Writing is a lot like traveling a country road.

Traveling down an Appalachian mountain road in autumn. Photography: FCEtier
Traveling down an Appalachian mountain road in autumn. Photography: FCEtier

I WRITE MY NOVELS the same way I travel.

I don’t use a map.

For three years, I promoted travel for the Texas Tourist Develop Agency, and I squired travel writers from every major newspaper in the country ­– from The New York Times to the Los Angeles Herald with the Chicago Sun-Times thrown in between – and we wound up in nooks and crannies that Texas didn’t know it had.

But I never used a map.

For a decade, I served as travel editor for Southern Living Magazine, and I found town and hamlets and villages and crossroads communities that the South forgot shortly after the last shot in the Civil War was fired.

And I never used a map.

I didn’t want one.

I didn’t want to know where I was going.

I just enjoyed the trip, and, as the old mountain man once said, I was never lost, but I was powerfully misplaced from time to time.

That’s the way I write novels.

I don’t use a map.

There is no plotting.

There is no outline.

There are no character sketches. I work characters into the story when they show up, and I never know when they’ll drop into a scene or what they’ll do when they arrive. I seldom know who’s side they’re on.

I don’t give them names. They tell me who they are, and if they don’t, I figure they’re not important enough to the story to deserve a name.

I simply sit down, write the first sentence, and see which direction it goes. And sometimes, I confess, it feels like that day I was driving down an old, Appalachian, dirt road, and my friend turned to me and said, “You know where you are?”


“Know where you’re going?”


“Know how to get there?”


“Well, don’t worry about it,” he said.

“Why not?”

“I don’t think this road comes out anyway.”

Writing is a lot like that.

I love the journey.

I love the surprises.

I love the intrigue.

I love winding up in places I didn’t know existed, and then figuring out how to get out before the shooting starts, and, sooner or later, the shooting always starts.

I keep writing, waiting for the road to come out, until I put a period at the end of the last sentence and realize I have nowhere else to go, and my main characters have done what they were meant to do, and none of us have any interest in prolonging the agony.

Say goodbye to one.

Say hello to the next one.

And I’m off again, usually traveling the wrong road and headed in the wrong direction and too ignorant to know the difference.

Caleb Pirtle is author of Little Lies.

Little Lies Final Cover LL Mar 13


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  • Thanks for using my photography to illustrate this article. It’s my all time best seller!

  • Caleb Pirtle

    Life is more fun if you tackle it without a map. There are a lot more surprises that way. You never know what you’ll find next.

  • Darlene Jones

    Letting the characters take you on the trip is much more fun than rigid plotting. Love the picture FC.

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