The Balancing Act of Historical Fiction

Guest Post by Amanda Cabot –

We’ve all seen pictures of Lady Justice ensuring that the scales she holds are perfectly balanced, but did you ever consider that writers of historical fiction also perform a balancing act? We do.  In order to meet our readers’ expectations, we need to balance the amount of history we include in our novels. 

How much do readers expect? That depends on the category of the book. Others may disagree, but I divide historical novels into two categories: fictionalized history and period fiction. 

Fictionalized History 

In fictionalized history, the events and people of the period play critical roles in the story, and the locations where the action takes place are real. 

I further divide fictionalized history into two subcategories. In the first, the main characters are actual historical figures. An example is Jill Eileen Smith’s Wives of King David series, where the heroines’ stories are taken from the Bible. Anyone who has read First and Second Samuel knows the basic events. To create fictionalized history, Smith turns a few dozen Bible verses into novels that ring with authentic details of life in Israel under the reigns of Saul and David.

In the second subcategory, while real people play a role, the protagonists are fictional or less-known personages from the era. Consider Karen Harper’s Mistress Shakespeare, whose heroine is not Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway, but another Anne whom the Bard may have loved, Anne Whateley. Again, readers know the basic story of Shakespeare’s life, but Harper provides a different slant by showing events from the perspective of a woman unfamiliar to many readers, one whose existence is questioned by historians.

In both cases, historical events form the framework of the plot. The emphasis I placed on framework is deliberate because this is the defining element of fictionalized history. If you think of the journalistic Five Ws, readers know what happened as well as where and when it happened. The novel provides the answer to why and makes the who come to life. 

As creators of fictionalized history, we take what might be considered the dry facts of a person’s life and show readers the emotions behind them. We embellish the what of true events with descriptions of surroundings, weather, clothing – the myriad details that turn a recitation of events into a compelling story of real people facing real challenges in a world that once existed. This realism is what readers of fictionalized history expect.

Period Fiction

Period fiction is different. The main characters are fictional, and historical personages, if any, play minor roles. True events form the backdrop,not the framework, for the story. This is the first critical difference between period fiction and fictionalized history. The second is reader expectations. 

Readers of period fiction want to be transported to a different time. They want to learn about that time, but from the point of view of ordinary people. The emphasis is on the lifestyle and mores of the era, and while important events from the period may be critical to the story, the emphasis is on how the fictional protagonists deal with those events. 

Ann H. Gabhart’s When the Meadow Blooms is a classic example of period fiction. No historical figures, major events of the period, or real locations play a role in the novel. Instead, she brings 1925 near Kentucky’s Salt River to life with carefully researched references to the treatment of tuberculosis during that era as well as vivid descriptions of the landscape. She immerses readers in the ordinary lives of ordinary people, giving them a new perspective on life a hundred years ago.

In contrast, Mary Jo Putney’s Once a Rebel takes place during the War of 1812 against the backdrop of the burning of Washington and the siege of Baltimore. While both of those events are important to the story, the focus is on the way those events impact her protagonists. They are influenced by the events, but, unlike in fictionalized history, they are not active participants in them. 

The Right Balance

How much history should your book contain? You’ve probably guessed my answer.

If it’s fictionalized history where the plot hinges on important events, readers will expect to find details of those events along with accurate descriptions of the historical personages and the locations where those events take place in the book. Notice that I said those events twice. Whatever historical facts you include must be relevant to the plot. Furthermore, it’s important to use a light hand with historical facts, interspersing them with your characters’ reactions. While readers want to learn new things about the timeframe you chose, they don’t want lengthy descriptions of an event. If they did, they would have chosen a book from the non-fiction section of the bookstore or library. 

It can be argued that authors of period fiction have an easier job. Their characters are fictional and the locations may also be fictional. And yet, make no mistake: readers expect—and deserve—accuracy. If your heroine catches her skirt on a barbed wire fence before barbed wire was invented, or an historical personage visits a city that he never actually saw, readers will notice. They may even post scathing reviews, decrying your lack of accurate research. 

Accuracy is important, but the single most important thing for all of us writers of historical fiction to remember is that we’re writing novels, and, by definition, fiction’s primary goal is to entertain. Is it an easy balance? Not necessarily, but it’s an essential one. 

Amanda Cabot is the bestselling author of After the Shadows and Against the Wind as well as the Mesquite Springs, Cimarron Creek, Texas Crossroads, Texas Dreams, and Westward Winds series. Her books have received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and Library Journal and have been finalists for the ACFW Carol Awards, the HOLT Medallion, and the Booksellers’ Best. Learn more at

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