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Definition of Historical Fiction

For discussions of historical fiction. Threads that do not relate to historical fiction should be started in the Chat forum or elsewhere on the forum, depending on the topic.
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Margaret
Bibliomaniac
Interest in HF: I can't answer this in 100 characters. Sorry.
Favorite HF book: Checkmate, the final novel in the Lymond series
Preferred HF: Literary novels. Late medieval and Renaissance.
Location: Catskill, New York, USA
Contact:

Definition of Historical Fiction

Postby Margaret » Mon September 1st, 2008, 12:02 am

I'm reminded by Annis's comment in the "India" thread of the interesting discussion on the old forum about what qualifies as historical fiction.

I generally consider novels to be historical only if they are set in a time period too early for the author to personally remember. For example, Charles Dickens, who was born in 1812 and died in 1870, wrote primarily about his own time, for example, in Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and Bleak House, although one of his greatest classics, A Tale of Two Cities, was a historical novel about the French Revolution, which occurred a couple of decades before he was born.

This may seem like a trivial distinction, and I do list a few non-historical novels written by historical authors at http://www.HistoricalNovels.info, but I do think there there are some important distinctions between novels about events that occurred within the author's memory and novels about events the author had to rely on research alone to write about. Authors writing about their own time knew it more intimately, of course, than anyone writing about history could. On the other hand, their readers knew it just as intimately, so the authors might leave out some details that an author of historical fiction would include.

Also, authors writing about their own time usually are not far enough removed, emotionally, from the events they write about to rise above the inevitable biases of someone who lived through that time. That's why, for example, I would not categorize any novels written about the Vietnam War as historical novels, even though that period is a part of history for many readers who were born after it ended. Dickens' classic novels about his own time have that same intensely emotional coloration, with their concern for the orphaned children of England during the Industrial Revolution - Dickens had been one of those exploited children.
Browse over 5000 historical novel listings (probably well over 5000 by now, but I haven't re-counted lately) and over 700 reviews at www.HistoricalNovels.info

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MLE (Emily Cotton)
Bibliomaniac
Interest in HF: started in childhood with the classics, which, IMHO are HF even if they were contemporary when written.
Favorite HF book: Prince of Foxes, by Samuel Shellabarger
Preferred HF: Currently prefer 1600 and earlier, but I'll read anything that keeps me turning the page.
Location: California Bay Area

Postby MLE (Emily Cotton) » Mon September 1st, 2008, 2:46 am

My definition of historical novel is a novel that, through its setting, informs me about some aspect of history.

Which I would also qualify as not anything I or my parents lived through. But since my parents were born in 1915, my definition goes a little farther back than most. If I can still call my 93-year-old mom and get her take on something, it is very much history, but it doesn't feel quite 'fictional' to me yet.

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diamondlil
Bibliomaniac

Postby diamondlil » Mon September 1st, 2008, 9:08 am

I would agree with the definition of historical fiction being where an author writing about something that happened before their time. There are many classics that whilst they are historical to the reader were contemporary to the author and therefore I would not consider them to be historical fiction.

In terms of time frame, I think anything before WWII is historical. What does interest me is when will that boundary be moved forward to say the end of the 50s or 60s.
Last edited by diamondlil on Mon September 1st, 2008, 9:50 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Alaric
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Location: Adelaide, Australia.
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Postby Alaric » Mon September 1st, 2008, 9:46 am

A fictional account of something that happened in the past and/or set in a historic setting.

I consider anything after World War II to be contemporary fiction.

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Julianne Douglas
Avid Reader
Location: Northern California

Postby Julianne Douglas » Mon September 1st, 2008, 5:55 pm

I agree with diamondlil. The label "historical" refers to the distance between the author and the time she is writing about. The reason is that if an author is writing about something that she did not live through, she is creating an imaginative construct based on research. This, in my opinion, is different than writing about an era one has actively participated in and can reconstruct from lived experience.

If the events and the act of writing are more or less contemporaneous, even if the events depicted are historical to the reader, the fiction itself is not historical. For example, if I wrote a novel about the assassination of Marat, that would be historical fiction; if I wrote about the assassination of Martin Luther King, it would not. A teenager reading my novel about MLK would not make it historical fiction.

