Guide: Defining the historical fiction genre

Letter blocks spelling historical fiction

There are problems with defining the historical fiction genre, as with defining any genre. When does ‘contemporary’ end, and ‘historical’ begin? What about novels that are part historical, part contemporary? And how much distortion of history will we allow before a book becomes more fantasy than historical?

There will never be a satisfactory answer to these questions, but these are the arbitrary decisions we’ve made.

Historical Novel Society definitions

To be deemed historical (in our sense), a novel must have been written at least fifty years after the events described. Or written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events, and therefore approaches them only by research.

We also consider the following styles of novel to be historical fiction for our purposes:

  • alternate histories, such as Robert Harris’ Fatherland
  • pseudo-histories, in the style of Umberto Eco’s Island of the Day Before
  • time-slip novels, such as Barbara Erskine’s Lady of Hay
  • historical fantasies, such as Bernard Cornwell’s King Arthur trilogy
  • multiple-time novels, for example Michael Cunningham’s The Hours

Other definitions

There are a number of essays which aim to define or discuss historical fiction. These are the ones we have collected so far. We’d welcome information on any others.

In This Section

About our Articles

Our features are original articles from our print magazines (these will say where they were originally published) or original articles commissioned for this site. If you would like to contribute an article for the magazine and/or site, please contact us. While our articles are usually written by members, this is not obligatory. No features are paid for.