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Exploring Genre: Historical Fiction

My last post explained why you should love reading along with all the benefits that come from reading, so I thought it might be worth exploring the many genres of fiction. (You’re on your own for non-fiction.) Sometimes even readers need a push to try things they haven’t tried before, and new readers might be intimidated by what kinds of books are even out there.

There are relatively few kinds of stories in the world in terms of story structure, but an infinitesimal number of variations of stories can come out of those structures. Authors who study story structure usually specialize in specific types of structures. Readers will recognize these structures as genre. So what is a genre?

Briefly, genre is a label that helps an author write to a reader’s expectations, and it offers readers a promise of the experience the story will provide. A well done cover will offer clues to these things too, but that’s a topic for another day.

Each week I want to focus on a different genre, offering subgenres within the overriding genre. Keep in mind that genres are fluid and often flow from one into the next. Most of the time, marketing drives these labels as retails must know how to categorize books in order to sell them, so you’ll find elements of many kinds of genres in most books.

This week we’ll look at historical fiction.

We have history books, so why do we need historical fiction? I’m glad you asked. Both non-fiction history and historical fiction are forms of storytelling that offer unique perspectives on the past. But there is a subtle difference in the approach.

History is the study of past events and societies. It is based on the examination of primary and secondary sources such as diaries, letters, government documents, and other artifacts. Historians use these sources to reconstruct the past as accurately as possible, and to understand the causes and consequences of past events. The goal of history is to provide a factual and objective account of the past, without the interpretation or artistic license that is often used in historical fiction.

Historical fiction, on the other hand, is a form of storytelling that uses fictionalized accounts of historical events or periods to entertain and inform readers about the past. The authors of historical fiction can use their imagination to fill in the gaps in historical records, and create characters, dialogue, and plot that make the past more relatable and engaging for readers. Historical fiction can also provide a window into different cultures and societies, helping readers to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the ways in which people in the past lived and thought.

In summary, history and historical fiction both help us learn about our past, but they do so in different ways. History provides a factual and objective account of the past, while historical fiction offers a more personal perspective and can make the past more relatable and engaging. Both forms of storytelling can be used together to gain a deeper understanding of the past.

What are the subgenres?

There are many subgenres of historical fiction, including:

  • Alternative history, which explores what might have happened if historical events had occurred differently.
  • Historical mystery, which combines elements of historical fiction with a mystery plot.
  • Historical romance, which focuses on romantic relationships set in the past.
  • Historical fantasy, which combines elements of historical fiction with fantasy elements such as magic or mythical creatures.
  • Time slip, which involves a story where the characters travel through time.
  • Steampunk, which is set in a 19th-century industrial era and incorporates advanced technology.
  • Regency romance, which is set in the early 19th century in England during the period of the Regency.
  • Medieval historical fiction, which is set in the Middle Ages in Europe.
  • Biographical fiction, which is based on the life of a real historical person.
  • Epic historical fiction, which covers a large time period and covers a wide range of characters and events.

And as mentioned before, many of these subgenres merge and weave in and out of other categories. The important thing in reading a genre label when choosing a book is that the genre chosen for marketing will be the genre primarily driving the story even if there are other elements in the plot.

Looking for suggestions?

Here are some popular books in each of these subgenres:

  • Alternative history: “The Man in the High Castle” by Philip K. Dick, “Fatherland” by Robert Harris
  • Historical mystery: “The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco, “The Alienist” by Caleb Carr
  • Historical romance: “Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon, “The Red Tent” by Anita Diamant
  • Historical fantasy: “The Mothman Prophecies” by John A. Keel, “The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane” by Katherine Howe
  • Time slip: “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier, “The Time Traveler’s Wife” by Audrey Niffenegger
  • Steampunk: “The Diamond Age” by Neal Stephenson, “The Anubis Gates” by Tim Powers
  • Regency romance: “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen, “The Duke and I” by Julia Quinn
  • Medieval historical fiction: “The Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follett, “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R.R. Martin
  • Biographical fiction: “The Other Boleyn Girl” by Philippa Gregory, “Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel
  • Epic historical fiction: “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy, “The Thorn Birds” by Colleen McCullough

And don’t forget indie authors! There are so many more books in the world than you’ll find at your local drug store (or even big box bookstore). I suggest taking a look here for books self-published by authors in all the genres we’ll be talking about. Most are available as ebooks as well as in paperback.


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