Tea Party winners: Elaine Marie Cooper's novel goes to both Ashley Penn and Mary Ann Hake:, Carrie Fancett Pagels' and Gina Welborn's Blue Ribbon Brides collection goes to: Melanie Backus Carrie's O' Little Christmas Town Collection goes to: Cherrilynn Bisbano

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Review: The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction by James Alexander Thom

"The past is where we get the raw material we use.... We pick bygone time up by the handfuls and, like clay, see if it feels right and then form it into stories about the past." ~ James Thom, The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction

James Alexander Thom is one of my favorite general market fiction writers, so when I learned last year that he'd written The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction, I ordered a copy and read it at once. More than a nuts and bolts How To Write book, Thom's offering on the craft is in many ways more philosophical than I expected, but delightfully so. It's also peppered with humorous and thoughtful anecdotes that delve into his personal experiences of writing and researching historical fiction. The many examples taken from his novels are bound to interest any reader familiar with Thom and his work.

The book begins with a look at what Thom calls the River of Time. "The story of the world, of America.... flows like a river, and we are all in it--some of us dead, some old, some young, some as yet unborn." Making sure the characters we write come across believably as being in that River of Time farther upstream than the Now in which we write their stories, and offering techniques to help create this verisimilitude, is largely what the rest of the book is about. Unlike the historian, the historical novelist doesn't "[point] backward toward a past time, but [takes] the reader back to that time, back when that time was now, and [looks] forward to the uncertainty of the next hours and days." Thom spends chapters showing and telling how to make those long-ago moments "so vivid, so real, so sensuously complete and immediate that the reader is there, then, looking forward, not just here, now, looking back." Deeper into the book Thom writes, "Your characters are who they are because they enter that stream when and where they do. They are products of their time, and they do what they do because of the circumstances of history in which they find themselves."

Other topics covered are historical truth vs. fiction (the importance of accuracy and just how much fudging of the truth should a writer indulge in). Methods for researching, from book research to the internet to getting out and experiencing history physically. Genealogical research. Taming all that data once you've accumulated it. Starting your story. Writing to the senses. How NOT to write historical fiction. And when and how to orient the reader in another time and place, through setting and details: "As much as you can, you must be like someone who has lived there, because you're going to be not just the storyteller but also the tour guide taking your readers through the past."

The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction is written with an engaging voice that feels more like sitting in a classroom listening to a skilled lecturer telling story after story, and dropping nuggets of vital craft information along the way--or maybe more like a master storyteller sitting across the fire from you, while behind you in the rustling dark owls hoot and coyotes yip. So listen and be entertained, but add another stick of wood to the fire and have your pen and journal ready, because you're about to learn a thing or two.

More about the author: James Alexander Thom was formerly a U.S. Marine, a newspaper and magazine editor, and a member of the faculty at the Indiana University Journalism School. He is the author of Follow the River, Long Knife, From Sea to Shining Sea, Panther in the Sky (for which he won the prestigious Western Writers of America Spur Award for best historical novel), Sign-Talker, and The Red Heart. He lives in the Indiana hill country with his wife, Dark Rain of the Shawnee Nation, United Remnant Band. You can find him on line at: www.jamesalexanderthom.com

12 comments:

  1. I believe he is one of Laura Frantz' influencing authors. Before seeing that on her website, I'd never heard of him. I had no idea until your post this morning that he lives in my home state! I shall have to get this book, thank you for sharing.

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  2. I found some of his books a few years ago and loved them. And since there aren't many writing craft books geared toward historical fiction, I'll have to pick this one up, too! Thanks for sharing!

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  3. He is also one of my influencing authors. I loved the book 'Follow the River'. Lori, you have convinced me that I need his book. Thank you for sharing.

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  4. OH THOM! My historical hero;) I've been rereading From Sea to Shining Sea lately. Anne L. is right - he's one of my influencing authors, for sure. He and Allan Eckert. I have this book but haven't read it yet. Now I'm reminded to bring it to the top of the stack. Thanks, Lori, for a great post.

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  5. @Laura, I'm reading From Sea to Shining Sea for the first time now--wonderful book. Still working my way through Thom's books, but getting to the end of them and feeling a little sad about that. I know several I'll be reading again. Also reading two of Eckert's books right now. Between those two, what a wealth of history.

    @Anne L., @Anne Mateer, @Rita.... glad I convinced you ladies to check out the book! My greatest takeaway from this book wasn't a practical how-to tip or anything like that (though there's some of those to be had). It was absorbing Thom's way of thinking about the past, and writing about the past. That whole River of Time thing. That alone is worth the read, and there's lots more.

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  6. I was not aware of his work so will have to look for it. Thanks for sharing!

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  7. I also loved 'Follow the River'. 'The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction' sounds like it would be very interesting. Thanks for sharing this with us.

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  8. @Kate, @Janet, you're welcome. Hope the book is helpful for you too.

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  9. "Follow the River" will always be a favorite of mine.

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    1. Pegg, have you read any of his other books? I would be hard pressed to choose a favorite. Guess I'll wait until I've read them all (at least the 18th century/frontier ones). I really enjoyed The Red Heart and Warrior Woman too. And had my heart broke several times in the reading of each. Fascinating history, but tragic too.

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  10. I bought this book over a year ago and when I saw it on the shelf at Barnes & Noble for me it had a bright beam of light coming from it. I emailed him and thanked him for writing the book, he emailed me back and we exchanged a few conversations and he wished me all the best on my writing adventure.

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    1. Teresa, that's wonderful that he emailed you back. It's great when authors take the time to do that. I like your bright beam of light image. This book had that for me as well.

      And just btw, I'm really digging this new thread tree comment format. It's a feature I've wanted Blogger to add to their blogs for years. I noticed it yesterday.

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