What is Historical Fiction? A Guide to Writing the Genre
Historical fiction books are works of literature in which fictional events occurred during real-life historical events. Sometimes, these are simply “period pieces”—a novel written today about lovers in Victorian England would certainly be historical fiction. Often, historical fiction authors will integrate their stories into their own historical obsessions—the U.S. Civil War, the assassination of JFK, World War II, Japan’s annexation of Korea, the Biafran War, etc.
Fictional explorations of real historical times teach us a lot about history, society, and what we have in common with people before our times. Nonetheless, it’s a tricky genre to write and understand. What is historical fiction? How do you write it?
This article is a starting point for how to write historical fiction. We examine the historical fiction genre in detail, honing in on the characteristics of historical fiction and how authors employ those in their work. We also share some great historical fiction examples and examine ones you may have already read.
But first, let’s define the genre. What is historical fiction?
What is Historical Fiction?
At its most openly defined, historical fiction describes any work of literature in which a fictional story occurs prior to the author’s present time.
Of course, that’s open to a lot of interpretation. For example, the 1990s are certainly in the past, but are they old enough to be “history?” If I set my story during the Dot Com Bubble, is that historical fiction?
The consensus among most writers and readers is that, for a work to be “historical”, it should be set at least 50 years prior to the year of publication.
Historical fiction describes any work of literature in which a fictional story occurs (50+ years) prior to the author’s present time.
Additionally, the setting of the story needs to be culturally recognizable. Now, that doesn’t mean you need to know about the setting in advance. I’ve learned about many periods of history, in the U.S. and abroad, from reading historical fiction books. What it does mean is that the setting must be significant to history, recognizable by historians, and impact the plot of the story.
The historical fiction genre spans both literary and speculative works. Historical fiction itself tends to be “literary fiction”, but genres like historical romance, historical fantasy, historical mystery, and historical thriller certainly exist.
The literary vs genre fiction distinction is a bit arbitrary, but you can learn more about it here:
Regardless of whether the story is literary or genre, all works of historical fiction share similar characteristics. Let’s look at the characteristics of historical fiction.
Characteristics of Historical Fiction
If you’re learning the ropes of fiction writing, start with our article about the elements of fiction. This article expands upon basic knowledge of writing good fiction.
The historical fiction genre isn’t remarkably different from other forms of fiction, but a few key characteristics separate it from its non-historical counterpart. These include:
- Worldbuilding, with meticulous attention to cultural contexts.
- Historical plot, in which the events of history influence the story being told.
- Universal themes, in that the story can feel relevant both back then and now.
Of course, the best historical fiction involves well-developed characters with interesting conflicts driving forward a powerful story. Readers don’t care about the events of the Civil War, so much as they care about an illicit romance, or a lower-rank soldier trying to escape, or a family home caught in the crossfires. You’re writing about people, not teaching history.
Let’s examine those three important characteristics of historical fiction.
Characteristics of Historical Fiction: Worldbuilding
Writers of historical fiction books must give careful attention to every element of their story’s setting. Everything from culture, customs, and social dynamics, to details like clothing, dialogue, and music, must be attended to with a historian’s lens.
This is easier said than done. For example, let’s say you’re writing a novel set in the U.S. Civil War. Your characters shouldn’t use words like “fedora” and “hobo,” or phrases like “bite the bullet” or “waiting for the other shoe to drop.” Those words and phrases weren’t coined until the 1890s.
Now, not every detail has to be included. Remember, you’re writing fiction, not a history textbook. If the cost of a pound of grain isn’t relevant to your story, don’t try to shoehorn it in.
That said, giving consideration to the following topics will help you situate yourself more fully in the period you’re writing about, and might also provide fodder for what come next in the story.
