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

(Cover picture courtesy of Heritage Key.)

While a historian stands firmly planted in the present and looks back into the past, a historical novelist has a more immediate task: to set readers in the midst of bygone events and lead them forward, allowing them to live and feel the wonderment, fear, hope, triumph, and pain as if they were there.

In The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction, best-selling author James Alexander Thom (Follow the River, From Sea to Shining Sea, SignTalker) gives you the tools you need to research and create stories born from the past that will move and inspire modern readers.  His comprehensive approach includes lessons on how to:

  • Find and use historical archives and conduct physical field research
  • Re-construct the world of your novel, including people and voices, physical environments, and cultural context
  • Achieve verisimilitude in speech, action, setting, and description
  • Seamlessly weave historical fact with your own compelling plot ideas

With wit and candor, Thom’s detailed instruction, illuminating personal experience, and invaluable insights culled from discussions with other trusted historical writers will guide you to craft a novel that is true to what was then, when then was now.

Well, to close off History Month here on The Mad Reviewer, I decided to review this non-fiction book on how to write historical fiction.  Because why not?  I picked this book up on speculation because I’m an amateur writer in my free time and I love to write historical fiction (which ends up being utter crap).  So now I can review it from a reviewer’s and a writer’s perspective.

James Alexander Thom is a man that doesn’t fool around when he writes; he never sugarcoats the truth.  The truth is, you will have to do you research on somewhere besides the internet, you likely will have to talk to experts and your journey to writing your novel will be a long one that isn’t always rewarding.  To help readers understand what writing in the past is like, he uses a wonderful ‘river of time’ analogy that is surprisingly helpful.  He gives practical advice on how to find good sources, dialogue (which always seems to be a problem in historical fiction), setting and historical accuracy.  In my opinion, he gets a bit too high-and-mighty when it comes to historical accuracy, but that’s to be expected when you’ve been writing historical fiction as long as he has.

The best part of The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction is the real-world examples of the lessons he’s trying to teach prospective writers.  One of the best examples he gives is when his wife was writing about her girlhood hero and got frustrated halfway through the research because she wasn’t the perfect hero she thought she would be.  But when she researched more, she realized that the woman was flawed, imperfect, but tried to make the best of her situation and do what was right for her people.

That brings up an important point: historical figures likely are not who you thought they were once you start conducting research.  For example, when I wrote a short story about Cleopatra, I did a lot of research.  At first I despised her for being so stupid as to lose Egypt to the Romans, but when you look at her whole situation, it was amazing she held on as long as she did.  That’s why James Alexander Thom emphasizes the importance of research both online and offline.

This is probably the best book I’ve read on writing historical fiction.  I’d highly recommend it.

I give this book 4.5/5 stars.

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