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Once Upon a Time It Was Now: The Art & Craft of Writing Historical Fiction

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While a historian stands firmly planted in the present and looks back into the past, a historical novelist has a more immediate task: to set readers in the midst of bygone events and lead them forward, allowing them to live and feel the wonderment, fear, hope, triumph, and pain as if they were there. Learning historical stories is easy, creating stories based in history is While a historian stands firmly planted in the present and looks back into the past, a historical novelist has a more immediate task: to set readers in the midst of bygone events and lead them forward, allowing them to live and feel the wonderment, fear, hope, triumph, and pain as if they were there. Learning historical stories is easy, creating stories based in history is not. In Once Upon a Time It Was Now, best-selling author James Alexander Thom (Follow the River, From Sea to Shining Sea, Sign-Talker) gives you the tools you need to research and create stories born from the past that will move and inspire modern readers. His comprehensive approach includes lessons on how to:


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While a historian stands firmly planted in the present and looks back into the past, a historical novelist has a more immediate task: to set readers in the midst of bygone events and lead them forward, allowing them to live and feel the wonderment, fear, hope, triumph, and pain as if they were there. Learning historical stories is easy, creating stories based in history is While a historian stands firmly planted in the present and looks back into the past, a historical novelist has a more immediate task: to set readers in the midst of bygone events and lead them forward, allowing them to live and feel the wonderment, fear, hope, triumph, and pain as if they were there. Learning historical stories is easy, creating stories based in history is not. In Once Upon a Time It Was Now, best-selling author James Alexander Thom (Follow the River, From Sea to Shining Sea, Sign-Talker) gives you the tools you need to research and create stories born from the past that will move and inspire modern readers. His comprehensive approach includes lessons on how to:

30 review for Once Upon a Time It Was Now: The Art & Craft of Writing Historical Fiction

  1. 4 out of 5

    Sharyn

    James Alexander Thom, author of "Follow the River," is a master of the historical novel. In this new book, he gives advice on how to write historical novels, and how to consider the past as a real and vibrant time, rather than a sepia photo in one's memory. The book is filled with rich anecdotes from American history ("In the 2nd Seminole War in Florida (1835-1842) a band of Seminoles led by Wild Cat ambushed and robbed William Forbes's traveling troupe of actors, stealing 18 trunks of costumes. James Alexander Thom, author of "Follow the River," is a master of the historical novel. In this new book, he gives advice on how to write historical novels, and how to consider the past as a real and vibrant time, rather than a sepia photo in one's memory. The book is filled with rich anecdotes from American history ("In the 2nd Seminole War in Florida (1835-1842) a band of Seminoles led by Wild Cat ambushed and robbed William Forbes's traveling troupe of actors, stealing 18 trunks of costumes. The Seminoles later showed up for treaty talks dressed as Hamlet and his entourage."), and commentary from other historical writers on such topics as "How does a historical novelist differ from a historian?" It is an interesting book for the historically minded reader and a valuable resource for an aspiring writer.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Brandy

    I received this book through the FirstReads Giveaways; these are my honest thoughts. I'm historian, not a creative writer. As an avid reader, I have avoided historical fiction because bad history makes the story unbearable for me. I agree with every line of this book. Historians can absolutely be snobs, sure, but bad history is just lazy. But on the other hand, I don't expect every historical fiction writer to go get a history degree. This book is a perfect middle ground - he lays out the ground I received this book through the FirstReads Giveaways; these are my honest thoughts. I'm historian, not a creative writer. As an avid reader, I have avoided historical fiction because bad history makes the story unbearable for me. I agree with every line of this book. Historians can absolutely be snobs, sure, but bad history is just lazy. But on the other hand, I don't expect every historical fiction writer to go get a history degree. This book is a perfect middle ground - he lays out the groundwork for the writer to get the history, whenever the focus, right, which will only improve their story. I approve so much of what he has to say that I'm passing this one on to my favorite author friend!

