Three Flavours of Historical Fiction

Having examined historical fiction by writing it, conducting global reader surveys and reading extensively, it is clear that this highly popular genre comes in a multitude of flavours. The obvious flavours concern time period, location and sub-genre such as mystery, saga or romance, but it seems that other, perhaps more subtle, variations distinguish historical fiction for readers.

What about variations based on character type, historical density and adherence to factual events?

Is the novel concerned with ordinary people or famous historical figures?

Character type continuum Eleanor of Aquitaine (Elizabeth Chadwick), Mary Magdalene (Margaret George), Thomas Cromwell (Hilary Mantel), and Isabella of Castille (C.W. Gortner) are examples of authors writing about famous historical figures while Bernard Cornwell writing about Nicholas Hook in Azincourt or Jacqueline Winspear Maisie Dobbs series feature ordinary people. ‘Those connected to the famous’ might be considered part way along the character type continuum with novels like The Paris Wife by Paula McLain (Ernest Hemingway’s first wife) or C.J. Sansom’s series about Matthew Shardlake (serving under Henry VIII).

How much history is incorporate into the novel?

Historical DensityWe’ve all read novels where history is merely a backdrop for a satisfying read – a mystery that just happens to be set in ancient Rome or a romance that plays out in the middle ages. In such cases, authors still need to create historically accurate settings and consider the morals, values and culture of the day, however, these stories are less dependent on historical events for their dramatic twists and turns.

Sharon Kay Penman’s recent novels on Richard Lionheart are examples at the other end of the spectrum, incorporating the historical record in great detail as the story unfolds. Edward Rutherfurd’s novels also incorporate vast amounts of historical detail on the cities and places he writes about, even though many, if not most, of his characters are fictional.

A second aspect of historical detail relates to plot. More specifically, how closely does the plot depend on factual events?

Historical events continuumAt one end are totally fabricated plots—Deanna Rayborn’s successful novels come to mind, while at the other end of the spectrum are plots that take all their twists and turns from the historical record—Conn Iggulden’s excellent series on the Wars of the Roses is a good example.

From an article in The Telegraph, David Mitchell, author of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Groot, had this to say about historical fiction: “One reason [for its continued popularity] is that it delivers a stereo narrative: from one speaker comes the treble of the novel’s own plot while the other speaker plays the bass of history’s plot.”

Mitchell goes on to say: “Perhaps this is the paradox that beats inside historical fiction’s rib cage: the “historical” half demands fidelity to the past, while the “fiction” half requires infidelity – people must be dreamt up, their acts fabricated and the lies of art must be told.”

Using Mitchell’s analogy: the bass of history’s plot booms louder and the fidelity dial is tuned more acutely when authors create novels on the right hand side of each of these spectrums.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

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10 Responses

  1. Very interesting article, M K Tod. As I’ve been following your blog for a long time, it’s very much time for me to put in a ‘like’ and, as a hopeful historical novelist, to say thank you.

    1. Many thanks for connecting, Charlie. I am so pleased you enjoy the blog! Wishing you great success with your manuscript. And don’t hesitate to jump in again with a comment or more. Warm regards, Mary

  2. Excellent piece. I see historical fiction as a teaching tool, adding some fictional moisture to the dry textbook. My work is heavy on historical characters and sticking as close to the era’s events as possible. I love when readers tell me, “I never knew that.”

    1. I understand the power of that phrase “I never knew that’. Reminds me of my consulting days – it was always very rewarding when I asked a question and the client would say, “I never thought of that” or “That’s a good question”. Good luck with your writing.

  3. Good article on the continuum of historical fiction. I personally prefer to read books that are more original stories that have historical flavor rather than those that rely heavily on real events and real historical figures.


  4. Another thought-provoking article, Mary! My preference for reading historical novels, based on real people following real events, influences my own writing. It’s certainly not for everyone but authenticity is key to my enjoyment .I want to be transported to another world, emotionally and psychologically, and I want to come away a lot wiser about the past. Author of ‘Sisters of The Bruce’.

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