Wednesday 30 November 2022

Writers’ Questions: What IS Historical Fiction?

Hello and welcome back to my Writers’ Questions series, where I answer burning questions you might have about the craft and business of writing. As a writer of historical fiction, I’ve posted previously about some of my favorite and least favorite tropes in the genre, but I’ve never posted about what historical fiction actually is. Think the answer is straightforward? You might be mistaken…

At its simplest being an author of historical fiction means writing stories set in the past. But how far back would you consider “history”? As anyone knows who’s ever been to a thrift store and noticed clothes from a decade you remember being labeled as “vintage” knows, it can be very disorienting to see period you lived through being treated as historical. Yet, at the same time, World War II, one of the most common settings for historical novels being published in the early twenty-first century, is within living memory for some people alive today. 

Because of this, rather than choose an arbitrary number of years’ distance for a book to be labeled as #histfic, I favor Margaret Atwood’s definition: historical fiction is “set in a time before the writer came to consciousness.” That means that if I ever write a novel set in the 1970s, 1980s, or even the super early 1990s, I’d consider my setting historical. If another writer were a teen or adult during those decades and wrote a book drawing on memories as well as research, I wouldn’t consider it to be historical in the same way.

So much for the “historical” part of the name, but what about the word “fiction”? Believe it or not, this can be controversial too, as it’s very common to see real (and really famous!) historical figures showing up in the pages of historical novels. My answer here is much simpler: it doesn’t matter who your characters are; if your novel is set in the past and you’re making things up, it’s historical fiction. 

If your novel is primarily about a real person who lived in the past, you might like to use the label “biographical historical fiction”, and this is valid whether or not your protagonist is a household name like Napoleon or someone lesser known, like Lydia Robinson, the titular character of my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress. Super recognizable historical figures are sometimes referred to as “marquee names” by those in the publishing industry as they are powerful marketing tools, but this term isn’t one that readers are usually familiar with. On the other hand, if a big historical figure just makes a cameo appearance in your book (e.g., you’re writing about London in the 1590s and William Shakespeare wanders into one of your scenes) that’s not enough for the sub-genre to be “biographical”.

Historical fiction is a wide genre bucket, so we see many crossovers with other genres too. Love stories that are set prior to the writer’s consciousness, which follow the romance novel structure, are designated “historical romance”. If your book is about a detective character solving a murder, many decades or centuries ago, congratulations, you’ve written a “historical mystery”. And if your historical setting has a magical twist, it sounds like you’re an author of “historical fantasy”.

Let me know what topic(s) you would like me to cover next in my Writers’ Question series! You can always contact me via the comments below, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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