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The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction

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Once Upon a Time, it was NOW...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 Historic Once Upon a Time, it was NOW...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," "Sign-Talker") 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."

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Once Upon a Time, it was NOW...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 Historic Once Upon a Time, it was NOW...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," "Sign-Talker") 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."

30 review for The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction

  1. 5 out of 5

    Carol Morgan

    I enjoyed this book, but felt the author talked too much about his own historical writings. I also believe some of his research methods are outdated. He talks about using index cards for research and going to a library. Every bit of this can be done online and there are writing programs that function in the same way as index cards. He did have good advice about seeing history in a new way and not always believing the research you read. All in all, somewhat helpful.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Lauren

    There were many things I liked about this book, but a couple of things that weren't great. First off, I love that he wrote this because there is barely anything like it out there. Also, this man seems to be a genius at research and it showed. He gave great tips for it. On the other hand, he spoke about himself and his own interests too much. That's perfect for a different kind of book, but not for guidebooks like this. Thom writes American historical fiction. Great for him. But he needed to also There were many things I liked about this book, but a couple of things that weren't great. First off, I love that he wrote this because there is barely anything like it out there. Also, this man seems to be a genius at research and it showed. He gave great tips for it. On the other hand, he spoke about himself and his own interests too much. That's perfect for a different kind of book, but not for guidebooks like this. Thom writes American historical fiction. Great for him. But he needed to also write for people who want to write about 1920s France or Ancient Rome or the Vietnam War or Tudor England. Also, while he gave a huge wealth of tips for research, he needed to give better advice on actually writing. He said, description is very important, but didn't give many tips on how to do that, at least, not nearly as many as he did with research. So my advice is: go to this book when you're about to enter the research phase of your novel. But turn to a more general novel writing book when trying to actually write it.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Laura Talley

    I've been working on a novel off and on for over two years. Every time I think I'm ready to finally write it, I realize I have gaping holes in my research, and with the research comes new plots and the need for more research. I thought I was doing something wrong and wanted some tips on how to write it, and I got them. While Thom focuses primarily on American history and I am looking at the near East, I was still able to extract the information I needed to move confidently forward, knowing I'm o I've been working on a novel off and on for over two years. Every time I think I'm ready to finally write it, I realize I have gaping holes in my research, and with the research comes new plots and the need for more research. I thought I was doing something wrong and wanted some tips on how to write it, and I got them. While Thom focuses primarily on American history and I am looking at the near East, I was still able to extract the information I needed to move confidently forward, knowing I'm on the right track.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Audrey

    My initial view of the book was rather unfavourable. The initial chapters seemed light on practical advice and heavy on anecdotes and memories of the author. Because his focus is on American history, I found the first few chapters a little bit light on practical advice and a bit heavy on points that do not apply to my own research. Moreover, the book is now quite dated. This is apparent in two main aspects. The author and the contemporaries he interviewed (at the time of writing) could not have My initial view of the book was rather unfavourable. The initial chapters seemed light on practical advice and heavy on anecdotes and memories of the author. Because his focus is on American history, I found the first few chapters a little bit light on practical advice and a bit heavy on points that do not apply to my own research. Moreover, the book is now quite dated. This is apparent in two main aspects. The author and the contemporaries he interviewed (at the time of writing) could not have foreseen the immense repository of knowledge and content that the internet would become. They cannot be expected to have anticipated that in time, crowd-sourced transcription projects and the determined digitisation of private and publicly held collections of documents would allow so many people access to content that they might never have imagined. The second aspect is that the field of microhistory has evolved tremendously in the last decade. What the author affectionately refers to as "buffs" have now morphed into writers of wonderful microhistories that delve into a once unimaginable depth of detail about aspects of history. All that being said, by the end, I found I'd quite enjoyed the books and it has given me much to consider as I deepen my own research and writing so I'm very glad I read it and thank the author for writing it! Now I'm going to go read his other books!

  5. 4 out of 5

    Sarah Baughman

    Good, comprehensive look at the responsibility historic novelists have to history as a whole, and the individuals who have lived in it, live in it now, and will live in it. Sometimes rambling in style, but always to illustrate a point, this book is helpful for instilling in writers the importance of good research.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Carol Bro

    Learn from a master! Excellent reference book for those interested in writing historical fiction!

