Characteristics of a Historical Fiction Novel

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Historical Fiction

Love history and love reading? Perhaps you are an ardent historian and want to write a novel? In either case, historical fiction could be the ideal genre for you. Historical fiction novels cover the entire span of history so you are bound to be able to find a story set in your perfect era. But what makes a great historical fiction?

A great historical fiction novel provides us with a window into another world; more than that, it inspires us to open a door to find out more about the era in which the story was set. Dry history text books, long on facts but short on drama, can often leech the life out of history, putting many of us off for life. But, approached from a different angle, driven by a well-crafted story with compelling characters, history can burst back into life.

All historical fiction books share some common features, so if you are a budding historical fiction writer, or a reader who wants to know more, here are the characteristics of a historical fiction novel.

Action, Adventure and History!

Whilst I do like historical romance, I'm also partial to some action and adventure. Historical fiction lends itself very well to battles, Crusades and derring-do! I've put together a list of some of my favourite historical fiction with action and adventure, hope you enjoy it too!

Definition of Historical Fiction

Historical fiction is fiction that is set in the past. The writer should be writing about a time period different from the one in which she is living. Some writers say that to qualify as historical fiction, a book must be written at least 50 years after the historical period it describes. Another way of looking at historical fiction is that the era in which it is set must be researched, not experienced.

Historical fiction should not be confused with novels actually written in the past. For instance, Pride and Prejudice is set at the turn of the 19th Century, but it is not historical fiction. At the time it was written, it was a contemporary novel, Jane Austen having written it around 1813. Hence, she was not reconstructing events, she was describing them from experience.

Bernard Cornwell - Journey from Historical Fiction Reader to Author

A Great Story

It seems obvious, but just like any other genre of novel, a historical fiction book needs to engage its readers with a great story. There should be a theme, conflict and resolution, all pulled together by believable characters and realistic dialogue. There needs to be a setting of course, which is where the historical detail comes in.

However, although meticulous research may result in superb historical details, it won't distract readers from a clunky plot and dull characters. The story must take centre stage; the historical setting should be woven into the plot with a deft touch, not stamped over the top of it.


Historical Fiction Sub-Genres

There is of course mainstream historical fiction, but there are plenty of sub-genres:

  • Swords and Sandals - The Romans, particularly with gladiators and/or legionaries.
  • The Age of Sail - Naval fiction, usually aboard British naval ships of the 18th and 19th century
  • Bodice Rippers - Historical romances.
  • Swords and Sorcery - really a sub-genre of fantasy, but related to historical fiction. Usually has an alternative historical element.
  • Historical Mysteries - whodunnits set in the past.
  • Western Historical - set in the American West

An Authentic Setting

If you are writing historical fiction you must provide your readers with historical accuracy. Many readers of historical fiction (and its sub-genres) are avid history fans and they simply won't accept historical inaccuracies. If you are planning on writing historical fiction, you will need to thoroughly research your historical setting.

Writing historical fiction is not the same as writing a fairy story. It's no good hoping that you can just make up what sort of castle the hero of your novel lives in; readers will not only know a motte and bailey castle from a concentric castle, but they will also know around when they were built, where they were to be found and have a pretty good idea of the daily routines of their occupants. If you are embarking on a historical fiction novel, don't fall into the trap of thinking that a wealth of imagination is going to make up for a lack of solid historical research. It won't!


The Historical Fiction Dialogue Dilemma

One of the things that can make or break historical fiction is the dialogue. People used to speak differently, but if the author tries to recreate this too accurately it can ruin the book. Trying to wade through reams of dialogue peppered with "forsooths, verily, thees and thous" can be tiresome, but conversely characters shouldn't sound contemporary. Perhaps the best compromise is where the author gives a flavour of the language of the times by choosing a few words or phrases that suggest the time period (and avoids modern phrases - OK!)


