How do you write historical fiction? How do you insert your research to make a novel sound interesting and real as opposed to one or the other? Recently, I had the pleasure of finding answers to these questions as I read The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction by novelist James Alexander Thom. I have been researching an idea for a set of novels since 2010, and was starting to wonder what I was doing wrong to need so much research! I found out I was doing it exactly right; I just need patience.
This book is primarily geared for those writing American historical fiction, but even though mine takes place elsewhere, I found it useful. I’ve seen some criticism for the informal tone, but I actually liked it. I felt like I was having a conversation with Thom instead of being lectured. This held my attention and I learned a lot from the author’s experience. Those who have written good historical fiction know how tricky it is to strike the balance between factual and fictional, but most of my favorite books are those in which the author succeeded in a big way.
Thom covers research methods, though does largely eschew modern approaches like the Interent. He rightly criticizes the ambiguity between good and poor research you can find online, but without the Internet, I wouldn’t have a novel. I have used it as a starting point to find good resources, both online and off. I have been able to obtain electronic copies of books out of print and figure out exactly what I need to do to get the most out of my research.
Thom also discusses the importance of getting the details right, how to organize your data (though once again, preferring hard copies as opposed to computer or cloud-based storage), genealogy basics, methods to approach your novel, and more. All in all, a helpful read.