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A Guide for Historical Fiction Lovers
Although there are numerous definitions of historical fiction, most experts agree that in general a historical novel is a novel which is set 50 or more years in the past, and one in which the author is writing from research rather than personal experience. In the early 1800s, Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott and his American follower James Fenimore Cooper captivated audiences with stories of their nations' pasts. Since that time, historical fiction has enjoyed great popularity. In recent years, interest in multiculturalism, skepticism about traditional accounts of history, and book club fever have heightened its appeal.
Whether you're new to the genre or a connoisseur, this guide has something for you. Read on to learn about subgenres, to find lists of titles that reflect certain periods, places, or themes, and to see what the critics recommend.
Expert Sarah Johnson suggests dividing historical fiction into 13 categories:
Traditional Historical Novels emphasize a straightforward and historically accurate plot. Example: In Colleen McCullough's First Man in Rome, an alliance empowers two men during the Roman Republic's twilight.
Multi-Period Epics show how a specific place changes over centuries. Example: The Eastern Shore evolves from the days when Native Americans owned it to the modern era, in James Michener's Chesapeake.
Sagas follow families or groups of friends over time, usually generations. Example: In John Jakes's North and South Trilogy, the Civil War strains the ties of love and friendship that connect two families, one in Pennsylvania, the other in South Carolina.
Western Historical Novels, including traditional Westerns, take place in the American West. Example: In Louis L'Amour's Hondo, set in nineteenth-century Arizona, an ex-Cavalry scout protects a woman and her son from the Apaches and a brutal husband.
Historical Mysteries cross historical fiction with the mystery genre. Example: Brother Cadfael, twelfth-century monk and herbalist, solves crimes in a series by Ellis Peters.
Romantic Historical Novels, including Historical Romances, are love stories set in history. Example: John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, falls in love with Chaucer's sister-in-law in Katherine by Anya Seton.
Historical Adventure Novels feature heroes who travel widely, surmounting astonishing obstacles. Example: Richard Sharpe, a British army officer during the Napoleonic Wars, stars in a series by Bernard Cornwell.
Historical Thrillers put their heroes in danger. Example: In Alan Furst's Foreign Correspondent, a journalist in Paris dodges Mussolini's secret police.
Literary Historical Novels examine contemporary themes in lyrical or dense language. Example: Ideas about love, loss, and the failed American dream filter through Amy Bloom's Away, the story of an immigrant in 1920s America who is searching for the daughter she lost in a pogrom.
Christian Historical Novels reflect Christian themes. Example: In Catherine Marshall's Christy, set in the Appalachia of the early twentieth century, a 19-year-old teacher at a mission school improves herself as well as others.
Time-Slip Novels shuttle their characters between epochs. Example: An Oxford student time-traveling back to the Middle Ages accidentally lands in the time of the Plague, in Connie Willis's Doomsday Book.
Alternate Histories imagine history happening differently. Example: In Harry Turtledove's Days of Infamy, the Japanese take over Hawaii after D-Day.
Historical Fantasy Novels mix history with fantasy. Example: Two men restore magic to nineteenth-century England in Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.
For more explanation and examples, see A Short Guide to Historical Fiction Subgenres.
Guides to Titles and Authors
Indexes historical fiction by period, title, and author's name.
Historical Fiction Network—Books by Timeline
Orders historical fiction according to the time period it chronicles.
Library Booklists--Historical Fiction/History
Provides booklists on a wide range of themes.
Overbooked—Themed Booklists - History
Provides booklists based mostly on a famous historic site or person.
Pratt Library Catalog
If you’d like to find a sampling of books available at the Pratt Library, try going straight to our catalog. Search by subject for “historical fiction,” a century (such as “eighteenth century”), a country or state, or a famous person or event, among other options.
Read-Alikes for Popular Historical Novels and Themes
Suggests readalikes for Anita Diamant’s Red Tent, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, Philippa Gregory’s Other Boleyn Girl, Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, Sarah Dunant’s Birth of Venus, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, Caleb Carr’s Alienist, and Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Reader’s Advice—Historical Fiction
Provides booklists on a broad range of themes and periods.
Crime Thru Time
Click on “Timelines” for lists of historical mysteries ordered by the times of their plots, and on “Releases” for what's newly published.
