The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction
by James Alexander Thom
Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach
With historical fiction surging in popularity, The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction fills an important niche. Except for romance writer Marina Oliver's 2005 guidebook, never published in the U.S., the last specialized historical fiction "how to" book appeared in 1997 - Google had just incorporated; Wikipedia did not yet exist.
A veteran historical novelist, Thom is a passionate advocate for historical novels. He is even more passionate about basing them on sound research, devoting about half the book to research methods. The book includes a chapter on the internet, which has made some types of research faster and easier while also opening up new opportunities for misinformation to proliferate. Thom encourages novelists to pursue a wide variety of research tools from primary documents to hands-on practice of the skills of past centuries, to research thoroughly, and to keep their eyes open for intriguing historical details that can add texture to a scene or even inspire a whole novel.
For Thom, the greatest praise any reader can give a historical novelist is the remark, "I felt like I was there." Novelists who can achieve this, he feels, have a special responsibility not to distort the truth, because such powerful writing can lead readers to trust that it is accurate. He also argues that a novelist's vision can potentially hold as much truth as a historian's, offering examples of two imaginative fictional leaps beyond the historical record (one from his own work) that later proved eerily accurate.
The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction emphasizes the American frontier setting of Thom's novels. Most novelists, whether beginners or experienced authors of contemporary novels embarking on their first historical, will have sufficient imagination to apply the examples to a different time period. Readers of historical fiction who have no plans to write may also enjoy this book for the insight it offers into how the best historical novels are researched and written. (2010; 249 pages, including an index)
More about The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction at Powell's Books
Some novels by James Alexander Thom:
Long Knife (1994), about George Rogers Clark, who set out to conquer the territory between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers for the United States during the years immediately following the Revolution. More info
Follow the River (1981), about Mary Ingles, who was kidnapped by the Shawnee in 1755 but escaped by walking a thousand miles back through the wilderness. More info
Panther in the Sky (1990), a biographical novel about the Shawnee warrior Tecumseh. More info
Warrior Woman: the Exceptional Life Story of Nonhelema, Shawnee Indian Woman Chief by James Alexander Thom and Dark Rain Thom (2003), about a woman chief of the Shawnee. More info
Other writing guides. Any or all of the following would be useful companions to Thom's guidebook, showing how to write vivid prose and incorporate setting details into a novel in ways readers will find exciting.
The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman (2000), shows writers how to analyze their manuscripts to spot writing that is boring, distracting or otherwise off-putting to readers and how to revise to eliminate those problems. More info
Make Your Words Work by Gary Provost (1990), is especially geared to beginning writers and is packed with advice on techniques for making both fiction and nonfiction more exciting to readers. More info
The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass (2009), includes a chapter on setting, "The World of the Novel," which includes a wealth of practical advice on how to link emotion and tension to setting details. More info
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