James Alexander Thom, author of The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction, believes that the way to understand history is to "be in it when it’s happening." Readers of his nine deeply researched American frontier books consistently respond with the words he loves to hear: "I felt like I was there!"
Ranging from Colonial Virginia to the conquest of the West, his prize-winning epics, including Follow the River (Ballantine, 1981) and Sign-Talker (2000), have sold 2.5 million copies and are assigned as supplemental reading in history courses by teachers who trust the history in the tales. He shows the Indian Wars through the eyes and souls of both whites and Native Americans.
Thom, a Marine Corps veteran and former metropolitan journalist, has been involved with American Indian tribes and causes for a quarter of a century. He lives with his Shawnee wife, Dark Rain, in the wooded Southern Indiana hills, in a log house he erected using pioneer tools and techniques. "Everything you do is research," he says. "The more you live and learn, the better you can write."
When did you know you wanted to write historical fiction?
It wasn’t until the United States Bicentennial, when someone from the Indiana Historical Society suggested that I might write a dramatic work on our role in the Revolutionary War. Before then, I had written only contemporary fiction.
Who was the first historical figure that inspired you to write?
George Rogers Clark, who seized control of the Old Northwest Territory from the British by a swift,
brilliant expedition on the frontier — probably the most successful action in the Revolution. He was 25 years old.
For you, what’s the most challenging aspect of starting a new novel?
I am humbled by my ignorance of the subject and the period, and daunted by the job of research ahead.
The challenge is in overcoming my ignorance. It’s like being a college freshman again every time I start a new story.
What’s the most challenging part of your revision process?
I love revising; there’s always a better way to say something. The challenge is the technical part, all
that labor-intensive retyping, cutting, and pasting.
How close to the truth (or, what is reported by historians as fact) do you think a novelist
should stay when constructing a story?
I don’t believe in taking liberties with historical facts. I stick to the truth as far as it can be
ascertained. Readers tend to believe what they see in a well-written historical novel, so
I feel a responsibility not to mislead them. There’s enough ill-conceived history without me
adding to the confusion.
Is it easy to get lost in your research? If so, how do you motivate yourself to get back
to your desk and write?
Research is indeed exciting and absorbing. But the compulsion to tell the story is so strong, I’m eager
to start writing as soon as I feel I know enough to begin.
What do you do if you’re well into a novel and you uncover a bit of information that
contradicts or complicates your plot or characters?
First, I say, "Oh, damn!" Then I give thanks that I found it before it was too late. It may be
frustrating to make big changes, but I want it right. Fortunately, such surprises don’t happen
often, because I’ve usually exhausted the sources before I start writing.
Which historical event would you like to write about but haven’t yet?
I want to write about the Potawatomi Indians’ "Trail of Death," from their viewpoint. It’s
an incredibly poignant story, a testimonial to human strength and dignity. Their
descendants have offered to help me research the whole tragedy and understand all its
ramifications. I’m eager to work with them. I’ve never met a Potawatomi I didn’t like.
What do you think is the single most valuable piece of writing advice you could give
a budding historical novelist?
This may sound facetious, but I’d say write twenty thousand words or so with a quill pen, by
candlelight, with no heat but an open fire, and your clothes full of fleas. That will qualify you
to write about "the good old days."
What was the best advice someone ever gave you?
"Write to their senses." Dr. Werner Beyer, my creative writing professor at Butler University,
rest his soul, got me started right with those four simple words. Make the reader see, hear, smell,
taste, and feel everything in every scene.
What do you hope readers will take away from your new book, The Art and Craft of
Writing Historical Fiction?
I want them to grasp not just the how-to tips (and the many how-not-to tips that I’ve learned over 35 years
in this trade), but especially that transcendent sense of being in another time, when this was a different world. I hope they will come to understand just what I mean when I say, "Once upon a time it was now."
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