Historic Fiction

Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard an editor say “I don’t want historic fiction” or “historic fiction is a hard sell.”  

Editors say things like this for a variety of reasons.

  • Research.  Historic fiction requires a phenomenal amount of research.  Not everyone is willing to put the effort into this important step and they look into only what they need to include — clothing, food and a few key phrases.
  • Info dump.  Historic fiction requires a phenomenal amount of research.  After doing this much work, some writers try to work each and every fact into their story whether it needs to be there or not.  Their work reads like a whose who of whatever time period.
  • Surface realities only.  Most people know a little bit about history.  Good historic fiction goes beyond this.  Bad historic fiction repeats the same realities that we’ve heard in every other story.  It never digs any deeper.
  • Any time, any place.  These stories could really take place now.  Or 20 years ago.  Or 100.  The time period is irrelevant.

When editors say they don’t want historic fiction, they don’t mean books like The Caged Graves by Dianne Salerni.  To read more about this, see my post tomorrow on the Muffin, because this book does it all right.


6 thoughts on “Historic Fiction

  1. I agree that historical fiction is tough to do well. We’ve all read stories where authors are too stingy with or too proud of the information they’ve turned up (or not turned up) during the research process. We’ve all endured shaky facts and expository lumps. And I’ve also heard from more than one person that historical fiction is a tough sell. I believe it. The puzzle is why. Done right, it engages the reader. It deals with universal experiences and conflict and feelings. It attracts the attention of schools, which are hungry for curriculum tie-ins. It’s looked upon favorably by reviewers. And last, but certainly not least, it’s taken seriously. Which means librarians, both school and public, will give it consideration when they decide what to put on their shelves and reading lists and consideration lists for awards–state, regional, and national. In the past two years alone, six of the seven books receiving Newbery medals and honors have been written with an historical context. Many more preceded them in recent years, including the 2010 and 2011 medalists,

    1. continued…WHEN YOU REACH ME and MOON OVER MANIFEST. So the puzzle grows deeper. Why would publishers, whose job involves putting out respected and profitable books, turn their backs on the kind of writing that would net both of those things for them? If you figure it out, let me know.

      1. Dave,
        I would love to have an answer to this question! I wonder how much of it is because of fact checking and what a huge task that can be. When I wrote a nonfiction article for a history journal, we had several “discussions” regarding fact and I had to pull out my sources. I can only imagine how huge the task must be when it is book length.

        I’m in the middle of your book, Thin Wood Walls, and all I can say is Wow. This is definitely historic fiction done right. Thank you!

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