What is historical fiction? Our Guide 101

What is historical fiction?

Historical fiction, literature that is built around a time in the past, is one of the genres that I think has helped me the most in becoming a reader. The stories I found in historical fiction books helped me develop not only a more nuanced view of historical records, but also a better appreciation of the stories we pass on as human beings and how they help us to understand each other.

While there may be some debate over what, exactly, is far enough away to be history (does anyone else freak out when something set in the 90s is labeled as historical fiction ?) and genre mashups such as speculative fiction and time travel complicate matters, Overall, the genre examines the events that really happened and the people who really existed as a starting point for a engaging storytelling.

Broadly speaking, historical fiction is literature that takes place in the past. Generally, it works with what might be called culturally recognizable events and facts, to create a narrative based on historical reality but adding literary elements to create a story.

Typically, a historical novel begins by laying out the setting, in terms of time and place, and establishing where the story takes place within the story, which means these books may involve more exposition or exploration of where the story takes place than in other genres. . While there are obviously fictional elements in a piece of historical fiction, the characters, dialogue, and conflict should all fit the standards of that period. The characters can be completely fictional, or they can be reimaginings of real people who existed at that time, giving us a possible glimpse into the inner lives of historical figures.

Research and historical accuracy

Since so much of historical fiction hinges on getting the setting right, authors spend a lot of time researching their book’s subject in order to give readers an authentic experience. Much like in fantasy and science fiction, this type of fiction requires the author to spend time constructing the world of the book with the kind of detail that will completely immerse the reader in a different time and place. Talk to Writers Summary, Historian and writer Mary Miley details some of the stages she goes through while writing her books, including researching slang of the time and researching primary sources that can give an idea of ​​how the characters lived at the time. Miley also mentions the importance of not confusing modern depictions of a period with actual sources from that time. For example, a film about the 1920s and an actual silent film from that era should not be treated as equal sources.

While thorough research and historical accuracy are important, most writers in the genre recognize that this type of fiction is about interpreting events and people from a bygone era, rather than trying to meticulously reproduce their exact lives. As historical fiction writer Susanna Calkins points out, writing dialogue that truly reflects the way its 17th-century characters spoke would most likely alienate modern readers who are looking for fiction, not a textbook. Several historical fiction writers have spoken of the power of the genre to transcend facts and figures and create stories that truly take readers to another time.

Hidden Stories

Historical fiction can also be a powerful vehicle for spotlighting people or perspectives that may not be covered extensively in non-fiction historical material. For example, “domestic” fiction often offers a perspective of servants in the upper class or royal houses, which is rarely given center stage in historical records.

Additionally, this type of fiction can provide an avenue for authors whose voices are often excluded from mainstream history teaching materials to share experiences that represent a wider variety of races, religions, and genders, which seems especially urgent given the recent censorship efforts by many school boards and politicians regarding history curricula. Readers who never got to see themselves in the pages of the textbook might learn about someone they relate to through historical fiction.

Although these books are, ultimately, fictional, they allow us to learn about people and events from the past in an engaging way, and the stories they tell are crucial in connecting us to the events of the story.


Want more historical fiction? Check out this roundup of the best historical fiction books, this list of historical fiction for children, some influential historical fiction titles, and twenty-five of the best queer historical fiction books.

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