- Politics, political organization, enfranchisement
- Social attitudes
- Common beliefs, morals, superstitions
- Prominent people
- Major events
- The weather of that year
- Military organization
- Class and economy, including the cost of something and peoples’ disposable incomes
- Existing streets, neighborhoods, borders
- Idioms, colloquialisms, manners of speaking
- Material culture, including ways of dressing, architecture, what people eat, what people do for fun
- Available technologies
- News of the day (read the newspaper archives, if they exist!)
- Common diseases
Characteristics of Historical Fiction: Historical Plot
The context of your story should, in some way, inform the plot of the story itself.
Now, that’s not to say you need your story to be about a world altering historical event. For example, let’s say you’re writing a story set during the Industrial Revolution in England. You could write about the most important events: technological development, the Luddite rebellions, the expansion of colonialism to feed the growing projects of capitalism and factory production, etc.
Or, you could write a story influenced by these events. A Luddite falls in love with an innovator. A factory worker tries to write a novel despite the 14 hour workday. In 1811, a British soldier is sent to invade the island of Java, but doesn’t come back with the same sense of patriotism.
Focusing on real characters, whose lives are forever changed by the course of history, is usually more interesting and relatable for the reader. We learn much more about the human psyche and about history when we see it through the lens of everyday people. We also learn more about how history applies to our own lives when we see the ways it affected the lives of long ago.
Characteristics of Historical Fiction: Universal Themes and Shared Humanity
Some conflicts and problems will certainly be unique to the setting of your historical fiction. Most readers in the U.S., for example, will not have many shared experiences with a knight in medieval England. What does bind the two, however, are universal themes, as well as our shared humanity.
Theme refers to the central ideas explored in a piece of writing. Think ideas like justice, family, good vs evil, and coming-of-age. Through themes, it is much easier for the writer to connect contemporary readers with the lived experiences of long ago. So, while you probably haven’t jousted, fought off the Normans, or kneeled for a king (and if you have, let’s get coffee?), your experiences might be connected to that of a medieval knight through “justice,” “love,” “duty,” “sacrifice,” or other themes that are universal among humans.
At the center of the historical fiction genre is our shared humanity with the folks of long ago. Whether you’re an ancient Mesopotamian or a modern Manhattanite, you’ve probably eaten too much, partied too hard, fought with a lover, made up with an old friend, or suddenly changed the course of life. Focusing on what’s human and realistic—within the confines of your plot and worldbuilding—will make your story much more relatable, with themes much more universal to the reader.
Historical Fiction Examples
Let’s look at some historical fiction examples from contemporary literature. Most examples of the historical fiction genre are novels, so we’ll examine how these novels use worldbuilding, plot, and universal themes within the genre.
If you haven’t read the following novels, I highly recommend it—all of these novels are wonderful, and could provide inspiration while you are also writing historical fiction. I’ll keep the spoilers to a minimum!
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Pachinko is a novel that follows 3 generations of a Korean family in Japan, particularly how these characters navigate issues of immigration, discrimination, and otherness through the whims of the 20th century.
Historical Fictions Worldbuilding
Pachinko’s historical worldbuilding takes the reader through pre-War Korea and 20th century Japan. We start in a little fishing village in Korea and move our way to the Korean ghetto in Osaka, Japan. The novel takes us through wartime Japan and ends split between Japan and America, evidence of the lasting generational trauma from Japan’s creation and displacement of the Korean diaspora.
Throughout this historical fiction novel’s migrations, plenty of detail shows us the hardships that this family faces. Japan’s annexation of Korea immediately brings poverty, hardship, and military abuse to the Korean people. Japan’s Korean ghettos are equally rife with these same problems, and any moment the people get a taste of survival and stability, something comes up: the arrest of a family member, sudden inflation, etc. The War, too, creates further economic hardship, even for the most well-off Koreans, and anyone who survives does so with a certain amount of guilt.
From kimchi kitchens to Pachinko parlors, the reader sees how Korean culture is inextricably tied to survival during a century of intense strain, both in Korea and abroad.
