James Alexander Thom is an author best known for his novels of historical fiction. A graduate of the Journalism School at Butler University, he has been the business editor of the Indianapolis Star, the senior editor of the Saturday Evening Post, and was on the journalism faculty at Indiana University. After authoring a dozen works of historical fiction, he has now authored an acclaimed textbook on how to write historic fiction. Thom will be on our morning panel when we kick off the Blooming Conference on Friday, July 9th. (Photo courtesy www.heraldtimesonline.com)
Thom in new territory with how-to on historical fiction: www.heraldtimesonline.com
Story By Mike Leonard
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It’s a bit of a backhanded compliment when James Alexander Thom credits the late historian Stephen Ambrose for some of the inspiration to write his latest book, “The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction.”
Thom was in the audience of a lecture by Ambrose when someone brought up a topic for discussion. “Ambrose said nobody really knows much about that, so maybe it would be a good subject for a historical novelist because they don’t have to have any facts,” Thom recalled.
“I spent five years researching ‘From Sea to Shining Sea,’” Thom said. “So I approached Stephen afterwards and told him, thanks for the tip. It will save me four years’ work on every book.”
The exchange turned into a friendly relationship and the men crossed paths frequently because of their mutual interest in the people, places and events associated with the Lewis and Clark expedition.
“Unfortunately, he died before I finished the book or got the chance to thank him for the idea,” Thom said.
The “how to” book, published by Writer’s Digest Books, is a departure for the local author, who is regarded as one of the leading historical novelists in the country. It’s also proof that a talented and experienced writer can cross over into an unfamiliar genre and still spin gold.
Thom acknowledges he was flattered when Bo Conner, a former editor at the Indianapolis Star, said it was the best textbook he’d ever read and that he thought it deserved an audience beyond the writers and would-be writers of historical fiction.
“He never complimented me that well when I worked on his city desk,” the amused Owen County native said.
It is an altogether different read from most “how to” books and is filled with amusing anecdotes and observations from Thom’s long and storied career. Thom’s good humor and penchant for quips and wordplay spill out in a style that readers don’t get to see in his well-crafted novels.
“It was going to do the book pretty much as a job, but it got to be quite a pleasure after all,” he said. “One thing I’ve enjoyed is hearing some aspiring writers of historical fiction say it’s like sitting around with your grandfather and learning some of the stuff he’s learned.”
In that way, it’s not such a break from Thom’s work as a novelist. Throughout the 77-year-old writer’s career, readers and reviewers have consistently echoed the observation: “When I read the book, I felt like I was there.”
“I realized early on that you can’t write good historical fiction unless you can transport yourself to feel you are really there. And that takes a lot of work to get there, because people have forgotten so much of what we used to know,” Thom said. “One of the things you have to do a great deal of in writing
historical novels is digging up the ways people used to do things and the way they used to look at the world.
“We are so different than the people we’re descended from,” he said. “One of the points I like to make is modern Americans are definitely the most spoiled people in the history of mankind. We’re accustomed to being comfortable almost all of the time. A hundred years ago, if you were comfortable at least twice a week you felt lucky.”
That point of view is what makes Thom’s historical novels so good. And while he has the utmost respect for historians — he developed a quick and tight friendship with the late Howard Zinn — it’s no surprise that he’s thought out the critical distinction between the role of the historian and the writer
of accurate and compelling historical fiction.
“A historian points back over his shoulder at a past event and says this happened, but the historical novelist takes the reader back there and says we are now, then, and we are looking forward,” Thom said. “You’re looking forward from back then instead of looking backwards from now.
“When I say that in a class or a speech, people’s eyes light up and they say, so that’s how he did it! And when they say that, it makes me feel I succeeded.”
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James Alexander Thom’s latest book, “The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction,” was published this year by Writer’s Digest Books and is priced at $16.99. Courtesy image
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