An Obsession with the Past

Guest Blogger: David Morrell

Novelists sometimes find themselves stuck with what John Barth calls “fill in the blank” writing. A character walks into an office, which needs to be described. If it’s an attorney’s office, there’ll probably be law books and photographs of the attorney’s family or maybe of powerful people with whom the attorney posed. Will the desk be neat or cluttered? Will the furniture be traditional or modern? Will the floor be carpeted or made of wood?  Choose from column A or column B. Fill in the blank. The same applies to describing people. Is the character male or female, tall or short, ample or lean, old or young, red-haired or . . . ? Choose from an appropriate column. Fill in the blank.

This is a necessary task for an author, but it can also be tedious. In our around-the-clock information age, everything has been photographed so much that it’s familiar, not only settings and descriptions but plots also. If you watch reality crime shows with titles like DEADLY WOMEN and  MURDER BEHIND MANSION WALLS, every night, hour after hour, you see situations that would once have been the topics of bestselling books but now feel commonplace. It’s no wonder that novels with similar themes and situations are increasingly being written. Everything is starting to feel a lot alike.

What’s an author to do? Is there a way to avoid fill-in-the-blank writing? Lately I decided that the present is a nice place to visit, but I don’t like staying here very long—at least not as a writer. I’ve always used history in my novels. Indeed some have suggested that my 1985 novel THE FRATERNITY OF THE STONE set the template for the lost-secret-in-the-past-that-threatens-the-modern-world genre.  But except for a 1977 historical Western, LAST REVEILLE (about “Black Jack” Pershing’s hunt for the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa), I never dreamed that I’d become a historical novelist.

I’ve always been interested in Victorian England, but in 2010, that interest became an obsession.  I happened to overhear a reference to a nineteenth-century author named Thomas De Quincey. The reference suggested that De Quincey invented the concept of the subconscious and anticipated the theories of Freud by a half century. He might make an interesting character in a novel, I thought, unaware that I was about to slide down a rabbit hole.

De Quincey, it turned out, invented the true-crime genre in a blood-soaked essay called “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.”  He was also the first author to write about drug addiction in CONFESSIONS OF AN ENGLISH OPIUM-EATER. He was also an expert in murder, particularly the 1811 Ratcliffe Highway murders, which rivaled Jack the Ripper’s for terrorizing London and all of England.

The more I learned about De Quincey, the more I wanted to continue learning. I started reading histories about the 1850s when De Quincey’s collected works appeared. I immersed myself so thoroughly in the period that, like a Method actor, I felt I was there.

I soon realized that by mentally journeying back to 1854 London, I had escaped the problem of fill-in-the-blank writing. Everything at that time was so weird to our modern eyes that I could describe just about anything to my heart’s content, and because of its strange nature, it would be intriguing.  Burial practices, for example. Back then, holes were dug so deeply that as many as twenty coffins could be stacked on top of one another. Gravediggers would jump up and down to compact the wood and the bones.

There’s no column A and column B here. It’s so exotically foreign that description becomes a pleasure. The novel required two years of joyous research. It’s called MURDER AS A FINE ART, echoing the title of De Quincey’s sensational essay, and if I satisfied my goal, you’ll believe that you’re in 1854 London, on vacation from the present.

David Morrell is the author of FIRST BLOOD, the award-winning novel in which Rambo was created. He holds a Ph. D. in American literature from Penn State and was a professor in the English department at the University of Iowa. His numerous NEW YORK TIMES bestsellers include the classic spy trilogy THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE ROSE (the basis for the only television mini-series to premier after a Super Bowl), THE FRATERNITY OF THE STONE, and THE LEAGUE OF NIGHT AND FOG. An Edgar, Anthony, and Macavity nominee, Morrell is the recipient of three Bram Stoker awards and the prestigious Thriller Master award from the International Thriller Writers organization. His writing book, THE SUCCESSFUL NOVELIST, discusses what he has learned in his four decades as an author. Please visit him at



  1. Excellent article. I’m intrigued, and will be picking up a copy of this book. I’m a big David Morrell fan, and the first sentence of FIRST BLOOD is one of my favorite opening lines in literature.

  2. Interesting article…sets my imagination spinning.

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