If the story turns you on, write about it.

How could my mystery and thriller novels be called historical fiction? They happened in my lifetime.

It appears that we have become locked into a publishing universe that is built on genre fiction, and the genres are changing just about every time the leaves on the trees either grow, turn green, become red and gold, or fall off. These days, it’s not out of the question to find books that are labeled paranormal and historical romantic suspense, a mystery and thriller with time travel. Confuses me.

I thought I wrote thrillers. And mysteries. That’s what I tried to do. That’s what I like to read. My bookshelves and my mind are filled with the fiction of Robert Ludlum, James Lee Burke, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, John D. MacDonald, Lee Child, Jack Higgins, Ken Follett, and the boys.

But here’s the problem.

I am fascinated with the 1930s and 1940s. I have written three Ambrose Lincoln thrillers and have a fourth ready for release. All of them are set during World War II: Secrets of the Dead, Conspiracy of Lies, and Night Side of Dark – with Place of Skulls waiting in the wings.

It was a glorious era. It was a mysterious era. So many rumors running rampant. So many mysteries lurking in the background. Too much intrigue to know the difference between fact and fiction, truth and contradiction.

It was the dawn of intelligence agencies whose operatives worked in the shadows and behind enemy lines. They were in places where danger lurked around every corner and behind every door. The agents of the United States, Great Britain, Russia, and Germany had their only little private wars going. Winner take all. Not everyone came home. Not everyone was supposed to.

Besides, the era had the greatest villain of all. He was a madman. He engineered a Holocaust. He wore a mustache, made fierce, fiery speeches, and was known to the world as Adolph Hitler. His was the face of evil.

And, of course, Russia had its own madman, Joseph Stalin. He was our friend then. He was our own personal bad guy. Stalin became our enemy as soon as the flames of atomic horror rose in a mushroom cloud above the cities of Japan. His face was just as evil.

We had what he desperately wanted. We had The Bomb. Stalin began building one of his own. And a war turned Cold.

Want to write a thriller? You can’t find a better era.

That’s what I thought. But now I’ve found that I haven’t written any thrillers at all. It was a grand era all right. It was the wrong era.

Now everyone wants to call my novels historical fiction. How could they be historical? They happened in my lifetime.

I was only a small child during World War II, but my father worked in a military plant that built bombs, and I heard him and my mother talking in hushed tones at night about men I didn’t know killing men I didn’t know in places I never heard of.

I was fascinated with what was going on. I still am. But it’s historical or so they say, and they’re probably right.

I could write about the present, and maybe I will. To me, however, there may be mysteries in a world that relies on computers and the digital speed of the Internet and cell phones, but there is little intrigue. There is little suspense.

Suspense is when the good guy is cornered in an alley on a dark street in Berlin with Gestapo agents trailing right behind, and he can’t find a telephone to warn someone that the German storm troopers will attack at dawn.

Where is a phone that works? How can he find it? Will he die before he gets there? And he knows he can’t escape to freedom until he finds that damn phone.

Now that’s suspense.

If he whips out a cell phone and makes that call, it’s ho-hum and time to spread a little more peanut butter on my bread since I know for sure everything is going to work out fine. Make the call. Look up the GPS coordinates on his hand-held computer. And hitch a ride on the helicopter that’s coming in under the cover of darkness.

It may be a really good story. It’s not the story I want to tell.

I want an operative who lives or dies on his own daring, wits, and ingenuity. I don’t want his fate decided by email or Twitter. So I guess I’ll keep writing historical fiction.

And I guess I’ll keep calling the books thrillers. Why change now?

A great writer, J. E. Fishman, penned a piece for Caleb and Linda Pirtle, and his advice for authors was this: “Write what turns you on.”

He’s right.

I do.

And so the battle rages on.

Please click HERE to read more about Conspiracy of lies. It’s all about the battle of spies fighting to steal our secrets for the Atomic bomb.


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  • At least you write in a genre!

    We poor mainstream writers have had to hitch our cart to ‘literary’ – which isn’t too bad for some of us – but annoys the former sole inhabitants.

    BTW, your Amazon page, with all the books, etc., looks great.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Thanks, Alicia. I find that today’s books don’t have a single genre. We have romantic paranormal mysteries or historical fantasy thrillers. Pride’s Children would probably fit nicely in literary romantic women’s fiction.

      • Yes and no. I am supremely leery of the label, ‘women’s fiction,’ when I have taken such care to make sure it is NOT only suitable for women.

        It is my greatest pleasure that some of my very best reviews come from men, sometimes men I’ve challenged to read Pride’s Children. Their comments tell me I’m right on the money as ‘men’s fiction,’ too.

        Jane Eyre is a favorite – but we don’t hear anything of Rochester’s ‘side’ except through his actions, Jane’s suppositions, and a few pieces of dialogue. I would call Jane Eyre classic women’s fiction.

        With three main characters points of view, one of them an Irish actor who I’ve run past several men including two Irishmen after I wrote him, I want the label ‘big book’ – if that were available.

        It’s not a Romance, and it’s not women’s fiction, even if I have to market it that way part of the time. Nobody calls Ken Follett’s work ‘women’s fiction’ – and that’s the category I aim for. Even Nicholas Sparks objects to ‘Romance’ and ‘women’s fiction’ as descriptions of his work.

        You know how my mind works – I am far out in the tail of the distribution, way past where the average woman is more girly than the average man who is more stark (Stark?). And there’s much more at stake than ‘romantic.’ I have YOUR nice review which says, among other things:

        “Pride’s Children is a contemporary novel, brilliantly written and filled with the raw emotion of characters who smile when necessary, love when necessary, drink far too excessively, and are quite willing to betray anyone who stands in their way. Hearts bleed. Hearts break. Tears flow. Greed runs deep. And pride always goes before the fall.
        Pride’s Children is the book you need to read about the literary and movie industry and will always regret if you don’t.”

        That’s not women’s fiction.

        • Caleb Pirtle

          I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment about genre, Alicia. I think most of us are trapped in that conundrum. I didn’t think I wrote historical fiction, but since my Ambrose Lincoln stories happened in the 1940s, that’s the way they are categorized. My novels are not romance, but they have romance in them. They are not mystery whodunits, because I don’t have anyone solving a crime. They are not military/war novels even though the backdrop is World War II. But booksellers have to call them something because that’s the way book buyers search for the “genres” they like to read. I have visited with a lot of authors who live in never never land because they don’t believe their novels fit a particular genre. You’re not alone. It is a puzzle none of us have solved.

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