Susanne Dunlap

What qualifies as “historical fiction”?

In Historical Fiction, Writing Craft on July 12, 2010 at 8:51 am

A post by the wonderful Canadian author, Sandra Gulland, about one of our favorite topics in the historical fiction world: what is it really? Her most recent book is a luminous gem about Louis XIV’s first mistress, Louise de Lavalliere. I have the unusual distinction of having named this book, Mistress of the Sun, and it’s one of my greatest honors.

At what point does fiction qualify as historical fiction?

One rule-of-thumb has been that the fiction has to be set at least one hundred years before the author’s time. As well—and this is key, I think—the historical period has to be integral to the story, not simply a one-dimensional backdrop to a contemporary stage play.

More recently, fifty years has qualified, and some have even ventured to say that any fiction out of the author’s living memory makes it a work of historical fiction.

I’ve tended to be of the one-hundred year school in this debate, although I’ve never had any sound arguments to back it up. In truth, I suspect it’s the second part of the equation that carries more weight: the importance of the historical period in the work.

For example, would Nov 22, 1963 by Adam Braver, a novel about the assassination of J.F.K., be considered a work of historical novel? It’s set in (my) living memory, but to me, it’s historical fiction, in large part because it is entirely about a historical event and the people who were part of it.

Joan Thomas, author of, among others, the wonderful historical novel, Curiosity, recently had some thought-provoking things to say about this in “The Past is Present,” an essay she wrote for the Canadian publishing journal Quill & Quire. She proposed returning to the more stringent criteria of the academic Avron Fleishman, who holds that historical fiction must be set at least two generations before the book is written (i.e. about fifty years or more), and that “the story be about actual people in the public sphere.” By this definition, stories about fictional characters set in the past are simply that: a story set in the past. They would not be historical fiction.

I was taken aback by this definition and I’ve been giving it quite a bit of thought. Just glancing over my shelves I see that the definition generally does hold—but what about Perfume, by Patrick Süskind? What about The Crimson Petal and the White, by Michel Faber? What about, for that matter, novels by Sarah Waters?

No, although I agree with most of Thomas’ thoughts regarding historical fiction, I will have to take issue with this one rather strict definition of what constitutes historical fiction. For me, although these novels are not about any public person or event, they are very much about history. My own novels fall neatly into Fleishman’s definition, yet the very-real people I write about are, in many respects, a means of exploring that other “main character”: the past.

My thoughts: an interjection by Susanne Dunlap

I couldn’t let this one go entirely without putting in my own two-cents’ worth! I think that the definition of what qualifies as a historical novel has been broadened in recent years, just as what qualifies as historical studies has been broadened. Once upon a time, history was about great men. Those were the ones whose deeds were recorded, who had statues erected in their honor, and who built monuments of architecture to themselves.

With a few notable exceptions, women were not part of “history” in that narrow definition.

Now, of course there are plenty of women whose lives have been recorded and whom we learn about in school these days. Sandra herself has written about two of them. Their fame comes from their association with great men, however. And in many cases, our view of them has changed over the years with deeper, more thoughtful consideration of the historical evidence. The Vicomte Barras gave what was the prevailing view of Josephine for possibly the entire 19th century when he accused her in his memoir of profligacy and infidelity. We’ve since come to realize the picture is much more subtle, and to appreciate what Josephine had to go through in her life—Gulland gives us a very nuanced view in her wonderful Josephine Trilogy.

But apart from rehabilitating forgotten or misrepresented women in history, historians have begun to search for the evidence hidden in the commonplace, and to delve into a broader, cultural view of life in the past. This is no less history than a new biography of Lincoln. Nor, in my view, is a novel that creates a figure true to the time, based on careful research, and gives her a life and a voice that illuminates something beyond the lives of famous people from the past, any less historical fiction.

It is no accident, I believe, that many writers of such historical fiction are women. I have written both sorts of books. The Musician’s Daughter has an entirely fictional main character, and most of the other characters are fictional too, with the exception of Franz Joseph Haydn and members of the Austrian imperial family. Anastasia’s Secret,on the other hand, takes a very famous character and posits a fictional circumstance within her life. I researched both books equally rigorously, and saw no distinction in the attempt to bring a world-time-place alive for a reader.

Sandra’s post has made me think about this question in an entirely new way, and I thank her for it. I hope for many comments!

You may want to follow Sandra’s own wonderful blog, or visit her website.

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  1. Thanks for the interesting blog. I write historical fantasy infused with both real and fictional characters, set in places with circumstances that are both as well. I’d have to agree with you, that the definition “fictional characters set in the past are simply that: a story set in the past” isn’t quite right. If a story is set in a time long ago and is portrayed with authentic detail and historical accuracy, to me it is historical fiction (add elements of the fantastic and it’s historical fantasy). But the thing is, it’s not really important to me that there be a distinct definition to the genre. What we do is bring readers to a place in history that is hopefully new, exciting, and thought provoking. When I was a kid history was names and dates that I had to memorize. It took a long time to realize that history was and is people and their stories. That’s what I love about it and what I hope translates to my readers.

    thanks
    Kat Black
    author of the series from Scholastic
    The Book of Tormod

    A Templar’s Apprentice (Available)
    and coming in Feb. A Templar’s Gifts

  2. Great comment, Kat. I completely agree with you. I think almost anything that seeks to illuminate some truth about human nature by exploring the past can be a valuable addition to the “canon”. And of course, being entertaining isn’t so bad either…

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