Why do audiences prefer fiction to fact?

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Monday musing on the difference between accuracy and believability

By Scott Bury

I recently saw a post by an author questioning the difference between historical accuracy, historical authenticity and believability. It’s an interesting question to me, because I write historical fiction and biography.

Accuracy and authenticity are not the same. In fact, they are in many ways opposed. Authenticity is more closely related to believability, and hinges on good story-telling. It has to “feel” right to the audience. Accuracy, unfortunately, is not always as exciting or captivating as a good, fictional story.

Hollywood to the … what’s the opposite of rescue?

An egregious example of this crucial difference is Ben Affleck’s 2012 movie, Argo. It purports to tell the true story of American diplomats taken hostage during the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. Except … it’s not all that true.

From the reaction, and the Academy Award nominations, the film really struck a chord with audiences, particularly Americans. For Canadians, though, not so much.

The film as shown downplayed the role of the Canadian Ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor, who took huge risks to get American citizens false identity papers and passports as Canadians, so they could get out of Iran.

The film played fast and loose with other facts, too — such as scenes showing how Americans were turned away from other embassies, and exaggerated the danger the American diplomats faced.

But it was a thrilling movie that won awards for writing, acting, editing and directing. Why? Because, forty years after the events, it echoed the audience’s impressions of the events.

Score one for authenticity over accuracy.

(Almost) stole my idea

Enemy at the Gates was one of the most powerful, moving films I had ever watched. With Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, Joseph Fiennes and Ed Harris, it portrays the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942 and 1943. Supposedly based on the book of the same name by William Craig, it has very little to do with the history of the events.

Yes, there was a Russian sharpshooter named Vasily Zaytsev (played by Jude Law) at Stalingrad, and a German sharpshooter brought from Berlin especially to eliminate him(Harris). And yes, there were female fighter in the Soviet ranks, including another sharpshooter or sniper named Tania Chernova (Weisz), and she and Zaytsev had a relationship.

But the details are all fictional. Red Army soldiers did not charge at the invading enemy without rifles, and the sniper’s duel between Zaytsev and Major Konings, not Konig, took only a few pages of the book.

The book is a meticulously researched, accurate account of the lead-up, battle and aftermath of Stalingrad. It was very useful as I wrote my biographical trilogy about a Canadian-born Red Army soldier, Army of Worn Soles, Under the Nazi Heel and Walking Out of War.

The movie was a hit. Its depiction of the darkness and brutality of war, the squalid living conditions of the soldiers and the people of Stalingrad, the horrifyingly blasé attitude toward killing other people are what made it seem real to audiences. And we are willing to accept the horrors as real. Somehow, we can accept the idea of Soviet officers sending hundreds of unarmed men to charge into machine-gun fire, even if it never happened.

Sticking to the facts

It’s very important to me to get the details right in my fiction. I spent years researching the Eastern Front Trilogy (mentioned above). I spoke with the subject of the book, my father-in-law, Maurice Bury at length about the details that he witnessed. And I lost count of the number of books and websites I read and consulted for the larger sweep of the story, for the statistics and dates that key events happened on. Even for the military units that took part in various battles.

Getting the weapons right was also important. One of the details that Maurice told me about, that really stuck with me, was his description of the immense Soviet “Stalin” tanks that were so heavy, they sank into the mud.

Or the numbers of horses that both sides used to haul men and machines across the landscape.

And the noise — the thing that he remembered the most.

Even when writing historical fiction, I find myself spending hours researching history. For example, I am working on a fantasy set in the Eastern Roman Empire of the early 6th century CE (most people know this as the Byzantine Empire). It’s a fantasy, so the facts really aren’t that important, but I can spend hours looking up how long it would take to travel by horse from Constantinople to Nicomedia, or the types of clothes Romans wore in 602 CE, or the cost of a night in an inn or a jug of ale.

It’s my effort to bring authenticity closer to accuracy.

Fortunately, I have been able to find most of the answers I need, such as the cost of a horse or the denominations of Byzantine coins; the types of weapons and armour used by Byzantine soldiers and cavalry; they kinds of ships used. Roman historians were thorough.

Why is it important?

Why indeed? Depending on the genre, readers tend to be very finicky about details.

