Historical fiction can be a deceptively complex genre to define. It would seem initially that any fiction set in the past might be considered historical fiction but as we examine this basic distinction, it becomes significantly less simple. After all, how far into the past does a novel need to be set to be considered historical rather than contemporary realistic fiction? Do we use a specific range of years? Do we consider the likely cultural memory and lived experiences of the intended audience? For the purposes of this guide, I’ve decided to define historical fiction as a novel set in the past in which the particular realities of that time and place play a significant role in the narrative.
The genre of historical fiction is vast and varied. The idea of compiling a definitive genre guide is fairly daunting so I chose a focus: “off the beaten path” historical fiction–novels set in the past that feature perspectives, places, time periods, or events frequently unexplored in both the average history class curriculum and historical fiction.
These novels expand the genre beyond the ‘white people in interesting clothing’ approach that can dominate the historical fiction shelves. In the process of creating history, many voices have been silenced, forgotten, or shoved aside. Good historical fiction–like all good fiction–weaves an absorbing story with complex characters, providing us with an opportunity to counteract simplified or biased versions of history. Through fiction, readers can look at well-known events from a new perspective, immerse themselves in unfamiliar cultures, or see an exploration of their heritage.