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Exploring Historical Fiction

In a sense, this is an oxymoron. How can anything historical be fiction? It contradicts each other. Ah, but it is not history that is fiction. It is fiction with an historical basis.


The historical aspect of a fiction novel comes in many forms. It can be in the setting alone. Where the story is located is crucial to an historical fiction novel.

Putting a story in Paris during the German occupation makes a story an historical story. It is set in the midst of an historical event.

The topic of the story could be something more modern in concern or focus as long as the setting is in some time in the past. If you write of a setting in World War I, the Civil War, Elizabethan England, South Africa during European colonization, or anything like that, you are writing an historical story. If the people are not historical….If the events are not historical, that is okay as long as the setting is set back in history. Then you still have an historical fiction story.

The setting is key.


Despite writing an historical book, the actual characters of the book do not have to be historical. It could a lord that never existed except in my own mind. But when I put him in Queen Elizabeth’s court which is a real historical time period, my story becomes historical fiction.

The books can mention historical people during the period, but they never have to actually appear in the story. The setting then makes it historical. The period is located in history. The people are accurately portrayed from the period. They don’t have to have existed. They just have to be set in an historical time.

A great example are Regency romance novels. Very few times does a real historical figure make an appearance, though they are talked about quite often. The characters are totally fictional as are most of the events.

The Clothes

When writing historical fiction, the writer has to focus on the clothes of the people during that time period. As the reader goes through the story, he needs to be able to see the characters in the clothes of their time.

Extensive research has to be given here. Clothes are not the same as they were in years gone by. I’m not talking just styles. Certain designs and developments were not present during certain ages. Zippers weren’t always present. During some times, hats and gloves were part of the required ensemble. You need to research the clothes of the period and who wore what for what occasion.

The Language

How did they talk during that time period? Certain phrases and words were not in use during specific periods. Different classes of people spoke different dialects even though they lived in the same city. You need to be careful with the language.

Research this heavily. You don’t necessarily have to write their dialogue in the exact speech patterns as they spoke them.

The All Important Time Frame

Historical fiction is typically anything set in a period thirty years or more into the past. Technically, anything that happened before is historical, but within the last thirty years is within the lifespan of most young readers. Historical fiction usually is set in a time before their lives began.

Think of it this way….If you studied it in history class, it is a time period an historical fiction book would be set in.

The Little Things

When it comes to historical fiction, the little things carry the story and keep the historical aspect alive. For example, when one is describing the character going to bed, just a few snippets of description of the bedding of the time period keeps the reader set in that era. The same can be said as they undress for bed. Their clothing is different and needs to be described appropriately. Just from how the clothes are described can tell the reader what era the story is set in.

I was reading a book set in Victorian England. I had the hardest time keeping my mind in that era. As I read, I saw them moving about in modern times. Eventually, I figured out it was because the little things weren’t mentioned throughout the story to keep my mental feet planted in that era. At the beginning of the chapter, the descriptions were great, but afterwards they faded away. The author needed to add those little things to keep me in the time period.

Those little things can be the mentioning of a hairstyle, a hair piece, the type of purse, the style of tie, or even the lighting in the room.

Real life settings, people, and events set in a fictional story are what make an historical fiction story. An author can be writing a story about Abraham Lincoln. As long as the man was real and the setting is during his time period, the story can go anywhere…even have vampires….and it could be called an historical fiction piece of work. Fiction can be historical. The story doesn’t have to be true but it has to be set in history and/or have historical figures. Oxymoron? No, more like a creatively designed genre.

Written by

Writer for ten years, lover of education, and degrees in business, history, and English. Striving to become a Renassiance woman.

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