What is Historical Fiction? By Peter Leavell

Before you dip your feather quill into ink and press the tip against the parchment, know the definition of Historical Fiction.


If you don’t, you’ve no mission statement to give shape to the entire work. For example, if you’re writing an epic that takes place in ancient Rome and a time traveler pulls out his cell phone to record the murder of Julius Caesar, you can unroll the scroll that contains the definition and see if the time traveler belongs there.

So, what is Historical Fiction? Geoffrey Trease, who wrote 113 novels about a century ago, claimed HF is a subject written ‘outside the time of living memory.’

Historic Novel Society tries to keep it simple—written “in the past, before the author’s lifetime and experience.” Or, more definitive, any novel written at least fifty years after the events described (which is 1968—yowza), or by an individualwho was not alive at the time of those events, writing from a research perspective. Alternate histories, time-slip novels, historical fantasies, and multiple-period novels are all accepted by HNS.

Still others maintain that HF is a label of incredible distinction and should be used with great dignity. The tag Historical Fiction should be applied to those books where a deliberate attempt has been made to recreate the past.

What does this mean for you? You are not answerable to anyone but your conscience. Why? Because HF itself is the embodiment of disagreement. The term Historical Fiction is a contradiction. Historical. Fiction. HF Seeks accuracy and illusion.

Seriously? Yes.

So, how do I approach HF? What is my definition when I start penning a work of genius? Here’s what I tell myself.

Peter, cut through the fog of perception and come as close to the historic truth as possible. If you deviate, deviate with a purpose in mind. Because historians ask what happened and why did it happen that way? You ask, what was it like?

Your definition of HF will determine the kind of HF you write, and thus produce a work that will help us not learn history, but live it. Take great pains to confirm your definition of HF in your mind as you work, and you’ll help solidify the past in your reader’s mind.

Peter Leavell, a 2007 graduate of Boise State University with a degree in history and currently enrolled in the University’s English Lit Graduate program, was the 2011 winner of Christian Writers Guild’s Operation First Novel contest, and 2013 Christian Retailing’s Best award for First-Time Author. A novelist, blogger, teacher, ghostwriter, jogger, biker, husband and father, Peter and his family live in Boise, Idaho. Learn more about Peter’s books, research, and family adventures at www.peterleavell.com.
Posted:June 11, 2018

About Katherine Wacker

Katherine Wacker is currently a reviewer for Bethany House Publishers, and Howard Books. She is a Craftsman graduate of the Jerry B. Jenkins Christian Writer’s Guild. She holds a B.A in History from San Diego State-Imperial Valley Campus. In her spare time she likes to read books, watch sports, and do jigsaw puzzles. She lives at home with her parents and three dogs, Charlie, Roscoe and Daisy.
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3 Responses to What is Historical Fiction? By Peter Leavell

  1. Dave Perkins says:

    As I am in the midst of such an endeavor at this very moment, this was clarifying and helpful. I had thought that my purpose for a historical novel would be to make readers aware of what has happened, and therefore prepare them to believe something I believe about the possible events, causes, reasons for what is known but not understood. In writing fiction I am thus not responsible as author for knowing what I cannot know, but I can introduce knowledge as part of background and make a case for what I think happened, sans the sort of competitive and brutal peer review that accompanies works which are explicitly presented as fact.

    Leavell has let me know I am on the right track, and I thank you for that. I also am going to send you my finished novel, not just for review but because I think you will like it. 😊

    Thank you Katherine,

    Dave Perkins

    • Thanks for reading, Dave! Historical Fiction is a huge responsibility, that’s for sure. Glad to see you are taking it as seriously as it should be taken! Blessings in your work.

    • Dave, I’m glad it helped. I always find Peter’s posts helpful and humorous.

      I would be very interested in your book.

      Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to read my blog.


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