With thrillers and mysteries, readers will let the author know about errors when it comes to guns and ammunition. With historical fiction and non-fiction, readers tend to already know a lot about their favourite eras.

It seems that while audiences are willing to excuse departures from fiction on the big things, they’re not so forgiving when it comes to the tiny details.

It’s perplexing. Why do you think that is?

Scott Bury

can’t stay in one genre. After a 20-year career in journalism, he turned to writing fiction. “Sam, the Strawb Part,” a children’s story, came out in 2011, with all the proceeds going to an autism charity. Next was a paranormal short story for grown-ups, “Dark Clouds.”

The Bones of the Earth, a historical fantasy, came out in 2012. It was followed in 2013 with One Shade of Red, an erotic romance.

He has several mysteries and thrillers, including Torn RootsPalm Trees & Snowflakes and Wildfire.

Scott’s articles have been published in newspapers and magazines in Canada, the US, UK and Australia.

He has two mighty sons, a pesky cat and a loving wife who puts up with a lot. He lives in Ottawa, Ontario.

Learn more about Scott on his:

Website   |   Blog    |  Facebook    |   Twitter

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The impact of travel

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Part 3 of our series on how travel has inspired our members to write new stories and books.

By Caleb Pirtle III

Photo by Dariusz Sankowski on Unsplash

I spent much of my early career writing travel stories for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and then Governor John Connally’s Texas Tourist Development Agency.

They were simple, traditional travel stories that told a vacationer where to go, how to get there, and what the cost would be when the family arrived.

When I became travel editor for Southern Living Magazine, however, all of my thoughts about travel abruptly changed.

I had come to a crossroads and took an entirely different direction..

We won two Discover America Awards because I turned our travel columns into short stories.

All true.

All authentic.

Just told from a new and different point of view.

Those days of travel writing remain with me still even though I no longer write travel.

But I remember the places.

I remember the characters.

I remember the faces.

I remember the stories those characters told me while sitting out whistling and whittling on a courthouse lawn or wedged into the back corner of country honky-tonk sipping a beer.

As the years go by, those characters remain in a locked room in the back of my brain, a place I refer to as central casting.

No matter what kind of character my novels need – hero, heroine, villain, or bit player – one is hanging around and waiting to be thrown onto the printed page.

The following travel story about Maine’s Hendrick’s Head Lighthouse was printed in Confessions from the Road, a collection of true short stories gleaned from my time as a travel editor.

***

IT BEGAN with a storm.

Hendrick’s Head Lighthouse. Photo by John Shaw.

Nothing fierce.

Nothing out of the ordinary.

It was little more than a gale blowing across the sea during the chilled evening of March in 1871. A ship’s captain battled the winds, fighting the swells of the Atlantic, headed toward the distant shore hugging the coastline of Maine.

It wasn’t far now.

He could see the splinter of beam from the lighthouse flashing at him.

Only a half a mile to go.

Only a half a mile from safety.

The ship suddenly trembled, and the captain heard the deadly, cracking of lumber breaking hard and in agony against the rock ledge.

The captain’s muscles tightened.

The ship was taking on water.

It was quiet for a moment.

Then came the screams.

Only a half a mile to go.

He would never make it.

Even the screams died away.

The cold, bitter sea water churned around his knees and kept rising.

The winds battered his ship.

The rains lashed at his face.

One last scream.

Then the ominous sound of night when there is no sound at all.

Early the next morning, as faint shards of light swept the shoreline, the keeper of Hendrick’s Head Lighthouse and his wife began picking through the debris that had washed upon the rocks.

A dying ship was a rest.

A captain, his crew, and his passengers had been drawn to the unforgiving ebony floor of the Atlantic.

No hope.

No prayers.

No survivors.

He stopped.

The keeper heard a faint and gentle cry in the wind. He and his wife found a feather mattress bound with a rope. It held a tiny cargo, a wooden box, and wedged inside was a baby girl. She was alone but had not been abandoned.

Some heart-broken mother had done her best to save the baby, to cast her to the sea and pray that the ocean would not claim her.

There had been a prayer.

And a survivor.

The family of the lighthouse kept her as its own.

They looked for any trace of the mother until all traces had been washed away and buried by the sea.

