Historical Research Series Guest - James L. Nelson

I am over-the-top ecstatic to welcome one of my favorite authors, James L. Nelson, to my guest post series on historical fiction. James is also my first non-romance writer guest. His books are a delightful combination of masterful story-telling and historical detail.

I hope you enjoy today's interview as much as I did!

James, how long have you been writing and how did you get into it?

I started seriously writing in 1992, while I was still serving as third mate aboard the “HMS” Rose, a replica of a British frigate of the American Revolution period (she later played Surprise in the movie Master and Commander). I swallowed the anchor after that, that is, I stopped going to sea to concentrate on writing. My first novel, By Force of Arms was published in 1996.

What is the time period/setting for your novels?

James L. Nelson
The real running theme throughout my fiction is “what can I write that will make me incredibly rich?” After nearly twenty years or writing, the answer seems to be, “nothing.” But what I have always focused on has been maritime fiction, anything having to do with the sea, my first love. Mostly American maritime history, from colonial piracy to Civil War. Of course, now, with Fin Gall, I’ve strayed back to the Viking era.

Do you have any special connection to the period?

As I said, it’s not so much a time period as it is a maritime theme. I really love the maritime history of practically any era. That said, the American Revolution is definitely the time period I find most interesting, which is why I’ve done five novels and four works of nonfiction about that period.

What appeals to you about this period?

The tricorn hats. I love the tricorn hats. Big fan of flintlocks, too, I own a couple of them. Beyond that, I’m not sure why I’m particularly drawn to that time period.

Do all your novels involve ships?

All my fiction is maritime centered. In fact, only one of the seventeen books I’ve written is not specifically maritime in nature, and that’s my book With Fire and Sword about the Battle of Bunker Hill. But I have to say, for anyone out there reading this and thinking, “Ships? Could anything be more dull?” the maritime aspect is really a setting, not a central focus. The books still have all the action, intrigue, love, lust, greed and heroism that make for good fiction. Some of it just happens to take place on floating things.

Do you have a favorite type of ship? Why?

I love them all, from Viking long ships to RoRo’s (that’s “roll on, roll off” – modern car carriers). But certainly the 18th and early 19th century was the height of the development of sail, and that is what I am most drawn to. In particular (again) the ships of the period of the American Revolution.

If you had the opportunity to visit this time period, what do you think you’d like best? What would you like least?

Certainly I would like to be at the American Revolution. For someone like me who has sailed traditional ships professionally, there are a thousand questions about how things were done back in the day. I have long fanaticized about how great it would be to spend even a day aboard a ship in 1775 to see how things were really done back then. But that’s just a fantasy, like so many others, which I will not enumerate here.

As to where I would least like to be, I would say I would least like to have appendicitis anytime before 1930.

By Force of Arms
Book 1: Revolution at Sea series
In the Revolution at Sea series, your description of Rhode Island and the islands in the bay feel so real to me. How do you capture that? Are you intimately familiar with Rhode Island? Do you study old maps?

Back when I was sailing aboard Rose we used to sail in Narragansett Bay very often, so I have the unique experience of logging lots of time in a square rigged ship in the waters of Rhode Island, which certainly helped. In fact, that has a lot to do with why my main character, Isaac Biddlecomb, is from Rhode Island, and Bristol in particular. When we used to sail into Bristol, they used to really turn out for us – the town fathers, the Revolutionary War reenactors, the high school band, it was great. In 1992 we had some guest crew from the Soviet Union (when there still was a Soviet Union – God am I getting old) and I explained to them, looking at this scene that could have been concocted by Norman Rockwell, that this was exactly the America that Americans envision when they think of the best of this country. I found it very moving, and that’s why Isaac’s from Bristol, Rhode Island.

Do you use real figures from history as main or secondary characters, or are all of your characters fiction?

The main characters are fictitious. I take my fictional characters and stick them into the real events of the time, so many of the others characters are real people. They are often, however, people no one has heard of (except for real history junkies), people such as Abraham Whipple or Esek Hopkins.

Is there a real character from this time period that you admire?

If we are talking about the Revolution, oh my goodness yes, there are many people I admire. It strikes me as unfortunate that most of those admirable people in the naval line are forgotten. People know John Paul Jones. I have nothing against John Paul Jones, but there were many people who went to sea who were equally worthy. The afore mentioned Abraham Whipple, Lambert Wickes, John Barry, Joshua Barney, Isaac Biddlecomb. Oh, wait, I made that last guy up, didn’t I?

Are any of your ships modeled after real ships? I’m guessing the Rose is the HMS Rose, but that’s the only name I recognize so far.

Like the people, some of the ships are real, some not. Isaac Biddlecomb’s ships are fictitious, but most of the others are correct, such as the ships in the first U.S. navy fleet to go to New Providence, or the British frigate Glasgow, which I write about in The Continental Risgue.

How much time do you spend researching each book?

