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 historical fiction? 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.
A book cannot become a book of historical ficion just because it stays around for 30 years.
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 the past. 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.

 The 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 terms.

It's also important to recognize that some novels written as contemporary narratives simply become outdated contemporary novels—being "To qualify as a book of historical fiction, the book must also include references to historical figures and substantial information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 historical events." 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 historical events. A discussion on Canadian writer Gayleen Froese's blog ( 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 Apprentice 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. 


Historical Fiction.

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.

Period Fiction.

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 novel option. 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 substituted here.
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. McElmeel