Since we’re starting our definitions out with the more “serious” fictional genres, historical fiction is next on the list.
Historical fiction seems pretty self-explanatory. It’s fiction about history. Almost any history at all, in fact, which gives it a whole lot of options to work with.
Considering how much ground it can cover, historical fiction is a pretty diverse genre all tied up with an “already established” bow.
Historical fiction can be a story set during the Vietnam War, the Revolutionary War or the Greco-Persian War. It can take place in Russia, India, Australia or Brazil just as long as one requirement is fulfilled...
It’s set in the past. Probably more than 30 years in the past. And some people might argue more than 40.
It always sounds so cool to say “we just lived history” or “that’s history in the making.” That's natural enough when we all want to matter or be part of something that matters.
But few people under the age of 50 really want to think their lifetimes could include a historical fiction event. Literary fiction, sure. Historical though? That’s supposed to be about ancient history. And we’re not old.
Honestly, that’s a bit of a subjective question.
For example, there’s this rather catchy country song that was out last year called “80s Mercedes” by Maren Morris. Here’s the chorus:
Feel like a hard-to-get starlet when I’m driving
Turning every head. Hell, I ain’t even trying
Got them Ray-Ban shades. Pretty in pink.
Call me old school, but hey,
I’m a nineties baby
In my eighties Mercedes.
I’m a nineties baby
In my eighties Mercedes
The ‘80s are NOT “old school,” you disrespectful little ‘90s whippersnapper!
Truly, I can’t stand that song because it makes me feel old. And I thoroughly hope that some 2000s popstar comes along some day and makes her feel like a classic well before her 40th birthday.
Fortunately, historical fiction authorities like Sarah Johnson have a different definition of what constitutes as “old.” In a speech given at the 2002 annual Associated Writing Programs Conference (ancient history in and of itself, right?), she said:
I will mention that my journal, the Historical Novels Review, has a working definition, which we use for consistency purposes in deciding which books to review. To us, a historical novel is a novel which is set fifty or more years in the past, and one in which the author is writing from research rather than personal experience.
Feel better? I do. But only a little.
It has to be pointed out how Ms. Johnson threw a few clarifiers into her definition. She didn’t say, “the universally understood set-in-stone classification of historical fiction is ‘a novel which is set fifty or more years in the past.’” She said it’s her journal’s “working definition” on the subject.
Worse yet, I respect that she classifies it so non-definitively. For example, what would you classify a novel written today about the Kent State University shootings? That was certainly a significant historical moment in a culturally different era than 2018, complete with different values, different language choices and different apparel – a decent-enough understanding of what makes up a historical fiction piece.
Yet it was only 48 years ago.
Or how about 1979, when the Iranian so-called revolution took place, sending that country’s politics back into the dark ages? That was only 39 years ago.
So how about we simply agree that historical fiction is a made-up story that operates within a real era or time period other than the one its author was writing in.
Pretty much everything else about this genre is up for grabs – even if it shouldn’t be.