CORAL GABLES, FLA. -- Late on the evening of Monday, July 6, 1987, as the blackness of a tropical summer night settled over south Florida and much of the Western Hemisphere, a solitary figure sat thinking in lamplight, pondering the historical moment before him. The sturdy fingers of the 80-year-old man rested expectantly upon the keys of the old manual typewriter, and before very long, they were directed to begin typing.

"Midnight of the evening before Colonel North testifies," James A. Michener wrote. "I am perplexed and frightened.

"I am perplexed because I can't guess what course he will take in his testifying. (1) Will he brazen everything out, tell nothing and play Gordon Liddy redivivus? (2) Will he show contrition and make an honest reporting of the whole affair? (3) Will he ... "

In all, eight possibilities were listed. Then the author of the world's most deliberate novels explained his personal role in the unfolding story.

"I am not a passive observer of this drama, for I am about to publish a book on the subject," he wrote. "I have created a scion of good soldiers who finds himself in a North-like confrontation and reacts in his own and somewhat unpredictable way. But my character is not founded on North at all ... "

The novel, "Legacy," will not be published until September. It is a milestone in the Michener oeuvre: A scant 149 pages long, it ends at a point when most of this writer's sweeping historical-cultural expositions -- "Texas" was the last, "Alaska" is the next -- are only emerging from the dinosaur-strewn mists of prehistory.

The currency of "Legacy" gave Michener an auspicious tingle as he sat before his typewriter.

"I've always loved making predictions about people and movements and nations, so I can't bypass the obligation," Michener wrote in this memorandum to himself, appending yet another list.

"(1) I believe North will grandstand and make himself the hero of the right wing with a score of memorable quotes. (2) I think he will barnstorm self-protectively against his questioners. (3) I think he will make congressmen look silly, or try to. (4) And I expect him to come away ... as a ready-made hero for the right."

More reflections, and then this:

"As to the basic truth? North acted in complete harmony with Bill Casey who kept President Reagan fully informed through the back door."

With that, Michener rolled the single sheet of paper from the machine, read the document with satisfaction, and signed it (adding, after his name, a note for the archivists: "23 minutes past midnight, 7 July 1987").

Then, holding fast to a sturdy metal cane, he headed off to bed.

U.S. Army Major Norman Starr, the character Michener invented last December to narrate "Legacy," bears an uncanny resemblance to Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North. He brings to his latest assignment on the National Security Council a reputation as a headstrong, patriotic, can-do kind of officer. And as the tale begins, Starr is preparing to testify before a Senate committee about "Tres Toros," a clandestine U.S. paramilitary operation in Central America.

Before sitting down to watch North testify, Michener wants to make one thing perfectly clear: "I certainly didn't want to fashion my character after North, because there are questions of libel that fellows like me are very sensitive to -- and if we're not, our lawyers are." Here he permits himself a chuckle.

It's true. North and Starr hold different ranks in different services; North is 43, Starr is 35; the Starrs live in Georgetown, not Great Falls. And Michener feels differently about the two men. Thirty-six hours after putting his predictions to paper, he watches the spectacle of North's long-winded defiance and groans.

"Oh, listen to this organ playing!"

Michener starts off impressed by the tactical legerdemain of North's lawyer, the wily Brendan Sullivan, and by the physical attributes of the witness.

"Television favors North unbelievably," Michener remarks as he studies the puppy-dog eyes and goofy grin. "He is making himself a very powerful figure, no doubt about that. And I must say, this I foresaw -- oh, months ago."

But as another day of hearings wears on, Michener is heard to grumble and tsk-tsk with growing frequency, and occasionally to sputter his indignation.

"He's fantastic! He's just lined up the whole west Texas vote right there!" he says.

"Oh, son of a gun! That's the heart of the whole thing!" he says.

"Whooo!" he says.

Later, recalling his reaction to North's unsolicited declaration of faithfulness to his wife, he imagines how the scene will appear in print.

"You can say," he says, "that when that happened, I put my hand over my eyes and said, 'Oh, dear.' "

What really happened is that Michener put his hand over his eyes and said, 'Christ almighty.' "

That Norman Starr can't be Oliver North is evident to the careful reader immediately. Starr's world is serene and unhurried, less frantic by far than the one the colonel inhabits these days.

In "Legacy," Starr is spending the weekend before his congressional testimony not reviewing the facts with his lawyer, not contemplating the abyss, not sweating bullets. Instead, he is whiling away the hours, and the next 140-odd pages, responding to the following question from his lawyer and former West Point bunkmate, Zack McMaster.

"Norman, didn't you tell me once at the Point that some of your family, I mean one or two of your ancestors way back, weren't they involved in the Army? Our national history and all that?"

