Historical Fiction – How Old Does It Have to Be?

Recently I gave a talk about Immigrant Soldier to a local organization and, during the Q & A session, a lady in the audience took issue with calling the book historical fiction. From her perspective, World War II seemed too recent. “After all,” she said, “to my parents this was their life! And I was born during those years, so it’s not really history to me, either. Shouldn’t a book called historical fiction take place in a much more distant past?”

She posed an interesting question and one difficult to answer in a diplomatic way. Obviously, this lady had strong feelings about the meaning of the word “historical.” I suggested to her that the answer to her question was subjective and might be different for every reader. A person in their 20s or 30s would consider the 1940s to be historical, while older people— we aging “war babies” and “baby-boomers”—would have a different perspective. “In fact,” I said, “I’ve even seen novels placed in the 1960s Vietnam Era being classified as historical fiction.” The lady in the audience was aghast.

But the question (as all questions do) got me thinking. I wondered what literary sources define as historical fiction, especially regarding how far in the past it should take place. The sources I found presented a fairly consistent definition.

Everyone agrees that historical fiction presents a story set in the past, often during a significant time, and that the period is important to the setting, the actions of the characters, and usually to the plot. It may include well-known historical figures, entirely fictional characters, or both. But whatever the combination, the part of the story that is historical should be accurate, thus writers of this genre must also love research, and to some extent, be historians. Usually the purpose of this genre is not simply to entertain the reader. Historical novels may also strive to illuminate some little-known facet of the time period or give readers a new, thought-provoking perspective about known history.

But what about the important question —how far in the past does a story need to take place for it to be classed as historical fiction? In short, where does “contemporary fiction” end and “historical fiction” begin?

The Historical Novel Society (www.historicalnovelcociety.org/guides/defining-the-genre ) says, “To be deemed historical, a novel must have been written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who approaches them only by research).” This last part of the definition opens up the historical genre to books of more recent times written by younger authors—for example a novel that takes place in Germany 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down and written by a 25-year-old author could be called historical fiction.

This shorter time frame is supported by Lynda G. Adamson in the preface to her definitive compilation of over 6,000 historical novels published between 1970 and 1998, World Historical Fiction: An Annotated Guide to Novels for Adults and Young Adults.(http://www.amazon.com/dp/1573560669/ref=rdr_ext_tmb ) Adamson says she previously accepted a definition for historical fiction that required a book take place “at least 25 years before it was written.” However, she admits she prefers more lenient guidelines. “If the setting is in a time earlier than that with which the reader is familiar,” she writes in the preface, “it is historical fiction.” She also includes in her exhaustive list many classics in which the setting is not the present day, even if they were originally written as contemporary fiction. This, then, includes the books of Jane Austin, Victor Hugo, and Charles Dickens—books like A Tale of Two Cities which to today’s readers are of interest as much because of the insight they give into a specific past era as for their literary importance.

All of this made me wonder, How do my readers see historical fiction? And does slotting a book like Immigrant Soldier, The Story of a Ritchie Boy into any specific genre somehow limit the audience who might find it interesting if it were listed in a different genre? Immigrant Soldier was recently awarded an Independent Publishers Book award bronze medal. It had been entered in two categories—Historical Fiction and Military/Wartime Fiction. Interestingly, it earned the award in the more specific category of Military Fiction.

In the preface of World Historical Fiction mentioned above, Adamson also presents 2 pages of different literary genres which sometimes overlap with historical fiction. Among these I found 5 that work for Immigrant Soldier. They are as follows:

  • Adventure (filled with action)
  • Coming of age (protagonist matures, usually after some significant event)
  •  Biographical (focuses on the life of a specific person)
  • Jewish (focuses on Jews and Jewish culture)
  • War story (takes place during time of war)


I would love to hear what you think. Please comment on the questions below:

  • Which of the listed genre would most make you want to read Immigrant Soldier?
  • Which do you think describes it best?
  • And how far in the past do you feel the story of a novel must be for it to be called historical fiction?


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