Book Review: Writing Historical Fiction

Diane Lynn Tibert
Once Upon a Time, it was now . . .

I just finished reading The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction by James Alexander Thom. The first part of the book was a little boring but surprisingly a pleasure to read. Does that make sense? Can something be a wee boring, still a pleasure?

Perhaps I felt a little bored because the first part of the book covered much of the same material I had read many times before: research, libraries, getting your hands on the documents, getting your facts straight, what is history, staying true to history . . .

I’ve covered these topics a hundred times through writing and genealogy. However, midway through the book, there was a turning point; it became very interesting and I absorb the information as if I’d never read it before. Thom kept throwing out carrots and I was the eager horse following him. Did you know dried buffalo dung could be burnt in place of wood? Did you know it smelt like burning grass? Did you know folks in Europe didn’t smoke tobacco until after they discovered America because that’s when they also discovered tobacco?

These smidges of facts kept me reading for two reasons: 1) I was fascinated by learning new history that seemed to have slipped through the holes of the Big History; 2) I wanted to see what I could use in my own writing, both my fantasy novels and western novel.

Have you already guessed that one of my characters in a future novel will burn buffalo or cow dung to keep warm?

Thom writes about American history, focussing on the exploration of the west (Lewis and Clark), American natives and people and places in that time period. Anyone writing in the same era would benefit from reading this book. But remember, don’t put it down after reading the first half; the best is saved for the second half.

There are some things I disagree with in this book and that’s the number of times he stresses to research everything until you know it as if you grew up there and then. Mmm, that may be fine for someone who is immersed in a specific culture and whose books all run along the same theme, but for some of us, that’s impossible. It’s also easier for Thom to say this now after selling millions of books. It’s okay if he writes only one book a year or one every three years. He can afford that. I doubt a new writer can take three years to complete the research, write a book, hope to get it published and eat, too.

That doesn’t mean I don’t think facts are important; they are. But his stress on learning everything there is about everything there is is very time consuming for new writers. For some, it might be debilitating; they may never begin a novel if they believed they had to know everything right down to all the common phrases used by a Scotsman in Nova Scotia in 1789 and the manufacturer of his boots.

I say do the best you can and write that novel. But don’t have your cowboy in 1908 pull out his cell phone. Or have your lady in 1878 deciding on which deodorant to use. And definitely don’t apply today’s politically correct philosophy to the past. Settlers killed and butchered animals to stay alive; they wouldn’t think, Yuck. This is gross! or I wonder if the Animal Cruelty Association is going to have me thrown in jail? Instead, they’d be thinking, I wonder if there’s a potato in the cellar.

And like many older writers, Thom doesn’t put much stock in the Internet. In fact, he’ll warn you against it. That’s fine. That’s his philosophy. However, the Internet can expand the world of a writer without the cost of gas or air fare. That doesn’t mean facts found on the Internet shouldn’t be verified. They should just as facts found in the newspaper should be verified; who said the reporter got them right? But writers shouldn’t ignore the benefits of the Internet. It is one more tool in your arsenal for finding information. Use it.

Over all, I’d give this book a 7 out of 10. That’s not bad considering I’m hard to impress after reading so many how-to-write books.

Book Facts: The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction by James Alexander Thom, Author of Follow the River. Copyright 2010, published by Writer’s Digest Books.

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: Writing Historical Fiction

  1. Is it possible to over-research and rely to heavily on it? I have tried many times to read (A Certain Book), about the life of an historical figure. However, it contains so many quotes from sources that I can’t get through it. The book has been sitting on my nightstand for about 18 months and I’m barely to page 100.

    1. Yes, I think too much research and too much information can ruin a writer’s ability to write a good book and for a reader to enjoy a book. If there’s a healthy balance of history (facts) and story, I think readers are more likely to enjoy. What that balance is depends on the writer and the reader. Some readers may think it’s too much while others want more. Some writers can weave in the facts without us knowing and we enjoy the story. But others throw it in our faces. That’s not fun for readers.

      Thanks, Tracy.

    1. You’re welcome. I love reading books about how to improve my writing. Over the past few years, I’ve read them more than novels.

      I have another book I’m almost finished — I just needed a break from the anguish the writer suffers as a writer. I’ll post about that one when I slosh through the last few dozen pages.

  2. Haven’t heard of this book, Diane. Thanks for passing along the information. Silly me, when I wrote my book, I didn’t even realize I was writing historical fiction. Of course setting it in a place I was familiar with certainly helped. Some of the info, such as the church history, I wrote a few years back when we had our 100th anniversary. I thought it would be neat to put it in the book.

    I always tell people it’s not what you know, but rather, what you can make other people believe you know. That said, we have to have certain fact right. I think it is impossible to research every little scrap of another culture. We can only do the best that we are capable of. And as for the rest–isn’t that where the fiction part comes in?

    1. I think many of us first write without classifying our fiction. We simply write what we love, what we know. Using history we’ve already used in another way is certainly helpful; it’s like two pays for one job.

      Yes, that is where fiction comes in. I stress the importance of facts, but there is a limit for eveyrone.

      Thanks for commenting.

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