7 Great Historical Fiction Characteristics, From Where I Sit

24 Apr

My book journals are full of historical fiction books.

Years ago a friend talked with me about a wonderful historical novel she had read. Excited, I asked its name, only to learn it was a Louis L’Amour western.  Well, yes, it was about the past but historical fiction it was not.  And just lately I critiqued a selection supposedly of historical fiction.  Again, it seemed to be a novel simply set in the old west.  The question, then, is what exactly is historical fiction.

I can best answer this with my own preferences.

7 Characteristics of Great Historical Fiction:

  1. The books must exhibit a high level of writing, be literary even.
  2. The setting is a real slice of history.
  3. Fictional characters interact with real characters and events and the historical timeline is absolutely correct.
  4. The plot may be focused on the fictional characters but it is intertwined with real events in an in-depth, complicated, yet seamless way.
  5. The fictional characters are so well drawn and integrated into history that the reader almost believes they are real.
  6. At the end of the novel the reader wants more of the story.
  7. During and after reading the novel, the reader does more research of actual historical events because her curiosity has been piqued and she isn’t ready to let the novel end.

These are factors which make historical fiction popular.  I also believe the genre is just a little bit closer to reality so many of us can relate that much easier.  Studying history in school was not real to me as it entailed memorizing a lot of dates and facts.  The story was missing.  Now I have learned to envision the story behind the facts, and love to read actual history books.  Weaving my own stories around those facts is a delight.

Are you a lover of historical fiction?  What do you like most about it?  Or, heaven forbid, dislike about it? Consider leaving a comment about your own favorite genre.

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Posted by on April 24, 2012 in General, History, Writing Tips


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20 responses to “7 Great Historical Fiction Characteristics, From Where I Sit

  1. Gay

    April 24, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    I, too, am a fan of historical fiction. Each of my novels takes place in a particular time in history and I strive to make it historically correct. I hope my novels contain most of the characteristics you list but some will have to be confirmed by the readers themselves.


    • elainecougler

      April 26, 2012 at 12:20 pm

      Gay, I made up this list just to start the conversation. These are my 7 starting points but others are quite welcome to add to the list. Thanks for visiting!


  2. Brinda Berry (@Brinda_Berry)

    April 24, 2012 at 4:58 pm

    Okay, please don’t throw me in the same category as the woman touting L’Armour as historical fiction. I really don’t read much of it.

    On a related note, I thought it was interesting that I read a YA steampunk novel by Scott Westerfield called Leviathan. This story is an alternate history of WWI (steampunk version). The afterward explained what was real history and what was fiction for someone who couldn’t tell the difference. I thought that was pretty interesting. It might pique a young person’s curiosity to read more about the real Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Charles Darwin, and World War I.


    • elainecougler

      April 26, 2012 at 12:23 pm

      Never! We all have our literary tastes, Brinda. Great anecdote about the afterward in Leviathan. The author was really thinking of the reader with that.


  3. Janna Noelle

    April 24, 2012 at 10:28 pm

    Are you saying that in order for a novel to be considered “historical”, fictional characters have to interact with historical characters? What does that make a novel that takes place in a historically accurate setting but involves only fictional characters? Or what if there are historical personnages but only in the background – i.e. not interacting with the fictional characters per se, but carrying out actions that impact the fictional characters down the line? This is the category that my novel falls into. This is also the category I like to read, for if book has a historical personnage as a main character you know your history at all, it tends to take away a bit of the mystery of what’s going to happen.


    • elainecougler

      April 26, 2012 at 12:25 pm

      Hi Janna! Not really. I just like there to be something that links some element of the story to actual history. All of your examples are wonderfully valid. Thanks for commenting as your points show your knowledge of the subject.


      • Janna Noelle

        April 26, 2012 at 6:40 pm

        Ah, I see. I thought it was some genre convention I didn’t know about, like how a capital-R Romance always has to have a happy ending. I am still a relative newcomer to this genre, having started out writing in fantasy before it occurred to me that with all the research I was doing to make my fantasy world seem true to history, I might as well just write straightup historical instead.
        BTW, you and I know someone in common. Last year, I met an editor named Irene, who blue-penciled my work. She said she met you at a writers’ conference (I think) and referred me to your blog. I like what you’ve got going on here.


  4. Sharon Clare

    April 25, 2012 at 9:59 am

    I’ve always loved historical fiction which was why I set my first novel in 18th century New France. I wanted to research that time period and learn more about the beginnings of Canada.

    I don’t have any real life historical figures in my book although I referenced a couple. My characters don’t roam in those circles. I would have found it difficult to represent a real-life figure accurately.

