"History tells us what people do; historical fiction helps us imagine how they felt.”
- Author Guy Vanderhaeghe
Welcome to the latest installment of our literary genre series. This month, we’ll take a closer look at historical fiction. Historical fiction is more than just a story set sometime in the past -- good historical fiction can help bring the past to life.
While the general definition -- “fiction set in the past” – may technically be true, it doesn’t completely describe what historical fiction is, nor does it capture the essence or soul of the genre. When trying to define it a bit more specifically, there are a few questions that historical fiction writers and publishers have considered. For instance, how far in the past should a novel be set to be considered historical? Two years? Twenty years? Two hundred years? Also, whose past are we talking about? The reader’s past or the author’s past? The Great Gatsby, for example, was written in 1925 and it also takes place in the early 1920s. While it is set more than 90 years in our past and certainly gives the reader a good idea about life in the Roaring Twenties, it’s not truly what we think of as “historical fiction.”
A useful working definition of historical fiction is that it refers to a work which is set 50 or more years in the past, and one in which the author is writing from research rather than personal experience. Depending on who you ask, however, the criteria can be more or less strict. The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, for example, limits the definition to events that take place at least 60 years before publication, during a historical period with which the author has no personal experience.
Good historical fiction is much more than just a “costume drama” with modern characters walking around in period dress; in many ways, the story will be researched and written in such a way that it feels as if it could not have taken place at any other time in history. Accuracy and authenticity of the historical setting are essential. Additionally, the worldview of the characters -- their values, behaviors, and general sensibilities -- should accurately reflect their era. Of course, many historical novels, though set in the past, do have themes that can easily relate back to present time.
Immerse yourself in the past with some of these historical novels and movies!