word craft


Story Behind the Story #52: Iron Thunder

Iron Thunder

If you enjoy read­ing history—as I do—it’s easy to also devel­op a fas­ci­na­tion for the things, the arti­facts of his­to­ry. Napoleon’s hat. Jane Austin’s tea cup. Muse­ums pro­vide much of that, illus­trat­ed biogra­phies add more, and there are books with titles such as The His­to­ry of World War One in One Hun­dred Objects. I just pur­chased A His­to­ry of Amer­i­can Sports in One Hun­dred Objects for one of my sons.

Over the years I’ve come to know that young peo­ple, boys in par­tic­u­lar, are fas­ci­nat­ed by things, too, whether it be a Colt revolver, or Ben­jamin Franklin’s eye-glasses.

It was these kinds of inter­ests that led me to cre­ate what I hoped would be a series called I Wit­ness. The notion was to write his­tor­i­cal fic­tion with as much accu­ra­cy as I could, and insert a young per­son into that real­i­ty. Then I would have the book illus­trat­ed with his­tor­i­cal documents—pictures of things—old paint­ing and etchings—to illu­mi­nate the story.

The sto­ry of the Civ­il War iron­clad The Mon­i­tor, and its bat­tle with the Con­fed­er­ate Mer­ri­mac, had always fas­ci­nat­ed me. To read the facts of that momen­tous event—and the events lead­ing up to it—is like read­ing a thriller.

So it was I came to write Iron Thun­der, which tells the sto­ry of the bat­tle. A research vis­it to The Mariners’ Muse­um in New­port News, Vir­ginia, proved cap­ti­vat­ing. Here were many arti­facts from The U.S.S. Mon­i­tor itself, as well as engag­ing exhibits about the bat­tle. Here, too, was the log of the Mon­i­tor, as well as let­ters writ­ten by the crew.


At the time no one quite knew how an iron ship would func­tion in bat­tle. Would it float? Would it sur­vive a bat­tle? In the archives, I can recall vivid­ly read­ing the orig­i­nal let­ters that one of the sea­men (he was a coal-shov­el­er on the Mon­i­tor) wrote home to his moth­er, the day after the bat­tle. “Mom, it was as if they were shoot­ing spit­balls at us.” Wow! Research gold. No surprise—that state­ment is in the book.

My task as a writer was to take the known facts—much has been writ­ten about this event—and shape it into a sto­ry that would engage and inform my read­ers. It helped to dis­cov­er that there was a cab­in boy on the ship by the name of Tom Car­roll. I bor­rowed his name and told his (invent­ed) story.

I once had a con­ver­sa­tion with the writer Paula Fox. “The job of the writer,” she told me, “is to imag­ine the truth.”

The job I had as the writer of Iron Thun­der was not to imag­ine the truth. All of that was laid out before me. My job was to give that truth life.

1 thought on “Story Behind the Story #52: Iron Thunder”

  1. Won­der­ful sto­ry. I research his­to­ry. My fer­vent wish to be locked in the Nation­al Archives, Wash­ing­ton over night. Oh, heaven.


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