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.