What Is Historical Fiction?

Historical fiction refers to any work of fiction that is set in the past. The precise definition of the term is ambiguous. According to the Historical Novel Society, historical fiction must be written at least 50 years after the events described or by someone who was not alive when the events occurred and approaches the subject only through research.

Historical fiction often strives for an accurate representation of the time period depicted and often depends heavily on research. An author may attempt to adhere to events as closely as possible, basing the drama of the work on pure historical fact. Other works may merely take a historical event as the backdrop for a fictional story, such as Katherine Anne Porter's "Pale Horse, Pale Rider," a fictional tale that takes place during the Spanish flu pandemic. Still others may reinterpret historical events as the author sees fit, with little concern for historical accuracy. Thomas Pynchon's novel "Mason & Dixon," for example, focuses on the exploits of real-life surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon. Though the novel bases some of its content on genuine historical details, Pynchon also mixes in fantastical elements that obviously have no basis in fact. Although historical fiction is often used to refer to novels, it can also indicate any fictional work with a historical setting, including plays, films or television shows.