History and Plot
The novel’s Baek family is constantly being thrown around by the whims of the 20th century. Japan’s annexation of Korea forces Sunja, the grandmother of this family, to move to Osaka as a teenager. There, World War 2 causes significant hardship. Sunja’s husband is arrested for his faith and dies shortly after his release from prison. Sunja’s brother-in -law is significantly crippled from the bombings in Nagasaki. Sunja longs to return to Korea, but finds out soon that she can’t, as the country is about to split into North and South.
While the second half of the 20th century is calmer, the trauma of displacement is generational. One of Sunja’s sons commits suicide after learning his father was associated with the yakuza. Her other son becomes wealthy opening pachinko parlors, but his lifestyle prevents him from finding the love he seeks, and his son, Sunja’s grandson, loses his job because of his father’s pachinko ties.
Survival and loss are tightly intertwined in this novel, and the Baek family can be likened to a pachinko ball being tossed around and landing randomly, hoping that they’ll finally end up somewhere stable.
Themes and Shared Humanity
Of course, most readers have not run pachinko parlors, been part of the yakuza, been displaced by Japanese occupation, had their home country split in half, or survived a nuclear bomb. But, many aspects of the novel’s characters present opportunities for connection.
For example, any reader can relate to their life being controlled by the whims of fate. No, most of our lives won’t change because of nuclear warfare, but our lives will change because of unpredictable forces.
And, many readers of Pachinko will themselves be Korean. If not Korean, then a member of a global diaspora, displaced by war, colonization, occupation, etc. Pachinko is a testament to Korean survival in the 20th century, but this story can easily resonate with members of other diasporas.
Recurring themes in the novel, other than displacement and the whims of fate, include: power (military, governmental, interpersonal) and resistance, discrimination and stereotyping, and cultural tradition.
And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini is a novel told through 9 different, interlinked short stories, each with a different narrative point of view. It begins with the separation of siblings Abdullah and Pari, and ends with their reuniting many decades later. The stories in between these two narratives showcase the fallout of their separation, the reasons it came to be, and the endurance of pain and familial love across Afghanistan’s 20th century history.
Historical Fictions Worldbuilding
While some of the stories take place around the world, the novel is centered in Afghanistan. The novel’s fragmented narratives allow the reader to experience different facets of Afghan culture, both through different lenses and from different time periods. We hear an impoverished farmer tell an old story, and we hear a Westernized woman tell bawdy poetry; we see Afghan foods, dresses, and customs within the country, and how those cultural details are preserved outside of it.
The 20th century was a turbulent time for Afghanistan. In the middle of the century, the city of Kabul had become very Westernized and progressive, which is why some of the novel’s characters are fluent in European languages and customs. This cultural blending is crucial to understanding the world this novel explores. Nila, in particular, is a fascinating character, as her tumultuous relationship to her own poetry seems symbolic of Afghanistan’s back-and-forth relationship to female poets: sometimes praising the work of female writers, other times condemning them.
When civil conflict comes for Afghanistan, later parts of the novel take place elsewhere, and Nila is one of the lucky ones, even in wealthy Kabul, who can escape before it’s too late.
History and Plot
The separation of Abdullah and Pari is the central plotline this novel follows, but their separation is only exacerbated by the conflicts of 20th century Afghanistan.
Some key real-life events in this historical fiction include:
- The Westernization of Kabul, a city largely distinct from rural Afghanistan, which still upheld traditional Afghani values and customs.
- The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1989), which created a drawn out proxy war between the USSR and the United States, and which killed and displaced countless Afghani people.
- The invasion of the Taliban, which was the result of several geopolitical factors including the Soviet Invasion.
- The fall out of the Invasion and Taliban rule, which includes the scattering of an Afghani diaspora and the profiteering of war criminals.
Themes and Shared Humanity
Despite the intensity of the above historical events, the novel never focuses on these events. It is almost entirely dedicated to its characters’ interpersonal relationships. Those relationships are certainly impacted by these historical events, but the focus on love and endurance despite hardship is a core theme of this historical fiction novel.
