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Historical Fiction Primer

To write historical fiction, first the question must be answered, what is historical fiction? Historical fiction is a story in which a historically accurate setting plays an integral part of the storytelling. Collectively, historical events become a character in the story.

Historical fiction is...fiction. It has to have all of the basic story elements: plot, conflict, deep characters. But, readers of historical fiction expect that the historical elements will be accurate. Can literary license be used in the historical elements? Yes, to a point. If the story involves the First World War, such as Legends of the Fall or The War Horse, then the time period must be 1914 to 1918. Can the story extend into 1921? Yes. Legends of the Fall extends into the 1960s. Can the war end in 1921? No, that’s not historical fiction, that’s alternative-history fiction.

Can a soldier serve in a unit that never existed? Probably, depending on how integral that detail is to the story. Can a soldier see battle serving in an historical unit that never entered combat? That’s starting to approach the point of using too much literary license, but if it is important to the story for the character to be in a specific unit and the combat is minor in the scope of history—a skirmish between a few soldiers, not a major battle found in history books—then perhaps it’s okay to take this literary license.

Simply setting a story in the past does not make it historical fiction. The story of Romeo and Juliet, for example, can be—and has been—set in any time period. So that story by itself is not historical fiction (and had a contemporary setting when it was written). However, if Romeo is a Russian prince and Juliet is a Bolshevik, the story could be historical fiction, provided the events of the Russian Revolution come to play in the story. Suppose at the climax of the story, the Bolshevik Juliet is one of those who storms the Winter Palace and the prince Romeo, despite being a member of the deposed nobility, goes to the palace to find her. This story is historical fiction because the climax must happen at night on October 25, 1917 by the Julian calendar.

It’s hard to say what must be accurate and when literary license can be employed because it varies from story to story. To generalize, small details can be fictionalized but large events must be accurate. There is always the writer’s skill at suspending disbelief. Much historical fiction uses literary license, and the writer’s skill at suspending disbelief allows the reader to accept the bending of history. But it is a fine line between suspending disbelief in a work of historical fiction and creating alternative history.

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