Compelling Characters

The characters in a historical fiction novel need not be real, but they do need to be realistic. Some authors do write fictionalise the stories of actual historical figures, which gives them a difficult task. The lives of famous people are well documented, so the story is constrained by accounts of their character and the events that actually happened to them.

This doesn't mean to say that great stories can't be written about historical figures, it just means that a writer has a great deal of research to complete before embarking on their writing. Elizabeth Chadwick is well-known for her meticulous research which has resulted in a series of books about William Marshall, the great medieval lord, and his family.

Other writers choose to have fictional main characters, with appearances and references to real people. CJ Sansom does with in his Shardlake series. Matthew Shardlake is a fictitious Tudor lawyer, but he is in contact with members of the Court including Thomas Cromwell, Queen Catherine Parr and has a humiliating meeting with Henry VIII.

There needn't be any reference to real people at all; The Pillars of the Earth creates an entire community of entirely believable fictional characters from a devious Bishop to an honourable builder. Indeed, so popular were the characters that Ken Follett wrote a sequel following the fortunes of the characters' descendants, World Without End. The first book has already been made into a mini-series whilst the second will be aired this year (2012).

Meet Two Historical Fiction Writers

If you are thinking of writing historical fiction it can be really useful to read advice from established authors. Two accessible and very successful authors are Elizabeth Chadwick and Julian Stockwin. Both have their own websites on which they give advice on writing and research, and you can keep up with their work and lives on Twitter.

Elizabeth Chadwick writes about the medieval period. Not only does she research her books from documents, but she visits locations and is involved in her local historical re-enactment society. No wonder then that her books feel so authentic.

Julian Stockwin has published a highly successful series about his fictitious hero, Thomas Kydd, who rises from pressed man to Admiral in Nelson's navy. Stockwin is passionate about this era and it shines through his work. As well as advice about writing, his website includes links to useful resources.


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Comments 57 comments

twinstimes2 profile image

twinstimes2 4 years ago from Ohio

Some of my favorite books are historical fiction. I can easily get caught up in a story line and learn a bit about history as well! Well written hub! Voted up.


SimeyC profile image

SimeyC 4 years ago from NJ, USA

An interesting sub-genre that I've started reading is 'alternate' historical fiction - so they take standard history and change the events - for example - I've read books where Hitler survived, I read a very clever series during the Napoleon wars where the author added Dragons! Interesting hub!


Just Ask Susan profile image

Just Ask Susan 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

Excellent hub especially for anyone wanting to know about writing historical fiction. Great job.


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi twinstimes2 - I've been reading historical fiction nearly all my life, starting with Jean Plaidy when I was a child. Not sure if her books sparked my interest in history or vice versa!

Thanks so much for your comments, I appreciate them :-)


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi SimeyC - I shall have to add that to my list! I love the idea of twisting history, I guess Steampunk does that too.

Thanks for your comments, much appreciated :-)


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Thanks Susan, glad you enjoyed reading this. One day I shall have to put all this into practice and write my own. One day ...

Thanks for taking the time to comment, I appreciate it :-)


Janis Goad profile image

Janis Goad 4 years ago

Nice hub, Judi Bee. I like what you did with the sidebars--interview with author, sub-genres, two author website links, dialogue dilemma--great advice about dialogue, by the way. I want to figure out the sidebars for some of my hubs.

I like historical novels, too. I don't usually get excited about "historical novel" retakes on classic novels, but I have recently read Linda Berdoll's Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife, and loved it. She did a lot of period research, and kept the spirit of Jane Austen's characters, while introducing some of her own and staying faithful to her own zany sense of humour and eroticism.


theraggededge profile image

theraggededge 4 years ago from Wales

So well written! I think that historical fiction must be one of the hardest genres in which to write a believable novel.


angela_michelle profile image

angela_michelle 4 years ago from United States

I really like this. This is actually a genre I have considered writing about.


