It seems pretty straightforward: historical fiction is fiction set in the past.
Adapted from Saricks, here are some characteristics of historical fiction:
- Frame and setting: a wealth of historical detail about social and cultural setting, as well as character and events.
- Mood can run the gamut from somber to spooky to lighthearted.
- Story lines: May follow a particular historical event, or may follow the life of a character, real or fictitious. May confront difficult, or anachronistic, social issues through the plot.
- Language and style evoke the time period, and affect the reader’s experience.
- Pacing can be more measured, unfolding a long and complex story at a leisurely* pace densely written with detail.
(*not always true of YA fiction, where a teen reader might lose patience with a slower-paced book that doesn’t get to the action fast enough.)
Historical fiction is fiction that chronicles past events, where the stories told and characters created are closely tied to their particular time and place. Sometimes, historical fiction is tied to real people and their experience, or focuses on a particular well-known historical figure. Sometimes, the story focuses on what Kathryn Lasky calls “keyhole history,” the experience of an ordinary person experiencing larger, extraordinary historical events.
Writing historical fiction takes a blend of imagination and research. Research, to create and evoke a setting full of the rich details that appeal to readers and draw them in. Imagination because, of course, the author can only reconstruct and guess at what characters might have felt, or hoped or dreamed, or how the large trends and events of their historical setting might have impacted a character’s day-to-day life.
Because many historical narratives center on strong female characters, plot and character details sometimes craft an uneasy truce with anachronism and social contexts of the time period, where striking the perfect balance and defining the scope of historical fiction become about as easy as nailing Jell-O to the wall.
Historical fiction is fiction that draws the reader away from the here and now, to read and learn and experience a shift in perspective, or maybe even a connection to the events of a time gone by.