Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor


What Is Historical Fiction?

By H. Scott Dalton
H. Scott Dalton

Historical fiction is far from the most popular of fiction genres. Look on the shelves of your favorite bookstore: the overwhelming numbers of fantasy, science fiction, mystery, thriller, contemporary, and literary works tend to drown the historical titles on the shelves. In fact, the number of works of history in the average Barnes & Noble is probably greater than the number of works of historical fiction. The genre is often the domain of historians turned novelists, or of military men and women who have decided to write a novel (in which case they are often shelved as "War" novels rather than "Historical Fiction," further testament to the form's poor reputation).

Why? It may have something to do with the public's on-again, off-again appreciation of history in general, or a general perception that historical fiction is simply another flavor of history, a subject many learned to dread in school.

But what is historical fiction, really? Is it history by a different name? Or is it something else, related to history but separate? And if it is separate, what are the differences?

The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition, defines "Historical" and "Fiction" in part as follows:

Historical, adj. 1. Of, relating to, or of the character of history. 2. Based on or concerned with events in history.

Fiction, n. 4.a. A literary work whose content is produced by the imagination and is not necessarily based on fact. b. The category of literature comprising works of this kind, including novels, short stories, and plays.

Most of us would comfortably accept a definition that combines elements of these definitions, like this: a literary work or category whose content is produced by the imagination and based on or concerned with events in history.

This is a very broad definition. In practice, historical fiction can take a number of forms, including but not limited to:

        Depictions of real historical figures in the context of the challenges they faced.

        Depictions of real historical figures in imagined situations.

        Depictions of fictional characters in documented historical situations.

        Depictions of fictional characters in fictional situations, but in the context of a real historical period.

In addition to these "standard" varieties, the market recognizes a few other permutations:

        Timeshift stories, in which a modern character is transported back in time, or more rarely, a historical character is transported to the present, or to a time period not his own.

        Alternate history or "What if?" stories, usually set in a world in which an historic event did not occur, or occurred much differently, such as a Nazi victory in World War II, a Texan victory at the Alamo, or the death of William, Duke of Normandy, in 1065.

        Historical fantasy, in which characters, even historic figures, are depicted in historical periods or situations, but along with magic or dragons or some other element of fantasy.

Given these many permutations, let us simplify our broad definition somewhat: historical fiction is a fictional story in which elements of history, be they persons, events, or settings, play a central role.

Elements of history. Clear enough. But what differentiates historical fiction from history? After all, does not all history contain an element of fiction, or at least speculation? Ask four soldiers about the same battle an hour afterward, and you're likely to get four different recounts of the fight.

It is the job of both the historian and the fiction writer to cut through the fog of perception and come as close to the truth as possible. The difference lies in the level at which they seek the truth, the focus of their seeking. The historian focuses on the events. The fiction writer focuses on the persons -- the characters, if you will -- involved in those events.

Let's consider the questions the two writers seek to answer. The historian, at the most basic level, seeks to answer the question "What happened?" By contrast, the writer of historical fiction seeks to explain "What was it like?"

A historian tells us, sometimes in vivid detail, about U.S. Marines fighting their way across Iwo Jima, what they did, what their living conditions were like, perhaps even something about their backgrounds. He or she analyzes why they were there, using words like "unprovoked aggression" or "expansionism" or "imperialism" or "oil embargo" to explain why so many young men had to die for a small island in the Pacific Ocean. He or she may even give us vignettes, descriptions of heroic acts on both sides. A good historian helps us imagine the roar of battle, the spectacle of ruined earth littered with dead, giving us a safe vantage point between and above the lines of battle.

The historical fiction writer puts us in the battle. We do not watch the young Marine slog his way up Mount Suribachi; we feel his heavy pack digging into our shoulders, curse as our feet slip in sand and mud, hear the snap of passing rounds and feel his fear as we hit the dirt with him and scramble for whatever cover we can find. We pray with him in the moments before he raises his head from the sand and looks around. We care about the things he cares about: not expansionism or oil embargoes or national strategy, but his brother who lost a leg at Pearl Harbor, his girl back home, the buddy who was right next to him, but now lies in the dirt not moving. We're not just watching the fight; that's our buddy, our girl back home, our brother. The writer of historical fiction is first a writer not of history, but of fiction, and fiction is about characters, not events.

So historical fiction is a close relative of history, but not simply a retelling of the lectures we learned to dread in high school. We write historical fiction, and read it, not to learn about history so much as to live it. It is the closest we can get to experiencing the past without having been there. We finish a history and think "So that's what happened!" We finish a work of historical fiction, catch our breath, and think "So that's what it was like!"