Monday, February 18, 2013

Texas, by James Michener

We have been traveling in Texas for about two and a half months now.  Soon after our arrival in the state we realized that we were completely ignorant of the early history of the state.  I felt the same curiosity I had experienced when first learning about the War of 1812, or King Philip's War or some of the other overlooked historical events in our country.
So we did some reading, and visited historic sites, and talked with park rangers -- all the stuff a tourist might do, to acquire at least a superficial understanding of the subject. As we moved South, it became more and more apparent that the early relations between Mexicans and Anglos have been touchy at best, and often heartbreaking
I found myself relying on my longstanding practice of turning to fiction when I want a quick education.  This time I found a paperback copy of Texas by James Michener, first published in 1985 and about as big as a brick.  It is the tried and true Michener format.  I think I had never read it before because I had become tired of his formula -- and he was severely and widely criticized for the way in which he hammered his research into something resembling fiction but without the grace that a good novel projects.
I'm a bit more than half-way through and have decided to quit, because the part of the history that interested me was the earliest contact between Mexico and the new Anglo settlements.  Although he characterized some of the historical figures based upon his admittedly extensive research, I became irritated quickly with becoming involved with a family or an individual character and then, checking the list he had helpfully added to the front matter, would find they were fictional.
But when I wrote my novel Pinyon Creek, California, I included both real and fictional characters. Isn't this the same thing that Michener did?  I have been struggling with this answer, for several reasons, although, since I had forgotten this habit of Michener's, I certainly did not deliberately intend to copy him.
First, in my book, the characters whom I describe are all fictional.  The only historic characters in the book are seen by others and their actions are described by others as those actions affect them.
Second, the presence of documentable detail helps set the scene and pin the story in identifiable time and place, a kind of shorthand way of introducing and pacing things.
But of course, these points apply to the Michener book as well. And I have been troubled from the very beginning by the realization that the real subject of Pinyon Creek, California, is the community itself.  If I hadn't become impatient with the whole process, but instead stayed with it and revised the book as I had originally planned to do, I think I would have tried harder to make my human characters more complex and believable.
I know I don't want to go back to it.  I am carrying around some reference material in case I decide to carry the story forward, and it could very well be an entirely different, standalone book.  I'll admit I was pretty discouraged by the realization that I probably would never find an agent or a publisher and I didn't understand, when I made my publishing choices, that self-publishing is one of the hardest, most draining jobs I could imagine. I don't think James Michener wrote very good fiction and I certainly don't want to emulate it any more than I aleady have.
So perhaps this is a useful object lesson.  If the time I have spent reading Texas has convinced me that I should stick to pure fiction next time, then it has probably been time well spent.


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