What is Historical Fiction?
Rebecca Mikkelson, Editor-in-Chief Authors 4 Authors Publishing
Last week we ended our series on speculative fictions. Today starts a new series on Genres. This week’s topic is Historical Fiction.
What is Historical Fiction?
Historical fiction is a genre of literature that reconstructs events from the past in fictional stories, characterized by the inclusion of historical events or historical people, invented scenes and dialogue with authentic and believable details. In other words, the author is trying to be a fly on the wall in the past.
How far in the past do you need to go?
There is no set in stone answer for this question, but there does need to be a noticable difference between the time the story is written, and the time the story takes place. Say, for example, someone wrote a story about 9/11--it’s in too recent history to be considered a historical fiction where as if you set a story only thirty years earlier than that in the ‘70’s it would be considered a historical fiction.
At Authors 4 Authors Publishing, we’ll be considering anything set in the past by fifty years or more a historical fiction.
Can Historical Fiction be combined with other genres?
It can, and it often is. One of my personal favorites combines historical fiction, fantasy time travel, and romance to make an incredible story: the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. Nearly any other genre can be combined with historical fiction as long as you keep the plot believable, even if you stretch that believability a little bit. I mean, who thinks they can really travel through standing stones? But, the story is told in such a way that it incorporates that unbelievable aspect into the laws of the world that Gabaldon has created, and thus makes the plot still believable.
Elements of a Historical Fiction
In any story you tell, the elements will be the same: Plot, Theme, Conflict, Characters, Dialogue, Setting and World Building. These are all essential to any story, whether it’s a historical fiction or an epic fantasy. No story can survive without them.
Luckily, with a historical fiction, your plot is almost written for you, especially if you are focusing on a specific person or even in the past. However, when writing in this genre your plot has to make sense within the time period that it’s set. You would not be able to write a story about Richard III and the lost boys in the Tower of London and have the sixteenth Earl of Warwick Richard Neville, also known as The King Maker, swoop in and save the day to put one of them on the throne unless you are specifically writing in the theoretical history genre.
One of the most important things to remember when you’re writing in this genre is you are there to tell a story within events that have already happened, not rewrite entire histories to tell different events. There’s another genre for that. As Bernard Cornwell said,
The most important thing, the all important thing, is to get the story right. Write, rewrite, rewrite again, and do not worry about anything except story. It is story, story, story. That is your business. Your job is not to educate readers on the finer points of Elizabethan diplomacy or Napoleonic warfare, your job is to divert and amuse people who have had a hard day at work. What will get you published? Not style, not research, but story. Once the story is right, everything else will follow.
Theme and Conflict
There are many different themes you can write about in this genre; loyalty, ambition, revenge, love, temptation, guilt, and so on and so on. All of these themes are part of our daily lives whether you live in the year 2018 or the year 1578. Research will be key in this area. Your theme has to make sense within the time period it’s set. What would love, loyalty and ambition mean in the court of Queen Elizabeth I as opposed to today? According to Anne Sommerset in Ladies in Waiting From the Tudors to the Present Day, it would mean sacrificing the chance to marry the love of your life because your queen said no. These are the types of things you absolutely must consider as you write.
As with the theme, the conflict needs to make sense within the setting. If you’re writing a fifteenth century historical romance about star-crossed lovers, where a widowed noblewoman runs off with a servant when she is expected to either stay chaste or marry a societal equal, that would lead to a believable conflict within the time frame. What would happen to her reputation? What would happen to her children’s reputation? Would they be allowed back into society (and by society, I mean the royal court) without gargantuan recompense? All of those questions would be valid within the time period.
Characters and Dialogue
Your characters have to behave appropriately within the setting they inhabit, whether the author has created them or they were living, breathing people of the past. As mentioned above in Theme, what would it mean to be a person of a certain era? A serf in a feudalistic twelfth century would not speak, behave, or even think the same way that a knight or even a peer (nobleman) would. It would be intrinsically impossible because of their environment.
The same can be said of the dialogue. A nobleman would speak with an educated vocabulary and tone while someone of lower birth would have a regional dialect. The dialogue will help your reader easily identify who is who and even their social status.
Setting and World Building
Setting and world building go hand in hand. With whatever time period you choose, you have to take your reader out of their own setting and immerse them in the time and place you’re writing in. This can be achieved through world building as well as details from actual history; letting the reader know about social hierarchy, government, family arrangements, customs, etc.
The most important thing while writing a historical fiction is to not rewrite the history you’re focusing on, and to make sure your characters and dialogue are believable for the setting you’ve chosen.
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