Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Historical Fiction?

by Kathleen Ernst

Recently, a reader asked if my Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites Mysteries are historical fiction.

The first three books in the series are set in 1982.  I was in my early twenties then, so for much of the cultural context, I simply tap my own memories.  For me, and for some of my readers, the '80s were the good old days.

On the other hand, some of my readers weren't born until well after 1982. I occasionally get emails from people wondering about details like coiled telephone cords.

So, are the Chloe books historical fiction?  Depends on who you ask.  Some writers' organizations set an arbitrary date---if a book is set before 1960, for example, it is indeed "historical."

The Historical Novel Society takes a different approach.  That group considers any novel historical if it takes place before the author was born.  That means an author approaches the setting through research, not memory.  I like that definition because it focuses on process.  It does set a sliding scale, though.  A book set in 1990 might be classified as historical fiction, while a book set in 1943 might not.

When I'm writing for kids, the whole notion of historical fiction presents a different challenge.  My latest children's mystery is set during the War of 1812.  It's hard for an eight-year-old to get a handle on "two hundred years ago."

I sometimes get letters from kids who seem to think I lived through the War of 1812.

I cherish the curiosity evident in that letter.  How cool that the young letter-writer finished a book and felt compelled to write to the author!  The literal meaning of "two centuries ago" doesn't matter.

Bottom line:  I don't really care how my books are classified.  I hope they tell good stories and touch readers' hearts.  If they foster an interest in history... that's frosting on the proverbial cake.

Speaking of cake, I'm celebrating the publication of my 25th book--Traitor in the Shipyard--with 25 weeks of book giveaways.  Interested?  You can find all the details on my own blog, or on my Facebook Author Page.  Readers make everything possible, and I'm grateful!


Keith Raffel said...

Interesting question, Kathleen and one I have pondered. My last book was set in the fall of 1962. Is it a historical novel? Sarah Johnson wrote: "I will mention that my journal, the Historical Novels Review, has a working definition, which we use for consistency purposes in deciding which books to review. To us, a 'historical novel' is a novel which is set fifty or more years in the past, and one in which the author is writing from research rather than personal experience." I'll go with Professor Johnson.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Thanks for clarifying that, Keith. I consider Sarah the authority on such matters! So... your book is historical fiction, right?

Keith Raffel said...

Thanks for noticing, Kathleen. My latest is based on research and is set in October 1940 and October 1962. So it's a historical novel by 5 months?

Deborah Sharp said...

Wow, 25 BOOKS! I guess if you were around for the War of 1812, you've had time enough to do that many! Good post, Kathleen.