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Historical Fiction – Ultimate Guide To Escaping Into the Past

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At the risk of being regularly accused of living in the past, I will freely admit that I often have my nose buried in a historical fiction novel. I’ve loved historical fiction ever since I discovered the wonders of historical romance novels somewhere during my teen years.

If you’re not yet too familiar with the historical fiction genre, it’s understandable that you may experience a bit of confusion over the term.

So let me clear up some of that confusion for you and properly introduce you to the wonders of living in the past through your reading material.

2 old books with an antique pocketwatch draped over them and next to a burning candle

What Is Meant by Historical Fiction?

The actual definition of historical fiction is simply this –

A literary genre where the story takes place sometime in the past.

How far back in time does the author have to transport the reader in order to fall into this genre? The general rule of thumb is that the story has to take place at least 50 years in the past to be considered “historical fiction.” 50 years will, in some cases, literally take the reader out of their lifetime and into another that they would have no other way of experiencing other than perhaps through the pages of their book.

Historical Fiction – Is the Story Real or Fake?

Now here is where things get interesting.

Historical fiction novels portray the setting of the book and the details of the time period as accurately as possible. Historical fiction novels are set in a real place during a specific time in history that is a culturally recognizable time.

The action and detail in the story, however, can be a mix of actual historic events along with ones that are completely imagined and made up by the author.

Characters in historical fiction can be either completely fictional or real recognizable people from history. In many cases, authors use both real and fictional characters.

If that seems confusing, it may be easier to understand with an example like this –

The classic A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens was set in Victorian England and is historically accurate in terms of the setting and the traditions and social mores of the time, but Ebeneezer Scrooge is not a real person.

Another example is this – The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Set by the Mississippi River in the 1840s, the setting is historically accurate. Mark Twain created the characters of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn from the experiences of boys he grew up with, but the characters themselves were not real people.

So you see, these are classic examples of how an author can blend together historically accurate places and times in history with characters or events from their own imagination.

So, back to the original question of whether a historical fiction novel is real or fake.

It can have bits of both.

Main Characteristics of Historical Fiction

Although historical fiction is most definitely fiction, some aspects of the story must take root in reality and be historically accurate. So, there are a few different characteristics that define true historical fiction.

A Setting In the Past

We’ve already covered one of the main characteristics of historical fiction, which is the need to have the story set at least 50 years in the past.

But there are a few other distinguishing characteristics that are worth mentioning.

A Real World Place

A setting in the past is not quite enough by itself.

That setting must be in a real-world place, as opposed to a place that is completely fictional. There must be a realistic setting in a recognizable place. So, a fictional fantasy land of some sort would not qualify as historical fiction because the place is not real – it’s a fictional made-up place that doesn’t exist now and never did exist.

Historical Event or Person

A historical fiction novel must involve a historical event or historical person true to the time period the book is set in.

What Is An Example Of A Historical Fiction Novel?

Historical fiction is definitely not a one size fits all genre.

There are many different types of historical fiction books and not all of them will universally appeal to all readers.

Here are some examples of different types of historical fiction novels.

Fictional Historical Biographies

Fictional historical biographies tell a fictionalized story of a real person’s life. There are so many great examples of books in this genre. Here are a few examples of books that tell fictionalized stories of real people.

 

Historical Mysteries & Thrillers

Quite simply, these are just mysteries or thrillers that are set in the past.

A great example of a historical mystery series (with a little humor thrown in) is the Royal Spyness Mysteries by Rhys Bowen.

Or, another example is the Lady Julia Grey series by Deanna Raybourn.

 

Historical Romance

I must admit, historical romances are what got me hooked on historical fiction, to begin with. Who doesn’t like a little romance thrown in?

Examples? Can you say…Bridgerton?

How about Outlander?

While some may be tempted to dispute whether anything in the romance genre is worthwhile historical fiction, these two series were not only bestselling book series but also went on to become hugely popular television series.

In all honesty, the historical romance sub-genre is filled with many, many examples of really great historical fiction. The only difference is that they also involve a little romance.

Historical Epics

These are historical novels that are typically written as series and cover multiple eras and long timeframes. One of the best examples of a historical epic series is Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge series which begins in 12th century England and ends three books and five centuries later. This is truly an epic story.

