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It could be said the general purpose of the genre is to bring "history to life" by fictionalizing the past and reflecting a specific time period; sometimes done by reconstructing characters, events, movements, ways of life, and the spirit of a bygone day.
I suppose the most obvious thing is that any historical fiction piece will have to encompass history. Usually the time period - and its depiction - is at the core of the story. As well as telling the stories of everyday people's lives, historical fiction may involve major political or social events of the time and the individual’s role in shaping them.
Although an exact definition is sometimes debated, historical fiction is a genre most often determined by setting and the inclusion of authentic historical events and characters in a fictional story. Let’s face it, a well-researched novel can reveal so much of history – and in a far more agreeable form than the average history text book. As a genre it can not only provide us with a lens upon our collective past but also upon a "here and now" that defines our unique lives.
The author of historical fiction must blend historical facts with imagination and creative style to master his art. They must also be a master of the past so as to portray accurately ideas, attitudes, tendencies, and themes and interlace his story—accurate in all its details—into the thematic materials.
It is no easy task, then, for an author to undertake the writing this challenging and tricky genre. Any writer who tells a story set in the past must traverse the fine line between history and fiction, between readers contemporary sensibilities and historical accuracy.
In this particular genre, the plot is drawn from the writer's imagination but is true to life in some period of the past. The setting is always usually the most important literary ingredient. Because the author is writing about a particular time in history, the information about the time period must be accurate, authentic, or both. To create accurate and authentic settings in their books, authors must research the time period thoroughly. They must know how people lived, what they ate, what kinds of homes they had, and what artifacts were a common part of their lives. This must be used with caution though, if the aim of the novel becomes primarily a vehicle for delivering facts about the past, the story is likely to become over-involved in detail and compromise its artistic honesty and its appeal. An Author must be wary of getting so lost among their research that they forgo working on the story. Story should always come first.
Historians and novelists can often differ in their points of view about the historical novel especially about whether the writer of historical fiction must not distort past reality or even if the writer must not manipulate historical facts to make the novel more interesting or exciting.
Sometimes it is common practice for authors to present actual historical figures alongside fictitious characters. Some historical fiction includes historical persons who intermingle with the central character in some way, but novels need not include such characters to qualify for the genre.
Historical fiction may overlap other genres, for example historical realism, historical fantasy, historical tall tales, and historical mysteries.
From the bookseller’s point of view, the only point of genre is to help people find books they’re likely to buy. People who read this literature tend to behave just as other genre fans do, they go in looking for more of what they like, and they find it easier if the kind of thing they like is all shelved together under the rough definition of historical fiction.
Historical fiction may be a domestic novel, a psychological novel, etc. It not only covers a range from Booker-winning literature to unashamed commercialism, but it may overlap other genres, for example historical realism, historical romance, historical crime, historical mysteries, historical science fiction, historical tall tales and historical fantasy etc.
Sub Genres can also include the following
It can be argued that the most important difference between history and historical fiction is that a work of history must be written from a point of view that represents the actual author's. The author's voice tells the reader what happened and why it happened.
In historical fiction, the writer may tell the story from the point of view of real or imaginary characters, thus appealing to the reader's imagination. Settings also may be real or made-up. The plot events may be accepted historical events or they may be fictional. If they are fictional, it means that the author created the events for the telling of the story. The imaginary characters, settings, and plot events must be portrayed authentically as if they actually could have happened.
One interesting thought is just how "past" is "past." This remains open to question. Books that are set in the Dark Ages, or the Civil War, can be labelled "historical" without many problems. However, do books that are set in 1966 qualify as "historical" for today's readers?
Historical fiction is riding a crest of popularity, so much so that publishers are now promoting not only individual historical novels but entire series of historical fiction. Also the fact that writers continue to work in this genre, successfully engaging with the issues that define it, testifies to its value and viability.
Historical novels can enable readers to experience the past vividly and to engage in historical drama. These experiences can stir up personal feelings of happiness, joy, pain, suffering, and despair as the reader enters the world of the characters and shares emotions felt by these characters.
A Historical novel is usually successful because of an author’s extensive historical research and knowledge of the time period and their skillful blending of history and fiction into a credible story. It is usually a successful novel because it not only includes drama, conflict, and lifelike characters in the story, but can also exemplify those basic human needs of love, respect, freedom, security. These needs are as important today as they were in centuries past. People have, for the most part, always acted the same. They strive for riches and love, among other things. Reading these novels, we are reminded again and again that the issues of the past are inscribed on our own lives that yesterday continue to impinge upon today.
And finally, in my humble opinion, I would say that the most important thing about this significant genre is this: Historical Fiction invites us all to think about the past as yesterday continues to impinge upon today.