  3. 5 out of 5

    Sharon

    This came up in discussion during a Historical Novel Society chapter meeting, so I decided to pick it up. While it seems as though the solid advice contained in James Thom's work is aimed at new authors in the genre, there is still a lot to learn. For example, Thom points to historical reenactors as a possible source; many of them (I used to be one myself) are well-versed in cookery, craftsmanship, and other skills of their time period. He also provides common sense advice on first and secondary This came up in discussion during a Historical Novel Society chapter meeting, so I decided to pick it up. While it seems as though the solid advice contained in James Thom's work is aimed at new authors in the genre, there is still a lot to learn. For example, Thom points to historical reenactors as a possible source; many of them (I used to be one myself) are well-versed in cookery, craftsmanship, and other skills of their time period. He also provides common sense advice on first and secondary source research that will help provide verisimilitude to the story. The goal of historical fiction is to make the reader feel as though they are experiencing the events they read about; following Thom's advice can make that happen.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Mike Kanner

    I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I liked the conversational tone and how the author talked about how issues arose in his book. On the other hand, I found it somewhat limited in its scope dealing only with American historical fiction of the early nineteenth century. There is no discussion of the issue if you are writing about more recent periods or non-American history. As an example, the genealogy chapter may be helpful if you are only dealing with Native-American issues, I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I liked the conversational tone and how the author talked about how issues arose in his book. On the other hand, I found it somewhat limited in its scope dealing only with American historical fiction of the early nineteenth century. There is no discussion of the issue if you are writing about more recent periods or non-American history. As an example, the genealogy chapter may be helpful if you are only dealing with Native-American issues, but as the son of refugees who fled pogroms and the Holocaust, it was of no use. First, this impression may be due to my background. Since my dissertation and academic work is qualitative, I have had to teach myself historical research and historiography. I've also taught history, so I am familiar with the framework of my historical fiction ("Underground" about WWI and "Hide and Seek" about the Yugoslav civil war - https://spillwords.com/hide-and-seek/). In addition to his political biases (which show up throughout the book), he has a prejudice against computers, which I find limiting for a modern writer or researcher. Like him, my first research days are pre-computer having written a senior thesis on Soviet doctrine involving long hours in the stacks and notebooks filled with notes (often unreadable later on). I could not imagine writing that way anymore. OneNote and Evernote have replaced handwritten notes (except when I am writing them on the tablet to save in one of those programs. Overall, a mildly amusing book if you want to know about the writer's life but not of much use for learning how to write historical fiction.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Karen

    To some extent, I feel reluctant rating and reviewing this book. I'm not the intended reader, although various people recommended it in a historical fiction workshop I attended. His advice and discussions feel a bit superficial, including warnings about not using anachronisms and the general writing tips -- "Always double-, triple-, and quadruple-check your prose to be sure you haven't gotten carried away by the action and written sentences like these ... 'He saw Cherokee warriors coming out of To some extent, I feel reluctant rating and reviewing this book. I'm not the intended reader, although various people recommended it in a historical fiction workshop I attended. His advice and discussions feel a bit superficial, including warnings about not using anachronisms and the general writing tips -- "Always double-, triple-, and quadruple-check your prose to be sure you haven't gotten carried away by the action and written sentences like these ... 'He saw Cherokee warriors coming out of the corner of his eye.'" I also found myself skimming over all the promotion of his books and those of his wife, Dark Rain (e.g. "[It] formed the basis for my second historical novel, Follow the River, which has been in print since 1981 and has sold one and a half million copies"). He also insists on the limitations and fallibility of internet information and research; and while I don't take anything I find on wikipedia, for example, as gospel, his views seem a bit eccentric for the present day. I feel as though the author is kind and well-intentioned, but this book wasn't quite what I was hoping for.