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi Janis - glad that you found the layout appealing, I prefer putting in two columns where possible. I think that the dialogue is perhaps the most challenging part of a story, it can sound so stilted.

Jane Austen seems to be a popular author to emulate - I read a book about the adventures of one of Elizabeth Bennett's sister's adventures, which was an entertaining read.

Thanks for your comments, much appreciated :-)


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi theraggededge - thank you very much! I agree, the historical element just adds another layer to think about, and unless you are confident about your research it could trip you up.

Great to hear from you, thanks so much for commenting :-)


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi angela_michelle - so pleased that you enjoyed this hub! Like you, I have considered writing a historical novel, but so far I haven't got beyond considering it...

I appreciate your comments, thank you! :-)


GoodLady profile image

GoodLady 4 years ago from Rome, Italy

Such a good Hub and I liked how you described what a story is, as part of the abundance of information you gave here. Once a writer understands what a story is, then deciding to use another period in time can make the story work better than say in the present. Love stories are wonderful set in the past, so romantic. I read Anne Perry crime novels when I'm tired, I love to step back into those side alleys and fine homes; it's a wonderful genre.

And your sidebar information is such a blast - especially enjoyed to know more about fiction dialogue dilemma.

Voting up, etc and thanks


chrissieklinger profile image

chrissieklinger 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

Awesome hub layout....nicely done Judi Bee!


ishwaryaa22 profile image

ishwaryaa22 4 years ago from Chennai, India

An extremely well-written hub with the right points listed here! You rightly said that a historical novel should be well-researched so as to give the story an authentic feel even if it is partly fictionalized. The points concerning content, setting, characters and dialogue are well-explained and clearly stated. I completely agree with you as you already knew that I am a fan of historical fiction! Thank you for introducing me these 2 authors. Will check them out. Well-done!

Thanks for SHARING. Awesome & Interesting. Voted up and Socially Shared.


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi Chrissie - thanks for the great feedback, glad to know the layout works!

Thanks for taking the time to comment, I appreciate it :-)


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi ishwaryaa22 - so happy to have the approval of a fellow historical fiction fan! Hope you find that some new fiction to read via the two authors.

Thanks so much for commenting, great to hear from you :-)


Justin 4 years ago

Thanks for this article! I'm a big fan of historical fiction, but I've never thought of a list of specific criteria that makes me love a specific book. I'm reading one right now called "A Tainted Dawn" by BN Peacock (http://www.bnpeacock.com) that definitely has a great story, compelling characters and an authentic setting (1789 Europe). It's becoming one of my favorites because of your three criteria!


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi Justin - I shall have to check out your recommendation! Glad you enjoyed the hub.

Thanks for your comments :-)


Angie Jardine profile image

Angie Jardine 4 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

Good hub, Judi ... full of interest and useful info.

I read a lot of historical fiction and feel there is so much more to be written.

We may think we know the facts of a certain hero or heroine's life history but I find it fascinating to try to get inside their heads.

Why did they take such and such an action? On the face of it it would seem they did it because of reason a) but if I think laterally maybe there is another, less obvious, reason, the elusive reason b).

Not everything is black and white, not everything is as history has interpreted it.


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Thanks Angie - definitely more historical fiction to be written! I agree that approaching a character from a different angle can re-frame a story we thought we knew.

Thanks again for your comments, always appreciated :-)


carozy profile image

carozy 4 years ago from San Francisco

Love this genre, thanks for writing about it.


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi carozy - and thank you for reading about it!

Thanks for your comments, really appreciate them!