But on some nights when the sky is dark, and a gale stalks the rim of the Atlantic, the silence is broken by a faint cry caught in the throat of a distant wind.

“It’s the mother,” I am told. “She walks among the rocks, and sometimes you can see her shadow outlined against the ocean. After all of these years, she is still searching for her baby.”

“Has anyone ever seen her face?”

“We only hear her grief.”

“She keeps coming back?”

“No.” There is a slight shrug. “She never left.”

It began with a storm.

So long ago.

It has yet to end.

Caleb Pirtle III

began his career writing about history and travel. He learned quickly, however, that what happens is never as important as those who make it happen. Many of those people have made their way into his novels.

He is the author of more than 65 published books, including the new noir suspense thrillers, Golgotha ConnectionSecrets of the Dead, Conspiracy of Lies and Night Side of Dark. His other novels include Back Side of a Blue Moon and Friday Nights Don’t Last Forever

He has written such award winners as “XIT: The American Cowboy,” “Callaway Gardens: the Unending Season,” “The Grandest Day,” “Echoes from Forgotten Streets,” and “Spirit of a Winner.” His nonfiction works include Gamble in the Devil’s Chalk and No Experience Required.

Caleb earned a journalism degree from The University of Texas and became the first student at the university to win the national William Randolph Hearst Award for feature writing. As a reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he received both the Texas Headliner’s and Associated Press Awards.

He served as travel editor for Southern Living Magazine, and his travel writing was given the National Discover America Award three times. For more than two decades, Pirtle was editorial director for a custom publishing company in Dallas.

He has also written teleplays for network television.

Find more about Caleb at his:

Website   |   Blog    |  Facebook    |   Twitter

You can find Confessions from the Road on his website or on Amazon.

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Thursday teaser: Freckled

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A Memoir of Growing Up Wild in Hawaii

By Toby Neal

At preschool I heard the ladies talking about ESP. There are two kinds of ESP: the kind where you hear other people’s thoughts, and the kind where people can make other people do what they want just with their thoughts. 

I always listen to grownups so I can know things— “Elephant ears” Mom calls me. Grandma Gigi, Pop’s mom, believes in ESP too. “I can tell when you’re thinking about me, so that’s when I call,” Gigi says. She does usually call when we need something, and I love when her packages come in the mail, even though Pop grumbles that I’m getting spoiled.

I want to have the make-people-do-stuff kind of ESP.

We’re at dinner, and the sun has gone down behind the ocean. I can hear the surf outside; it’s coming up bigger with a shushing sound.

“Should be good tomorrow,” Pop says, sipping his beer. Because my dad’s a surfer, we always pay attention to what the surf is doing and the weather conditions. There’s “onshore,” which means the wind is in my face off the ocean and that’s bad for surf—I don’t really know why. Then there’s “offshore,” which is best to make the waves good, and “Konas,” which means the wind is light and from the side. 

Mom is sitting between Pop and me. Her tummy is super big, almost touching the table, and she’s wearing her favorite blue muumuu that she sewed herself. There are some oven-baked fries, special because they are not goodforyou, and fish Pop caught, and Mom’s salad with bean sprouts. We have white plates with a flower border, a milk bottle filled with daisies, Mom’s favorite flower, and everything is pretty and good.

Even after he smoked today, Pop was still grumpy. I can see how he’s feeling like a black cloud over his head. Bad things can happen when I make him mad, and I do that a lot because I’m noisy and too bouncy. I’m always trying to get him to like me and see that I’m smart and can do things as good as a boy. Because I was supposed to be a boy and be named James Theodore the Third. 

Mom and Pop didn’t know what to call me when I was a girl, so they named me Toby after the redheaded boy who runs away to the circus in a movie Mom watched at the hospital. I have no middle name because “when you’re old enough, you can choose your own middle name.” This worries me. How do I pick the right name? I wish I could just be named James Theodore the Third, even if I am a redheaded girl.

Maybe I can make Pop do something with ESP. 

PICK UP THE KETCHUP, I think. PICK UP THE KETCHUP. PICK UP THE KETCHUP. 

Pop looks up at me. His green eyes have red around them. The overhead light shines on his curling blond hair, going thin at the top. I stare at him, my lips moving, as I think as hard as I can—PICK UP THE KETCHUP.

