Ever sit down to write a novel without an idea?

Secret mind control experiments gave me the idea for the Ambrose Lincoln series.
Secret mind control experiments during the 1930s gave me the idea for the Ambrose Lincoln series.

IDEAS FOR BOOKS have to come from somewhere.

But I have no idea where the ideas reside.

Wish I did.

I’d spend more time there.

How about you?

Where did you find the idea for your last novel?

How did it all begin?

I’m only certain about one thing.

We all find our ideas differently.

And most times they sneak up on us.

As Robert Parker once said, “I have reached the point where I know that as long as I sit down to write, the ideas will come. What they will be, I don’t know.”

He later said, “I really don’t what I am going to do in terms of what a book is going to be about until actually start writing it.”

Neil Gaiman recently wrote about people asking him where his ideas came from, and he would tell them: “’I make them up. Out of my head.’

People don’t like this answer, he said. I don’t know why not. They look unhappy, as if I’m trying to slip a fast one past them. As if there’s a huge secret, and, for reasons of my own, I’m not telling them how it’s done. 
And of course I’m not. Firstly, I don’t know myself where the ideas really come from, what makes them come, or whether one day they’ll stop. Secondly, I doubt anyone who asks really wants a three hour lecture on the creative process. And thirdly, the ideas aren’t that important.

The Ideas aren’t the hard bit. They’re a small component of the whole. Creating believable people who do more or less what you tell them to is much harder. And hardest by far is the process of simply sitting down and putting one word after another to construct whatever it is you’re trying to build: making it interesting, making it new.

Most of my ideas come by accident. I wasn’t looking for them.

For example, I was watching a late-night documentary a couple of years ago, and it dealt with mind control experiments taking place in secret locations during the 1930s.

The United States was guilty.

So was Russia.

And Germany.


And Korea.

It was a governmental operation that no one talked about.


Top Secret.

No one admitted the program even existed.

But it changed some men. And it ruined others forever.

Doctors, in the dead of night when no one could her the screams, used electric shocks, probing the brain with electrodes, and such hallucinatory drugs as LSD to alter the way a man thought.

Some died.

Some went mad.

God only knows what happened to the survivors.

A few, I’m sure, wound up in unmarked graves on foreign shores a long way from home.

They may not have even remembered where home was or even what it was.

By morning, I had decided to write a series based on a character whose mind is erased by the government after each mission.

He has no memory.

He has no fear.

He doesn’t know what fear is.

And most of all, he will never be able to release secrets about where he was, what he did, and who died in the process.

His mind goes dark.

I liked the idea, and it led to Secrets of the Dead and Conspiracy of Lies. Night Side of Dark is in the editing stages.

I wrote Deadline News because I grew up in a boomtown, heard first-hand stories about the trials and tribulations of those who drilled for oil and about a few newspapermen who tried to bring some sense of civilization to a wild and reckless time when cotton rows ran thick with oil, and farmers went to sleep dead broke and awoke filthy rich.

I wrote a series of historical books on the oilfield and thought: this could be the stuff of good fiction.

After all, I had been a newspaperman.

I knew the oil patch, and more importantly, I knew the tough, the brave, the scoundrels, who worked the oil patch.

Everything fell into place one night when these sentences crawled into my mind and began homesteading a back corner of my brain:

What I liked about death was that it sold newspapers.

It didn’t particularly matter who died since nobody was rich and even fewer were famous within the pine-blanketed hills and blackberry ravines surrounding Henderson, Texas, during those dark and dying days of 1930. Someone’s sudden departure from this earth always affected someone else, and I couldn’t write front-page obituaries long enough or often enough to satisfy the inquisitive meddling of friends, relatives, acquaintances, neighbors, strangers, and the morbidly curious.

What I liked about selling newspapers was that it put food on the table or at least had an outside chance of financing an occasional dish of pork belly grease down at Herb Smooley’s Café or Johnny Hampton’s chili joint. Smooley simply served a better class of indigestion.

What I liked about eating was that it kept me alive long enough to write about the dying and the burying and the grieving that was as frequent in East Texas as the drought in summer and chilled rain squalls in winter.

Sometimes there was a bullet or buckshot involved.

I had not intended to write either the Ambrose Lincoln series of novels or Deadline News, but when the ideas strolled by, I picked them up, kept them for a while, and it wasn’t long before they refused to leave.

Ross MacDonald, the great mystery novel writer, once said, “We writers, as we work our way deeper into our craft, learn to drop more and more personal clues. Like burglars who secretly wish to be caught, we leave our fingerprints on broken locks, our voiceprints in bugged rooms, our footprints in wet concrete.”

Our stories do become extensions of our lives.

I see that, more and more, every time I write a book.

That’s both good and bad.

I bare my soul and, sooner or later, whether you want to or not, you learn everything there is to know about me.

I fear you’ll be disappointed.


Please click the book cover image to read more about Caleb Pirtle III and his books. Conspiracy of Lies is the second novel in the Ambrose Lincoln trilogy about a man whose mind has been altered with electric shocks.

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