Historical Ficton: What it is and what it is NOT

My genre of choice is historical fiction, always has been all the way back to grade school when I first picked up chapter books around second grade. We didn’t call them “chapter books” per se and there was no YA section, merely a blanket term of juvenile literature or maybe a small shelf dedicated to “older juvenile” or even more progressively called “teen”.  There also were not the plethora of genre distinctions we have today, from fantasy to paranormal to romance and, yes, historical fiction. So, being the avid reader I became, once I realized words could transport me anywhere I wanted, I was the bookish kid who never was seen without her nose stuck in a book. That said, every adult I met insisted on asking, “What’s your favorite kind of book to read?” And that’s where I was stumped. Because I loved old time stories, novels about history and times past when life seemed more interesting and adventurous. For lack of a better genre label, I often said, “mysteries” because that was one go-to genre back then.

It wasn’t until about fourth or fifth grade I latched onto the notion of historical fiction after reading Johnny Tremain. Here was a genre I could get behind and dig my reader claws into. A story set in times ripped from the headlines of early America but with fictional people, just like me, who could have met or interacted with real historical people like Samuel Adams or even participated in the Boston Tea Party. From there I sought out other historical stories and found authors like Elizabeth George Speare, who wrote The Witch of Blackbird Pond and The Bronze Bow. I went on to read works like Indian Captive by Lois Lenski, and of course, I read every book in the Little House series several times over. I was addicted but still felt somewhat ashamed of adhering to a genre that was not really known for its own genre label. Instead, I clung to classics, devouring works by Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen and Mark Twain, just to get a flavor for life and times of another place. Because these were classics, my teachers and parents encouraged this sort of reading. Because there was little else truly interesting or new happening in juvenile, before YA became a thing, I had little else to choose from before heading into the uncertain waters of the adult stacks.

Now as a historical fiction author, I’m thrilled to see this genre come into its own as a respected place beyond merely Regency Romance or worse, those “bodice rippers” of a generation past. It seems my entire reading life has been headed for this moment when my own historical series, based on early America, can sit along side my beloved favorites on my book shelf. What I’m writing is what I consider the purest definition of historical fiction, based on the same definition my grade school librarian gave when she featured Johnny Tremain at one library hour and started me on that lifelong journey of reading. The story must be set during a historical time period and include real historical people as characters, either primary or secondary. The story can also include fictional characters to flesh out the character list and create a plot driven story. What a historical fiction story is not, is any old story set more than fifty or so years ago, which is what some writers and publishers are going with. So, setting a story somewhere in the mid-20th century America with no context to dates or events, is merely a story set in the past, but not historical fiction. This is the definition I learned in school and will continue to use as a guide when writing my own stories.