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Introduction to Historical Fiction:
Brenda Hoffman

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"...historical fiction can function as a method of time travel for readers."
--Brenda Hoffman

Hoffman, Brenda.  "Historical Fiction Criticism & Evaluation."  Historical Fiction.  Internet School Library Media Center (Inez Ramsey, Library Science Program, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA; 1997).
URL: http://raven.jmu.edu/~ramseyil/histfic.htm
[Last accessed March 2002].

Historical Fiction Criticism & Evaluation
By Brenda Hoffman


As the student sits in a world history class, he is given notes on the Medieval era. He or she is expected to know some key facts about the era such as the political situations, wars, and inventions. A few key individuals or places are reiterated for testing. Overall the information doesn't give the individual a perspective on what everyday life is like. Then the teacher assigns students to read either Catherine Called Birdy, The Midwife's Apprentice or Ivanhoe for a group report. When the student begins to read, he or she discovers humor, heartache, adventure, and knowledge about possible thoughts of the people during that time. They find out that women were married at a young age, children fight with their parents, and herbs are use d for many purposes. They may learn about chivalry. Through the use of historical fiction, he has been able to take a field trip to a place and a time long past and find some application.

Historical fiction is those stories that take place in the past. The stories have those elements that can't be proven historically, but it suggests a way things did happen. Historical fiction has authentic settings and characters, but some things may not be true. Some writers have written historical fiction but have combined with other genres such as historical fantasy, historical tall tales, and historical mysteries. Some of these stories attempt to reassess or reinterpret the past while others do not. Historical fiction can provide an escape from the present, time travel, or examples of human decisions and their consequences.

The past has always been a favorite subject for storytelling, and historical fiction has existed in family stories, myths, folktales, tall tales, and newspapers. Modem historical fiction started during the nineteenth century around 1866 with R.L. Stevenson's Kidnapped or Treasure Island (1). Some, like Sir Walter Scott, were writing historical novels but were criticized for writing "Costume novels". The best of modern historical fiction for young adults began to be produced after World War II. Writers, such as Scott O'Dell, began to write on a regular basis and in trilogy form. Some authors use their own experiences, but most write about a time in which they didn't live. They also began to use young people as their main characters as they experience the historical events around them.

What Is Historical Fiction?

Historical fictions are those stories that take place in history. History for some may mean twenty years ago, but some authors, such as Geoffrey Trease, would define it as being anything beyond two to five years because an event such as Bill Clinton's being elected as President is beyond their recent living memory for a five-year-old. Historical fiction explains some element of the past in a story form in order to illuminate to readers about how things possibly were. Compared to nonfiction or textbooks, historical fiction differs because the novels focus on human consequences of historical events. The human consequences may be embarrassing moments, or humorous happenstance or the loss of life, loved ones and personal property. It can depict humor and irony or personal choices made because of historical events.(2)

Since field trips to the past are not possible, historical fiction can function as a method of time travel for readers. Students can be transported to the past without leaving the present.(3)

Benefits of Historical Fiction

The benefits of using historical fiction in the classroom are that the genre may interest students in history and classroom activities. It can reinforce everyday details of the way of life of a group of people. Historical fiction can make historical figures more real and give them personality compared to a historical text.(4)  Historical novels can be used in the classroom to teach students about the world, about their culture and their nation's history. It can be used to teach author bias and the differe nce between fact and opinion. Historical fiction can teach historical facts in an entertaining way.

Selecting Historical Fiction

Criteria for selecting historical fiction are as follows:

  1. Must be a good well-told story that doesn't conflict with historical records.
  2. Portray characters realistically
  3. Present authentic settings
  4. Artfully fold in historical facts into the story
  5. Provide accurate information through illustrations
  6. Avoid stereotypes and myths particularly with minority groups
  7. Believable

Types of Historical Fiction

There are two kinds of historical fiction. In the first the setting is historical but there are no historical events or persons in the story. An example is Karen Cushman's Catherine Called Birdy. The second kind of historical fiction is where both the setting and supporting characters are factual. An example is Patricia Gauch's Thunder at Gettysburg which details a fourteen-year-old girl's day at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Historical fiction writers have to be good historians themselves. Chris Collier and his brother, James Lincoln Collier, wrote that they split the task of writing historical fiction, with James doing the research and Chris writing the work. The historian has to choose from chronological fact and the writer chooses the means for the weaving the fact into the narration. For instance, Patricia McKissack in a presentation on October 26, 1996 related that for her book, Christmas in the Big House, she took trips to Shirley Plantation in Tidewater Virginia and spent two years of reviewing primary resources, including the Governor of Virginia's diaries and slave narratives collected by writers during the Great Depression. For an illustrated book, the illustrations must also be researched to match the story. John Thompson who illustrated McKissack's book had actors wear costumes and pose. Extensive research went into clothing, setting and the physical appearance of the slaves.

Many historical fiction novels center around a time of war. In fact, some critics have complained that writers should be writing about more peaceful times. War novels are popular with people, particularly men, for many reasons. Some events are so traumatic or so strong that they will always remain in people's memories for years. World War II and the Great Depression were big events in the minds of earlier generations. For baby boomers, it was the 1960's and Vietnam. Study of the Civil War is a popular hobby with many people who live in close proximity on the east coast and in the southern states. War is a struggle between two forces and the outcomes are usually in doubt to the individuals experiencing the war. During periods of warfare, connections between community and self are important. Characters may discover who their true friends are. Warfare is also a time of tremendous social changes. People are responding to pressure and making difficult decisions. There are many stories.


(1) Russell, David L. Literature for Children: A Short Introduction. London: Longman, 1994, p.146 .

(2) Adamson, Lynda G. Recreating the Past: A Guide to American and World Historical Fiction: A Reference Guide to Historical Fiction for Children and Young Adults NY: Greenwood Press, 1987. 

(3) Freeman, Evelyn and Levstik, Linda. "Recreating the Past: Historical Fiction in the Social Studies Curriculum" in Elementary School Journal, Volume 8, Number 4, 1988, p.331. 

(4) Lindquist, Tarry "Why and How I Teach with Historical Fiction" from Scholastic Instructor, March 1995 or Scholastic  [finish this biblio entry!]

Historical Fiction - Index of related webpages, including Authors and Bibliographies:
[last accessed March 2002]

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Humanities Department, Central Oregon Community College
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