Getting It Right: Historical Fiction or Not?
by Sharron L, McElmeel
The Ramona Books (by Beverly Cleary) were written
decades ago and were set in an era from a couple of decades ago. The
setting, current at the time, is surely in the past for most of the
readers, so does that make them historical fiction? Stumptown Kid
by Carol Gorman and Ron Findley (Peachtree, 2006) is a sports/mystery
set in the Midwest during the 1950s. Is it historical fiction?
Gorman is in the process of writing a book, Walking Lowa
(HarperGollins, forthcoming) about an orphan in Iowa who walks across
Iowa to reunite with her little sister. It is set in the 1930s. Is that
There seems to be widespread agreement that
to qualify as historical, the book's main plot
must be set in the past. But how far in the past?
Thirty years is sometimes listed as a standard.
But does that mean set 30 years at the time the
book is written or 30 years from the time it is
read? The general consensus is that the book is
what it is at the time of writing. A book cannot
become a book of historical fiction just because
it stays around a lot of years and the setting
becomes 30 years old. The perspective of the
writing is decidedly different if it is written as a
contemporary piece as opposed to being written
from a perspective looking back on the events of
It goes without saying that if any book is set in the
past and that time period is specifically identified,
then the information should be accurate.
|A book cannot become a book of historical ficion just because it stays around for 30 years.
characters, real or invented, must reflect the
behavior and actions of one that would have lived
in that era. Foods, media, and other details must
accurately reflect the time period. But does that
in and of itself render a book (picture book, novel,
early chapter book) as historical fiction?
There is more to the term "historical fiction" than
simply that the book is set in a time from the past.
If that were true, does a book move from being
contemporary fiction once it gets old enough that
the setting is now in the past?
There may be an answer to this question. The
solution, I believe, is to distinguish between "historical fiction" and
"period fiction" and to stop using the two phrases as interchangeable
It's also important to recognize that some
novels written as contemporary narratives simply
become outdated contemporary novels—being
"To qualify as a book of historical fiction, the book must also include
references to historical figures and substantial information about
neither historical or period novels regardless of the supposed setting.
In both categories of books the setting would, by defmition, be a
definite time setting in the past from the date of the book's
publication. That would make a book that I might write, set in my
childhood, to be set during a historical period of time, but the book
would not necessarily be historical fiction. It simply would be a book
set in a period of time that is a generation or more prior to the
current generation. In other words, a piece of period flction.
To qualify as a book of historical flction, the book must also include
references to historical figures and substantial information about
A discussion on Canadian writer Gayleen Froese's
suggests that writers of period fiction might be
best served if they write the story first and then
return to the details and tweak those to reflect
a particular time setting. If such a book were
created using this, technique, it would be a book of period flction,
regardless of the fact that the
story might be set in a past era.
To be a work of historical fiction, the writing must be such that the
setting is a necessary part of the action and characters present. If
the plot includes events or characters that make a speciflc setting
mandatory, then it is a work of historical flction. Christopher Paul
Curtis's The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963
(Random House, 1995) is the story of an ordinary family doing ordinary
things during the Civil Rights era, but the family becomes caught up in
one of the most significant events in history, the bombing of the
Birmingham Church in 1963. That event is so significant to the plot
that the book is no longer a piece of period fiction but qualifies as a
book dealing with a topic of historical significance. Thus, The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 is historical flction.
Carol Gorman and Ron Findley's Stumptown Kid
is a sports/mystery set in the Midwest during the 1950s. While the book
does deal with prejudices in the 1950s there are no characters or
events mentioned that would preclude this story from having been
written in much the same manner but set in some other period—1960s,
1970s, and so forth. Changing the title of a movie, the price of a soda
pop, or a current pop star can change the time period but really does
not impact the story itself so it is more accurately period flction
rather than historical flction.
Books that are set outside of the near past are often historical
flction based on the fact that circumstances are so different in an era
that the story would be difflcult to envision unless it is set in that
particular era. Karen Cushman's Midwife's
is such a title. The story focuses on the everyday relationships during
the Middle Ages and the setting's circumstances color the interplay
between the characters in such a way that the relationships would be
vastly different if set in any other era. Thus, the title would be
considered historical flction.
Books set in pioneer
days, in Shakespeare's England, or during any of
the World Wars are often historical fiction, but
not always. For example, Harriet Ziefert created
a wonderful picture book, A New Coat for Anna
(Knopf, 1986) set during post World War II that
tells of Anna's mother's efforts to get Anna a new
coat. Other than the fact that we are told, by the
publisher, that the book takes place on the home
front shortly after World War II, it would be
difficult to ascertain the setting in terms of exactly
which war has just occurred. On the other hand, Christmas in the Trenches by John McCutcheon
(Peachtree, 2006) is most definitely historical
fiction. The entire story is dependent on actual
events that took place during World War I.
A book set in a specific historical time period
with a plot that uses significant historical characters or events as an
integral element in the story. Narrative may include invented
characters and dialogue but all must be accurate to the time period.
A book set in a specific time period with a plot that
addresses general and universal themes which are not dependent on the
time period or historical characters or events for moving the plot
forward. The narrative must be accurate to the specific time period.
- Group readers into small groups—3-5 readers in each group.
- Ask each group to read a specific novel, one that is set in a specific time period.
- After the readers have finished their respective books,
present the points regarding historical fiction and period fiction as
shared in this article.
- Convene discussion groups to determine if the book their group read can be categorized in either group.
Don't forget to mention the outdated contemporary
Ask each group to present their "findings" to their classmates. The
presentation should include a summary of the book read, their category
determination, and elements that helped them determine the category
into which they thought their book fit.
- Ask students to write about their favorite things to do with friends.
- Ask them to include titles of movies, pop stars, stores in their area that they visit and so forth.
As a follow-up, ask the writers to change the details so
the story they have written is now set during the years which World War
II was being fought (1941-1945)—any significant era could be
This will result in the student researching pop culture during the
specified era, and researching their own community to determine if the
stores they frequent were in business during the 1940s.
- Ask the small groups of students to
identify additional books that were written with a setting similar to
the group read they were involved in reading and discussing. Use
this list to select additional titles to read and then discuss how the
collaborative reading books compare to the group read in terms of type
of book and facts included.
McElmeel, Sharron L. "Getting It Right: Historical Fiction or Not?" Library Media Connection,
Jan/Feb2009, Vol. 27 Issue 4, p. 40-41. © Sharron L.