Some characters represent certain aspects of this history. Nila is a Westernized woman from Kabul who often feels torn by the ways her poetry is received. Adel is the son of a war criminal who comes to unlearn the way he sees his father as a hero. But, again, the focus is on how these people navigate the world given their backgrounds, not on the backgrounds themselves.
When Abdullah and Pari finally reunite decades later, it is too late for them to have any sort of enduring relationship. But, despite their separation and the difficulty it took for them to reunite, they finally do so, in a different country, with echoes of their love for one another still ringing in the present.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Homegoing is a historical fiction novel that spans over 400 years of colonization, slavery, and survival, beginning with two Asante women in present-day Ghana. Half-sisters Effia and Esi, children of an Asante woman named Maame, are separated by the invasion of British slave traders, and the novel follows these two women and their descendants as they navigate the awful realities of the slave trade and its many enduring effects.
Historical Fictions Worldbuilding
Homegoing moves through the traumas of forced migration, beginning with the Cape Coast Castle, a slave castle in present-day Ghana. Many of the novel’s ensuing generations are subject to different traumatic settings, including:
- The villages in Ghana raided and pillaged by the British.
- Villages in Ghana also raided by other Ghanaians.
- The slave ships to North America.
- An Alabama plantation.
- The Underground Railroad.
- Harlem in the midst of a drug crisis.
The novel casts a wide net, never lingering too long in any of these settings, but certainly giving us the details: hunger, poverty, rape, imprisonment, drug addiction, disease, and the many other awful situations which plague each generation of Maame’s descendants. We see the grime, filth, and disease of the slave ships, the terror of fleeing the plantations, the shit and sexual assault in the slave castles, and the needles in the city streets. We also see how these situations force each character to make unfathomably tough decisions, such as Ness and Sam, who let themselves be caught escaping the plantation so their son can make it to the free North.
Homegoing gives just enough detail that the reader can look with sympathy towards every awful thing occurring to each generation of Maame’s descendants, while still holding out hope that things will improve in the next chapter. Occasionally, they do.
History and Plot
Like the previous historical fiction examples, Homegoing isn’t trying to lecture you about history, but it does push its characters into different situations based on what’s going on during each historical time period.
Here are a few examples:
- The Anglo-Asante Wars of the 19th century, which gutted modern-day Ghana of its people and resources as the Asante tried to gain complete autonomy from the British. These conflicts kill, maim, and displace several characters of the novel.
- The introduction of cacao in Ghana, which forces Ohene to abandon his relationship to a pregnant Abena. Abena then leaves the village, and dies shortly after giving birth to Akua.
- The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which decreed that all captured slaves be returned to their slavers, even if they’re found in the North. The result is that Kojo’s wife is abducted and taken back South, which destroys their family.
- The introduction of heroin to Harlem, which coincided with a period of high unemployment in the neighborhood. This causes several relationships to dissolve in the later part of the novel.
By seeing how real historical events forced these characters to make tough or seemingly-insane decisions, Homegoing offers a richer sense of empathy for the plights of Africans and African-Americans throughout recent (and not-so-recent) history.
Themes and Shared Humanity
Because of the novel’s wide scope, in which each chapter represents a different era of history, many of the novel’s themes emerge globally, rather than from individual stories. Survival, resistance, and the endurance of family are notable themes, but so are those themes’ opposites: war, racism, and colonialism.
Modern readers haven’t been on The Underground Railroad, but that doesn’t make the painful separation of family less relatable, it just adds a particularly racist, pernicious context. Readers might also be someone or know someone who struggled with drug addiction, who felt estranged from their own communities, or who currently hold out hope that the next generation will have it easier than they did.
