I haven’t made too many blog posts recently.
And about my other ongoing responsibilities for previous books and my publicity travel and the photos on the covers of my books and the book business from a writer’s point of view and the things that get in the way of writing. And about NOTHING AT ALL, when I felt like it.
For the last six months or so, I haven’t really blogged at all. So now I’m going to tell you why.
BECAUSE WRITING THE HISTORY OF THE WHOLE WORLD IS A FULL-TIME JOB.
Let me “nuance that,” as one of my least favorite lit professors used to say: Writing the history of the world is a job that becomes more and more consuming with time, until there is nothing left but a huge stack of primary resources and an Everest-sized pile of secondary research that Must. Be. Looked. At. Or else you’ll miss something that everyone in the world but you knows.
(“I don’t know if you’ve realized this,” remarks Starling Lawrence, my esteemed and sometimes-compassionate editor at Norton, “but this project is wearing on you.” Or words to that effect. Uh huh, I had indeed noticed that.)
Let me recap.
Ten years ago, I started writing the History of the Entire World. This was a project that grew out a children’s world history series I wrote, The Story of the World. And that was a project that grew out of the 1999 book on classical education that my mother and I co-authored: I couldn’t find any world history resources I liked, so I wrote my own.
The Story of the World series did very well, and so one day my editor called me and said, “You know, I snagged a copy of The Story of the World from the mailroom and I’ve been reading it. This is very good!”
Me: Er, thanks.
SL: Have you thought about writing one for adults?
Me: A history book?
SL: Yes, a history of the world.
Me: You mean the whole world?
SL: Yes, of course.
Me: In one volume?
SL: No, in four volumes.
Me [thinking that it took Will Durant something like 28 years to do this]: A four-volume history of the world? Well…
SL: Fine, write a letter telling me how you’d do it and we’ll take it from there.
So I called my agent and said, “Star Lawrence thinks I should write a history of the world.”
Agent: The whole world?
Me: Er, yes.
Agent: Sounds like a great idea. Good follow up to the last book. How long would it take you?
Me [having no idea]:…Eight years?
Agent: OK, send me a letter telling me how you’d do it and I’ll take it up with Norton.
So then I go talk to my husband.
Me: My agent and Star Lawrence think I should write a history of the world.
Husband: The WHOLE world?
Me: It’ll take eight years. At least.
Husband: Is that all?
Well, no, not exactly. The original contract for the History of the World series had, I think, a much briefer and breezier kind of history in mind, a Story of the World for grown-ups that had more detail, of course, but the same tone as the kid’s series.
The problem was: I couldn’t do it that way.
When I started writing, I wanted answers to all the questions I had always asked myself. Like: When we say that an “empire fell,” what does that mean, exactly? How did happen? Who did it?
Or: If a medieval country “became Christian,” does that mean that everyone was baptized, or just the king, or just the aristocracy? And if the latter, how exactly did the king convince them? And what was the king’s name? And why did he do it? And who were the aristocrats, anyway?
Or: If the peasants revolted, which ones started it? Why did the revolt reach critical mass instead of fading away? Who corralled all the rebels and got them to march in the same direction? Why did he do it? Were they hungry? If they were, how much did a bushel of wheat cost? What is that in contemporary U.S. dollars?
I needed to know these things. Kids need a general survey; they need a structure, an outline, a scaffolding to build on. I’m a grown-up. I needed to know why. Why meant who, how, where, on what day. “Corroborative detail is the great corrective,” wrote the amazing narrative historian Barbara Tuchman, in a quote I have parked on my home page. “It forces the historian who uses and respects it to cleave to the truth.”
I love finding corroborative detail. All at once, generations of the long-dead come to life. And speak (so not in a creepy Walking Dead kind of way. Yes, I’m an addict. But never mind that).
It takes an enormous amount of time to find corroborative detail. I have spent entire days tracking down a single bit of the past (the day a rider started out from Point A, headed for Point B; the weather at the moment a fleet launched; the exact price paid for a ransom) that doesn’t even make it into the final book; but a detail that I needed to know, or else the story wouldn’t make sense to me.
I love doing this. But it didn’t take eight years for four books; it took ten (so far) for two.
