Historical fiction is any story set in the past that incorporates true characteristics of the period while including fictionalized characters or events.
Historical fiction is the most common of fictional genres. Technically, historical fiction is any story set in the past which incorporates true characteristics of the period while including fictionalized characters or events. Countless examples of such works exist throughout the centuries and across cultures. Works as far back as the Iliad and Odyssey attempt to retell the history of the ancient Greeks (although they also contain fantastical elements).
True historical fiction relies on realism throughout its plot elements. Writers must be careful to build a believable historical world in which the setting, characters, and objects interact as would be expected in their era. Characters must speak with believable period dialogue and travel with appropriate means of transportation. You shouldn’t find a character in the 1600s, for example, saying “That was awesome!” or riding a bicycle down the street. All conflicts, plot events, and themes must be historically possible within the world the author has selected.
Historical fiction can sometimes be used to influence contemporary society and politics. Writers might focus on a particular historical event because of the connection they see between it and their own time. Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, for example, explores the hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials in response to the Red Scare and McCarthyist trials of the 1950s. Esther Forbes’s Newbery Medal winner Johnny Tremain revisits the events that led to the Revolutionary War in order to inspire patriotism in the midst of World War II. Other writers may choose a historical backdrop in order to provide material for drama or adventure. Still others may see a relevant theme or lesson in a past tragedy. Wartime, in particular, is a popular subject for writers of historical fiction. Readers don’t have to look far to find fiction set in any war they can think of: the classics A Tale of Two Cities, Number the Stars, and The Things They Carried are set during the French Revolution, World War II, and the Vietnam War respectively.
Although fictionalized, historical fiction books can be excellent sources of information. With each historical fiction book, readers learn a little bit more about the past and broaden their understanding of history, politics, culture, and the human experience.
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Use these illustrated guides as a springboard for individual and class-wide projects!