On a discussion board for writers of historical fiction, I recently came across the question “What qualifies as historical?” It’s actually a lot trickier than it sounds. Everybody agrees that ancient Egypt and World War I are historical, but what about the Vietnam War? Where do we cross the line from history to modern times?
It’s always important to note that kids and adults have very different perceptions of history. You probably think of the events of September 11, 2001 as fairly recent, but the 8 to 12 year olds you’re writing for don’t remember that day—if they were even born. Furthermore, kids are learning about events like this in history class, and what seems like yesterday to you might as well be the Middle Ages to them.
At its most basic level, historical means “set in the past.” I take the definition one step further, saying that a book is only historical if it needs to be set in the past for the sake of the plot. If you’re writing about soldiers wounded in Vietnam, it’s fine to set your book in 1973 and say it’s historical. Similarly, if your plot cannot take place in any year other than 2001, I would call that a historical novel. What you should never do is set your book in the past because that’s when you were young and you don’t know what it’s like to be a kid today. If your story could take place in 2009 as easily as 1985, go do some research about the modern day.
In the end, we need to think about what the term “historical fiction” really means. Is it simply about the date? (And if it is, is there a particular year that should be considered a cutoff?) Or is it about the way the time relates to the story?
Melissa L. is the YA Editorial Assistant for Wonders and Marvels. You can read more about her here: Editorial Staff.