Most interesting about this novel is the ongoing side-by-side trajectories of Esi and Effia’s descendants, how they eventually reunite at the end of the novel, not knowing they are related. The initial image of the slave castle returns, too. In the beginning of the novel, each half-sister is given a black stone pendant. Esi’s is lost to the dungeon of the slave castle, where she is imprisoned before being sent to North America. Meanwhile, Effia’s is passed down through generations, as she lives a life of luxury aboveground in the castle, not knowing her half-sister is below. The novel ends with Effia’s descendant giving Esi’s descendant the stone pendant in the modern day, which symbolizes the endurance of family and shared heritage, even though much of that heritage is unspoken or lost to history.
Historical Fiction Writing Prompts
Want to write your own historical fiction books? We’ll look at some tips on how to write historical fiction in a moment. But, for the writer who doesn’t know where to begin, perhaps these prompts will inspire you.
The following historical fiction writing prompts are meant to be applied to any time period, from any part of the world.
- Investigate your family history. What did your ancestors do? Where did they live? Create a character inspired by one of your ancestors, deeply affected by the time period they lived in.
- War. What is it good for? Create two characters, one who supports the war, one who wants it to end. Make them fall in love.
- Write a historical fiction in which one character gains all of their money during a historical event, and one character loses all of their money. Explore how this money (or lack thereof) changes both characters’ trajectories.
- Two (or more siblings) are separated because of war. When they finally reunite, they love the memory of their family, but not the family in front of them.
- Write a historical fiction in which new technology gives a character everything they ever wanted—and every burden they didn’t know they’d get.
- Two characters grow apart because of global or historical changes. One character embraces modernity; the other is trapped in it.
- Two characters are united because of an awful, terrible, and unavoidable event in history.
- Think about someone you know who would make a great protagonist. Now, set them in a story that happened decades or centuries ago.
- “You know this story, even if you don’t know this history.”
- Go to your local library, and hit up the history section. Take a random book off the shelf, read it, and look for ways to insert your characters inside that history.
- The only thing left on the battlefield was a __________. Fill in the blank, then make that item a central image or symbol of the historical fiction story you write.
- Think of a historical time period you’ve heard about, e.g. the Victorian Era. What assumptions do you have about that time period? Do some research, and write a story investigating all the ways your assumptions are correct—and everything you didn’t realize you didn’t know. (For example, you might think the Victorians were all prudes. Many were actually quite kinky. A story that investigates this would want to show prudishness upfront, and something very different behind closed doors.)
Tips on How to Write Historical Fiction
If you’re new to writing longform fiction, you might want to start with our article on how to write a novel. Writing historical fiction isn’t significantly different from the novel writing process itself, it just requires more research and a particular attention to detail. The following tips on how to write historical fiction supplement what writers will already know about the basic craft of novel writing.
1. Immerse yourself in the setting and its culture
Don’t just read a couple of history books and think you know everything. Immerse yourself in your setting and time period.
There are plenty of ways to do this. Some authors will spend all day talking and thinking like they’re from their historical era. You might watch documentaries, period dramas, or hang up photos around your bedroom of what people wore, ate, and kept around the house.
Also, read literature from the period you’re writing about. Pay attention to the customs, dialogue, and social hierarchies that seem strange or unusual to you. Investigate these differences, and think of ways you can connect them to your present moment, the present-day reader.
Finally, pay close attention to the values people held at this time. Not only what values were held, but how they were expressed. “Honor,” for example, is a value held in most cultures, but the expression of that value varies widely from era to era.
2. Let history inform the story, not be the story
The historical fiction genre is fiction informed by history, not retelling history. Your goal is not to convey the minute-by-minute details of the bombing of Nagasaki, or the sequence of battles throughout the Civil War. Your goal is to tell a story about people affected by history.
Pay attention to how this works in the historical fiction examples we shared. Historical events offer a framework for the plot to hang off of, but those events are not the story. If Min Jin Lee focused on the particulars of Japan’s annexation of Korea, its cultural shift after World War II, or the economic impacts of the Korean diaspora, it would lose sight of the story—that is, how Korean people were impacted by all of these historical changes.
