“Ride Along the Winds of Time and See Where We Have Been”

Are you sitting comfortably?

Yes, that’s also the title of an old song by The Moody Blues (and a great song it is – see the bottom of this post for the lyrics). I was reminded of it a couple weeks ago during a visit by author James Alexander Thom to “Bookmama’s Bookstore” in the “Historic Irvington” neighborhood of Indianapolis. Mr. Thom first spoke for a bit – for the most part about the topic of his latest book, “The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction” – and then entertained questions from the small audience (which strained the capacity of the cozy neighborhood bookstore).

One of the things he said that particularly struck me was that, in times gone by – and especially those times in which many of his own historical novel are set – people spent a large percentage of their time in some state of discomfort. Think about it for a moment. There was, for example, no central air conditioning or heating. (Can you imagine sweating through a summer like we had last year with no air conditioning?) Today, if we have a headache or a fever or cold we can go to the pharmacy to get some immediate relief. When we have to go to the dentist, there is such a thing as novacaine that makes the experience more tolerable. All of these options are relatively new developments.

He mentioned this in context with his other thoughts on being a writer of historical fiction, in particular how difficult it can often be to successfully transport the reader to another era. One of the questions I didn’t have time to ask him was whether or not he ever found it hard to re-orient or “re-boot” himself for the present day world after a particularly long stretch of working on – and perhaps in – the past. It would have been interesting to hear his answer.

He also spoke about the nemesis of the Historical Fiction writer – the dreaded anachronism. This part of his talk helped fine tune my vocabulary as well, since even though I knew the general meaning of the word “anachronism” as something “out of place,” I had never fully appreciated the Greek root “chronos” meaning “time” and that the full, correct meaning of the word is which is a person or thing that is chronologically out of place. Shame on me as a Classics Minor in college. I hope none of my old professors are reading this one!

Thom mentioned also that his preferred title for this book was “Once Upon a Time it was Now.” Sadly, he was overruled by his publishers, and we were robbed of that superior title. I read the book recently (although I have no aspirations to be a historical fiction writer) partly because I was a History Major in college and have an abiding interest in all things historical, but mainly because I was so impressed with this author when he visited the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library a couple months ago.

My favorite chapter of the book was the final one, titled “Around the Fire” and dealing with the fact that “stories” were the heart and genesis of everything. Stories told around the fire about the discovery that “willow bark can make an ache go away,” for example, were the birth of “Medicine.” Tales of ancestors and their deeds became “History.” A bird call is imitated and the birth of “Music” grows nearer. Tribes from ‘beyond the mountains’ tell what their lands are like and “Geography” is born. He lists many more examples. These are just a few. As he puts it, “I have come to believe that everything that makes up humanity and human civilization began as storytelling.”

So, if you’re an avid reader of historical fiction (good historical fiction, I mean) or even just a run-of-the-mill amateur historian, I think you’ll find a lot in this slim volume.  I know I did.

Here are the lyrics promised above from the Moody Blues song:

“Take another sip my love and see what you will see,
A fleet of golden galleons, on a crystal sea.
Are you sitting comfortably?
Let Merlin cast his spell.

Ride along the winds of time and see where we have been,
The glorious age of Camelot, when Guinevere was queen.
It all unfolds before your eyes,
As Merlin casts his spell.

The seven wonders of the world he’ll lay before your feet,
In far-off lands, on distant shores, so many friends to meet.
Are you sitting comfortably?
Let Merlin cast his spell.”