Of course, the lines blur the closer one gets to the author's life and current times. If I were to write about MLK, I would need to do a lot of research, as I was a child at the time of his death and do not remember much about him, but my novel still would not be hf. Even if I don't remember many facts, I still experienced the spirit of the times and cultural milieu, so I would not be reconstructing everything through my imaginative interpretation of research.
Julianne Douglas

Writing the Renaissance

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Margaret
Bibliomaniac
Interest in HF: I can't answer this in 100 characters. Sorry.
Favorite HF book: Checkmate, the final novel in the Lymond series
Preferred HF: Literary novels. Late medieval and Renaissance.
Location: Catskill, New York, USA
Contact:

Postby Margaret » Mon September 1st, 2008, 6:36 pm

One of the interesting things about this question, I think, is that the boundaries are a little bit fuzzy. As MLE points out, there's a difference between a time period within living memory, a time period people can hear about from their parents or grandparents, and a time period we can learn about only through written history and archaeology. And as Julianne points out, there is a difference between a time period we can vividly remember as part of our own experience and one which happened before we were old enough to be aware of current events. Even if we could set a firm boundary at some point today, time keeps passing, so it is a moving target.

I think the reason I find this so interesting is that it makes me think about how we think, what memory is, and how we gain understanding of the world we live in.
Browse over 5000 historical novel listings (probably well over 5000 by now, but I haven't re-counted lately) and over 700 reviews at www.HistoricalNovels.info

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Telynor
Bibliophile
Location: On the Banks of the Hudson

Postby Telynor » Mon September 1st, 2008, 9:17 pm

I find this topic fascinating to discuss! And yes, it is all relative, isn't it? I find I think of novels through WWI to be historical, but afterwards contemporary. If a story focuses more on the relationship between the hero and heroine, and is more lightly written, then it falls into the historical romance category, but if the setting is more widely written and may have historical people in it, then it's more of a historical fiction.

So -- what is it that people want in a historical novel, as opposed say, a historical romance?

User avatar
Margaret
Bibliomaniac
Interest in HF: I can't answer this in 100 characters. Sorry.
Favorite HF book: Checkmate, the final novel in the Lymond series
Preferred HF: Literary novels. Late medieval and Renaissance.
Location: Catskill, New York, USA
Contact:

Postby Margaret » Mon September 1st, 2008, 9:36 pm

Another good question, Telynor! I think the boundaries between historical romance and historical fiction are vague indeed. A good rule of thumb, I think, is whether the romance is more important than the historical setting and other themes in the novel, or whether it is essentially a secondary plot line. One might also make a distinction between "romance" and "love story," because there are some powerful love stories that I would classify as literary, not romance, because they explore the psyches of their characters in a deeper and more realistic way than is usual with romance. Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient is a good example of a love story that is not a romance at all.

I'm tempted to say that the very best authors of historical romance research their settings thoroughly and make them an integral part of the story, so that the characters never seem like modern people dressed up in fancy costumes. But "best" is a matter of opinion. Some readers don't care for a highly realistic story that portrays characters with attitudes and beliefs that accurately reflect the time period. I think that's where the romance comes in, in the broadest sense of the term - romantic novels portray characters the way we wish they might be rather than the way they are.
Browse over 5000 historical novel listings (probably well over 5000 by now, but I haven't re-counted lately) and over 700 reviews at www.HistoricalNovels.info

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LCW
Compulsive Reader
Location: Southern California

Postby LCW » Tue September 2nd, 2008, 12:29 am

"Telynor" wrote: If a story focuses more on the relationship between the hero and heroine, and is more lightly written, then it falls into the historical romance category, but if the setting is more widely written and may have historical people in it, then it's more of a historical fiction.

So -- what is it that people want in a historical novel, as opposed say, a historical romance?


I think that's a great distinction between HF and HR. I love romantic historical fiction but there's a huge difference between that and a HR.
Books to the ceiling,
Books to the sky,
My pile of books is a mile high.
How I love them! How I need them!
I'll have a long beard by the time I read them. --Arnold Lobel


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