Your writing should never feel like a textbook. In fact, even the characters of your story might get their history wrong or have different interpretations of the same historical event. It’s people that matter to fiction, because they’re the ones who shape plot. History merely provides the trellis for this.
3. Focus on characters, not historical trivia
If you’re writing historical fiction books, you probably find history interesting. But remember that you’re telling a story set in history, not a story about history.
It helps to be organized about your research. Allow yourself time to go down rabbit holes, to get lost in the details without any clear direction. But after that, be methodical, with focused research questions and a vision for what you need to write this story. For example, if your story coincides which a big technological shift (like the invention of the light bulb), ask yourself who liked this change, who didn’t, and why.
Your research will likely guide you down fascinating rabbit holes. As you write your story, you will likely become somewhat of an expert on the time period you’re writing about. Whatever you do, don’t let your story turn into a laundry list of historical facts. Integrate your research into what your characters are already doing, feeling, and surviving.
4. Be particular about the details, and where you place them
This brings us to an important element of storytelling: fine tuning the details.
There are an endless amount of details you can include to make your story rich, real, and vibrant for the reader. But, including all of those details will only weigh the reader down.
This is where the tools of fiction come in handy, particularly the idea of scene vs summary. Summary writing is where the narrator gives an overview of information that’s relevant to the story, but doesn’t need to be expounded upon. It can be backstory, an overview of your characters and their situations, or connective tissue between the most important moments of a story.
Scene, by contrast, are those most important moments. This is where we see important dialogue exchanges, decisions made or acted upon, and plot points that advance the story or reach the story’s climax. Scene is the building block of fiction, no matter what genre your story is in.
Moments of “summary” are often the best places to introduce worldbuilding details. You can have them scenes, too, but you want to be sure that the reader has all the necessary information they need, and worldbuilding details can often slow a story down or interrupt the story’s flow.
With this in mind, you know that you only need the most relevant details in moments of summary that coincide with the important scenes you’re about to write. If your scene involves two people navigating the remains of a battlefield, you probably don’t need to include information about the sky-high prices of corn.
5. Create windows into your time period
As you write and edit your historical fiction story, think about ways to blend the familiar with the unfamiliar. Your characters might speak differently, act differently, and live in different worlds than your contemporary reader, but they still have much in common. For example, your characters might eat dinner together as a family, just like your reader—but what they eat or talk about might be different. Or, your characters might worry about their appearance, just like your reader—but the appearance they want might be different.
Blend the familiar with the unfamiliar to make your story more relatable. By doing this, you make your characters feel like real, flesh-and-blood people, who aren’t all that different from the reader despite whatever cultural or historical differences they share.
Write Historical Fiction Books at Writers.com
Want to learn more about the process of writing historical fiction? Check out our interview with instructor Jack Smith on his novel If Winter Comes.
Whether your story is set in Medieval Rome or 19th century Prussia, master the historical fiction genre at Writers.com. Take a look at our upcoming fiction classes, where you’ll receive expert feedback on every piece of writing you submit.
This information is so very good and helpful. Thank you for sharing.
You’re very welcome, Theresa!
Very useful information much of which can be applied broadly, for example the use of details in fiction.
I have a very good knowledge of early Virginia history and have toyed with a story set on the Virginia coast that would have a “bonded servant” as the protagonist
I have a real life ancestor to use as a starting point.
But I’m probably, at my advanced age, too lazy to bother.
Again I certainly appreciate your including this material in the newsletter.
I’m happy you found it useful, Anne!
Hi Anne, I took, am of a certain age and am just beginning my writing career.
I am intrigued by your story idea because my ancestors were early Virginia settlers from England. My genealogy research has yielded only a tiny bit of information and I’m having difficulty going further back than 1805.
I hope you do “bother” to develop and write your story as I think there would be great interest in it.
“too,” not “took”