15 Best Books In Historical Nonfiction: A Deep Dive Into The Ocean Of Our History

Posted on Jul 31, 2023

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Written by Sarah Rexford

Home > Blog > Best Books, Non-Fiction, Pre-Writing > 15 Best Books In Historical Nonfiction: A Deep Dive Into The Ocean Of Our History

Some of the best books in historical nonfiction aren’t just history textbooks but real stories of individuals who overcame seemingly insurmountable odds. Their stories inspire our own. There is so much to learn about the history of America and the history of the world. 

In fact, there are innumerable reasons for studying the best books in historical nonfiction. Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, below are several ways a deep dive into this sub-genre can benefit your writing. Reading historical non-fiction can help you:

  • Pull ideas from historical events and lifestyles for world building 
  • Articulate the impact of your influence on the world today
  • Create inspiration for your fiction protagonists through captivating stories of real people
  • Provide an understanding of where you come from and how this influences where you are going 

The above are just a few reasons why reading this sub-genre is so helpful. But what exactly makes for the best books in historical nonfiction? What similarities do they each embody? 

What Makes For The Best Books In Historical Nonfiction?

While every book boasts varying qualities, often the best books in historical nonfiction include details of events and purposeful specificity of the individuals that humanize the past. No matter the odds these historical figures overcame, they were individuals much like us

In addition, regardless of the time period you choose to read up on, each section of history had its own unique struggles and achievements. Often, the best books in historical nonfiction are rated as such due to their attention to these crucial details. 

With this in mind, we now realize that the importance of detail does not just not just apply to fiction but to nonfiction as well. So, what are a few key features that the best authors of this sub-genre include? 

4 Key Features For Your Historical Nonfiction 

Many of our iconic stories fit into the category of best books in historical nonfiction. History is crucial to our present reality, and people of all ages study what’s come before in order to understand how to live in the present. The more you read historical nonfiction, the more the following features will likely jump out at you. Let’s start with key feature number one.

#1 – Unquestionable Fact Checking

While historical fiction is based on real events or characters but with creative liberties added, the best books in historical nonfiction pay the greatest attention to historical fact. The importance of unquestionable fact checking cannot be overstated. 

Whether you focus on a specific time period or individual, the details surrounding the theme of your book should be absolutely in alignment with the period and/or individual. Needless to say, this can take copious amounts of time, but your credibility will stand the test of critics as a result.

#2 – Respect For The Current Knowledge Base

At times, it can feel easy to judge the actions taken in the past based on the knowledge we have in the present. However, when writing historical nonfiction, authors must not only grasp the details of the time period but also understand the current knowledge of that time period. 

For instance, the bravery of those engaging with steam-powered automobiles in the 1700s should be respected. While today this may feel juvenile, for the time period, this type of power was groundbreaking.   

#3 – Unique Perspective 

Countless authors write on the various historical time periods our world has walked through. Due to individual upbringings, circumstances, and worldviews, each book holds a bit of a different perspective. It is next to impossible to write historical nonfiction without some form of bias. 

The best books in historical nonfiction often recognize this and contribute their unique perspective to the manuscript with intention. Writers should always adhere to historical fact, but while doing so, adding a unique perspective or fresh angle can add to the reader’s experience and expand their understanding of history. 

#4 – Humanizing The Time Period And People

If I were to name an extensive list of historical figures and events, specific, larger-than-life thoughts may come to mind. But with a closer look at each, the humanity and realism of history can be fleshed out. 

  • Benjamin O. Davis Jr. was not just a general in the USAF but the first African-American brigadier general in the USAF.
  • The figures in The Boys In The Boat likely experienced muscle cramps and soreness, just as we do. 
  • Lewis and Clark had to start fires and brave the cold as well as the heat.

The best books in historical nonfiction recognize the humanity that compounded the struggles these individuals faced as right alongside the unique difficulties of each time period. 

15 Best Books In Historical Nonfiction

Below is a list of top books in historical nonfiction. While this list is anything but exhaustive, you can use it as a helpful starting point to your reading list. The more you read the best books in historical nonfiction, the more you will soak up storytelling techniques that can inspire your next book.

  1. The Princess Spy, Larry Loftis
  2. The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom
  3. Prisoners of the Castle: An Epic Story of Survival and Escape, Ben Macintyre
  4. The Swerve: How The World Became Modern, Stephen Greenblatt 
  5. Dunkirk, Joshua Levine
  6. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot 
  7. The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank
  8. The Secret History of the World, Mark Booth
  9. Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad, Matthew F. Delmont
  10. Into Africa, Martin Dugard
  11. Life on the Mississippi: An Epic American Adventure, Rinker Buck
  12. The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown
  13. The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson 
  14. Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann 
  15. Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, Erik Larson

As you work through these works, look for the four key features mentioned above and note how each author employs them. 

Time To Take Your Plunge: How To Start

When you aspire to land your book in the best books in historical fiction, starting your draft can feel daunting. Don’t let fear, imposter syndrome, or the blinking cursor on the blank page keep you from writing. Of course, this is easier said than done! As you start your writing journey, consider these points:

  • Choose to start and remember you can edit later
  • Fact check as you go to combat an overwhelming task at the end
  • Never compare your first draft to a bestselling author’s final draft

If you are still struggling with getting started, ask yourself the following:

  • Is there a specific historical figure I enjoy studying? 
  • Is there a time period I am passionate about?
  • What unique angle could I share in my writing?

Remember that many people aspire to be writers, but it’s the brave dreamers who persevere and actually take that first step to begin. You too, can write a historical nonfiction book, and we’re excited to see what topic you choose! For more guidance on specific areas, feel free to check out the following resources:

Happy writing!

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