Historical Fiction as a literary genre is generously broad and notoriously ambiguous in that the beginning of man can be included in the same spectrum of writing as our own recent Wild West. It was bound to happen then that sooner or later sub-genres would be broken out.
What is Historical?
In that it depicts and closely associates the period social conditions, manners, clothing, and environmental factors, the story can capture any century or millennia from the dawn of man. Generally, “historical” refers to publications written at least 50 years after the event. Considering an extended time frame, therefore, an author would usually be assumed to be writing from research rather than from experience. (In the relatively unusual case of my grandfather’s manuscripts, however, they were written some time shortly after his “sailing, mining, prospecting, and cowpoke days,” over 90 years ago but only recently published by myself.)
So if it’s all historical fiction, what are the ten sub-genres?
- Documentary fiction (i.e., Ragtime (1975) by E.L. Doctorow)
- Fictional biographies (i.e., Margaret George and her The Memoirs of Cleopatra)
- Historical mysteries
- Historical romance and family sagas (i.e., Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell)
- Nautical and pirate fiction (i.e., Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Stanley McShane’s Cocos Island Treasure)
- Alternate history and historical fantasy (i.e., most anything Isaac Asimov)
- Children’s historical fiction
- Multi-period sagas
- Western historical novels
- Christian historical novels
The sub-genres of historical fiction may well include more categories than the above, such as speculative historical fiction, or is that simply included in #6 above? (What if the Romans were still a world power? Or the Japanese had taken Pearl Harbor? Or the Germans won WW2?) I suppose you could continue to divide historical fiction categories ad nauseum.
Perhaps among the earliest historical fiction, Classical Greek, whose novelists wrote what might even be considered “epic poetry,” including The Iliad. There is a wealth of stories beginning 500 AD considered Middle Ages, then successively through the Early Modern Period from 1500 to the Napoleonic and recent history beginning approximately 1850. The protagonists or characters may be fictional characters of the time or well-known figures of history–or a mix of the two.
Early this year, I read The Eye of Nefertiti by Maria Luisa Lang. But this was not just an historical fiction saga–it included elements of historical fantasy (see #6 above). One of my favorite authors, Amanda Hughes, writes historical fiction with a sprinkle of romance (see #4 above). And then there was The Dirty Parts of the Bible by Sam Torode (set during the depression), also a 2016 Goodreads Choice Award. I just reviewed So Much Owed by Jean Grainer set during WW2 (definitely #4 above), and I’m sure to be a favorite of 2017.
In the case of my grandfather’s manuscripts, of course, he wrote about the period approximately 1882 – 1935. Stanley McShane’s literary hero was Jack London, his contemporary and also early 1900 San Francisco resident. (Both men survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.)
Jack London is famous for his historical fiction novels, The Call of the Wild and White Fang, set about the same period as McShane’s Busters of Bitter River.
For that novel, McShane lived on a cattle ranch in Arizona for some time and learned to rope, drive cattle, and generally be a “cowpoke.” Both London and McShane visited Goldfield, Nevada, where mining stocks were being touted and later noted in McShane’s book, Hot Air Promotions. (It would seem a possibility they crossed paths more than once.)
The history of man even in just the last century lends itself to so many wonderful ideas, historical plots, characters, and colorful stories. According to the Historical Novel Society, approximately “40% of all (historical) adult novels reviewed over the last year are set in the 20th century.” Indeed, according to the same source, the 19th century stats drop to little more than half of the 20th century. (The why is another whole article.)
Historical fiction is listed among the eight most popular genres. (You can no doubt guess what is #1.) However, try as I might, I could find no current breakdown of popularity by genre with any source that agreed with the other. Perhaps you have a definitive source, or link to answer the question. I’d sure love to see it! ©2017 Virginia Williams