The Continuum of Historical Fiction

Some time ago, 2015 to be exact, I wrote a post showing the varieties of historical fiction by using a few diagrams. As I said in that earlier post, “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.”

In that post, I proposed variations based on character type, historical density, and adherence to factual events.

=> Character type: Is the novel concerned with ordinary people or with famous historical figures?

=> Historical density: How much history is incorporated into the novel?

=> Adherence to factual events: How closely does the plot depend on factual events?

David Mitchell, author of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Groot, offer this perspective: “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.”

In a slightly later post, I also had a look at what I called the biography continuum, with one end highly focused the facts of a character’s life and the other end representing more of a fictionalized biography.

Three questions to consider:

  • Where do you prefer to be on these continuums in terms of your reading? Of course, many of us enjoy stories from all parts.
  • If you are also a writer, where on these continuums do you prefer to situate your novels?
  • Do you have some favourite examples from these continuums to share?

As for me, to date my novels have focused on fictional characters with a smattering of minor characters who are real. However, I have toyed with the idea of writing a fictionalized biography. And for my reading, while I appreciate novels from every part of these continuums, I have a preference for stories that incorporate lots of factual events and a good dose of real history.

PS – those who are long-time readers of this blog will know that I love using diagrams to illustrate a topic. Turns out I’ve built more than 200 of them. Who knew?


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website

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The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

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6 Responses

  1. I have written a few romanced biographies of real people, but these only in short stories. Otherwise, my novels are about fictional characters who might have existed, by the side of the famous ones, but are not written in any chronicles.
    Usually, the historical facts influence my novels. The characters are living them, participating at them, they root for one or another famous person who gets mentioned or might have even a cameo appearance.
    For example, in my Lives in turmoil series, in the first volume my character is taken prisoner at Novi. She initially roots for the ideals of liberty, equality, fraternity, then she sees Napoleon’s evolution to dictature and gets disillusioned, deciding to emigrate to USA, where the democratic values are still kept. She witnesses the Three Flags Day in St Louis as it was described in chronicles, so Lewis and Clark and Amos Stoddard make a cameo. She makes enemies the powerful Chouteau family, which makes it difficult to live in the area…and in 1824 or when Marechal Lafayette had the tour of the USA and got to St Louis, where it was a ball in his honour, she gets the joy to talk to him for 5 minutes or so, as her husband is the mayor of a little town just across the river, and it makes sense to have been invited, together with other neighbouhood mayors. We know Lafayette was at the ball. We do not know with whom he had danced and talked during that night, because it was not important for chroniclers.

  2. I’m on the left side of those continuums: ordinary people, sufficient history to frame the story, plot totally fabricated. But as I have puzzled over these same questions, I have always thought of historical fiction as a realist genre. Yet at the same time, as someone who has published three historical novels and one fairytale novel, I have been struck by how similar my fairytale novel is to my historicals in tone, in characterization, and in development. Why are books that seem to come from the opposite ends of the spectrum actually so close?

    Then I stumbled upon GK Chesterton’s definition of fairytales: “Folk-lore means that the soul is sane, but that the universe is wild and full of marvels. Realism means that the world is dull and full of routine, but that the soul is sick and screaming. The problem of the fairy tale is—what will a healthy man do with a fantastic world? The problem of the modern novel is—what will a madman do with a dull world? In the fairy tales the cosmos goes mad; but the hero does not go mad. In the modern novels the hero is mad before the book begins, and suffers from the harsh steadiness and cruel sanity of the cosmos.”

    And I realized that we have come to allow science fiction to define fairytales or fantasy by the presence of magic. But that is not really the point at all, and many classic fairytales do not involve magic. Chesterton has it right. Fairytales are stories of sane people in a mad world. And so is historical fiction. Fairytales create a mad world in one way, with magic, or with animal tales. Historical fiction creates a mad world in a different way, by going back to the maddest times and places of our history: World War II, the court of Henry VIII, Nelson’s Navy at war. Henry VIII is a fairytale ogre. Ann Boleyn is either a fairytale princess or a fairytale enchantress. They are characters out of fairytales.

    Consider the way that most of the covers of historical fiction are drawn: a character (almost always a woman) facing into a world full or portent or terrors. They show the entry of the sane person into the mad world. They are fairytales.

    Seen it this way and the shape of the continuum becomes somewhat different. It becomes about where you find madness in the world, and where you find sanity amidst that madness.

    1. Hi G.M. … what an interesting thesis. Would you be interested in elaborating on this notion to create a blog post? Please let me know 🙂

    2. Yikes, does that put me on the “right”. Wild fictional events and some characters, but always framed either within actual history or historically possible interpretations.

  3. I’m on the left on Character Type, though I occasionally dabble with real characters (in fictional circumstances). I’m in the middle on Historical Density, and that varies by novel. Ditto on Adherence to Factual Events (middle, but tending to the left). And pretty far to the right on Historical Biography Continuum, if I understand that aspect. These four scales are useful ways to think about historical fiction, and good questions to ponder on each new novel. Thanks.

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