Thursday, November 3, 2011

Historical Fiction - The Time is Now

I don't know a writer alive who doesn't own a shelf full of books about writing craft and process. But somehow I can never resist adding one more to my library. Recently I read a review and then purchased a copy of The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction by James Alexander Thom. Thom has written historical fiction for decades, mainly about the Lewis and Clark era and other stories set in the early West.

His credo is: ""Once upon a time it was now. Today is now. But three hundred years ago, the 18th century was now. You as a historical novelist, can make any time now by taking your reader into that time. Once you grasp that, the rest is just hard work."

Ah, we know about hard work. But in his excellent book, Thom guides writers with concrete suggestions about how to bring history alive in story, and the ethics of thorny issues like changing real facts and portraying real historical people. I especially appreciated his comparisons to the differences in writing nonfiction history and historical fiction.

I encourage those of you writing history, nonfiction or fiction, to check it out. It is a tremendous resource that fills a gap.


  1. Can't wait to order this book, Claire! Would you mind discussing the writer's role as an agent when she writes historical fiction? In other words, how much leeway does a writer have to extrapolate from the historical period? When does extrapolation lead the writer into unethical territory? Seems easier to understand the writer's boundaries, as she writes "non-fiction" (would someone give non-fiction a real name? Seriously). Historical fiction, though? Not so clear. Thanks, Claire and others!

  2. Perfect timing, as I'm about to plunge back into my 99th revision of the vaudeville novel...Thanks! I obviously need this book.

  3. Ah, the big question. This is addressed very well in the book. As my agent's assistant said the other day, as I reconsider my POV character's age, where is the departure from real historical fact? What is important is to own the departure from actual history and mention in author's note. Don't hide it. Every writer has to draw her own line on what is too much, keeping in mind it is fiction set in an historical setting.

    Rewrite on, Liza.