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History Into Fiction: The Writer's Art of Recreating the Past

Robert B. Parker: Writing to the Very End

The creator of the Spenser series of detective novels died at his desk this week while working on a new manuscript.

Although Parker was best known as a crime writer, he also delved into historical fiction. Two novels of note included Double Play, which dealt with Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier in baseball, and Appaloosa, one of his trilogy of Westerns that was made into a movie in 2008 by Ed Harris.

Sarah Weinman, who blogs about the mystery-suspense genre, wrote an appreciation of Parker in the Jan. 20 edition of The Los Angeles Times (Section D, Page 2).

For me, two things about Parker stood out: His remarkable proclivity and his disdain for editing.

According to Weinman, Parker told The Wall Street Journal in 2009: “I normally write seven to 10 pages a day, which means I generally finish a new book every three months. It comes easily, and I don’t revise because I don’t get better by writing a new draft.”

I’m not sure which is more astounding: Parker’s collection of nearly forty novels and other non-fiction works, or his ability to churn them out with little or no revision.

Yet his penchant for speed and production may have come at a cost. Weinman noted that “[a]s a consequence, even as he remained a fixture on bestseller lists, Parker’s most ardent fans turned into his toughest critics, pointing to ever-increasing white space, decreasing word counts and long passages of dialogue that barely moved the action.”

Is the History Channel Becoming a Misnomer?

It’s the age-old question: How do you capture the interest of a younger generation that thinks history is boring?

Herodotus and Thucydides probably wrestled with the same problem that now confronts Nancy Dubuc, the president of the History Channel.

Her answer–one that has garnered the cable channel higher ratings–is to create shows that meld reality TV with subjects that sometimes have a tenuous connection to traditional history: “Ice Road Truckers” and “UFO Hunters,” for example.

In the Jan. 3 edition of The Los Angeles Times (Section D1), media correspondent Matea Gold looks back on the three years of Dubuc’s tenure and canvasses both critics and admirers of the History Channel’s evolution.

I’ve long since given up shaking my head when I see one of those stubbled-jawed Indiana Jones wannabees crawling through a tunnel while breathlessly wondering if he will ever get out. No one ever seems to worry about the cameraman with him.

Even better entertainment is provided by the readers’ comments about the article on the LA Times website.

Where have you gone, Max Perkins?

I recently had the bittersweet occasion to read A. Scott Berg’s marvelous biography, published in 1978,  of Maxwell Perkins, the eminent Scribner’s editor who shepherded the literary (and often personal) lives of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Wolfe, among many other authors.

Sweet was the experience because Perkins was that rarest of the breed: Self-effacing, light with the critical touch, rock-solid in loyalty, intuitive, a friend always even when subjected to the alcoholic rages and depressions of his authors. Bitter because his kind seems long extinct. How many editors today would courteously escort an unknown (and unannounced) writer to a local hotel bar to spend hours listening to his troubles?

Perkins had a fondness for history and historical fiction. Those rare days he managed to spend away from work were often spent trudging over Civil War battlefields.

He guided the career of the prolific Taylor Caldwell toward historical fiction and encouraged her to read Sire Walter Scott and Alexander Dumas to gain a mastery of the genre. “What you have chiefly,” he wrote to her, “is the superb talent for telling a story on a grand scale. It is a might rare talent.”

Berg’s description of the editor’s philosophy of historical fiction  is instructive:

Perkins generally believed in letting characters direct the plot of novels, but he instructed Miss Caldwell to think this book [The Earth is the Lord’s] entirely through before setting pen to paper. He sent her all the historical information on Genghis Khan within his reach and books that described central Asia. He suggested that instead of making Genghis himself the central figure she should write a strong personal story about someone who accompanied him and suspend the novel from that.

Berg also found an editing note that Perkins had written to Caldwell:

Sometimes a book about periods far back like that, and about great epic movements, becomes too generalized, too little about a particular individual or particular individuals. That is a danger you must guard against, particularly with your imagination that tends to see things in the large.

Is there another Max Perkins out there today? I’d love to hear from fellow historical novelists or from agents and editors with recommendations on editors who have a particular talent for shaping and guiding the historical novel.