“What are you looking at?” His voice is a low thunder sound. He narrows his eyes. I don’t look away or answer. He’s going to PICK UP THE KETCHUP any second now. I just know it!

“Stop staring at me.” Pop gets louder and seems to swell.

I can tell how mad he’s getting, but I stare until my eyes hurt because I can feel it almost working—he’s going to hear me any minute now. I don’t blink. I want to be scary: eyes wide, mouth tight, staring hard as I think PICK UP THE KETCHUP. I will make him do what I want!

“I said stop looking at me, disrespectful little brat!” He stands up and his chair flies back and lands on the linoleum with a thud. He’s enormous. 

My mom makes fluttery noises, but it’s too late. Roaring something I don’t hear, he comes around the table and whips me off the chair by my hair. I crash onto the floor and hold onto my head and use my legs to hold myself up, trying to keep from being dragged—it hurts so bad, as he hauls me down the hall, but I won’t cry. I’m stubborn like that. I’m not afraid of pain.

I’m still thinking, PICK UP THE KETCHUP. Like it’s going to save me. Like he can hear me.

But he doesn’t. 

**Download Freckled and continue reading now!**

🌺 Amazon US fb: tobyneal.net/Frfb
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🌴 Kobo: tobyneal.net/Frko
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🌴 Paperback: tobyneal.net/Frppbk

Freckled

For fans of The Glass Castle and Educated, comes mystery author Toby Neal’s personal story of surviving a wild childhood in paradise.

We never call it homeless. We’re just “camping” in the jungle on Kauai…

We live in a place everyone calls paradise. Sure, Kauai’s beautiful, with empty beaches, drip-castle mountains, and perfect surf…but we’ve been “camping” for six months, eating boiled chicken feed for breakfast, and wearing camouflage clothes so no one sees us trespassing in our jungle hideout. The cockroaches leave rainbow colors all over everything from eating the crayons we left outside the tent, and now a tractor is coming to scrape our camp into the river.

Standing in front of the tent in my nightgown, clinging to my sister as we face the tractor, I know my own truth: I just want to be normal.

But Mom and Pop are addicted.

Addicted to Kauai’s beauty, to drugs, to surfing, to living a life according to their own rules out from under their high-achieving parents’ judgmental eyes. I’m just their red-headed, mouthy, oldest kid. What I want doesn’t matter.

But I’m smart. I will make a different life for myself someday if I keep up my grades no matter what happens.

No matter how often we run out of food.

No matter how many times I change schools…or don’t go to school at all.

No matter how many bullies beat me up for the color of my skin.

I might be growing up wild in Hawaii, but I have dreams I’m going to reach, no matter how crazy things get.

Toby Neal

Award-winning, USA Today bestselling social worker turned author Toby Neal grew up on the island of Kaua`i in Hawaii. Neal is a mental health therapist, a career that has informed the depth and complexity of the characters in her stories. Neal’s mysteries and thrillers explore the crimes and issues of Hawaii from the bottom of the ocean to the top of volcanoes. Fans call her stories, “Immersive, addicting, and the next best thing to being there.”

Neal also pens romance, romantic thrillers, and writes memoir/nonfiction under TW Neal.

 Visit her on her:

And follow her on Twitter @TobywNeal.

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Monday musings: The difference between imagination and memory

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Photo: Photo by Vidar Kristiansen on Unsplash

What’s the difference between the way a writer imagines a realistic scene, and the way a reader experiences something? Could it be similar to the difference between the way we watch a motion picture about, say, a day at the lake, and the way we remember a day at the lake?

I sometimes edit novels for other writers, looking for ways to improve the story and the way it’s told, without changing the author’s voice.

I have noticed I often change or suggest a change to a particular kind of writing: excessive description of a sequence of small actions. They’re little things that happen in a story, but that the reader doesn’t need to read. And it makes me think about the difference between the way we remember and the way we imagine.

I’ll make up an example here:

She pulled the lever and opened the car door. She stepped onto the dirt driveway in front of the summer cabin, and walked past the old porch in front. She passed the little cedar trees that had never grown very high, past the big old maple and down to the wooden dock. She walked to the end, and sat down on the boards. She removed her sandals and dipped her bare feet into the lake, only to jerk them out—cold!

