A Conversation with: Earl Staggs
January 19, 2014
Short Story and Novel Author, and Much More [i]
Today, I’m visiting with Earl Staggs. I know from personal experience, some people I meet I like from the start. Seems that goes for “electronic meetings” too. I’ve only visited with Earl on blog tours, but I sure liked “his style” Not only does Earl’s personality come through in his blogs and writing—but Earl also drives our tour bus—no easy feat!
Thank you, Earl, for taking the time to visit with me. I still remember our blog tours—so much fun, but a lot of work!
Thank you, Madeline, for inviting me here. For sure, those blog tours were a ton of fun and, yes, a lot of work. Funny how when you’re doing something you enjoy with people you like, you don’t really notice the work part of it so much. All the writers we toured with were terrific and are now good friends.
That’s true for me, too. Made a lot of new friends. One of the things that first caught my attention during our tour about you was the fact you drove a school bus part-time while writing. And it sounds like you came to driving as a “something to keep busy” activity. But I have a feeling it’s much more. I loved your interview with Kaye Wilkinson Barley on her blog[ii], especially the parts about “tail swing” and your Special Needs experiences. I’d love to hear those stories again, and any other school bus thoughts or experiences you’d like to share. Also, how does your driving interface or effect your writing?
I still love my part-time school bus gig. I think if you don’t have some reason to get out
of bed, go somewhere and do something every day, you can get old. I can’t get old. There’s too much I haven’t done yet. In addition to keeping me young, I happen to like kids. Most of them.
The tail swing part of the job is important. The rear end of a bus extends back beyond the rear wheels, so when you make a turn, the tail swings wide. It’s easy to take out mailboxes, fences, and other things if you’re not careful. My first year of driving, I made a tight left turn and sheared off a car’s side view mirror. A new Cadillac, no less.
I only drive Special Needs for summer school now, but I actually prefer it to driving regular students. There are more smiles and hugs and much less noise from the Special kids.
You have to be careful about making any changes with the Special kids, though. They don’t like change, no matter how small. If you alter the route and turn down a different street, they’ll get upset and let you know it right away. Once, I bought myself a large coffee mug to carry my morning brew and sat it on the floor next to my seat. One of the boys saw it and knew it didn’t belong there. He undid his seat belt, walked to the front, picked up my mug, and proceeded to throw it off the bus. Problem was, the door was closed. Fortunately, the mug shattered and not the thick glass door.
Driving a school bus is a perfect part-time job for a writer. The morning route is finished by 8:30 and the afternoon route begins at 2:30. That leaves me a big chunk of time for writing. I carry my laptop to work and between routes, plug it in, shut out everything going on around me in the driver’s lounge, and write. Of course, I manage to squeeze in a short, rejuvenating nap during that time, too.
I can relate to the nap part! And you’re right about the “perfect” part-time job. A fixed block of time to write! Another item that caught my interest during our tours was your success in writing both short stories and novels. Is there a difference in how you approach a short story versus a novel? And is the writing process different? And do you prefer one over the other?
People who know I write both long and short often ask if there’s a difference. My response is always the same: one’s bigger than the other. That usually gets me a strange look or a chuckle. Then I explain I don’t mean bigger just in number of words. A novel is bigger in the amount of story being told. For instance, in a short story, you usually have one main plot and, perhaps, a minor sub-plot. A novel often has several sub-plots in addition to the main one. A novel can have two or three primary characters along with any number of minor characters. A short story normally has one main character and no more than two or three secondary characters. A novel also usually covers a longer period of time.
Another difference is that in a novel, you can spend more time on descriptions of people, places and things. You hold those to a minimum in a short story because you have less space in which to work. Think of it as the difference between getting dressed in your bedroom and doing it in your closet. When you roll out the story, however, there is really no difference in the process. Whether writing long or short, you need to cut unnecessary words and make all the others count. After all, writing’s writing, right?
I don’t have a preference between them, and I plan to continue writing both novels and short stories. I’m thinking more and more these days about writing short stories featuring characters from a novel. An example is RESCUE, a short story I recently published featuring Tall Chambers and his crew from the novel JUSTIFIED ACTION. It was fun and interesting to do and I hope to do more of them.
Glad you mentioned Tall Chambers—what a great name! Could you elaborate on how you came up with such a great name? And what is Tall’s back-story?
Tall Chambers is the main character in my Mystery/Thriller JUSTIFIED ACTION. While struggling to come up with the right name for him, something reminded me of an old John Wayne movie in which he played a character named Tall. (Yes, I’m a life-long fan of The Duke.) The name fit perfectly the image I had of my character. After more struggling, I settled on Chambers for his last name simply because the two names worked well together.
Tall joined the Army at the age of eighteen and, by the age of thirty-eight, had risen to the rank of Captain in Special Forces. An ugly incident with a drunken Colonel led to a demotion for Tall and assignment to a desk job. Tall is not the least bit interested in riding a desk after his extensive experience and training and resigns from the Army, not sure what he will do with the rest of his life. He wants to do something that matters and makes a difference. An old friend introduces him to a special and secretive agency which tracks terrorists and puts them in the ground. Tall immediately signs on and finds it a perfect fit for him. When someone very close to him is murdered, however, he puts all that aside and devotes his wits and his weapons to finding the killer.
