Discussion: But Is It Historical?

Today’s Topic:

But Is It Historical?

In a past post, I asked about classifying books as historical fiction. I got great input, but I was thinking about it again as I read The People We Keep.

I was hemming and hawing about reading the book. I knew very little about it, but was intrigued. One thing that put me off a bit was seeing it classified as historical fiction. It’s a very popular genre, but not really my genre of choice. I gave in, read the book, and LOVED it!

So, what’s this discussion about? It’s about what makes something historical fiction. When I think of historical fiction, two things come to mind:

  1. The book is set at some point in the past
  2. It features something linking it to that time period.

I will acknowledge that that the book was set in the past (1994), but I felt so little in the book really tapped into the time period. I guess they had to use pay phones and whatnot, but I felt like the story could have been taking place today with few changes.

Thought historical fiction is not my goto, I do think I will see highlights of the era in which the story is set. Why choose a time period other than today, if you are not really going to utilize it in some way? Maybe it’s me.

What do you think? What do you think makes a story historical fiction versus just fiction?


Below are some historical fiction books I enjoyed.

Now it’s your turn!

What do you think makes a story historical fiction versus just fiction?
Let us know in the comments!

Posted October 29, 2021 by Sam@wlabb in discussion, sam / 37 Comments

37 responses to “Discussion: But Is It Historical?

  1. Interesting topic! I agree with you, I tend to think that just because a book takes place in the past doesn’t necessarily make it historical fiction. I guess 1994 could be considered contemporary history, but it also needs to be focused on a historical event to make it historical fiction.

  2. I find it hard to think of anything after 1980 historical fiction, but I think that’s just because I lived through it. I would say the same thing as you about it needing to have a big tie to the past. Like the historical events have to be a big presence in the book.

    • HA! I heard someone once say it’s historical if set 25 or more years in the past. (Yes, we’re historical) I didn’t get a sense of being in the past because no events mentioned, no pop culture (that I really recalled). It seemed odd to pick a point in the past without really utilizing it in some way.

  3. Michele

    I love historical fiction but I don’t know if I would personally view something that takes place in 1994 as that genre. Basically if i was alive for the time period (1980s or later), it doesn’t seem historical enough to me. I usually think of books that take place say before 1960. And they are usually centered around some major historical event, such as a war, because, like you said, otherwise the book could easily take place any other time.

    • I remember reading that anything set 25 years or more in the past is technically “historical”. I just struggle with there not being enough elements from that time incorporated into the story. I felt, like you said, it could be any time period.

  4. Rachel @Waves of Fiction

    I do feel like a story should make you feel the time period it’s set in to make it a true historical. I loved All the True That’s in Me and the unique way it was written. Great discussion post, Sam!

  5. Jen

    Historical fiction is usually a genre I won’t pickup but I read one by Veronica Rossi and was obsessed and then I was kicking myself that I had avoided this genre LOL! And 1994 is historical giction say what?! LMAO! I was in HS then, so it really doesn’t feel that long ago haha!

    • Same. It’s far from my go-to, but every now and again, something draws my attention. I am guessing you are talking about Rebel Spy? I know nothing of it. I have a Rossi book, but have yet to read it. I finished my undergrad in 1994, so I feel ancient.

      • Jen

        Yes, it was Rebel Spy. I was completely enraptured in that story! I loved Under the Never Sky by her and Riders too, but this one had an entirely different feel. I read the story way too fast and then it was done and I wanted an epilogue but there wasn’t one ack. I always hope for an epilogue and need to stop doing that because I get so dissaointed lol!

    • A line needs to be drawn somewhere, right? Everyone seems to think that their lifetime shouldn’t be “historical”, but I get having some sort of criterion.

  6. I do not want to think about the 90s as historical fiction. It makes me feel old. But I agree that it needs to be more about the time period, an event or something to make it seem historical. For me that sounds like a book I’d probably consider just realistic fiction. The reason I say that is because I’m thinking of genrefying my library, so I’m doing lots of thinking about where to put certain titles. And this one I’d probably classify as realistic fiction for now. Great thing to think about!

    • I guess it’s good to have some guidelines, and the 25 years or older seems to be one I have seen around. We can think of it as being part of history 😂 I personally just called it “fiction” and moved on. It just didn’t have enough of the time period in it to feel historical.

  7. Sophie @BewareOfTheReader

    Well as you said, historical fiction is a book set in the past. And I need to “feel” in that past with people’s habit there, the technology or lack of, the political concerns if there were any, the way people talked at that time too!

    • Other than the use of a payphone, I didn’t get a back-in-the-day vibe. There were a few mentions of how much things cost, but it still read wholly contemporary to me. Maybe because I was in my 20s in 1994? Not sure.

  8. ratmom

    I don’t read that genre but when I think historical, I think at least 75 years in the past. Maybe that’s just me.

  9. I feel like for it to be classified as historical fiction, you should really feel like you are fully immersed in the time period the book is set in. I graduated from college in 1994 so I’m also just like “OMG, no!” at the thought of 1994 being considered as historical, lol!

    • That’s how I feel. I don’t know if I couldn’t get a sense of the time period because it’s not *that* long ago, but there wasn’t much that set it apart from a book written about today.

  10. I’m going to echo a lot of the other comments here and say that it always scares me when I see a book labeled “historical” when it takes place while I was in college. LOL! But I guess when I was a kid if I read a book that took place in the fifties it seemed very old indeed.

    I do agree, though, that there should be good reasons for a book to be set in an era like the 90’s and you should have a really good sense of that time period.

    • That was what I missed, though I adored the book (5 out of 5 from me). I didn’t get picking that year, when I didn’t seem to pick up on any nods to the time period.

  11. Roberta R.

    “Why choose a time period other than today, if you are not really going to utilize it in some way?”
    Exactly! Also, I’m probably biased because of my age, but I can’t think of something as “historical” just because it’s set 25 years in the past. Not to mention, that would make all the contemporary books of today “historical” in a couple of decades, no matter their content. I do believe that the adjective “historical” should only be used when the book makes use/is set on the backdrop of a true historical event (or series of events).

    • You brought up an interesting point. I remember talking about that exact thing, that what’s contemporary now, will be historical at one point. The way it was explained to me is that if the book was written as a contemporary, it will still be considered a contemporary book in the future. We may view it as showing history of its time, but the intent was for it to be contemporary, so classification-wise, it remains contemporary (until it becomes a classic?)

      • Roberta R.

        So confusing! LOL. I guess it means that only a book written in the present but talking about the past can be considered historical both now and in the future – as opposed to a book written in the present and talking about the present? If that’s the case, yeah, it makes sense.

        • It seems like books that were written in the past but talking about the present generally become “classics” at some point. Like Little Women or Tom Sawyer.

  12. I read a book like that once and it drove me bananas! Like- why did you bother setting it in (this case) the 60s if the only thing missing was cell phones and not a thing was added?! I guess it still counts as historical, technically speaking, but not GOOD historical hahah.

  13. Historical fiction is something I have to be in the mood for, and even then I am super particular about time and setting. I have no interest in the American West and books set in the “Old West” time period. But I am drawn to WW II fiction. I’m just picky about my historicals. I do find it curious that the book you mentioned had to real ties to it’s time setting. I mean, why bother in that case? If the time period wasn’t pertinent to the story, just make it a contemporary. Seems an odd choice by the author.

    • I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but sometimes a book just sounds great to me, you know? I did read a historical fantasy that was set during the Gold Rush and the series was great. With The People We Keep, I really didn’t find much historical context. Maybe it had deeper meaning for the author?

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