  7. 4 out of 5

    Phillip McCollum

    Most writing books I've read can sit comfortably on a scale with Technical on one side and Inspirational on the other. James Thom's The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction definitely leans toward the latter, and that's not necessarily a bad thing if you know what you're getting into. There are plenty of excellent craft books out there that will serve you better on the technical aspects (Dwight V. Swain's Techniques of the Selling Writer comes to mind). The primary message in Thom's book i Most writing books I've read can sit comfortably on a scale with Technical on one side and Inspirational on the other. James Thom's The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction definitely leans toward the latter, and that's not necessarily a bad thing if you know what you're getting into. There are plenty of excellent craft books out there that will serve you better on the technical aspects (Dwight V. Swain's Techniques of the Selling Writer comes to mind). The primary message in Thom's book is that you're not ready to write historical fiction until you can be there. Thom's examples are largely based on the American frontier, because that's what he writes about, but the idea of truly knowing the language, sights, sounds, smells and behaviors of times past apply to anything we generally call historical. Now, I love reading historical fiction and I wouldn't be surprised if I decided to write a book someday in the classical manner, taking fact checking and verisimilitude (a word Thom mentions often) to the nth degree. But for my current project, I'm not looking to focus on specific recorded events or people, but more in a grander sense. What's to be found here for those of us who want to base our story in a certain time and place but not be beholden to utter historical truth? Thom answers this in a small aside, pointing out the differences between a scholarly piece and so-called "bodice rippers", or "factless fiction". He takes the high road and doesn't look down on those that prefer to write the latter. In fact, he says that those types of books are often the gateway to "the hardcore stuff" (my words, not his). So long as the writer is honest about his intentions, there is no issue here. The wonderful thing about this book is that many of the pieces of advice Thom hands out can aid both types of writers. We can pick and choose our levels of accuracy to sustain our story and reach our target audience. Concerning research methods, as noted by other reviewers, Thom does show a bias against abusing the computer. I think it's a good admonishment. The Internet has been an amazing addition to the writer's toolbox and should never be dismissed. The problem occurs when we stop there. There's usually a lot more depth to be found in books and actual site visits. It's easy to read someone else's description of a California Sequoia or even see a photograph, but as the special individual you are, you can experience its majesty in your own way and apply that experience in your own voice. You may not even find such a tree majestic at all, but I can guarantee that standing next to one is an unparalleled experience. Overall, Thom's book was well written and his thoughts have certainly enticed me to pick up some of his fiction.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Carrie Slager

    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 wi 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.

  9. 4 out of 5

    L.M. Elm

    I'm all over the place with my reading. Usually I have a books in about every room, all in some state of incompletion. One book I finished recently The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction by James Alexander Thom, who has good insite into writing about the genre. But I was a little put off by some of his chapters. Especially the one dealing with credibility. Thom states that many scholars of non-fiction snub their noses at historical fiction. While he gives the merits of both, he has an en I'm all over the place with my reading. Usually I have a books in about every room, all in some state of incompletion. One book I finished recently The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction by James Alexander Thom, who has good insite into writing about the genre. But I was a little put off by some of his chapters. Especially the one dealing with credibility. Thom states that many scholars of non-fiction snub their noses at historical fiction. While he gives the merits of both, he has an entire section degrating what he calls 'costume porn'. Novels are supposed to trasnsport the reader to another time and place. It's entertainment. And whether you dislike the genre or not, it sells--and sells well. Walk into a big chain book store and you can see it for yourself. Or second-hand book stores have shelves and shelves of romantic fiction. The first historical fiction book I can remember reading was in fact a historical romance by Catherine Hart. I still have this book. More for sentimental reasons than anything. I tried reading it again a couple of years ago and cringed at the wooden dialogue and obvious anachronisms. I know there are plenty of great historical romance novels out here. Many writers in a historical critique forum I belong to, write great historical romance. But if it wasn't for the forum, I wouldn't read this fiction. My palate has changed over the years. Now require something with a bit more substance.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Erica Cosminsky

    Surprised at how poor this "millions of books sold" author is with transitions. Many of his sections end mid thought. Also I am offended by his wife's unintroduced, uncredited chapter on genealogy. Why would you leave a reader suddenly questioning why you said "my husband". My grandmother is Cherokee so I'm very familiar with Native American research. (Yes actually documented.) This lady comes across as a bitter, know-it-all. Much better ways to educate people than to call your readers stupid. Th Surprised at how poor this "millions of books sold" author is with transitions. Many of his sections end mid thought. Also I am offended by his wife's unintroduced, uncredited chapter on genealogy. Why would you leave a reader suddenly questioning why you said "my husband". My grandmother is Cherokee so I'm very familiar with Native American research. (Yes actually documented.) This lady comes across as a bitter, know-it-all. Much better ways to educate people than to call your readers stupid. The book wasn't a total loss. The first three chapters are very repetitive. I think this would have been more honestly described as a memoir. There are better books on historical writing (and much, much, much better books on Native American genealogy and research).