Here’s a pictures from your website I really liked!
Which leads me to a shift in gears to a more personal question. Maryland to Florida to Texas! Your quote about Texas, “The heat can be fierce, but you don’t have to shovel it,” is great. Having moved a couple times myself, I would love to hear your thoughts on the impact of your moves on your life, and how your moves and varied landing places may have inspired or influenced your writing?
The biggest impact came after my wife and I decided to leave the snow and ice of Maryland winters behind and moved to Florida. At the same time, I retired from the insurance business and decided it was time to do something I’d always threatened to do. I’d always promised myself that, someday, I would try my hand at writing fiction. Once I got into writing, I kicked myself for not starting sooner. After three years in Florida, we moved to Fort Worth, Texas, to be near our daughter and our grandsons.
Since moving to Texas, I’ve written several stories set in this state, which I probably would not have done if we hadn’t moved here. Other than story settings, however, I don’t feel where writers live has a great impact on their writing. The Internet has given the entire planet a next door intimacy. We can visit and research anywhere and anything with a few clicks. We can also form long-lasting and supportive friendships throughout the writing community via group lists, emails, and where you and I met – blog tours. It helps to have friends who know the ups and down of this crazy writing thing we do. Normal, sane people don’t understand us.
Earl, here’s a question just for me. I’ll explain what I mean: As you know, on our blog tours we try to ask interesting and informative questions. On one of my requests (way back in 2012 and I’m guessing you don’t remember) I asked the rather simplistic and overarching question “What do you like and enjoy the most about being a writer?” You most graciously gave an excellent and comprehensive answer that I appreciated very much. And what really resonated with me was your opening paragraph,
“There’s a feeling I love before I even begin typing a story. The story idea has been rolling around between the ears for a while, and the feeling is half anxiety and half excitement. Anxiety because the story is only an embryo, and I’m anxious to know if it will actually grow into a good story. Excitement because it could turn out to be my best story ever.”
Wow, did that ring a bell. I’m wondering how you would answer today? Has anything change based on where you are now in your writing journey?
I remember that and I still feel exactly the same. I hope that never changes. Without the anxiety and excitement, writing would become all work, and I would lose my enthusiasm for it. I also hope I live long enough to write all the story ideas begging to be written.
It’s been great getting to know you better. You remain my most favorite tour bus driver! But, one last question before you go, I would love to know, what are you working on now? A new book? A new short story?
I’m currently working on two projects. One is a sequel to my novel MEMORY OF A MURDER. This is way overdue and I’m rediscovering why I fell in love with the characters and the premise.
The other project is a short story for an anthology called MURDER ON WHEELS. I’ve never written about a school bus before because I did not want to mix murder with kids. I finally came up with a story idea called “Dead Man on a School Bus,” and no kids are involved.
Oops, you can’t go yet. There’s one more item I want to ask you about. There’s a particular short story I really loved—which is posted on your blog, “The Day I Almost Became a Great Writer”[iii] The creativity in your writing, I think, is quite unique, and very engaging. What was the inspiration for this story?
The seed for that story came from a discussion with other writers about how one becomes a good writer. Is there a magic formula? Can you read a “How to Write” book and immediately produce a best seller? There are a few one-in-a-million authors who become overnight sensations with their first effort, but for most of us, it takes a lot of years and a lot of hard work to develop genuine writing skill. In “The Day I Almost Became a Great Writer,” I wanted to have fun with the topic and came up with a frustrated writer wannabe, a strange old jug, and a genie who looks and talks like Mel Brooks. Some say it’s the funniest story I’ve ever written. It’s available for a free read on my website at: http://tinyurl.com/kj7guss
While you’re there, you can also:
. . . read WHITE HATS AND HAPPY TRAILS, a true story about the day I spent with Roy Rogers,
. . . read Chapter 1 of JUSTIFIED ACTION, a Mystery/Thriller novel,
. . . read Chapter 1 of MEMORY OF A MURDER, a Mystery novel with a psychic element,
. . . check out SHORT STORIES OF EARL STAGGS, a collection of 16 of my published stories.
I’ve had a lot of fun being here, Madeline, and answering your excellent questions. I hope I’ll have the privilege of driving the bus for our next blog tour. If I do, you and the rest of the writers on the bus must follow the rules: remain seated at all times, use your inside voice, don’t litter, and when we stop for a rest room break, the driver is the first one off.
I promise to be well behaved! I sure wouldn’t want to be thrown off your bus! Thank you, Earl, loved our visit.
[i] Earl Staggs earned a long list of Five Star reviews for his novels MEMORY OF A MURDER and JUSTIFIED ACTION and has twice received a Derringer Award for Best Short Story of the Year. He served as Managing Editor of Futures Mystery Magazine, as President of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, is a contributing blog member of Murderous Musings and Make Mine Mystery and a frequent speaker at conferences and seminars. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: http://earlwstaggs.wordpress.com