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January 24, 2014

Read to Write: Paul D. Parsons on the Influence of Vince Flynn, James Michener and Others


Paul D. Parsons, the author of the Baden-Powell's Beads series, talks about why he thinks it's important for writers to read, not only the classics but contemporary works as well. He also shares some of the authors who have inspired his own writing --- including Vince Flynn, Wilbur Smith, James Michener and Stephen King.

Readers do not have to write. But writers do have to read…or at least they should. Many years ago, I heard a well-known author state how important it is to read both contemporary works and the classics written by our predecessors. Only after I heeded these words did I begin to appreciate how writers have taken from and built upon the body of literature that ultimately influenced them.

There’s not a classic novel out there that would be accepted for publication in today’s world. The action, if it exists, is too slow; the romance not graphic enough; the dialogue too stilted; pages wasted not advancing the plot. But oh, how they could develop character, paint a scene and spark wonderment in the reader. The challenge of today’s author is to capture some of that and still hold the reader’s attention in a fast-paced thriller. And to make the challenge more demanding, some of us choose to mix our fiction with history, making the story not only entertaining, but also educational.

The following authors definitely had an influence on my writing.

The late Vince Flynn was a master of the fast-paced, political, action-packed thriller. Each of his novels stands alone, but is linked with the same characters and theme. Mitch Rapp is the all-American hero, a CIA operative who, though fictional, we hope really exists. Vince does not weigh his main character down with all the clichéd flaws expected by today’s literary guardians, but instead imbues him with an inner strength that makes the reader want to stand up and cheer out loud. I patterned my main character after this model. Vince personally helped me with my first published novel and said the words I needed to hear at that time, “You have the gift.” His early personal struggles to become a published author still inspire me. We lost him last year to cancer, far too soon, and with still too many books to be written.

South Africa’s Wilbur Smith mixes history and real people with his fictional characters to weave intricate stories loaded with human emotion. Don’t get too close to his characters, though. He has no qualms about maiming or killing off one of them mid-tale if necessary to keep the reader on edge. No one is safe in his books. This gave me the courage to do what was necessary in my second book. I don’t know how accurate his historical facts are, but I do feel that after finishing one of his multiple book series, I have a much better appreciation for the period about which he’s chosen to write.

James Michener is, in my opinion, unmatched in historical fiction. His exhaustive research into a topic is unparalleled. Sometimes, he’d write from the point of view of a trout migrating upstream or of the earth with its shifting plates. He’d invent a State within the boundaries of the continental United States in order not to offend, yet still make his point. Yet even his obsession with the facts could not prevent his banishment for many years from Poland, the leaders of which saw the same history differently. Sometimes, I wish he’d have focused more on storytelling and less on accuracy. History is oft times rewritten to suit the needs of those in charge. After reading all of his novels, I decided I was a storyteller first, and historian second.

Stephen King is not restricted by the same laws as those of us on Earth. He doesn’t let reality get in the way of telling a good story. He’ll shift points of view within the same character with multiple personalities in the same sentence and somehow not lose the reader. If you’re brave enough, he’ll teach you techniques of writing that will most certainly earn you many rejection letters from New York agents. You really have to be willing to write outside the box, though. I certainly do not try to emulate Stephen King. No one can. But his writing does free me up enough to test uncharted waters. I’m not discouraged by closed-minded critics who say, “but that can’t happen…”

I’ll lump the classics together: Dickens, Hemingway, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, Homer, etc. With contemporary writers, I feel like I’ve gone fishing to catch a fish. With the classics, I’ve gone fishing to enjoy fishing.