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What is Historical Fiction?
Set the Wayback Machine for 1857!

Do you know? I write historical fiction and am not always sure I do.

There are a few definitions I've come across more often than others.

One definition is that historical fiction is a work set before the author's lifetime. If I wrote a novel about Al Capone in 1930, I would be writing historical fiction. So far, so good. But under this definition, the category of the novel changes depending on the author. If my grandmother wrote a novel about Al Capone, I guess, it would not be historical fiction.

I've noticed that the oldest person in the world seems to be routinely between 110 and 116 years old. Taking the latter age, crossing it with today's date, it means that a novel could be written now (by that 116 year old) taking place in 1893 and not be historical fiction.

To determine what qualifies under this definition, readers would be expected to know the age of an author when he or she first finished the book. That's somewhat impractical. Do people always tell the truth about their age? Poe lied about his age. And what if a book is published anonymously or under a pen name? What if a novel is published posthumously? What if an author is an extreme recluse, like Thomas Pynchon?

Does it matter where the reader fits in as far as the lifetime metric goes? If the world's oldest person reads a novel set twenty five years ago written by a twenty year old novelist, does the definition evolve?

Let us look at another of the popular definitions. This one defines historical fiction as a work set at least fifty years before it is written. This replaces the importance of who is writing with when he or she is writing. Does fifty years make sense to you as the right amount of time? Why not twenty years, one hundred years, or one day in the past? How do we decide where to draw this line?

Even if fifty years does click with us, there are many points of confusion for this definition, too. First, it puts the burden on a reader interested in the definition to know when the novel was written. This can be tricky, even trickier than determining the age of an author. Perhaps the copyright page says 2009, for instance, but we should remember it is not unusual for a writer to finish a novel at a certain date, but publish it only years later or even posthumously.

What if a novel set in 1959 is started by an 18 year old author in 1985, finished in 1999 by a ghost writer who is 112, and published in 2010 after both authors have died?

Some new high school math problems!

There are other more complicated criteria to try to judge the title question of this post. Must historical fiction display a certain amount of fidelity to history to qualify? If so, how much? A book might be set three hundred years ago, but be injected with large quantities of fantasy or supernatural elements. Would that be historical fiction? Historical romance? Alternate history? Fantasy? All of the above? What if a novel is divided into chapters set in the present day and chapters set many years ago, like my friend Katherine Howe's terrific debut The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane?

I've found it interesting at times people have said to me that they really like historical fiction books like mine and The Da Vinci Code. Interesting because The Da Vinci Code is set entirely in the present! But it and its characters are engaged in history, and certainly that would appeal to self-identified historical fiction readers. In that category, my friend Daniel Levin's The Last Ember, an exciting thriller set in the present with archeology characters tackling the subject of the past--in a way the characters themselves are engaged in historical fiction.

Those who follow my posts might notice I don't really like categories or genres for books. My books have been filed in various categories by bookstores or media, including historical fiction, mystery and literary fiction. I don't mind my books being categorized by other people or entities, whether readers, journals, libraries or bookstores. However, the categories do nothing for me as a writer and I prefer to think of each book as a story, period, without requiring some other possibly restrictive label.

Obviously, if bookstores had no categories, they would be far too difficult to navigate. Some methods of organization might prove more challenging for browsers than others. There is one bookstore outside of Boston called New England Mobile Book Fair where the books are categorized by publisher! As someone who is nostalgic for a time when publishers had more distinctive identities, part of me likes that idea very much.

You know my qualms about saying I'm a writer, but I'm very content to say The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow, and The Last Dickens are historical fiction.

If an author chooses to position a book as historical fiction, I accept that. I like seeing a book through the lens of its own ambitions, even if it yields cloudier distinctions among books.

Check out my post about whether there are “ethics” in historical fiction.

In the meantime, what do you think of the definitions of historical fiction? Do you have a better one? How important are categories or labels to you when purchasing, borrowing, reading or writing a book?


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Historical fiction

It's a marketing term, that's all. It helps booksellers know what shelf or category to put it in/on. I'm pitching my novel as "historical" when writing to agents, but I really think of it as dealing with universal and current themes: great city vs. anti-city (e.g., New York and the Salafists who destroyed the twin towers, or Sarajevo and the anti-urban Serb nationalists who bombarded it, or Kabul and Lahore and Beirut and all the other cities attacked by people who fear modernity. It just happens that, for narrative clarity, I've set my novel in the 1402 Ottoman siege of Constantinople, so agents and editors are likely to think it's "historical".

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A good question, Matthew

I suspect that any work dating before circa 1950 (or even the end of Vietnam) is historical, but the world moves on so fast that when 1990s style is considered 'retro', you have to wonder!

Twenty or thirty years ago antiques had to be over a hundred years old. Since then, it's become fifty, or less, according to the item's desirability to purchasers.

My Berkeley Trilogy is 'faction', that is novelised biography, rather than historical fiction. It only acquires the fiction label because I've chosen to employ imagination in bringing this story to life in novel form. Which is not without its problems of construction if I am to have strict fidelity to what appears to be the truth.

Although, historical novels are generally not considered literary, my own favourite genre is the literary version, as in William Golding's Rites of Passage, or Margaret Forster's Lady's Maid.The list is endless.

Here's a link to the Historical Novel Society's definition: