Reading the Past: the Appeal and Characteristic of Historical Fiction

Sarah L Johnson
Author published by Libraries Unlimited

Started with Fantasy and transitioned to Historical Fiction

Why people read historical fiction
What is it?
How do you define it?
Who reads it?
When does it take place?

Where can you find it?
How Much of it’s is history and how much is fiction

“The past is another Country…they do things differently there” –L.P. Hartley

They want to read about characters that do things different. Escape into past. Forget about day-to-day lives.
We need to be able to identify with them, without the familiarity, we cannot make that connection

Some authors take unfamiliar and make it familiar-leave feeling that human nature is the same no matter the time period

Some novelists express how different characters in the past are from us. Get feeling that is another world
“All novels are historical… but some are more historical than others”
George Orwell (sort of…)

Novels set at time the authors write them are not historical fiction.

Novels that are written about 50, 30 even 20 years in the past can be historical fiction, especially in children’s fiction.

Books dealing with the past are not historical novels

“Nouns always trump adjectives, and in the phrase ‘historical fiction,’ it is important to remember which is which.”- Thomas Mallon

Readers are not forgiving if the author changes events, or adds an event that did not happen

They are more forgiving if there is an author’s note in the end

Historical fiction can help to fill gaps in history.

Readers like to read many different accounts of the same event

Author needs to convince reader that the world is real

what readers want

Very picky, very annoying, not very forgiving if author gets something wrong

Convincingly accurate historical setting
Not all readers are familiar with the history

Entertaining plotline
Historical facts are not enough.

Compelling, realistic characters that reflect their time

Characters have to be appropriate for that time. They want to know what it was like to live in the time setting

To learn what it is like to live in another time period

Historical detail that is woven naturally into the story
not interested in information dumps

Successful with combine historical facts with realistic characters, and a moving plot.
Historical fiction is everywhere.
Historical fiction is part of all genres, so you have to look in all areas of fiction

you do not need a PHD to do RA in history. You can ask the reader about a particular period if you are unfamiliar with.

Very Broad Category. It tends to be invisible..
Invisible in collection, too broad to fit into its own section
Libraries and Bookstores do not have historical section.
Cannot rely on on-line catalog. Subject headings do not help

Librarians may need to spend more time connecting with patrons.
Spend time knowing benchmark books, create displays, and reach readers..

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
Religious, Literary, appeals to Jews, Women, and Historians

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
It is a universal novel

The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory
Anne Bolyen told by sister Mary.

First to come out in trade paperback
More popular novel of court women

All these novels have strong female characters
Readership is 70 to 75% women (informal guess)


The Basics

Traditional Historical Novels

Goals Realistically portray a historical period.
Biographical novels
Strong Protagonists
Author is storyteller

the Lady in the Tower-Jean Plaidy
Widow’s War

Multi-Period Epics

James A Michener

Let readers view a culture over an extended period of time
Provide comprehensive picture of a civilization area
Doorstops (1,000 pages)

Family relationships
Social history

Long or Series

John Jakes Civil War
Jessica Stirling Wives of War


Romantic Historical Fiction

Romantic Epics

Large scale stories with sweeping drama and star-crossed lovers.
Long and detailed
no guarantee romance will end happy

Romantic Historical
Smaller scale
equal emphasis on history and story
possible multiple love interests

Historical Romances
One central relationship
focus on romance, not on history
Characters react to history, not really part of it
Romance will end happily

Western Historical Novels
Authentically will portray the old west
more diverse subjects and view points


now more diverse main characters (women, African Americans, Native Americans)
Broader time period

Historical Adventure
Let readers travel and have adventures
Fast paced

Heroic protagonists(usually men)

Historical Thrillers
Engage and thrill with exciting suspenseful exhilarating storylines
fast paced

Literary Historical Novels
Use historical story as a way of expressing a universal or contemporary theme
often referred to as contemporary novels
Address serious issues

Character driven
Leisurely paced

Christian Historical Novels
From a Christian worldview

Portray religious lives in previous time
deal with Christian principles
No explicit sex or language

Francine Rivers
Liz Curtis Higgs

Historical Mysteries
Solving mystery in past
must be accurate in how they solve crime

Part III The Outer Limits
Time-Slip Novels

let readers pretend going back in time is possible.
Supernatural events.
Creatively written
Elements of romance, mystery, fantasy, thrillers, even science fiction

Alternate History
Cross between Science Fiction and Historical Fiction
What IF…
Examine alternative outcomes

run counter to historical fact.
Many based around wars or battles
thought provoking
must know what happened to know what would have happened so very historically based

Never Call Retreat

Historical Fantasy
Fantastical settings

On the edge of myth and history
Otherworldly atmosphere
Supernatural events important, but not a plot device

Multi Genre Titles
The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett
Traditional, literary, swashbuckling adventure

Outlander Eiana Gabaldon

Romantic epic, time-slip, traditional

Possession A.S. Byatt
Literary, romantic, mystery

About Jami Schwarzwalder

Currently a teen librarian with the Pierce County Library System in Tacoma, WA.She is passionate about technology, making, and learning. See what I'm up to at

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