaper. While earning a journalism degree from The University of Texas, Pirtle was the first student to win the national William Randolph Hearst Award for feature writing.
After college, Pirtle wrote for the Plainview Daily Herald in West Texas until hired by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, where he worked for three years, winning Associated Press and Texas Headliners awards.
When covering the police beat for the Fort Worth newspaper, Pirtle got into the habit of getting up at 4 a.m. in order to get to the police station before the night shift went off duty so that he could listen to and report officers’ first-hand stories about robberies, wrecks, homicides and other tragedies.
Then Pirtle began writing feature stories for the newspaper about different parts of Texas from a people point of view. He became fascinated with people.
Through it all, Pirtle, 75, who retired to Hideaway Lake about eight years ago, said, “Nothing has changed since sixth grade; I still like to tell a story.”
In retirement, Pirtle turned to writing historical fiction and suspense/mystery thriller novels. Most of them are period pieces set in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
“To write those books, I have to do as much research as I would do to write nonfiction because everything has to be accurate,” Pirtle said.
For example, for the novel “Night Side of Dark,” he researched the exact number of Nazis that came on trains to pick up Jews who had created a partisan group in a small village in Poland to fight back during World War II.
In creating fictional characters for books, Pirtle said, “You have to crawl out of your world and crawl into their world. You follow them around and write what they do and write what they say. People that don’t write find that difficult to understand.”
For Pirtle, writing is not unlike digging ditches.
“You write one word at the time like you pull up a shovel full of dirt at the time,” he said. “You keep putting one word after another and sooner or later, you have a book.”
His advice to beginners is to write three pages a day. At the end of six months, they will have a book, Pirtle said. However, he usually writes six to eight pages a day and expects to turn out three books a year for the next 10 years.
The book format has changed, Pirtle observed. “Now writers all over the country are jumping to short chapters,” he said.
Another change he has seen is that authors are starting to use a lot of mixed genres to describe their books in order to appeal to more people who are buying books. Those who used say they wrote a mystery or romance now may classify their book as romantic suspense or romantic fantasy.
Besides writing novels, Pirtle speaks at writers’ conferences and to writers’ groups around the state. He also teaches a continuing education course in writing at Tyler Junior College.