What is Historical Fiction? An Author’s Guide with Examples and Tips

Posted on Apr 14, 2022

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Written by Gloria Russell

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If you checked out and read every Royal Diaries and Dear America book you could get your little-kid hands on, I have a prediction: you grew up to love historical fiction. How do I know? I was that kid.

There’s something magical about historical fiction. It combines the intrigue of exploring a fantasy world with groundedness—reading good historical fiction teaches you about how different people lived in different time periods.

That said, it might seem intimidating to write historical fiction. You might be a passionate fan of Downton Abbey, but that doesn’t make you an expert in Edwardian or Interwar England.

Does this mean you’re not suited to write the Edwardian romance of your dreams? Of course not! 

Consider this article a crash course in historical fiction. We’re going to cover what historical fiction is, what different types there are, give you some reading recommendations, and cover some tips and tricks for writing your own.

What is historical fiction? 

Historical fiction is fiction that takes place in some specific era of the past. The events and characters might not have literally happened, but they’re rooted in the time period. In other words, while they didn’t actually happen, they could have happened.

Is historical fiction real, fake, or in between? 

This is where it can get a little confusing: is historical fiction real or fake? Is it considered nonfiction because of its roots in the real world, or is it fiction because of the made-up characters and events?

Let’s consider a hypothetical contemporary novel set in New York City. The book references specific streets and locations in New York City and portrays the setting accurately—if you were to go there, you’d see what the author described. However, the book is fiction. The characters aren’t real people. The events in the book didn’t actually happen. You could go to New York City and ride the trains, but you wouldn’t run into the novel’s protagonist.

This is how historical fiction works. The setting is grounded in historical accuracy, but it isn’t literally real. Downton Abbey, for example, is based on a family that existed, but Mary Crawley never did.

So, is historical fiction real? Sort of, and not really. Reading well-researched historical fiction will teach you a lot about a given time period. It is still, however, fiction, because the characters and their interactions aren’t real. The Titanic really did sink, but Patrick Crawley, heir to Downton Abbey, was not on it.

A quick note on creative historical nonfiction: some readers confuse historical fiction and historical nonfiction, and it’s easy to see why. The difference is that creative historical nonfiction is depicting real events which actually happened to real people, and it strives to depict these events accurately. Creative nonfiction just leans on more creative and descriptive prose, so it reads more like a novel than your typical nonfiction read.

What are some examples of historical fiction?

If you’re going to write historical fiction, you’ll have to read historical fiction—a lot of it. If you’re not sure where to start, here are a few reading recommendations.

1. Atonement by Ian McEwan

2. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

3. Beloved by Toni Morrison

4. The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah 

5. Half Life by Jillian Cantor 

Types of historical fiction

Like any genre, historical fiction is an umbrella term which covers a huge variety of stories. Before you sit down to write a historical fiction novel, you’ll want to have an idea of what type of historical fiction you’re working with. This will help you know what sorts of genre expectations and tropes your audience expects, and it will help you search for historical fiction to read.

This list isn’t all-inclusive, but it does cover most of the historical fiction you’ll come across. Also, take note that some historical fiction will fall under several types. Outlander by Diana Galbadon is a historical romance, since its primary plot revolves around the love story between Claire and Jaime. It’s also a time travel story, since Claire meets Jaime by time traveling back to eighteenth-century Scotland.

1. Historical romance

As the name implies, these are romances that take place in the past. An Edwardian romance, for example, would follow a love story between two people in Edwardian England. Historical romances often have tropes specific to certain time periods, so make sure to read widely within the time period you’re writing to get a sense of what audiences expect.

2. Biographical historical fiction

Biographical historical fiction throws some people off. I’ve been saying that historical fiction is a real-world setting with made-up characters, and that’s mostly true. Sometimes, though, historical fiction includes people who did actually exist. Biographical historical fiction is one such example of this type of historical fiction.

Biographical historical fiction tells us a fictional account of a real person’s life. The subject of the novel did exist, but the events in the novel didn’t necessarily happen. This can be ethically complicated, since authors (ideally) strive to respect the memory of whoever they’re writing about as they fill in the blanks.

3. Historical adventures or mysteries

Historical adventures, mysteries, and thrillers are the same as their contemporary counterparts in terms of plot structure. They just take place in the past, and the conflict will obviously be steered by the specifics of the historical setting. Again, historical mysteries and adventures have tropes specific to certain time periods, so read extensively!

4. Alternate history

In an alternate history story, the author takes a point in history and considers what would happen if things were different. What if the Titanic hadn’t sunk? What if Rome never fell? What if Christopher Columbus landed on a different shore?

