Beginner’s Guide to Historical Fiction

By Rummanah Aasi and Michelle HooSang

Defining historical fiction seems like it should be straightforward–a novel that takes place in the past–but different people interpret it surprisingly differently. Questions arise, such as, how does one distinguish between  “historical”  and “contemporary,”  and does perspective matter?

What Is Historical Fiction?

While there is no concise answer to defining the historical fiction genre, there are a few working definitions. The Historical Novel Society defines historical fiction as, “a novel [that] must have been written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research).”  Reference librarian and associate professor Sarah L. Johnson takes a slightly different approach in defining the genre. She believes that a historical novel is “a novel which is set fifty or more years in the past, and one in which the author is writing from research rather than personal experience.”

When we asked staff members to define historical fiction, they also had various ideas. Their answers came down to one single question: how much history do you want in your book? 

Cheryl believes that  “historical fiction is usually re-imaginings of real events, places, or people; stories that are generally creative reconstructions of actual events or people.” Luke defines historical fiction “as any work of literature that includes historical events, styles, or culture with fictional characters, relationships, or events that can include pieces from sci-fi, mystery, and romance.”  For this beginner’s guide, we use a combination of these definitions.

Why We Read Historical Fiction

The appeal of historical fiction for the reader depends on what draws the reader to the novel. Perhaps it is a fascination with historical details, nostalgia, personal appeal, and learning something new.

Historical details: Michelle and I prefer historical fiction novels that are rich in historical detail. We have both enjoyed Lisa See’s Lady Tan’s Circle of Women. We were captivated by the medical practices of 15th-century China. We found ourselves interested in learning more about footbinding and female agency and referred to the author’s research notes on her website.

Nostalgia: Brenna says "reading historical fiction makes me nostalgic; I'm fascinated by the way families in these stories change and evolve over time.” Amy B. also loves intergenerational family stories. She states, "I think working through the lens of relationships and centering on people's experiences is what makes historical fiction work for me.”

Personal appeal: Nancy likes to read historical fiction because “As a second-generation Korean American, I’ve found historical fiction set in Korea to be an interesting way to learn about my historical roots.”

Unearthing something new: Vinny says it best, “I feel like I can learn something about a topic or a time period I’m interested in without reading a textbook!”

Types of Historical Fiction

 There are many groupings within the umbrella of historical fiction. Below are some of the popular groups and some examples:

Fictional biographies provide a fictional account of a contemporary or historical person's life, often embellished or reimagined.

Multigenerational family sagas trace the evolution of a single family through multiple (usually three) generations.

LGBTQ+ historical fiction centers LGBTQ+ issues in the past as themes.

Historical mysteries are set in a time considered historical from the author's perspective, and the central plot involves the solving of a mystery or crime (usually murder).

Historical romance focuses on romantic relationships in historical periods.

Historical fantasy is set in a specific historical period but with some element of fantasy added to the world.

Alternative history combines speculative fiction and history where one or more historical events have occurred but are resolved differently than in actual history. The author is asking, “what if?"

Historical horror is a subgenre of horror that deals with specific historical events.

We've learned that some readers appreciate learning about real people and lesser-known historical events while others prefer the historical ambience. Learning history might seem daunting to some who recall reading dry and dense history textbooks in school; however, historical fiction provides a great gateway to learning about history through a personal lens where we as readers get a first-hand look at what might have happened in a particular time. 

Need some recommendations? See some of our staff favorites for historical fiction.