Only in the Past

(A/N: Post title is taken from the song of the same name by The Be Good Tanyas.)

What exactly is historical fiction, anyway?

I’ve been actively writing it for five months now, and thought about writing it for at least two years prior to that.  But it’s only in the past two months that I’ve actually stopped to ponder what historical fiction is really all about as a category of novels.

I have a blogger that I follow to thank for this period of reflection.  Over at the blog entitled On Becoming a Wordsmith, historical fiction writer Elaine Cougler has been generating good discussion on this topic, starting with this post and continuing with this one.

According to Elaine (quoting Wikipedia), at its simplest, historical fiction is defined as follows:

Historical fiction tells a story that is set in the past. That setting is usually real and drawn from history, and often contains actual historical persons, but the main characters tend to be fictional. Writers of stories in this genre, while penning fiction, attempt to capture the manners and social conditions of the persons or time(s) presented in the story, with due attention paid to period detail and fidelity.

From what I gather from the discussion over at Elaine’s blog, the historical fiction genre (and I use the term “genre” very loosely here, as the second post I’ve linked above raises the issue of whether historical fiction is truly a genre at all), can be further divided into two broad subcategories:

a) Stories that contain actual historical personages and historically accurate events.

b) Stories in which the era and location they’re set in is historically accurate, but the characters (and perhaps even the events as well) are fictitious.

Type A and Type B (genre-ly speaking)

Subcategory A stories would include novels like Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, Margaret George’s The Memoirs of Cleopatra, and anything by the prolific Sharon Kay Penman.

Subcategory B novels, meanwhile, range from full-on period pieces like Sarah Dunant’s The Birth of Venus and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series to more literary-friendly titles like Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees.

Such variation among stories of the past is the very reason some argue there’s no such thing as a codified “historical fiction” genre.

Another point in favour of this argument is the fact that, unlike, for example, Mystery or Romance or Fantasy or even General Fiction, there is no specific “Historical Fiction” section in bookstores.  Instead, novels that take place in the past just get lumped under whatever legitimate genre they happen to fall under, namely, Mystery or Romance or Fantasy or General Fiction, etc.

As I commented over at Elaine’s blog, I tend to prefer historical novels from Subcategory B. One reason for this is because stories about historical figures often lack a sense of mystery and suspense over what’s going to happen for anyone already familiar with that period of history and its major players.

Another reason is because, nine times out of ten, the historical figures in historical novels are those from the upper classes of society – kings and queens, important noblemen/noblewomen, or one of the aforementioned’s court favourites.

This is understandably the case, as these are the people who are the subjects of recorded history.  Regardless, I’m generally not interested in reading about the struggles of a society’s most highly privileged members.  I’d rather learn about what life was like for those of slightly less social standing, if not those with little to no standing at all.

I want to read about those who had to work hard for everything in a society that treated them even harder – about the historical equivalents of either myself or people that I know.

Finally, I tend to be less interested in specific people in history than I am the society that gave rise to them – an idea that I’ll address in greater detail in an upcoming post.

“C” is for “compromise”

Lucky for me, referring back to the Wikipedia definition of historical fiction reveals yet another subcategory of stories from the past: those that “often [contain] actual historical persons, but the main characters tend to be fictional”.

This is a perfect description of my novel-in-progress.  In my story, there are about six real people from history who are mentioned by name but are never observed in-scene.  Rather, they operate in the background, living their own historically-accurate lives, not interacting with the fictional characters per se, but nonetheless carrying out actions that impact the fictional characters further on down the line.

I believe subcategory C to be an excellent compromise between subcategories A and B.  It allows those who love their historical figures to thrill at seeing a familiar name mentioned; meanwhile, those history buffs who prefer to be surprised by the story also get to do just that.  Those who aren’t well-read in history going in but want to learn a bit through fiction can find enjoyment in subcategory C books as well.

And it all three cases, the reader gets to relish the experience of fully-wrought manners and societies from an era that, outside the pages of textbooks or stories, exists now only in the past.


Writers of historical fiction, which subcategory is your favourite for your own work?  Historical readers and movie-goers, which is your favourite?  Consider leaving a comment.

Related post: Building a History

2 thoughts on “Only in the Past

  1. Thanks for the references to my posts, Janna, and to the the excellent and thought-provoking comments they sparked. Isn’t the discussion itself interesting because of all the points of view? I really love to hear what other readers and writers have going on in their heads. Great post!


    • Thanks for the comment, Elaine. As I mentioned over at your blog, I’m still a relative newcomer to this “genre”. I enjoyed the discussion there because prior to it, I was so focused on just writing, I hadn’t devoted any real thought to what precisely I was writing, genre-wise. I’m still a long way off from submitting anything, but it’s helpful to scope out the lay of the land ahead of time.


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