    I do use real geographical details like street names and the buildings my characters visit did exist.
    I strove to make the story as historically accurate as possible. The fur traders in my story need a bride to validate their trade contract. This actually happened, in that one governor of New France insisted licenses only be issued to married traders. It didn’t happen in the same year in my story, but I needed to use that ‘war-free’ time period, so I took liberty with the idea.

    It is wonderful to feel like you’ve been transported back in time, and I love to learn when I read historical fiction.


    • elainecougler

      April 26, 2012 at 12:29 pm

      By interacting with the fictional characters, I am thinking in a very loose way. And you certainly have given the reason why this is preferable. One ms I read recently had the main character going to try to meet with Elizabeth Simcoe, the Governor’s wife. They never did meet as Elizabeth had left the Niagara area, but the mention of her helps to validate the setting of the novel. I hope that clears up my loose words. Thanks for your comments, all.


  5. habisha

    April 27, 2012 at 2:00 am

    One of the problems I’ve run across with using actual historical people is actually being accurate. How do we know what Mrs. Astor actually said? I’ve thrown her and Mrs. Fish and the Burdens into my story, as I did the Great Storm of March 1888 and Central Park. I put in the Summer “cottages” in Newport, as well.

    Most of my characters are purely fictitious, but with enough of the “real” historical people in it to bring it to life, I think. I’m not sure if I would call my book purely historical (because I don’t have a literary tone, whatever that means), but it’s a good story with lots of historical accuracy. It took me ages and tons of research (I got copies of newspapers from the time and several books of the time (c. 1797-1902, depending on the book).

    I can’t predict what my readers will do with my book or whether they will want to research the topic. I’m just trying to write a good story.


    • elainecougler

      April 28, 2012 at 10:03 am

      It sounds to me, habisha, as if you’ve done lots of research and know exactly which tenets of historical fiction you have or have not followed. The main thing is, is it a great story? If so, I guarantee you readers will not care just exactly which of my historical fiction rules you’ve followed. You have it right, write a good story!


      • habisha

        April 28, 2012 at 2:31 pm

        Is it a great story? How do we, as authors, really know? Isn’t it our readers who, in the end, tell us it’s a great story? I have written the best story I can, and I guess I have to leave it up to my readers to decide it’s greatness. Let’s just say I believe in the story, in my characters, and in myself enough to say I’m happy with it.


  6. A.K.Andrew @artyyah

    April 28, 2012 at 5:30 am

    I really enjoyed this post- I think historical fiction sometimes gets a bad rep as being a fanciful ‘woman’s’ book. But the historical fiction I read eg Alias Grace is the complete opposite. I love reading about different periods & completely agree that it should make you want to read more about that period.
    I’ve read that strictly speaking historical fiction needs to be at least 60 yrs in the past – which covers WWII when my first novel is set. I’d love your opinion then of what my second novel , set in 1969 is? Suggestions of category regarding timeline would be most appreciated. Thanks.


    • elainecougler

      April 29, 2012 at 8:33 pm

      Thanks for your comments, A.K. I have read about the 60 year rule as well but don’t know where it comes from. For myself historical fiction at a greater distance away from the present is just more interesting as it’s about a period I may not know much about and which is therefore more interesting in that it illumines that lesser known world. A novel about the sixties, while not that far in the past by my definition, seems to fall into the historical rule. Besides, these rules are flexible and are all subject to the bottom line: readers want to read great books. If your book fits this rule, all is well.


  7. sabreofhonour

    May 1, 2012 at 5:33 am

    Your 7 characteristics hit the nail on the head! As I see it, you have identified precisely what every writer of historical fiction seeks to achieve and I for one will retain your list as an aide-memoir to be revisited as my novel progresses.


    • elainecougler

      May 7, 2012 at 9:49 pm

      How nice! I am so glad that I am able to help you. Good luck with your own novel, Sabre!


  8. Sean Durity

    May 7, 2012 at 8:26 am

    Not sure if it fits the genre, but I have read more Biblical fiction. I consider it historical fiction because it always involves understanding the ancient world and interacting with the real people of the Bible. It is more touchy, too, as reader will have very concrete ideas about Biblical people. I haven’t written in the genre (beyond a few sketches and monologues), but I may one day.

    On another note, I find it very interesting to compare fantasy and historical fiction. The best fantasies are when the authors shapes a whole world (including a history). I always thought that an easier task, but everything has to be invented. Maybe the research to write historical fiction isn’t as difficult as I first thought. Food for thought…


    • elainecougler

      May 7, 2012 at 9:51 pm

      Hi Sean,
      I sense you did some cogitating about your own writing while composing this comment and that is just fine with me. Your comment about biblical being historical is interesting and a slant I had never thought about. I love when people give my brain a workout. Thanks! And thanks for visiting with your comments!


  9. belle★beckford

    October 14, 2014 at 6:05 pm

    I love history and I love reading, so what a great combination! = Historical Fiction



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