What Do You Consider a Historical Novel?

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I love history. I love novels. Put those two together, and you’ve got one of my favourite things: Historical Novels!

But what exactly makes a novel “historical”?

Jane Austen’s books are set in the 1800s, but that doesn’t make them “historical novels”. And yet Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is considered to be a historical novel simply because Dickens was writing about historical events that took place sixty-some years earlier.

But what about more recent history?

Last month, I read Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. As I was reading, I got the sense that this book wasn’t set in today’s world… a realization that was solidified with the mention that the sitting president was Bill Clinton. Aha, said my brain. It’s the 1990s!

little-fires-everywhere.jpgNow, as it turns out, Clinton’s presidency (or rather the Monica Lewinsky scandal) weaves its way into the book. Not that President Clinton is an actual character in the book—he’s not; nor is Monica—but he’s talked about, primarily by the narrator… for thematic purposes.

Okay, I reasoned… so, this book is a contemporary read. In fact, I’ve noticed that many bloggers categorize it as such. Which means it must have been written in the late 90s or early 2000s, right?

I checked the copyright date.

2017.

Wait a minute. That’s last year! In case, you didn’t already know. 😉

So, is this book considered contemporary fiction? Or is it historical fiction?

Historical fiction is usually defined as a book where the historical setting is important to the plot of the book. It’s easy to categorize a book set in Japan during World War II, or one set in London during the time of Elizabeth I.

I would argue that the historical references of the 1990s in this book are rather important to the plot. (And it isn’t just the stuff about Clinton. It’s also the timing with regards to test-tubes babies and the days when infertility was discussed in hushed whispers; the nature of Mia’s photography and art; the Jerry Springer talk show phenomenon; an era before smart phones existed.)

Your Turn…

My question is this… Does all this make the book historical fiction? The 90s really isn’t that long ago, and I get the sense that many people don’t like to think of the recent past as “historical”.

So, how would you classify it? Do you call it “historical fiction” if it’s history of the recent past? Or do you consider the 1990s (or even the 1980s or 1960s or 70s for that matter) to be too recent to be labelled “historical”? (And if so, where’s the cut off point for you?)

These are genuine questions and I’d love to hear your thoughts! 

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25 thoughts on “What Do You Consider a Historical Novel?

  1. Interesting question. I’m going to say that it is historical fiction. I get why we have to label books something but it’s dicey when it comes to history because even as the writer writes the world is changing and moving forward. When the World Trade Towers fell the world changed instantly in America as pre and post attack. For myself when picking fiction I tend to like historical fiction that’s set in the 1800s.

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  2. This is a much-debated subject. On one hand, yesterday is past, so officially it’s history in the strictest sense. On the other hand, I would consider yesterday–or events that have happened in the last few years–to be contemporary. Perhaps it’s the subject of the novel itself that makes the final determination: Richard Nixon and Watergate, to me, is history; as is the Vietnam War, or Korean War or WWI and WWII. Whereas, a love story set in a locale that focuses on the relationship rather than an important worldly event is merely a “period piece.” All-in-all, It’s a vague subject with no easy answers. That’s my two cents. 🙂
    –Michael

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    • Interesting. Yes, I tend to categorize romances in their own section (period piece is a good category for those!)

      I’ve heard that some people won’t call it “historical fiction” unless the events are about 50 years old.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve also heard the “50 year old” idea. The whole thing is subjective the way I see it. I wrote a two-volume Civil War/Reconstruction saga which certainly qualifies as historical fiction. I’ve also written a novel dealing with combat veterans who’ve returned from the Vietnam War and their struggle with PTSD. The story took place in the mid 1980s, although these men served in combat in the mid to late ’60s. I myself arrived in Vietnam as a young Marine in 1967. That’s 51 years ago. So, would my novel about the returning vets be considered historical fiction? Some would vote yay, others nay. And so it goes. 🙂
        –Michael

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  3. This is a tough one! I think for me, I’d say a book is historical fiction when it envisions a time that I can’t picture, if that makes sense? Like, if it’s in the 90’s, things were different, but not overly different, but if we look back at the 1920’s there were more differences. If that makes sense. lol. I think I look at it the same way I look at classics. Classics are typically books that are still in print that were published 50 years ago or earlier, so I look at historical fiction as being books that might be published today that take place 50 years ago or earlier.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Interesting thoughts. Yes, I’ve seen that 50-year rule to classify something as historical.

      I’ve also heard the term “historical fiction of the recent past”. What do you think about that?

      Like

  4. Wow, this post is so interesting! I’ve never really thought about it, but I think I’d have to say that it really depends on the book? Like, I could see the book you were talking about being historical fiction because the events happened in the past and the book is chronicling them in a work of fiction.

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  5. I was at an SCBWI conference a couple years ago and an editor from one of the big six houses said, “I’m not interested in historical fiction, and, yes, the 1990s are historical.” I guess her definition is anything set before 15 years or so ago is historical fiction. I write middle-grade and YA, and I definitely think my audience would think of anything set much before 2000 as ‘in the past.”

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    • Thanks for this! I think I agree with her, especially with regards to a book like this one. My thought is that the author CHOSE to set it in the 1990s and did so for a reason. I think the history of the 90s does play into the story.

      But it is kind of weird (for me) to think of the 1990s as history. But you’re right when it comes to kids. They weren’t even born then!

      Like

  6. So interesting! I’m writing a novel set in 1988. For the first chapter I have the date at the top (right by chapter 1). One of my beta readers read the whole 15 pages, and then asked me why the main character didn’t have a cell phone and just call someone when her car broke down. It’s difficult to write (and I guess read too) when the “history” is so recent. I vote for the 50 year theory.

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    • I think sometimes we readers don’t register a date line because we’re so anxious to get to the story! I once read a book and it wasn’t until halfway through that I realized it was set in the 1960s. I thought: “Why didn’t the author tell me this!” Then I checked back at the first paragraph. And there it was in black and white: The date!

      I’m not sure what your novel is about, but my question would be does it matter that it’s 1988? Or could it have been set in 2018?

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Lol! I gotta laugh because I’ve had the same questions too and it frustrates me. It’s also tricky for me (born in the late ’80s) to consider a period I lived through as historical (such as the ’90s). I don’t know why I struggle to accept that but I do. I think I classified Little Fires Everywhere as contemporary though I think it’s correct to classify it as historical. The way I see it, if the setting of the story is pretty current (say since smartphones, tablets, and such became a huge thing, so maybe early 2000 or so), then it’s contemporary. Everything else is historical. But I change my mind on this all the time so, sorry my answer doesn’t help much.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, everybody is pretty split on this topic!

      I do like that you mention that maybe a contemporary read is set in a time after the year 2000. Smartphones, social media, etc. have really changed things.

      And you’re right that people (myself included) have a hard time seeing a time period we lived through as “history”!

      Like

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