  11. 4 out of 5

    Marwa

    This book had some very good advice regarding writing in general, and some tips on writing historical fiction. Its major drawback was that it was very focused on specifically writing American historical fiction, which made several chapters completely irrelevant to anyone not writing historical fiction set in America. The author was also very Internet unfriendly. Yes, the Internet may not be the most credible source of information, but to almost completely disregard it was, in my opinion, another This book had some very good advice regarding writing in general, and some tips on writing historical fiction. Its major drawback was that it was very focused on specifically writing American historical fiction, which made several chapters completely irrelevant to anyone not writing historical fiction set in America. The author was also very Internet unfriendly. Yes, the Internet may not be the most credible source of information, but to almost completely disregard it was, in my opinion, another major drawback. Regarding the format of the book - PDF - Writer's Digest Books really need to start publishing their e-books using formats that are more e-reader friendly.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Eileen Iciek

    If you are interested in writing historical fiction in 18th and 19th century America, this book may provide some help for you. However, Persia Wooley's book on writing historical fiction was more thorough and helpful re: the details of writing any kind of historical fiction. This author spends a lot of time discussing the books he has written and the books other writers that he knows have written. Not particularly helpful. I really learned nothing new from this.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Dan Shaurette

    This is a fine book, but is serves more as the biography of an author of historical fiction than what I was looking for, which is a tool to help me become an author of historical fiction. Really, the only useful chapter was Chapter 11 - Songs, Smells and Sensations. This held real advice. The rest of the book is his musings. This is not to say it is a bad book, it just isn't what I'm looking for.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Brandi

    I did not enjoy this book--the author's voice did not draw me into it. In fact, the way he kept referring to himself and his writing really turned me off of this book. I do not mind at all when writer's talk about their work--that's the whole purpose of reading a book where they are trying to teach you the craft of writing. I guess I just don't like this author.

  15. 4 out of 5

    L.A. Jacob

    Any researcher worth their salt knows the tips and tricks that Thom and his wife discuss. Hopefully a writer is a bit of a researcher - even if they're making up a world out of whole cloth, they are still "researching" that world. If you've done any research on your own on any topic, you don't need this book.

  16. 5 out of 5

    David Lottes

    I enjoyed it very much. I recommend it to anyone working in the genre, especially those just getting started. It is in large part a biographical piece with loads of insights into Mr. Thom's long career.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Jerry Landry

    Excellent insight into what all is involved in writing a historical novel. While it touches some on style, the main focus is content and driving home the idea that the story must draw the reader in with verisimilitude. To use a cliche, the devil's in the details for Thom.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Chris

    In some ways, this was a very good overview of writing historical fiction. Thom is a seasoned pro, and he has many helpful insights into writing. The book is peppered with amusing and interesting anecdotes from his writing career.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Bowman

    Not a how to book. But helpful in ideas for being in the scene. I also liked the references to his writings and the numerous historical tidbits.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Jay C

    Very good book providing insight into the methods and practices of a superb "historical fiction" author.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Daniel

    Interview With Speer Morgan

  22. 4 out of 5

    Mackay

    A friend gave me this book, and while it contained nothing new or eye-opening, Thom's stories of his own writing were interesting and fun.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Mitzi

    A good read for anyone interested in writing historical fiction.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Ann

    This is a good book for beginner researchers in historical fiction, and for anyone who enjoys anecdotes about a writer's life and adventures in writing.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Linda Ulleseit

    Good information and wonderfully inspiring to finish my novel!

  26. 5 out of 5

    Ken Burgess

  27. 4 out of 5

    Ed Meek

  28. 4 out of 5

    Sandra Flowers

  29. 5 out of 5

    C. Shake

  30. 4 out of 5

    Denise Huntington

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