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What do you consider "historical"?

Historical Fiction

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Jun 25, 2016, 8:06pm Top

Hello group. I've been wondering how long ago a book needs to be set to be considered "historical fiction". My novel is set in 1997, following fictional characters dropped into true events.
So, is it "contemporary", "near contemporary", "historical", or "Near historical"?
What do you think?

Jun 25, 2016, 9:13pm Top

When was it published?

Jun 26, 2016, 4:15am Top

It's not historical if it's contemporary. Someone writing about things that have just happened is writing contemporary events, not historical. Just as Dickens is not historical fiction, even though today we sort of feel like it is, as he was depicting the conditions of life in that time. Also, not even 20 years is not history lol, it's still history-in-the-making.

Edited: Jun 26, 2016, 5:02am Top

I think I would make the break between what an author has experienced him/herself and what s/he only knows from research. But someone who writes about a time s/he didn't experience when a lot of readers did is asking to look like a fool.

Of course, even someone who was an adult 20 years ago would need to do a lot of research to get it right.

Edited: Jun 26, 2016, 6:53am Top

#4 - it's a thorny issue, but I think your definition is about the best one. I suppose we also tend to conceive it in terms of when we were born. I was born in 1966, so would have a bit of a hard time thinking of a novel set in the 1970s but written in 2016 as historical, whereas a reader born in the 1990s might more easily see it as such.

#3 - agree, though Tale of Two Cities and Barnaby Rudge were historical fiction, as they took place in 1794(ish) and 1780 respectively, considerably before Dickens was born in 1812.

Jun 26, 2016, 6:53am Top

touchstones not working for some reason.

Jun 26, 2016, 4:48pm Top

Here's a definition for historical fiction that someone gave to me:

In general, for a work to be considered historical fiction the author had to write it as such. Just because a book was written 50+ years ago doesn't mean it's historical. The author has to be writing about something set approximately 50 years in the past from their own time, not the reader's. So essentially, it doesn't matter whether the events depicted in a book are history now, it's whether or not they were historical events at the time the book was written.

Jun 26, 2016, 10:13pm Top

Anything about events set in my lifetime is not historical. :-)

Jun 27, 2016, 11:17am Top

It's all fairly arbitrary, really. If "historical fiction" means writing with the toolkit and mentality of an historian, then it doesn't really matter when the book is set; if it means preferring to read about characters from the past, then you might not be too worried about when the book was written. But if you're going to use a term like "historical fiction" it's helpful if most people use it in roughly the same way, so the "fifty-year" and "author's-lifetime" rules are convenient ways of narrowing it down a bit.

One example that comes to mind is Mary Renault. She's most famous for a string of books set in ancient Greece that are indisputably categorised as historical fiction (mostly written in the 1950s and 60s). She also wrote a novel called The Charioteer, which is set in a military hospital during World War II and is consequently very much involved in real historical events. It has been read and enjoyed by a lot of the people who read her Greek novels, probably for much the same reasons, and it's in the same kind of intellectual space, but most of us wouldn't call it historical fiction because we know that she worked in military hospitals during the war herself and was drawing on her own experience. So the label differs, but who cares?

(MR also wrote some high-end doctor/nurse romances in the thirties, but they don't have much in common with her later work apart from a few indirect hints at same-sex relationships.)

Edited: Jun 28, 2016, 3:01am Top

I think Historical Fiction is defined differently by everyone... it is very personal. Personally it should be over 50-75 years old and a work of fiction (not an autobiography written as a novel). It must reflect the attitudes and practice of the time and make some attempt to mimic the language of the times... If it is set in the first century some attempt should be made to avoid all modern idioms or jargon... nothing puts me off more than to read modern British slang and F-bombs in books set in the first century AD such as used in Under the Eagle by Simon Scarrow.

That aside this is a definition I like. Now you may not believe in their definition but it supports my view and that is fine by me. Nowhere in their discussion does time enter into their definition.


"..... So historical fiction is a close relative of history, but not simply a retelling of the lectures we learned to dread in high school. We write historical fiction, and read it, not to learn about history so much as to live it. It is the closest we can get to experiencing the past without having been there. We finish a history and think "So that's what happened!" We finish a work of historical fiction, catch our breath, and think "So that's what it was like!"....."

