Fiction 101: Historical Fiction

Women’s History in the Pages of Historical Fiction

by Shelby D., Evening Supervisor

Welcome back to Fiction 101, a place where we talk about the many genres of fiction, from science fiction to fantasy to mysteries and everything in between. Month to month we’ll deep dive into genres and I’ll give you some book recommendations to go along with them. Check out some of our past months’ Fiction 101s on romance tropes and cozy reads.

This month, let’s talk about historical fiction! Historical fiction as a genre can vary from mostly accurate with some artistic license taken to entirely fictional set in historical eras. I spoke to Riley B., researcher at the Morgantown Public Library System’s Aull Center for Local History & Genealogical Research, who offered a historian’s perspective on historical fiction. He notes, “As someone with a focus on academic history, I think that historical fiction is a fun and exciting way to engage one’s mind with settings and ideas that are rooted in historical context, coupled with the creative strengths of fictional writing.” He also considers historical fiction “a starting point for readers to become more interested in learning about history in other settings.”

The accuracy of historical fiction can vary drastically. Some historical fiction focuses a lot on getting facts and personifications of eras and people accurate. Accuracy itself in historical fiction can mean a completely fictional character placed in a world as well-researched and accurate as the writer can get them. While this won’t teach us about a specific historical figure, we can get some good insight into the world as it was. Other historical fiction focuses on a real person and takes artistic liberties in telling the story of their life such as speculating on the conversations they had, changing timelines to make a more cohesive plot, or entirely fictionalizing their life. Provided the author isn’t presenting the work as factual, Riley sees “no issue with bending the story or changing it altogether. Ultimately… the key word here is fiction.” He did add, “if [authors] wish for their work to be well-researched and based on historical data, more power to them.” 

March is Women’s History Month, so let’s take time to discuss some awesome women and their depictions in historical fiction. For these reading recommendations, I’ll focus on biographical historical fiction, which involves real people but dramatized situations. Usually biographical historical fiction is well-researched but makes changes to create a better story (plot, conversations etc.). 

  • Hedy Lamarr – She was an actor and inventor. Her frequency hopping technology formed the basis of wireless communications like WiFi and Bluetooth.
    • Book Recommendation: The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict

  • Abdaraya Toya – She was a freedom fighter in the Haitian Revolution.
    • Book Recommendation: Sister Mother Warrior by Vanessa Riley
  • Caroline Ferriday – She was an American philanthropist who brought attention to Polish women who were survivors of Nazi experimentation.
    • Book Recommendation: Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

  • Mila Pavlichenko – Known as Lady Death, she was a Russian sniper during WWII and is considered one of the best snipers of all time.
    • Book Recommendation: The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn
  • Tan Yunxian – She was a doctor during the Ming dynasty with a focus on women’s health.
    • Book Recommendation: Lady Tan’s Circle of Women by Lisa See
  • Zelda Fitzgerald – She was an American novelist and painter who some consider the first American flapper in the 1920s.
    • Book Recommendation: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald By Therese Anne Fowler
  • Mildred Harnack – She was a member of the resistance movement against the rise of Nazism in Germany.
    • Book Recommendation: The Resistance Women by Jennifer Chiaverini

Though I focused here on biographical historical fiction, some other subgenres of historical fiction are alternate history, historical romance, and historical mysteries. Historical romances are romance novels set in the past such as the popular series Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Alternate histories are books that focus on a point in history and examine what would happen if it went differently — the book The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is an example of this style of historical fiction. Whitehead’s book reimagines the underground railroad as a literal railway system. Historical mysteries are mysteries set in the past, like The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. If you’re looking to dive into this genre, some other popular historical fiction authors to read include Philippa Gregory, Marie Benedict, and Bernard Cornwell.

There are many subgenres in historical fiction. While it might not be where you go for definitive facts about historical events, it can certainly offer a unique perspective and lens into eras of the past.