Review of “Once Upon a Time It Was Now”

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

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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 –

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.

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