There’s only so much detail about Sumer in the third millennium. Frankly, there’s only so much detail about the Roman empire. Or about ninth-century Germanic tribes stomping around near the Rhine. But the detail starts to ramp up sharply around the end of the first millennium. And from then on, recorded history expands outwards, like the blast radius of an ever-growing explosion.
It’s no coincidence the the History of the Ancient World, covering over five thousand years of recorded history, and the History of the Medieval World, covering seven hundred years, are the same length.
So I’ve been running constantly up against two problems.
The first is a research problem. I have to know the details; otherwise I don’t know which ones fit into the particular story I’m telling. I have to find out exactly what happened before I can write a summary. Relying on the summaries of others is a stop-gap solution; you can’t do it often before you’ve lost any sense of the time itself. So it is taking me longer, and longer, and longer to sort through the ever-expanding written resources and figure out what I need to use. It took me three years to write the history of five millennia. It’s taken me three years to write the history of four centuries. This is only going to get more complicated. By the time I get to the twentieth century, I’ll be finishing off one decade per year. If that.
The second is a consistency problem.
This third volume–of what was originally meant to be a four-volume series–was supposed to cover 1100 through 1700 A.D. It’s become increasingly clear to me that it can’t, not in a way that sounds consistent with the first two volumes, at the same length. To keep on with the pattern I established with the Ancient World and the Medieval World, this volume would have to be…um…fifteen hundred pages long.
Or else suddenly turn into a breezy surface survey, very unlike what came before.
This problem will only get more acute. If I try to do the fourth volume, 1700 to the present, on the same pattern, do you know how many pages I’ll have to do all of World War II?
Four. Yep, that’s right. Four.
I can’t do World War II in four pages, and I can’t imagine that the readers who’ve enjoyed the first volumes will find it even the tiniest bit satisfying. There’s just too much detail: too much they already know; too many lives already recorded that must be paid the proper respect.
We started out this project by imposing a structure on the material. It won’t work. The material itself–the history of the world–won’t be contained. It keeps bursting out.
So what’s the solution?
If you’re very alert, you might have noticed that, a week or so ago, the description of this blog changed from “my progress as I write…a four-volume history of the world” to “my progress as I write…a multi-volume history of the world.” (Yeah, don’t worry about it, I didn’t really think anyone would notice.)
The always-supportive folks at Norton have agreed to a restructuring of the contract. First, the current volume–the one I’m trying to finish up now–will be the History of the Renaissance World, and it will cover from the end of the First Crusade to the end of (you guessed it) the Renaissance–which, in my view, is when Vasco da Gama rounds the Cape (stay tuned for more on this). That’s four hundred years, 1100-1500. That’s eight hundred pages, in tune with the first two volumes.
So my kind readers will then have three parallel volumes to enjoy: The History of the Ancient World, The History of the Medieval World, and the History of the Renaissance World.
What comes next?
I’m not sure yet. I have to stop and think. The Renaissance is the last easily-defined historical period, the last one on which there’s wide agreement among writers that yes, this may be an inaccurate name, but it’s a useful way to designate a period of the past. After the Renaissance, there’s Exploration, Discovery, Colonization, Reformation, Early Modern. It’s a free-for-all, and that’s just the west; none of those labels work east of the Oxus River anyway.
The material needs to dictate the form of the book, not the other way around. When I finish the History of the Renaissance World (which will happen very shortly), I will now get to stop. And think. And breathe. And read. In the last two years, I’ve read four or five books per week, at the hyper-speed developed by my academic training and demanded by my current writing pace. That’s fine, but it doesn’t allow for a lot in the way of creative thought. You become a pragmatic reader, not a curious one; a utilitarian reader.
So that’s the plan. I’m going to take a breath.
I’m not going to stop writing. Oh, no. There are SO MANY THINGS I want to write. They just aren’t fitting, neatly, into a four-volume-history-of-the-world format. They spring off into all sorts of fascinating and untidy directions.
And there are a couple of other things I’m planning on as well. Check back a little later this week, and I’ll tell you all about it.
In the meantime…if you haven’t read about the ancient and medieval worlds, what are you waiting for? Go forth and do so. The History of the Renaissance World is about to descend upon you. (I think.)
Tags: 31 Comments