It’s way too wordy. Sure, it describes what happened. It takes the reader through all the action. But it doesn’t actually bring the reader into the setting. And do we really need to read every single action?

When I think back to summer days at the lake, I don’t really think of long sequences. My memories are things like seeing my grandfather standing in his wooden boat, tinkering with something in his hands as the boat bobbed gently on the water. Or the backs of my father and grandfather, looking up at the big tin barrel that collected rainwater as the wind rippled the backs of their shirts. Or sitting on a dull, cloudy afternoon on a big rock over the shore, my uncle beside me, holding a toy fishing rod in my hand.

Which brings me to the original question: what’s the difference between imagination and memory?

It’s an important question, as things like “false memory syndrome” have a bearing on criminal cases. And maybe it’s part of the profound influence of motion pictures on our whole society.

Think about the passage above. It’s not from any particular book, but it’s typical of what I tend to tell a writer to re-write. And it’s kind of cinematic. It might be the way a screenwriter would provide instructions to a cinematographer. It has all the action, something that an actor and a camera operator could follow.

This is how I remember arriving at my grandfather’s summer cottage.

Thin fir boles and low-hanging evergreen branches framed the back of the cottage. The tires crunched softly over the dirt and forest litter before the car bounced to a stop. I popped out of the back seat—no thought of seat belts then—to be greeted by the scent of forest and water and the outhouse tucked behind a thin screen of bushes.

I ran around the log cabin, reaching out to touch the structure supporting the tin barrel that collected rainwater. The lake gleamed far below the cabin, separated by a steep slope crowded with dark evergreens and lighter deciduous bushes. A bright leopard frog leaped away, into the bushes as my sneaker-clad feet made soft drumbeats on the beaten ground of the path down to the dock.

See? Flashes, like the “Live” setting on photos on my iPhone these days. Not a long cinematic sequence.

What do you think? Are your memories more like cinematic sequences, or short live photographs?

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Monday musings: The bookstore as tourist attraction

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By Scott Bury

In days of yore, I used to love hanging around in bookstores. Whether they sold new or used books, I could while away hours ambling down the aisles, perusing the obscure titles, poring over the pages, admiring cover typography and wondering about the authors. Sadly, it’s a pastime I haven’t enjoyed for a very long time.

Until last September, when I visited Portugal with my lovely wife. From the time we started planning the trip, one of the must-see spots was the Lello & Irmão bookstore in Porto. This is the bookstore that’s famous as the place that inspired J.K. Rowling’s setting of Hogwarts for her Harry Potter series.

The evocative double curving staircase is not the only reason it’s an inspiring bookstore. The inlay ceiling, the baroque woodwork, the antique lanterns—and the incredible range of books! There are books in many languages, bestselling books, books of great age and prestige, beautiful editions and even comic books.

But what is the most immediately striking thing about this bookstore is the crowd inside. Because of the Harry Potter-inspired fame, hordes of tourists cram into it daily. Lello & Irmão bookstore actually charge admission and limits the number of people they let inside at once. If you buy a book, they’ll refund the price of admittance.

Lello & Irmão was not the only bookstore I visited on that trip. Roxanne and I also popped into Livraria Bertrand in the Chiado section of Lisbon, known as the world’s oldest still-operating bookstore. It was first opened in 1732 by Pedro Faure, who took on the Bertrand brothers as partners some time later. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 destroyed the bookstore and the Betrands moved to a different part of the city. In 1773, the Bertrands returned to the rebuilt Chiado section of Lisbon, its current location on Rua Garret.

Bertrand today is a chain of 53 bookstores across Portugal, and is owned by the Porto Editora publishing company. a

Livraria Bertrand in Lisbon, the oldest still-operating bookstore in the world. Photo: Wikipedia

I rediscovered the joy of spending time in a bookstore in Portugal. And on coming back to North America, I understood one reason that I don’t enjoy that activity as much at home anymore. It’s because bookstores here aren’t much in the way of bookstores anymore.

Every time I enter one in Canada or the U.S., there seems to be more space turned over to knick-knacks, coffee and food at the expense of books.