This fiction is obviously more speculative in nature, but it’s still rooted in an accurate understanding of events. If an author wanted to write an alternate history where Rome never fell, for example, their story would be informed by what Rome was like, what caused it to fall, and how the empire would have interacted with the rest of the world. In other words, the changes are motivated by an accurate understanding of the time period.

5. Historical epics or sagas

A historical epic will extend over a long period of time and cover the story of an entire era. It’s common for historical epics to follow a specific family or group of people over the course of a period of historical change. Downton Abbey is a great example.

Tips for writing your historical fiction novel

You’re ready to write a historical fiction novel! Before you get started, here are a few tricks to help you along the way.

1. Research your setting

It’s vital to do your research when writing historical fiction. You’re not expected to have a PhD in history or anything, and history involves a lot of guesswork. However, this guesswork is educated, and it should be rooted in the real information you’ve read. Little, fact-checkable details should be verified, and all errors should be corrected before the book is published.

Here’s a famous example: you know how in Pirates of the Caribbean (and countless, countless other works), Keira Knightley faints because her corset is too tight? That’s historically inaccurate! It would be almost impossible to lace a corset in such a manner that it would make someone faint, and in fact, most corsets were very comfortable and supportive for the wearer.

Fans of the era you’re writing in will notice things like this, and if you clearly didn’t do your research, it will turn them off. It’ll also create problems for you when it comes time to plot—if you don’t know what could happen, it’s hard to make a story that’s really rooted in the setting.

2. Work in exposition naturally

Historical fiction involves some worldbuilding, much like fantasy does. Fantasy authors are always hearing that they should avoid info-dumps and clunky exposition, and guess what? It’s the same for historical fiction authors.

Don’t give your readers paragraphs explaining, in detail, how the table is set at a particular dinner. Your job isn’t to lecture—it’s to entertain. Readers will learn about the time period by observing the characters and setting. They’ll put a lot together on their own.

If you absolutely must explain something to the reader, you’ve got a few options. Keep it brief, and try to work it in organically. Maybe you explain who’s in line for the throne by having two characters argue about it. This keeps the reader entertained and prevents the story from coming to a halt in the name of a history lecture.

3. Root the conflict in the setting

The setting and time period should drive the conflict. Readers seek out historical fiction because they want to escape into that era for a little while—the story should be steeped in its setting.

Consider The Duke Heist by Erica Ridley. Much of the conflict comes from the fact that the love interest (and the antagonist, because Erica Ridley is a genius) is a duke, while Chloe is not. The real social hierarchy from that time period creates conflict—the characters have to navigate the intricacies of their world in order to be together.

How do you know if your plot is heavily tied to your story? Ask yourself if the plot would be exactly the same if you set it in the modern day. If so, you may need to rework it.

4. Keep dialogue accessible

Ah, the Wuthering Heights problem. For those not in the know: in Wuthering Heights, there’s a character named Joseph who speaks with a heavy Yorkshire dialect. Emily Bronte spells this dialect out phonetically, or the way it sounds, and this makes it almost impossible to understand. Scholars still debate over some sections of Joseph’s dialogue and speculate about what he might be saying.

Here’s the lesson we take away from this: while you do want to include historical details in dialogue to keep it grounded, you don’t want to make it confusing for the reader. Someone who doesn’t know anything about the time period should be able to read the dialogue and understand what’s being said. Slang, regional dialects, and accents should be used sparingly, and never in a way that confuses the meaning.

A quick note: in my humble opinion, exclamations and expletives are the best place to put period-specific slang.

5. Write from an interesting perspective

As I mentioned before, Outlander is a time-travel historical romance. Because Claire is going back in time, she’s learning about eighteenth century Scotland alongside the reader. This makes exposition much easier, and the unique vantage point creates interesting conflict throughout the story. Claire is also a woman, which means she’s not in a position of power, and that heavily influences the way she’s treated.

When you write your historical romance, consider the perspective from which you’re writing. What’s your in? How are we getting to the historical period in question, and how does the main character’s identity inform their experience in this period?

A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin isn’t historical fiction, but it is a good example to look at here. He writes heavily from the perspectives of marginalized people in a very patriarchal and ableist power structure. This means his characters are constantly fighting, and this means much of the conflict arises very naturally from the world he’s built.

Next steps

Now that you know a thing or two about historical fiction, it’s time to write! We have free training that will help you get a jumpstart on your fiction book(s). Click the banner below to learn more.

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