  6. 5 out of 5

    M

    High on ideology and low on methodology. Great for a person who has never studied much about writing or the ideals of historical fiction. I did enjoy the examples from his books on how to make things live. I read Follow the River years ago, and now I'd like to read the book he wrote about Lewis and Clark. Yet, there were too many tangents into the world of the Native Americans. He did have some good points to make about things we need to know ourselves as writers to help others live the past thro High on ideology and low on methodology. Great for a person who has never studied much about writing or the ideals of historical fiction. I did enjoy the examples from his books on how to make things live. I read Follow the River years ago, and now I'd like to read the book he wrote about Lewis and Clark. Yet, there were too many tangents into the world of the Native Americans. He did have some good points to make about things we need to know ourselves as writers to help others live the past through an author's words. Based on the part of the title "The Art and Craft," I was looking for more methodology than he included. Every time he got close to describing his methods, like a huge wall chart with columns and rows, he cut it short and never went on to explain. Ironically, I was driven away from his book to find answers and ideas from the computers that he hates. Thom hates computers, computer research, computer storage, computer word processors, computer anything and made it clear throughout the book, but given that he was 77 years old when this book was published, that makes sense. 😊

  7. 5 out of 5

    Clifford

    Very readable and engaging. Experienced writers will not be surprised by anything here, but the book is a good summary of the importance of research, the value of historical accuracy, and the need to avoid anachronism (in its various shapes). Writers of other genres of fiction will also find value here. Thom is writing about a particular strain of historical fiction, one that is heavy on the history and light on the fiction. I read the book, though, because the book I'm writing is more fiction t Very readable and engaging. Experienced writers will not be surprised by anything here, but the book is a good summary of the importance of research, the value of historical accuracy, and the need to avoid anachronism (in its various shapes). Writers of other genres of fiction will also find value here. Thom is writing about a particular strain of historical fiction, one that is heavy on the history and light on the fiction. I read the book, though, because the book I'm writing is more fiction than history (with historical elements forming a backdrop, but without historical figures playing a part). Still, Thom's tips give the writer a great deal to think about.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jill

    This well thought out guide provides easy to understand and follow steps that will help novice and experienced writers write historical fiction. Example and exercises illustrate how to be accurate and develop credible fiction. The chapter titled “Genealogy is like the potato” provides a practical and useful way for writers to develop their research skills and multiple ways the data rich information can be used in developing historical characters. The author provided an index with key figures, me This well thought out guide provides easy to understand and follow steps that will help novice and experienced writers write historical fiction. Example and exercises illustrate how to be accurate and develop credible fiction. The chapter titled “Genealogy is like the potato” provides a practical and useful way for writers to develop their research skills and multiple ways the data rich information can be used in developing historical characters. The author provided an index with key figures, media titles, and subjects. Goodreads Giveaway randomly chose me to receive this book. Although encouraged, I was under no obligation to write a review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Jim Misko

    Learn from an expert in historical fiction. This book lays out how James Alexander Thom researched and wrote some of the best early American historical fiction around. This book should be on your shelf, red, ticketed with stickies that return you to cogent parts of the book for reference. It is a winner now as it was when it was first published by a university press. There is no way you can go wrong reading it and following its precepts.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Nissen

    Very informative for the inspiring writer.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Angie Thompson

    DNF for several instances of profanity

  12. 5 out of 5

    Z

  13. 5 out of 5

    Rob Bignell

  14. 5 out of 5

    Angela Holland

  15. 4 out of 5

    Alma

  16. 5 out of 5

    Ellen

  17. 4 out of 5

    Emma

  18. 5 out of 5

    jennet wheatstonelllsl

  19. 4 out of 5

    Calvin

  20. 5 out of 5

    Sandra Marshall

  21. 5 out of 5

    Tynan

  22. 4 out of 5

    Joy

  23. 5 out of 5

    Linda Lynch

  24. 5 out of 5

    Beverly Simmons

  25. 5 out of 5

    Roland Drake

  26. 4 out of 5

    Kutsua

  27. 5 out of 5

    Diane L. Mittica

  28. 5 out of 5

    Thomas E.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Abigail

  30. 4 out of 5

    Judy

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