Saturday, September 19, 2009

Learning from the Past...and the Pulps

How can you move forward when you don't know where you've been? How can you avoid the mistakes of the past when you don't even know what the mistakes were?

These are two fundamental questions one has to ask when you study history, a discipline in which I hold two degrees. For me, history, both past and present, is a living thing and it is something for which I have a lot of passion. Writing is something else for which I have a lot of passion and, you know what? The questions are relevant to writing as well.

This past summer, I read a lot of old adventure and pulp fiction, things most boys read when they're ten or twelve. I'm a boy of forty. Guess it ain't too late. I cataloged them in a week of themed reviews (Adventure Week) on my blog. You can read them if you want. Here's where I get to list a few things I learned from reading these old stories. Here's the list:

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (1870)
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (1873)
King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard (1875)
Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912)
The Return of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1913)

Coincidences are like garlic: a little goes a long way

Coincidences. The things that make you go "No way!" could that happen...and they do. You'll roll your eyes and accuse the writer of taking a short cut. In modern stories, coincidences have almost no place. The "Back to the Future" movies are among my favorite example of "everything is explained." The writers may have started with a shortcut ("Hey, wouldn't it be cool if Marty dressed up like Clint Eastwood in "A Fistful of Dollars?") but they found a way to make it believable (I'll leave it up to you to remember the clue). Same with novels. For as fun as the Miss Marple stories are, seriously, how many murders can one old lady stumble upon?

In these adventure stories, there are a few eye-rollers and one big whopper. The Return of Tarzan is riff with them. Tarzan is thrown off a boat and swims to shore and lands *exactly* where he parents were marooned twentysomething years ago. Whatever! I could do that as a writer...and have a bunch of manuscript pages yellowing in a drawer. Now, in our hyper-keep-it-real-explain-everything world, there's no place for coincidences. The best thing about ERB , as more than one commenter wrote on my blog yesterday, is that the stories are so much fun, you can let the "serendipity" slide. Not so with King Solomon's Mines. Our brave European explorers have with them an African guide Who Just Happens To Be The Long Lost King of the Lost Tribe They Discover. Sure, the African could've guessed where Quatermain was headed and hitched a ride but it could've been better explained. It just landed with a solid thud in the story that had already lost its steam.

Exotica can only get your so far.

All of these stories involve some sort of exotic location. Verne has the Nautilus, Captain Nemo's ship, and all the ports Nemo chooses, like Atlantis or underwater graveyards. Treasure Island features the Caribbean and tropical environs while Haggard and ERB set their stories in Africa. You'd think that having an exotic setting would be enough to drive a story. You'd be wrong. The Verne and Haggard books both have one simple fault: they rely too heavily on the environment. Whether you're reading about Quatermain's trek across Africa or Nemo's journey's under water, the stories have to go somewhere. I think these authors were too content to just let the setting play too big a role in their respective books. I give Verne a bit of a pass since he invented a working submarine in his novel. Haggard just tried too hard to make an exciting story and failed.

Character Counts. Big Time.

This is not an earth-shattering revelation. There's a reason Agatha Christie wrote as many Miss Marple stores as she did: people liked the character. In their books, Stevenson and ERB use their respective exotic settings as a means to tell a better story with compelling characters. I was much more invested in the stories of young Lord Greystoke and young Jim Hawkins...and I couldn't care less where the story took place. Now, the setting helped but I liked the characters. Who hasn't dreamed of finding a pirate treasure map and set off to find it? I won't say who hasn't dreamed of growing up with apes in the jungle but the situation is compelling enough that you want to know what happens with Tarzan. It was fun watching him grow up in the jungle and Hawkins battle pirates in the Caribbean. In these books, the environment was gravy. The meat was in the story and the characters.

Fun is Important

We're now entering the fall season, the time when the Important Books and the Important Movies are released. It's awards season now. We must put away our paperbacks and pick up hard back books that challenge our intellect and make us think. When I started work on my second book, my modern crime novel, I wanted to make it real. I wanted it gritty and urban. I wanted no coincidences. Everything had to be explained. I got so fixated on Keeping It Real that it died in my laptop. It suffocated. I didn't keep it fun.

Fiction, by definition, isn't real. It can be realistic but you've still got to enjoy yourself. Right? HBO's "The Wire" is real and gritty and utterly engrossing but it's the characters that matter. The real-life cop procedures are nice but if we didn't care if McNulty screwed around or if Omar's lover got himself killed, we'd stop watching. We'd also stop reading, were it a book. That's the Keeping It Real part. But how hard did you laugh when various groups of characters got drunk and just mouthed off? Those moments of levity helped me love those characters, even the criminals. Have a little fun. That's probably the biggest lesson I learned.

Everyone who writes columns (like this one?) on writing tends to boil the entire process down to the couplet Stephen King captured best: Read a lot and write a lot. I wouldn't be a writer if I didn't enjoy reading. And I'm a better writer every time I sit down to compose because of the variety of books I read. Classic adventure tales and early pulp fiction continue to grab our imaginations and rarely let go. They also can show us writers how they used to do it back in the day and allow us to question their choices and learn from them. I learned a lot from the adventure tales I read this summer (including a modern descendant, Gabriel Hunt) and I can't wait to get back to Africa with Tarzan or solve crimes with The Shadow or travel the world with Gabriel Hunt. I want to learn some more. And be entertained.


Paul D Brazill said...

Well said!

John McFetridge said...

Excellent post.

Barbara Martin said...

Definitely food for thought, Scott. I like reading the older classics and history books to gain a different perspective, and to see if the words stand the test of time.

Chris said...

Great post. Thanks!

Scott D. Parker said...

Paul, John, and Chris - Thank you. It's interesting what kinds of topics you write when up against a deadline. It was initially during the reading of King Solomon's Mines that I thought of this topic. The Return of Tarzan solidified it.

Barbara - I'll admit there are times when I try to write exactly like the classics...and then realize they're outdated. When I was looking up some facts about Tarzan, I realized that we're coming up on the century mark since his first publication. A century!