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.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Recent Posts