Nelson graduated from Lewiston High School. He attended the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Massachusetts for two years, and then transferred to the University of California at Los Angeles, with the ambition of becoming a film director. In 1993 - 1994 he had a graduate studies at Sonoma State University.
James L. Nelson started his career as an assistant editor at The Landsburg Company (television production) in Los Angeles. After that he quited the job in that spheer and became a sailor. That is why he was a boatswain in Golden Hinde (ship), rigger and sailor in Lady Washington (ship), and then third mate and director of education in “H.M.S.” Rose (sail training ship).
Finally, he decided to have a more settled life and became a full-time writer since 1992.
On April 11, 1993 James married Lisa Maria Nelson, with whom he has four children: daughters Elizabeth and Abbey and sons Nathaniel and Jonathan Nelson.