"Nearly all of them."

"Refresh me."

With his wife Nancy providing plenty of cold buttermilk, compassion and leading questions, Norman obliges.

A Starr, it seems, was on the periphery of most great events in American history. Jared Starr (1726-1787) was a freedom fighter at the birth of the Republic; when he died his son, Simon Starr (1759-1805), stood in his stead as a Virginia delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787; Edmund Starr (1780-1847), a justice of the Supreme Court -- well, let his great-great-great grandson Norman speak for him:

"I think in some ways he summarizes the Starrs. Always ready to serve the Army. Seldom out front or showing off in public. And for some strange reason, happiest when we follow the lead of someone more notable than ourselves."

The day of reckoning on Capitol Hill approaches, but Norman Starr finds solace, and even strength, in a review of his ancestral heritage, which intersects conveniently with the nation's. His lawyer appears periodically to ask whether Starr will wear his uniform when he testifies, and later to urge that his client take the Fifth Amendment on questions about Tres Toros.

It may be a scandal they're in the middle of, but it is a charmed scandal -- even when he plays "some vigorous tennis" with a reporter. "Sam Wrightson was considerate," Starr comments, "for although he is on the staff of The Washington Post, he did not pester me with questions about the rumors of my role in the Iran or Nicaragua affair."

By the time the history is complete, we have met a Starr emancipator, a Starr suffragist, a Starr war hero, even a Starr with no redeeming virtues. Even writing short, Michener cannot resist the sweep of history.

The story of how James Michener came to stage this pageant begins to explain its shape -- and sheds some light on the vicissitudes of the working writer, no matter how illustrious his name.

About a year ago the editor of a prominent American magazine approached him to write an issue-length, factual account of the Constitution. Michener was "in the mood," he recalls; he'd just written words to accompany a new string quartet composition celebrating the Constitution. So he agreed and set to work.

He had made considerable headway on the project last fall when the magazine editor proposed that, instead of a factual account, Michener write the Constitution piece in fictional form. The author thought about this, and quickly agreed. Indeed, the more he thought about the idea, the more he liked it.

"I was on air," he remembers. "I said, 'This is a goodie.' "

Accordingly, he invented the narrative device of the Starr family. "I worked like a demon," he says, and nearly finished the rewrite before entering the hospital for a hip replacement in late January.

The day he got out of the hospital, the editor called to say that upon further reflection and consultations with his superiors, the idea no longer appealed -- but if Michener would submit the piece in its original, factual form, the magazine would consider it.

"That's when I hung up the telephone," Michener says, gently as you please.

"Then I found out this was all on speculation" -- meaning he would be paid for his work only if the manuscript were accepted. "Yes, at my age, with my track record, with my constant demonstration that I meet deadlines and do a manly job that doesn't require an infinite amount of editing, I found myself writing on speculation. This is a tough ball game I'm in, and don't you ever forget it."

But all, obviously, was not lost.

"This was a damn good story in its own right and it deserved to be finished." As it happened, Random House had put "Alaska" on hold for unrelated reasons; it looked like another season would pass without a Michener title on the best-seller list. Bulked out with the text of the Constitution as an appendix, "Legacy" would do nicely at $16.95.

Publication is scheduled for Sept. 14 -- too late for The Oliver North Show, but right on schedule for the national festivities surrounding the bicentennial of the Constitution.

For Michener, the publication of so slender a book after so many exceptionally long ones represents a return to roots. "I get as much praise for having written 'The Bridges at Toko-Ri' {1953, 128 pages} as for any of my other books," he says.

And this too: "'Toko-Ri' had been written exactly the same way. Life magazine came to me wanting to devote a whole issue to a story. They'd had a great success with Hemingway's 'Old Man and the Sea' and they had a great success with 'Toko-Ri.' "

With "Legacy" on the way and "Alaska" nearly in the can, Michener is spending most of his days on the next big book, this one about the Caribbean. He and his wife of 32 years, Mari, are itinerants: They live in spartan fashion where his work takes him -- for the next couple of years, in this rented and disarmingly simple house next door to Miami, surrounded by rented furniture and other people's possessions, even books. They don't go back to their home base in Pennsylvania, either. "I believe in total immersion. I am drawn away very reluctantly."

But Michener doesn't seem a reluctant spectator to the Iran-contra hearings. He watches intently, as critic, as historian, as novelist, and doesn't hesitate to speak his mind.

Oliver North "will tour the college campuses at $15,000 a shot," he predicts at one point. "He's got a very good vocabulary ... "

Then again, North's prepared statement to the committee made him sound like "a South American colonel about to call for a takeover of the Congress."

And if Major Starr were testifying?

"My boy would take a different route," Michener says.