Tuesday, April 5, 2016

How Do You Know You’ve Written a Historical Novel?

Oddly enough, not everyone has the same definition of what a historical novel is. Some people say a story set 25 years ago is historical enough, while others say 50 years is the benchmark. And then there are those of us who say, what’s so historical about 50 years ago? You need to go farther back in time!
I didn’t know there was such a wide divergence on what constituted historical fiction until I decided to write about what makes a novel historical. All I knew was I had read an e-book purporting to be both historical and a novel, yet couldn’t see elements of either in the story.

The e-book I read fell into the category of a memoir because it was based on personal experience and lacked the structure of a novel. To me, the story also lacked the feel of a historical because the characters used the Internet and flew around in jets. The contemporary feel of the story conflicted with my vision of a historical novel.

A vision based on writing four historical novels.

Defining a Historical Novel

When I first started writing historical novels, traditional publishers removed any argument about what constituted historical fiction. According to their guidelines, if the story was set at least one hundred years in the past, it was historical fiction. As the twentieth century drew to a close, any story that took place prior to the twentieth century rated as historical fiction.

One hundred years, give or take a decade, works for me. As a former history instructor, I definitely believe a historical novel needs to have the feel of another era. I also think time needs to pass before an era can be studied enough to know what sets it apart from earlier eras. To me, history is like a fine wine and needs time to age. 

Reconstructing the Past

Based on that criteria, research of the time and setting is an important component of my story. I’ll need to reconstruct the past, being careful not to write with lenses clouded by modern mores. I want to go back in time, preferably to a period that pre-dates the life of any living human being. 

I’m not the only one who believes the person writing the story shouldn’t have lived the events. Until I wrote this blog, I only knew the e-book claiming to be a historical novel didn’t sit well with me. Not only because it lacked the structure of a novel, but because the writer had lived the story, he didn’t have to research an earlier time. Therefore, the claim on his title page was false. It was not a historical novel.

Importance of Labels

Labeling your e-book correctly is important because all the marketing information will rely on the subject label you choose. To put an e-book into distribution, you have to select the correct subject code in accordance with the Book Industry Standards and Communications (BIAC).

As an indie publisher you get to decide how to categorize your e-book’s subject. Think about your story. Keep in mind that labels help you sell your e-book, but incorrect labels frustrate the reader. If you mislabel your e-book, instead of gaining a reader who will share your work, you lose a reader who will tell others not to read anything you write.