What is historical fiction?

Historical fiction is, obviously, fiction that takes place in the past.  But not the “last week, when I had that awful cold and I dropped my phone in a puddle” past  Historical fiction is set at least sixty (some literary-types say fifty) years in the past, at least according to the classical definition. 

Why fifty or sixty years?  I’m not really sure, but the important part is that historicals are set before the birth of the author, so the author must research the major historic events and daily life of the time period in their story.  And oh, baby, does it require research!  (That’s another post all on its own, so stay tuned.)  It also separates historical fiction from books that are just plain old.  On my favorite book list, I include Jane Eyre, The Great Gatsby, and L. M. Montgomery’s novels under “historical fiction and classics read for their historical value.”  By this I mean I read these books to experience another time period, but they were set within the lifetime of the author.

Historical fiction also makes clear use of its past setting.  There is a reason it isn’t set in the modern day, whether because of a historic event like a war or because of some aspect of that era’s daily life.  In my historical novels, the main character and her sister are evacuated from their home in London because of Nazi air attacks in 1940.  Fast forward seventy years, cut out the war, and I’d lose all the worry the girls feel over their mother and the secret about their heritage that must be kept at all costs.  Not to mention losing swing music, saddle shoes, long train rides, hand-written letters…  Much less fun, and a very different story than what I’ve written.

There are plenty of sub-genres within historical fiction, and some of them are represented by my fellow Damsels in Regress.  Historical fantasy, like Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty, uses magic and other fantasy elements in an otherwise real historical setting.  Closely related, time travel involves characters who can move between time periods, often creating funny situations as characters try to survive in a world different than theirs.  Fictional history, like Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, tells the story of real historical figures in a fictional style, rather than the other types, which place fictional characters in a real past setting.  Alternate history takes a “what if” approach by changing an event in history, like who won a war, and examining what life would be like if that had happened.  Other major genres in mainstream fiction, like mystery and romance, use plenty of historical settings as well.

Most of all, historical fiction gives us a glimpse of another time, another way of life, and another way of looking at the world.  It’s fun to read, fun to write, and (I hope) fun to blog about every week!


2 Responses to What is historical fiction?

  1. Meg Mims says:

    WOOT! Yay for historical fiction! Nice site, ladies.

  2. gideon54 says:

    Thanks for this interesting entry on historical fiction. I’m now writing a YA novel set in the WWII era, so appreciated your comments about the special characteristics of that time. Best regards.

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