The Detective and the Toga
Supplies plot summaries and cover art for mysteries set in ancient Rome.
Historical Mysteries with Women Sleuths
Gives setting and plot summary for each title.
Historical Mystery Bibliography
Classes selected historical mysteries by time and/or place.
Historical Mystery Fiction
Indexes historical mysteries both by author’s name and by period, giving the setting for each title.
A Medieval Quadrant: The Homepage of Renee Vink
Click on “Medieval Mystery Titles” for lengthy lists of mysteries set before and after 1300 or in exotic locales.
The Sibyl and Sleuth: Historical Mystery Fiction of Ancient Greece
Supplies cover art and an option to see titles broken down by era.
All About Romance--If You Like…(By Setting/Genre)
Lists authors who write Medieval, Georgian, Regency, Victorian, American, and Western historical romances, often distinguished as “Light” or “Serious.”
Historical Romance Writers
Search by narrowly defined historical period, author, title, character type, hero or heroine’s name, publisher, or series. Plot summaries are included.
Romantic Times—Book Search
Under “Categories,” select “Historical,” and identify a setting and subgenre to create a customized list of historical romances.
Time Travel Romance Writers
Search by author, title, theme (usually a kind of time travel), character type, hero or heroine’s name, publisher, or series. Plot summaries are included.
We Really Dig Time Travel Romance Novels
Indexes time-slip historical romances by place and/or period, including plot summaries and cover art.
The Nautical Fiction List
Orders fiction, poetry, and drama of the sea by author's name, supplying brief plot summaries.
Nautical Fiction List
Breaks titles down by time period.
Town's End Books--20th Century Authors of Nautical Fiction
Indexes titles by author’s name, including brief plot summaries.
Ancient Egypt in Historical and Mainstream Fiction
Indexes over 1500 titles by a wide range of variables, such as genre and time period.
The Complete Review--Index of Real People in Works of Fiction
Indexes fictional works about real people, organized by their names.
Click on “Search Our Database” to find novels and short stories.
A Guide to Byzantine Literature
Lists novels, poems, plays, and works in other genres set in "any part of the Roman Empire from the time of Constantine I to 1463." Produced by Fordham University.
The Historical Fiction Review
Emphasizes Christian historical fiction.
Historical Women in Fiction
Categorizes novels by the names of their female subjects. Produced by the Akron-Summit County Library.
Literature on the Age of Napoleon—Napoleonic Bibliographies
Gives plot summaries for an enormous number of works of fiction, poetry, and drama.
The ORB: On-line Reference Book for Medieval Studies--A List of Fiction for Students of History
Lists fiction set in ancient and medieval times, organized by place.
Indexes over 1000 titles by author, title, and publication date.
Richard III Society, American Branch—Medieval Fiction Reading List
Gives plot summaries for works inspired by Richard III.
Arranges titles set in Rome mostly by time period of their plots.
Search for alternative histories by series and “divergence” (the first historic year altered), among other parameters.
University of Oregon--Medieval Studies Program--Modern Novels Set in the Middle Ages
Includes lists of Arthurian, mystery, and general fiction.
Wars of the Roses Fiction
Lists fiction set during the Wars of the Roses.
Books and Authors
For awards, click on “Award Winners.”
Daniel S. Burt's Recommended Historical Novels
Divides recommended classics by period and/or place.
Historical Fiction Network
See the home page, right column, for the top ten historical-fiction bestsellers. To expand the list, click on “Books” in the blue margin across the top, then click on “Top 20,” “Top 30,” and so on.
Historical Novels Review
Click “Editor’s Choice Titles” on any of this magazine’s quarterly issues for reviews of highly recommended new titles.
Overbooked--Historical Fiction Stars
Lists historical fiction and historical crime fiction receiving at least one starred review from Booklist, Publisher's Weekly, Kirkus, or Library Journal.
Some Place in Time: Suggestions for Reading Historical Fiction
Organizes recommendations by place and/or period.
Twenty Classic Historical Novels and Their Legacy
Lists and summarizes especially influential titles.
Women Writing the West—Willa Award
The Willa Award goes to stories of women in the West in a number of genres, including historical fiction.