What is Historical Fiction? Definition of the Historical Fiction Genre and Tips for Writing Your Historical Novel

Written by MasterClass

Jun 14, 2019 • 3 min read

Historical fiction transports readers to another time and place, either real or imagined. Writing historical fiction requires a balance of research and creativity, and while it often includes real people and events, the genre offers a fiction writer many opportunities to tell a wholly unique story.


What Is Historical Fiction?

Historical fiction is a literary genre where the story takes place in the past. Historical novels capture the details of the time period as accurately as possible for authenticity, including social norms, manners, customs, and traditions. Many novels in this genre tell fictional stories that involve actual historical figures or historical events.

The History of Historical Fiction

Historical fiction as we know it in contemporary Western literature dates back to the early 19th century. Sir Walter Scott, Honoré de Balzac, James Fenimore Cooper, and Leo Tolstoy were among the first novelists to explore the historical setting as its own concept for a book.

By the early 20th century, the genre was thriving in the United States with a focus on war stories, like Kenneth Roberts’ Arundel about the American Revolution or William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom about the American Civil War.

5 Common Elements of Historical Fiction

  1. Setting: The setting is the most important part of a historical fiction novel. It should take place during an authentic period in history and be set in a real historical place. For example, New York City during the Great Depression or Paris, France during World War II.
  2. Plot: The plot in a historical fiction novel is a combination of real events and fictional events. You can invent characters, cities, and events, but they still must make sense to the time period. For example, a novel set in London, England in 1666 would benefit from incorporating the Great Fire of London, a major turning point in the city’s history.
  3. Characters: The characters can be real, fictional, or both, but they should all look, speak, and act in ways that accurately reflect the era. For example, if you are writing a book about Mary Tudor, it shouldn’t disregard or reinvent her family history as the daughter of Henry VIII and sister to Elizabeth I, who both played an important role in Mary’s reign.
  4. Dialogue: The dialogue must be authentic to the time period and should reflect the status of the characters who are speaking. For example, British soldiers in the Revolutionary War wouldn’t use Western slang of today.
  5. Conflict: The problems the characters encounter should be conflicts people of that era would encounter. For example, your book might describe the hesitation and fear German soldier feels as he is to the Eastern Front, where he knows he is likely to die.

6 Tips for Writing Historical Fiction

As you write your historical fiction novel, remember the following:

  1. Free write to brainstorm ideas. If you’re interested in writing historical fiction but don’t know where to start, spend 15 minutes writing in your notebook about a period or historical event you’re interested in rendering in fiction. Note any assumptions you have about the period, cultural depictions of it in other books and films, and what specifically interests you about this moment in history.
  2. Find an interesting way into a time period. Consider using a historical time period as a backdrop and placing fictional characters and events within that world. Or, choose a historical event and create fictional characters who experienced it and whose lives were affected by it
  3. Do your research. In addition to getting the historical facts correct, the smaller details are important, too. Write an inventory of the details in your work that you haven’t researched but should check. Likely, these will be small things—for example, the color of refrigerators—whose accuracy will keep a reader interested and make your story more credible.
  4. Build a world. World-building makes a historical fiction books more authentic and gives readers a reason to keep coming back. Include details about the world in which your story takes place to give readers historical context and balance those exotic details with familiar, relatable ones to keep the story grounded. However, don’t add information just to add it; make sure every part of your world-building advances the story.
  5. Don’t get bogged down in dialogue. Different historical eras have different vocabulary and grammatical structures. Include occasional words and phrases to reinforce the historical setting, but don’t include so many that the novel becomes difficult to read and less enjoyable.
  6. Add fictional characters. Even if you’re writing about true events, you can take some creative liberties. Introducing fictional characters to complement those based on actual historical figures can help you move the story along, inject personality, and keep it entertaining.

Find more writing tips in Margaret Atwood’s MasterClass.