Also... you can breakdown some Historical Fiction further. There is Historical Romance fiction, Historical Mystery, Historical Military fiction and if I thought long enough I might think of a few other subdivisions.

Jun 27, 2016, 4:21pm Top

As I catalog for my day job in a public library, I have to make this call a lot. I agree that >4 MarthaJeanne: is probably closest. Also, whether the intent is for the reader to learn about an era they are unfamiliar with - my threshold for juvenile historical fiction is much more recent than adult historical fiction.

Currently, I'm just starting to mark things set in the fifties as historical fiction (for adults). Even though the sixties predate me, they still seem recent enough, and with enough people who remember them firsthand, to not be historical. For juvenile materials, I have marked things into the seventies as historical.

Jun 27, 2016, 10:46pm Top

Your question is the million $ question amongst historical fiction readers/writers. Personally, I think that the story must be based on or loosely related to a real event or person of that era. However, I know that my stance is not the popular one!

Jun 28, 2016, 2:46am Top

So you would say that if, like Poor Man's Tapestry, the story is about completely fictional humble people, not involved in any way with the great events of the period, it's not a historical novel?

What then would you call such a book?

Jun 28, 2016, 2:58am Top

Mate, you're not thinking very hard! You've overlooked Historical Westerns, Historical Science Fiction, Historical Vampire fiction, Historical Chick Lit, Historical Erotic fiction, to name a few genres off the top of my head...

Jun 28, 2016, 3:11am Top

>13 dajashby: I don't know how I missed Historical Westerns... I think Historical Erotic/ Chic Lit comes under Historical Romance. I think Historical Science Fiction is a bit of a stretch I suppose you would put Jules Verne and H.G. Wells in that category but I would treat them as just SciFi. There is one book I read that I gave the tags Historical Fiction, Fantasy as half the book took place in London during the time of Charles I and the rest was in a fantasy land I, Coriander

Jun 28, 2016, 7:39am Top

>14 dajashby:, that takes me back. I haven't read any good Historical Science Fiction since I was a member of the Loner's Club, sipping a cool glass of dehydrated water.

Edited: Jun 28, 2016, 8:39am Top

>7 EadieB:
In general, for a work to be considered historical fiction the author had to write it as such. Just because a book was written 50+ years ago doesn't mean it's historical. The author has to be writing about something set approximately 50 years in the past from their own time, not the reader's.

I think the "fifty years" criteria comes into it because in historical fiction there is an implication that some tipping point number of the people looking at the book, writer or reader, won't have direct experience of the era. I remember the Vietnam War, and Watergate, and these things are not "historical" to me so much as ingredients in the stew that is still part of my lifetime. But the time is coming when the vestiges of that war -- the people who fought it, reported it (Michael Herr!!) protested it (Daniel Berrigan!), lived with it -- will be gone from us. They are all disappearing even now. And the Vietnam War's status as "history" solidifies as more and more of them are lost.

1997? Not so much. I still have a couple books I bought in 1997 I haven't got round to reading yet.

Edited: Jun 28, 2016, 12:29pm Top

>17 southernbooklady:
I agree that a lot of historical fiction is written by the author who researched the era instead of actually experiencing the era. Plus we are also speaking about a fiction account instead of true history facts so there can also be characters that are not real.

Jun 28, 2016, 7:15pm Top

Lawks a mercy, sir! Pray fetch the smelling salts! Clearly you are a cleaning living fellow who reads neither romance nor erotica if you think you can conflate the genres. I wouldn't expect you to have read any chic lit, but trust me it's got its own conventions.

I know Verne and Wells wrote SF, but according to your definition their books were written - and obviously set - in the past, therefore making them historical novels. The genre sub-category is just the jam on the scone.

Jun 28, 2016, 11:15pm Top

>19 dajashby: Back in the day their books were written, they would probably be called Steampunk but that category did not exist then.

Jun 29, 2016, 2:57pm Top

>20 Lynxear: I don't think you can use that argument. We're talking about time-travellers. They would have known all about the names of future literary genres.

