Discussion: Historical Fiction

let's talkI’ve been pondering this question lately. Maybe you guys have a definitive answer for me. Or you can share your opinions.

How old does a time period need to be for books written about the time period to be classified as historical fiction?

I’m fairly certain we would all agree that a book written about 100 BC would be considered historical fiction. A book written about the 15th century would be historical fiction too, right?

Okay how about the 1940’s? I read The Book Thief earlier this year and I’d have no problem considering that historical fiction.  What about the 1970’s? I’ve read several books recently that take place in the 70’s but I wouldn’t considered them historical fiction. 100 years from now chances are people might consider them historical fiction.

Is there a certain ‘timeline’ you use to decide? The time period must be XXX years old to be considered historical fiction? Some other criteria?

I’m interested in hearing your opinions!

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14 thoughts on “Discussion: Historical Fiction

  1. A hundred years from now, people definitely will! My personal cut off is World War II, because the 1940s are a period where we start to see our modern life begin to develop.

    I’ve often considered framing historical fiction as fiction that is written about a time period before the time it is written in—i.e., Jane Austen’s work would technically be contemporary fiction since she’s writing about her time period, while Ivanhoe would remain historical fiction. But I think that’s a little involved.

  2. I don’t think “historical fiction” is as strictly bound by time period alone as it is bound to historical events. Maybe WWII serves as a good cut-off because that was the last truly game-changing event in 20th century America (and the world at large). But if that’s the sort of criteria we’re working with, I would consider books about Vietnam historical fiction, too. And, heck, Operation Desert Storm. And then it gets more complicated when you think beyond policy-changing, militaristic historical events. What about a book centered around the birth of the Internet? Give it a few more short years and that could count, too!
    Really interesting topic of discussion.

  3. I think I count everything set before the time my parents were born as historical fiction– so books set before the 1960s. Other people say that it’s anything set in a time before your grandparents were born. I think it just depends on how old you are, or something like that.

    TLO brings up a good point: to me, historical fiction is a book where the events take place in an earlier period than when it was written (as long as it’s set before the 1960s, see). So Jane Austen’s books aren’t historical fiction to me, they’re “classics” (i.e. old contemporary fiction novels, though there’s a lot of crossover with the “classic” label anyway).

  4. This is a question I’ve bounced around with other children’s librarians now and then. My personal view is that a book is “historical fiction” if it is written about a time period earlier than the time of the writing, with the intent of evoking that particular time period. So, like Clare, I wouldn’t call Jane Austen’s work historical fiction, because she was writing about her own time period. She wasn’t specifically trying to depict her time (as opposed to some other time).

    I don’t have a cut-off date in particular. I consider Jenny Moss’ _Taking Off_, set in the mid-1980s, to be historical fiction. But I wouldn’t consider a book published in the 1980s and set in the 1980s to be historical fiction.

    In my experience, if the book specifies the time in which it is set, and it’s a time in the past, the book is probably historical fiction. If it doesn’t specify a time, it’s probably contemporary fiction. And if it specifies a time in the future, it’s probably speculative fiction. 🙂

  5. Can it be that it counts as historical fiction if the author doesn’t have to research what it was like to live in that time? Like, if I wrote a book about seeing Led Zeppelin in Glasgow in 1972, it would count as historical fiction, but Martin Millar doing it semi-autobiographically doesn’t. Does that work?

What are your thoughts? (Comments are moderated. Yours will be up as soon as I read it!)

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