Fear in Writing: Historical Fiction or Fiction in History?

Today in Literary History

Today in Literary History...December 14, 1907: Rudyard Kipling receives the Nobel prize for literature, the first English-language writer to do so.ud

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Historical Fiction or Fiction in History?

Recently I've seen a number of people say things like, "I love historical fiction. My favorite is The Count of Monte Cristo" or "Jane Eyre." And little by little the irking has begun to irritate, this small itch has turned into a rather noticeable rash.

Please forgive my bluntness, but it is time we laid out the difference in plain English.

Historical fiction captures the spirit of a time, often with accurate characters of the period, but with an alternate view of what actually happened. Take, for example, Caleb Carr's The Alienest (a near-perfect plot and a must-read for any mystery writer). Teddy Roosevelt and the city of New York exist as characters in the novel, in place with known characteristics, but changed by the author's chosen view and the facts of the storyline. It is a fantastic glimpse into the late 19th century, psychologically, socially and industrially.

The reason Jane Eyre is not historical fiction is that it was actually written in the time in which it takes place. Author Charlotte Bronte lived from 1816 till 1855, and her masterpiece was published in 1847. To Bronte there was nothing historical about it: it was contemporary. To us, it is a classic.

Please, enjoy them both! I ravaged Tasha Alexander's Only To Deceive and Phillipa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl (though not so much her others), and tore through all the Bronte sisters, DuMaurier, and Little Women.

Just know the difference.

For further information here are some sites: HistoricalNovels.Info has era by era listings of novels so you can browse according to interest. Within each century you can even choose, say, between "Napoleonic Era Mysteries" and "Seafaring and Warfare at Sea and on Land." Wikipedia Historical Fiction also has a nice list and range of links. This seems to be a pretty comprehensive list, but feel free to post your own findings: The Ultimate Reading List. Enjoy!


  1. It can be annoying, can't it? Writing a mystery taking place 70 years ago, I read many books written in that period; for the language and attitudes.


  2. You know, Elspeth, I just realized the other day I had no idea what you actually write. I plan to do a little research now! I would like to come back from Thanksgiving with some idea of what goes on inside your organized brain. I think I would like the research part. But I might get lost in it! I might never make it back to the actual writing!
    Thank you for your input - look forward to your historical mystery!


  3. Oh, besides the fact that you hot a nerve with this one, there is another thing that bugs me to no end. When people quote old books, or even historical fiction, as a historical fact.

    I lost my patience the other day when somebody was implying that "Love in the time of Cholera" was a true story... I told the person, that believe it or not, people can make stuff up about the past. Not like Sherlock Holmes was relaity TV of the last century.


  4. Good information here. Don’t know how many times I’ve passed by The Alienest and thought, “Gee, that looks interesting, I wonder if it is?” Only so much book spending money, you know. Now, I’ve a hardy recommendation for it. Thanks. Thanks also for the HistoricalNovels site. Great resource that’s now bookmarked.

    Best Regards, Galen

    Imagineering Fiction Blog

  5. Jim - I hear you! I remember thinking as a child I was learning history from the movies. And to a certain extent, there is truth in some films. But fiction is fiction, and is billed as such. How is your query coming?

    Galen - The Alienist is a definite! I read his second in the set as well, The Angel of Darkness. If you can make it to the library, check them both out. Worth it!


  6. Michele,
    You were right I did enjoy this post particularly since I read so much Historical Fiction in order to write well my Regency style romance novels.
    Oh, and if I did not yet say how much I like your blog, I do. I like your blog.
    Have a lovely weekend.

  7. Oh thank you! I really wasn't fishing for compliments! Just glad to share!


  8. I remember reading The Alienist when it first came out and thoroughly enjoyed it. Caleb Carr's follow up was rather disappointing, however.

    Distinctions, such as the one you point out, need to be reinforced from time to time. There's a alot of genre blending out there. :)