Jun 29, 2016, 7:32pm Top

Jun 29, 2016, 8:20pm Top

There you are, another category, Historical Steampunk! On your own admission, time has nothing to do with it, what matters that the category exists now. And it only looks to you like steampunk because you find the technology quaint.

Of course Historical SF, according to your definition, would have to include much more recent books set on Earth as we know it, it's not all space opera you know. What about novels written - and set - in the 1950s, like The Midwich Cuckoos? All those Zenna Henderson stories of the aliens among us?

I've thought of some more genres. Historical comic novels, starting with everything P. G. Wodehouse ever wrote; Historical crime, with its associated sub-categories of police procedural, whodunnit and private eye; and Historical spy stories - I'm sure you would consider The Spy Who Came In From The Cold a really great historical novel, wouldn't you?

Jun 30, 2016, 12:57am Top

>23 dajashby: Break down of genre can be endless and really why do we get our nickers in a twist over it. "The Spy who Came in from the Cold" is a great novel... I read it decades ago. Perhaps you could create a Historical Thriller fiction category but more and more I am just drifting to multiple tags to describe a book.

By that I mean, "Historical Fiction, Thriller" or "Historical Fiction, Espionage"

For Jules Verne and other SciFi writers of long ago you could make a tag "Science Fiction, Historical". I like putting the SciFi first because that is really the intent of the author at the time (I imagine) but adding Historical to the tag then marks the settings time.

I doubt there are any hard/fast rules on this... I do it in LT to quickly find a book in my digital library.

Jun 30, 2016, 2:43am Top

It's all the same to me. You're the one who wanted to categorise historical novels by genre, I'm just trying to help ;-D

Jun 30, 2016, 10:44am Top

Yes but you carried it to an extreme

Jun 30, 2016, 11:37pm Top

Did I? Where should I have stopped?

Jul 3, 2016, 12:45am Top

>13 dajashby: I have not read the book, so I would be hesitate to categorize it. However, historical fiction doesn't have to be about great events or people of the period, it can be about the common ordinary man.

Jul 3, 2016, 3:16am Top

So, it doesn't have to be "based on or loosely related to a real event or person of that era"? I'm sorry, we seem to have a linguistic dissonance here!

Trust me, it is a historical novel, and a very good one too. It's just that it's not clear exactly when the story is taking place, not that it matters. Some time after the Norman Conquest but before Stephen and Matilda will suffice.

Jul 3, 2016, 7:33pm Top

Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres and I define it as anything up to and including WWII. If the author is contemporary to the setting (Dickens comes to mind) that still makes it historical fiction. In other words, I base it on how contemporary (or historical) it is to me.

Jul 3, 2016, 7:58pm Top

It was published in April of 2016

Jul 3, 2016, 8:14pm Top

Thanks everyone. Wow what a box I opened! Okay then, change the question a little: Would you consider the novel Contemporary? I hate categorizing but can't seem avoid it, and "General fiction" could not be more bland a description.

Jul 4, 2016, 4:45am Top

>32 Kathj2:
I think you'll find that if you go into any group devoted to a particular subject and ask them what the limits of the subject are, you will get a similar discussion. That's all part of the fun.

Writers of general fiction used to be very cautious about committing themselves to dates, knowing that it would hit sales in ten years' time when potential readers spotted that the book wasn't "contemporary" any more. Hence all those Victorian novels which are set "in the city of L____ in the autumn of the year 18__". These days publishers probably can't afford to think further than about six months ahead...

Oct 5, 2016, 4:37pm Top

I got to hear Cara Black speak at a local library. She told us how she was at one author talk explaining how her series was set in the 1990's, a young girl raised her hand and said - so you write historical fiction.

Loved Ms Black showing her reaction - the 90s - historical?

Gave us "old" folks a good laugh.

Oct 6, 2016, 7:46am Top

>33 thorold:, that's interesting, and probably true. Another reason, the one I'd heard, was that pinning locales and dates was thought at the time to interfere with readers' imaginations, that leaving them blank would permit a wider range of possibilities to envision.

Group: Historical Fiction

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