Depends on what I am writing. After all these years I know quite a bit about the naval action of the American Revolution, how life worked aboard a navy ship of the time, all that. I might research the general history of an event, or if I am putting my characters into a specific happening I’ll get everything I can about that, but not too much research is needed before I start writing. When I started my first novel about the Civil war, Glory in the Name (winner of the American Library Association’s William Young Boyd Award, if I do say so myself, and I do) I had to do quite a bit of research as that was an entirely new area for me.

Do you tend to research before you write, or more as you write?

I start in with great ambitions of spending months and months researching, visiting all the places where the action took place, doing archeological digs, perhaps writing a PhD dissertation on the event, but then after a few weeks I get bored and start writing. I guess I have attention span issues. But the research is on-going throughout the writing. Now that is for fiction, mind you. Non-fiction does require many months of serious research. Really.

Do you tend to use secondary or primary research sources?

Again, it depends on what I am writing. In one book I had a character at the Battle of Brandywine, but it was just a page or so, background stuff, so I thought reading a few well-done secondary sources was fine. If there is an event such as the invasion of new Providence which I mentioned above, that will play a major role in the book, I want everything I can get my hands on, but primary sources in particular. With the revolution it’s not too hard because there are not too many sources. With the Civil war there is an ungodly amount of material, so at a certain point you have to say, “Enough!”

Any favorite sources?

Sometimes they make it easy for you. The U.S. Navy’s Naval Heritage Command has for decades been compiling Naval Documents of the American Revolution, and multi-volume, encyclopedic collection of every primary source that has to do with the American Revolution. An incredible work. There is a similar collection for the Civil War done in the decades following the war called Documents of the Union and Confederate navies of the Late war or some such silly thing. The papers of most important players have been collected and printed, such as Washington’s papers.

Do you read other authors who write in this time period? 

I do, though I also read a bunch or other stuff as well. I like Dewey Lambdin and J.D. Davies, who writes great novels about the Restoration Navy. And of course Hornblower and O’Brien’s Aubrey/Maturin series.

Do you read other times periods/genres?

I do read a lot of stuff, though not as much as I would like, since I rarely have time to read except right before bed, and then I am falling asleep. I read a lot of nonfiction, history and such. Sometimes I’ll read a book I just friggin’ want to read because I want to read it. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books are one guilty pleasure. The Flashman books are another, and anything by Bernard Cornwell.

Fin Gall
I think I recall you saying you were thinking of self-publishing a book. Did you self-publish Fin Gall? 

Ahh, Fin Gall. Yes, that’s the book I have out now, and would urge readers to rush out in a digital buying frenzy and download this novel about Viking-age Ireland. That’s an odd story. Like many authors who publish with major trade publishers, I never thought much of self-publishing. But I wrote Fin Gall a few years ago and it never found a publisher, and since I had nothing coming out this year I thought “what the hell, I’ll publish it myself.” It’s so damned easy these days. Well, so far it’s been a very successful venture. And, ironically, I have a proposal off to a major trade publisher, an editor I’ve worked with before, who has already said he likes the idea and wants to make an offer, and still I’ve been waiting for months. And if he does make an offer, it will be four or five months before I see any money and two years before the book is out. This is SOP with the big boys. I tell you, this self-publishing thing is looking better and better. If I do it again it will depend on the sales of Fin Gall, but if they keep going the way they have been for a while longer, I’m in. So, as I said, rush out (or, for that matter, stay in you seat – the beauty of e-books and the death knell of bookstores) and download Fin Gall!

I notice that Fin Gall seems to involve maritime exploration, but is it a new time period? What got you interested in this time period?

Fin Gall is more about raiding and pillaging than exploration, per se, but I suppose you could look on sacking the Irish countryside as a sort of exploration. As a maritime historian I have always been interested in all aspects of the maritime world, and Vikings are a big part of that. I had already read quite a bit about the Vikings before I started Fin Gall, and had always loved the period, though I had never written about it. Beside, I’m of Swedish descent, so it’s in the DNA!

What are you hoping readers take a way from your novels. E.g., do you hope they’ll get a sense of history or do you just want them to enjoy themselves?

Job number one is good storytelling. That’s the most important thing. I want my readers to be whisked away to another place and time, to be caught up in that, to live another life through the book. That’s what it’s all about. If I can teach them a little maritime history along the way, more better. Emily Dickinson used a great nautical metaphor to describe the joy of reading: “There is no frigate like a book/To take us lands away.”

I believe you also write non-fiction. What are some of the books you’ve written in that
Benedict Arnold's Navy

I do write nonfiction, which I also enjoy very much. I like being able to take some of the storytelling techniques I’ve learned writing fiction and applying them to nonfiction to make the pages turn. I did a book on the ironclads Monitor and Merrimack called Reign of Iron, three about the development of the American navy during the Revolution which were Benedict Arnold’s Navy, George Washington’s Secret Navy and George Washington’s Great Gamble, and a book on the Battle of Bunker Hill called With Fire and Sword.

How can readers learn more about you?

For more on me, and contact info, people should check out my web site, www.jameslnelson.com or my blog, Red Over Red

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