“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 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.
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