The Way Back Machine – Print Version

“Tell me ‘bout the good old days…” is a song lyric that hits a chord. We want to know what has gone before us. What was life like way back when?

See the source image
The original Way Back Machine

That’s where Historical Fiction comes in. What is it, though? Is a novel set in 1970 or 1980 a historical novel (yes), is a time travel yarn that goes back to the Civil War a historical novel (no)?

Just how far back do you need to go to make it historical? I could be wrong, but I’d say there is a technological answer and a cultural answer, and finally a unifying answer.

Technology – We go in major shifts of technology. I’d argue that a book set in the near past but after the Internet and cell phones isn’t a historical novel, but one that is before is such a story.

Cultural – Boy howdy, does our culture shift. We’re in the midst of a major shift right now. Such recent shifts include the 1960s and the 1920s before that.

Unifying – An Historical Novel is one that makes the time setting a character. They can be centered on personal events, like in Debi Gray Walter’s Through the Eyes of Grace, that follows her grandmother’s story and the cultural mores she had to navigate. Gone with the Wind is a novel centered on a world event, the Civil War. Technology was different, culture was different, all had to be developed in the story.

Historical Fiction is written for a variety of audiences. Debi’s book is for adults; Bonnie Manning Anderson’s book, Always Look for the Magic, appeals to a wide audience, yet is written so middle-grade kids can enjoy it.

Style of writing can also vary. Some authors perfectly capture the era’s style and language; others go for verisimilitude (an example would be Frost, a Ron Howard movie set in the 1970s. He first intended to capture exactly the ‘70s, but it quickly became apparent that the audience would be laughing at the styles and colors; he pulled it way back to merely suggest the ‘70s style).

The key to writing historical fiction is research, research, research. Find more information than you’ll need and use it strategically. For example, cows and goats have been giving humans something to drink for thousands of years, but we’ve had refrigeration for just over 100 years. That means people have been drinking warm milk for more than 95% of its existence (people were always sleepy back then). Does the fact belong in a novel? Maybe, but “commenting” on the time often betrays the storyline. “Unbelievably, Luc drank the warm milk without batting an eye.”  To Luc, that wouldn’t be strange. Yet I do have a memory of a farm and milk straight from the cow that steamed in the morning chill. Such an observation could work without pulling the reader from the time period.

Do work the year in if no world events make it clear. I read a novel recently that I thought was set in the 1920s until the last chapter when the main character used a cellphone to call the police. Whaaa?!  I was NOT happy.

Do you write historical fiction? Do you read it? What do you like about it? Let me know in the comments below.


7 thoughts on “The Way Back Machine – Print Version”

  1. Thanks Rob. I love historical fiction because I enjoy learning about a time and place that really existed. Maybe it’s because of my love of people and the stories that make them who they are. At any rate reading these types of books feels educational to a degree and brings understanding to a specific time period. Great post!


  2. Is there such thing as light historical fiction? I like stories set in the past, but not if the details of that time overwhelm the action and the characters. Your comment about Ron Howard pulling back on the historical content in Frost caught my attention. I’ll have to watch that one. Good post!


    1. I tend to think if the time overwhelms the story then it’s too much detail. It would come out in having to deal with problems without the things we have now, giving readers perspective. Bonnie’s book is a good example of that. I never felt overwhelmed because she wove it time setting into action very well. I struggle with Turtledove’s alternate histories for just that reason. I just need the detail provided by the story, not every aspect of the setting.


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