Tag Archives: what is historical fiction

What is Historical Fiction?

A repost from a while back, since this discussion keeps popping back up!!

I recently got entrenched in a discussion about the true nature of historical fiction, i.e. what is it? what is the true definition? how does an author keep the integrity of history while maintaining a creative license? and so forth….

So, here are my thoughts, as well as some of the comments from the discussion. In definition, the Google definition of historical fiction, it reads: is defined as movies and novels in which a story is made up but is set in the past and sometimes borrows true characteristics of the time period in which it is set. A novel that makes up a story about a Civil War battle that really happened is an example of historical fiction.

Sometimes, I feel, it is hard to define the difference between being a FICTION author and holding true to history. We are, after all, not historians, but we want to represent history as true, or at least to the extent that is commonly accepted as truth in our society. But, to be fair, even some historians who research and research history often have conflicting accounts about what is true and what is not true. How should this affect the historical fiction author? ‘Tis a quandary….

Here is where I will share some of the comments in the discussion. Please read and share your thoughts in the comment section below:

Paula Lofting, moderator of the Historical Writer’s Forum, opened the discussion with this:

“What is the best definition of historical fiction and does it mean that it should be as accurate an depiction of a time and its events, or should there be a free for all with the facts, after all its fiction isn’t it type attitude?

Personally this is my view – I like my historical fiction to be as true to the time, events, and environmental settings as possible. I am more bothered about the atmosphere, costumery, architecture, and landscape than I am by the language and events, however I prefer to write these as accurately as possible when I am writing myself. If I am reading historical fiction then the story must come first because there is no point in having an accurate read if the plot or story line is boring and dull. and story is dull. Secondly I want the characters to ‘look’ like someone of that time, what they wear etc, daily life, what buildings they lived in etc, creating an atmosphere that makes me feel i’m in the for example 15thc, Lastly, if it is about fictional characters then of course the story is a made up one and this goes without saying, but where the facts are changed to suit the story, I would prefer they weren’t but I don’t mind if they are as long as the author leaves a historical note explaining where they have used their author’s licence. Where the facts are missing, I’m happy to allow the author to fill in the facts with plausible explanations.”

To which, led to some of these comments:

Rachel McDonough: Try to be as accurate as you can, otherwise what is the point of it being historical fiction. Inaccuracies can take the reader out of the story. The history is part of the experience, so get it right!

Julie Newman: Historical fiction is a story within a story, but you have to do your research and make sure you know as many of the historical facts as possible. The reader will discard your work if there are any discrepancies. Given that history is always changing the more we unearth but we need to be true to the facts of the time.

Rachel V Knox: It depends a little bit on what you’re writing. If it’s fiction set in a time there’s more freedom so maybe the story comes first. I’ve just written one based on real people, so the story was restricted to facts, making researching facts foremost to the story which developed based on that.

Kate Jewell: I like to be as accurate as I can be with the historic events, politics etc. And the social history side especially travelling times. (Fun to research that stuff!)

Language is a bit more of a problem. I want the reader to get a flavour of the period through the language used by my characters but not being so pedantic that I loose them. I’ve been surprised several times when looking up an alternative word or phrase that would fit the 15th C better to find that what I thought of first was actually in use during my period. Something to do with being immersed in the period maybe!

Of course, the writer of Historical Fiction lays him/herself open to all sorts of dangers, not least the discovery of facts unknown at the time of writing that could make a nonsense of their original plot. The archeology that has been done to determine the exact site of the Bosworth battle field for example. And the dIscovery of Richard III and the analysis of his dna. How many books describe him as having dark eyes and black hair?

Kerry Lynne Smith: How do we (both reader and writer) know what the “facts” really are? Anyone who has studied history for long comes to realize that it’s an ever-evolving, constantly changing. What was thought of as “fact” forty or even twenty years ago is now laughed at as folly. The more adamant one insists that they know what “really happened” the more they show their ignorance. All the HF writer can do is use what “facts” are satisfying to them and their purpose. It’s then up to the reader to decide if it is or isn’t pleasing, satisfactory to whatever their perceptions and expectations are.