I have no problem with coffee in a bookstore. Books and coffee are a natural combination. But seeing more space for things that are far less important than books taking away space for them—that’s disheartening.

What about you? What are your favorite book places in the world?

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Thursday teaser: Confessions from the Road

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This week’s travel teaser comes from the collection of stories gathered 

By Caleb Pirtle III

The Hope Prophecy

HE CAME TO the ancient land of his people because of the saucers in the sky. Dan Katchongva had always known this day would come.

He didn’t know where.

He didn’t know when.

Now he knew.

Dan Katchongva was a Hopi chieftain, and he had heard the stories handed down, sometimes in whispers, for centuries, and he had never doubted them.

Home was not the earth.

Life was temporary.

He would someday live among the stars.

He didn’t know where.

He didn’t know when.

Now he knew.

He told the newspaper in Prescott, Arizona: “Our people believe other planets are inhabited and that our prayers are heard there. We, the faithful Hopi, have seen the ships and know they are true.”

The Hopi has long had a connection with sky.

The Hopi has long been touched by the people who live among the stars.

They watch the skies.

And they wait.

“It is coming,” the chief said.

“What is coming?”

“The Day of Purification.”

He is stoic.

His face is solemn.

“The prophecies tell us,” he says, “that nature will speak with a mighty breath of wind. It will be the final decisive battle between good and evil. The oceans will join hands and meet the sky. It is the day when all wicked people and wrong-doers will be punished or destroyed.”

He pauses.

He gazes into a calm blue sky.

The sky is calling him, he says.

It’s been calling for a long time.

“The Hopi believes,” he continued, “that those who survive Purification Day will travel to other planets.”

The saucers will come for them.

He will be ready.

He waits no longer.

The saucers have come again.

The True White Brothers, he said, are coming to take the faithful away.

Have they come for him?

Some listen to Chief Dan Katchongva.

Others scorn him.

Mostly, his words fall on deaf ears.

He walks out of Prescott early one morning.

He heads across sacred lands.

He moves toward sacred mountains.

It is the tall country where the saucers are seen.

His head is held high.

His steps are strong.

The chief does not hesitate.

He walks all day and into the night.

He is one with the darkness.

And Prescott waits for him to return.

Prescott is still waiting.

No one ever saw Dan Katchongva again.

He left no footprints upon the earth.

Confessions from the Road

I grew up in a world occupied by storytellers. Their stories were better than books. Their stories became books. After all, life is just one story piled on top of another with page numbers.

In those days, storytellers did not know they were telling stories. They were simply carrying on a conversation. I never outgrew their stories. Nor did I ever stop listening to conversations that hopscotched their way along the side of a wayward road.

The voices stay with me. So do the stories they told me.

The voices may come from down the road apiece, at the counter of a diner, on the bar stool in a beer joint, sitting in the front yard of a mountain cabin, along a stretch of spun-sugar sand, back in the darkness of a pine thicket, amidst the downtown traffic jam of a city at sundown, or from the faint memories of a distant past.

Everyone who crosses my path has a story to tell. It may be personal. It may be something that happened last week or the year before. It may have been handed down for more than a single generation. It may even be true, but who knows anymore?

For decades I’ve collected the stories I hear and can’t forget those whose names are often long forgotten. But at one time in my life, they came my way, and I wrote down their confessions from the road.

Did you like this travel teaser? Find the book on 

Caleb Pirtle IIIBestselling author Caleb Pirtle III

is the author of more than seventy books, including the Ambrose Lincoln series.

Pirtle is a graduate of The University of Texas in Austin and became the first student at the university to win the National William Randolph Hearst Award for feature writing. Several of his books and his magazine writing have received national and regional awards.

Pirtle has written three teleplays, and wrote two novels for Berkeley based on the Gambler series: Dead Man’s Hand and Jokers Are Wild.

Pirtle’s narrative nonfiction, Gamble in the Devil’s Chalk is a true-life book about the fights and feuds during the founding of the controversial Giddings oilfield and From the Dark Side of the Rainbow, the story of a woman’s escape from the Nazis in Poland during World War II. His coffee-table quality book, XIT: The American Cowboy, became the publishing industry’s third best selling art book of all time.

Learn more about Caleb on his:

And follow him on Twitter @CalebPirtle.

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