There are a few questions that linger about how to define historical fiction.
Melissa Rabey explains the conundrum beautifully:
The phrase “like nailing Jell-O to a wall” takes on a particular significance when we try to define historical fiction. On the surface it seems easy: any novel set in the past. But like any simple definition, upon further consideration, it’s not so clear-cut. How long ago is “the past?” In a novel identified as historical fiction, how much should be based on fact and how much can be imagined by the author? And just how does the definition change when the novel is written for young adults? (Rabey 2012 p. 1)
The things that make defining historical fiction so slippery are:
How long ago counts as historical fiction? Thirty years ago? A generation? Sarah Johnson cuts it off at 1950. Melissa Rabey cuts her timeline for historical fiction off at 1980. The Teen Readers Advisor includes a couple of books using events of the mid-90’s as historic touchstones. What matters is that the reader feels a connection to a time that is definitely past, beyond their own experience.
How fictional is historical fiction allowed to be? Making sure to do research to the dates of battles right is one thing, but talking about historical fiction as a genre also raises questions about accuracy in a more general way, capturing the overall culture of the place in a way that makes sense. “The characters in history or fiction that we remember are those who kicked against the walls of their societies,” author Katherine Paterson has famously said. The question of accuracy and anachronism particularly comes up in YA literature around questions of girls’ independence and level of learning, and even girls’ safety while having exuberant adventures. (Anne Scott MacLeod casts a chilling shadow over the historical inaccuracies of The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, who emerges “unsullied” from a high seas adventure.)
Preoccupied with an analysis of historical fiction as a genre in terms of its social contexts and characterizations, The Distant Mirror, by Joanne Brown and Nancy St. Clair delves more deeply into these questions about context and authenticity.
Ultimately, beyond questions of accuracy and timing, what matters most is a good, engrossing story, that draws the reader fully in to its setting and its context.
The plot grows out of that setting. Whether evoking or invoking famous names from a history book, or concentrating on capturing an ordinary life in a historical context, what matters is that the setting is engrossing enough to draw the reader into a world beyond their experience, with enough research and description to make it immediate and real.
Yeah, that about nails it.