Mr Love Doctor profile image

Mr Love Doctor 4 years ago from Puerto Rico

Growing up, I loved G.A. Henty because his books are historical historical literature. That is to say, he wrote historical literature a long time ago (late 19th century). So you learn about history, but in context of the history that Henty knew and understood in his time. His books "Winning His Spurs: A Tale of the Crusades (aka Boy Knight)" and "Bonnie Prince Charlie: A Tale of Fontenoy and Culloden" are particularly eye-opening reads because they shows the current of British thought in his day and age about two topics (The Crusades and the wars Britain had with Ireland and Scotland) that are understood very differently in our time. "In Freedom's Cause" was written some hundred years before Mel Gibson's "Braveheart" and gives one a much closer, human, and intensely historical Wallace than "Braveheart" does. All in all, he published over 100 historical novels.


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi Mr Love Doctor - I've not heard of G A Henty, but that's an interesting slant on historical fiction - as you say, historical historical fiction! Attitudes in the UK have definitely changed to our own history over the past century - my father was brought up to be intensely proud of the British Empire, my schooling largely ignored it and today my daughter's generation seem to be taught to be slightly shamed by it. In my view the past is very definitely a foreign country and we just have to accept that whether they were right or wrong (judged by our standards) they did things differently.

Thanks so much for taking the time to comment, much appreciated.


Mklow1 4 years ago

Fantastic article. Very well put together and could not have come at a better time. I have been thinking about writing a historical fiction novel and this will be a great guide to get me started.


Ingenira profile image

Ingenira 4 years ago

Interesting topic.


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi Ingenira - glad you found this interesting, I certainly love historical fiction. Thanks very much for taking the time to read and comment, I appreciate it.


746425 4 years ago

article helped soooooooooooo much on home work


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi 746425 - I'm soooooooooo glad to hear that!


Becky Katz profile image

Becky Katz 4 years ago from Hereford, AZ

I am writing a historical fiction now. I have three chapters on hubpages and working on more of it. You gave some very solid information. The research is taking me forever but it shows in each chapter. I am having to double check every historical mention to make sure I have the correct dates and information. I am having a lot of fun with it though. Thank you for the helpful hub.


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi Becky - I will check out your work when I get a moment. I would love to write a historical fiction novel one day, but whilst I'm OK on the research part, I think my creative writing needs a lot of work.

Thanks very much for taking the time to comment, much appreciated.


Becky Katz profile image

Becky Katz 4 years ago from Hereford, AZ

I am learning creative writing with this one and a couple of others. I get good feedback on how to improve my writing from my readers.


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi Becky - that's a good idea - wish I was brave enough! May be when I finish the Apprenticeship Program I can get my head around some creative writing.


shai77 profile image

shai77 4 years ago

Historical fiction is so exciting-- you get to really relate to the fictional character but it's so cool to imagine yourself in the events as they unfold. Great hub on this topic, nice job.


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi shai77 - yes, that was exactly the attraction of historical fiction for me when I started reading it as a child - the settings seemed so much more exciting than real life.

Thanks very much for your comments, much appreciated.


GALAXY 59 profile image

GALAXY 59 4 years ago from United Kingdom

This is so true, I chose the great depression of 1930s America as the setting for my first novel. I lost myself in the time and place and felt everything my characters felt. Great hub, voted up.


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi Galaxy 59 - were you knowledgeable about the 1930s before you started writing the novel, or did you need to do lots of research?

Thanks for your comments, much appreciated.


GALAXY 59 profile image

GALAXY 59 4 years ago from United Kingdom

I had taken the subject at school many years ago but I had to do a lot of research when I started the novel. Such things as when work started on the Golden gate bridge in SF, what the weather was like at the time, speak-easies etc. I think it is so important to get the details right, I know when I read a book I can be taken out of the moment so easily if something doesn't seem quite right.

My second novel was a lot easier as I set it in the future so could pretty much make things up as I went along, lazy - I know - but easier.


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi Galaxy 59 - I agree that it's the details that lend credence to a story. I tend to think I am fairly knowledgeable about history, but whenever I write a history hub I realise that I've barely scratched the surface.