 

Historical Fantasy & Alternate History

Historical fantasy novels allow the author to change some details of the past while keeping other details very much intact. In this example of historical fantasy, Westside depicts a New York City of the 1920s which is very different from what most of us imagine to be the true New York of the 1920s that we are familiar with.

 

Alternate history books explore a “what if” situation. An author examines a specific point in history and considers what would have happened if things turned out differently. What if there was no Christopher Columbus and therefore he didn’t land on any shore? What if the Allies had not prevailed during WWII? These are sometimes chilling narratives of what could have been.

Children’s Historical Fiction

These books will often include elements of historical fantasy or time travel to facilitate the transition between the existing contemporary world and a time in the past. An excellent example of this is the Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne.

Who Writes the Best Historical Fiction?

The “best” historical fiction for you may not be the best historical fiction for someone else because everyone has different tastes in their reading material and what appeals to you may not appeal to another person.

In order to determine which historical fiction authors you might like the most, you need to first decide on some things that will be unique to you.

  • What period of history are you most interested in?
  • Do you like biographical books, mysteries, thrillers, or something else?

Once you narrow down your likes and dislikes you will be in a better position to search for and find a potential list of authors of historical fiction that might be a great fit for you.

Why Is Historical Fiction Important?

Historical fiction is a window into the past.

Reading books set in the past that also have some historical accuracy is a great way to learn about past time periods, people, and customs without having to read a boring history book. And no, I’m not saying that history books have no value or that no one should take a history class! What I’m saying is that reading a historical fiction novel can be an additional way of learning about the past in a very enjoyable way.

And having children read historical fiction is an especially good way to have them learn about historical places, people, and events in a way that may keep them very engaged in the story for a long time.

As Harry Truman once said –

“There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.”

I can’t even begin to say how long the list of historical facts is that I’ve learned simply by reading historical fiction. I certainly never retained any of this information by attending any history classes in school. Those classes largely consisted of memorizing dates of important events for the next surprise test!

What history classes never did for me was bring history alive. And that’s exactly what reading historical fiction does for me. It brings history alive in a way that makes it stay with me forever.

  • I would have never been able to picture the Yorkshire moors of turn-of-the-century England without reading A Woman of Substance by Barbara Taylor Bradford, or been able to imagine what it would take for a disadvantaged young girl to carve out the life she was so determined to have without reading the entire Emma Harte series.
  • I would never have known that a courageous woman helped hundreds of Jewish children flee the Nazis without having read Kristin Harmel’s The Book of Lost Names.
  • I would not know about what went on at the mysterious Bletchley Park in England during WWII without reading Kate Quinn’s The Rose Code.
  • I would have never had any insight into what happened in the Dark Ages without Ken Follett’s The Evening and the Morning, and wouldn’t know what it takes to build a great cathedral without The Pillars of the Earth. This epic series opened my eyes to a period of time that I didn’t necessarily know that I even had any interest in.
  • I also wouldn’t have known the true story of the heroic librarians at the American Library in Paris during WWII without Janet Skeslien Charles’s The Paris Library.
  • I wouldn’t have known about a love so strong that a king renounced his kingdom without Wendy Holden’s The Duchess.
  • I would know absolutely nothing about ley lines in England without Paula Brackston’s City of Time and Magic and the entire Found Things series.

In truth, the list of things I’ve learned from reading historical fiction is too long to include in a single post. Suffice it to say, that I feel rich in facts that I’ve learned and continue to learn with every book that I read.

This is why historical fiction is important.

Who Wrote the First Work of Historical Fiction?

Some consider Sir Walter Scott to be the trailblazer of historical fiction writing with his novel Waverley.

Sir Walter Scott was a Scottish poet, historian, and author who was born in 1771 and died in 1832. He grew up fondly hearing stories from his relatives about the Scottish Border and quickly became a voracious reader of all sorts of literary materials including poetry, history, drama, fairy tales, and even romance!

His earlier work consisted of poetic romances such as The Lady of the Lake, but it was The Waverley Novels, published anonymously between 1814 and 1832 that were considered to be the first works of historical fiction.

Historical fiction has been popular ever since the first Waverley novel was published in 1814.


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Last Updated on November 17, 2022 by Mary Elle

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