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 3 years ago from UK Author

Just checked my spam folder and found your comment Mklow1 - so sorry for the delay! I have started my own historical fiction novel, hope yours goes well. Thanks very much for taking the time to comment, it's appreciated.


chef-de-jour profile image

chef-de-jour 3 years ago from Wakefield, West Yorkshire,UK

I love history and visiting old places but have never got into reading historical novels (because I'm always reading poetry!) but your quality hub has nearly hooked me. What would you recommend for an absolute beginner :

* a story set in an era that interests me or

* a well written story set in any era?

Votes and a share for this detailed and resourceful hub.


jainismus profile image

jainismus 3 years ago from Pune, India

Great Hub, it gives idea of writing a historical novel.


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 3 years ago from UK Author

Hi chef-de-jour - I started reading historical fiction as a child and I chose to read about eras that interested me initially, so lots of Tudor and Medieval based novels. I've branched out nowadays - but I'm still very partial to the Tudors and I can't resist an early nineteenth century sleuth - oh and I do like Georgian sailors :) If you like "action and adventure" I've got a hub suggesting historical fiction that has that, from Roman to Victorian.

Thanks very much for the kind comments and votes - truly appreciated.


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 3 years ago from UK Author

Hi jainismus - thanks very much! I've started outlining my own historical fiction novel, hope to get on with it once I finish reworking another novel I wrote for Nanowrimo.

Thanks very much for you comments, much appreciated.


LisaKoski profile image

LisaKoski 3 years ago from WA

Although I read a lot on a daily basis, I've never really gotten into any historical fiction. Maybe one of these days I'll give it a shot. I thought I knew enough about this genre but you proved me wrong, especially with your list of sub-genres.


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 3 years ago from UK Author

Hi Lisa - I'm trying to break out of my historical fiction rut and I've read some contemporary fiction lately and enjoyed it too. Maybe you'll find a leap back in time enjoyable too.

Thanks for the comments, good to hear from you!


Homeplace Series profile image

Homeplace Series 3 years ago from Hollister, MO

I look forward to reading that novel! I believe you would enjoy mine, as well. See my recent hub on the Southern Missouri Ozarks family stories. Love your hub! ;-)


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 3 years ago from UK Author

Hi Homeplace Series - my novel is still very much a work in progress! I shall hop over to your profile and take a look at your hub.


Homeplace Series profile image

Homeplace Series 3 years ago from Hollister, MO

Thanks!


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 3 years ago from UK Author

You're very welcome!


Adriennemarie profile image

Adriennemarie 2 years ago from Deptford, NJ

This was a very interesting hub! I enjoy reading historical fiction when it is evident that the author did a lot of research into the time period. You can tell they are passionate about the setting of the story. I am not sure if this is something I would be able to do, but I think authors that have this unique capability are awesome.


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 2 years ago from UK Author

Hi Adriennemarie - glad you found the hub interesting. I recently read a story, set in Victorian England, that was pretty good. Plot was okay, settings well researched but it was ruined by modern turns of phrase. I can' t really imagine a Victorian policeman talking about a family needing "closure", for example. Thanks for commenting, I appreciate it.


klidstone1970 profile image

klidstone1970 2 years ago from Niagara Region, Canada

Hi Judi. This is a well written hub that would make any writer aspiring to write historical fiction pull up their socks and try to get their story as authentic as possible. You made some great points. Thank you.

Kim


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 2 years ago from UK Author

Hi Kim, so glad you enjoyed the hub, thanks very much for commenting!


Kelsey Farrell profile image

Kelsey Farrell 18 months ago from Orange County, CA

This hub is filled with great advice for the aspiring historical fiction writer. One thing I've noticed that I think is important is to not "plug in" historical facts for plugging in sake. A lot of books fail to make a great novel by plugging everything in so that it sounds too forced, which is something to definitely avoid.


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 18 months ago from UK Author

Hi Kelsey - you make a good point, but I guess after all that research it can be tempting to show it all off. You're right though, it can spoil an otherwise great book. Thanks for commenting!

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