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The 10 Historical Fiction Subgenres

Historical Fiction

Historical Fiction

Have you ever been so captivated by a moment of history you wondered what stories were told back then? Recorded history goes as far back as the B.C. era. Stories have been told and told time and time again. However, imagine reading a story taking place as far back in the ancient times. You’ll feel like you’re time traveling.

Remember, this post is about how history is used as a setting in the stories we tell. Let’s take, for example, James Cameron’s Titanic. Real life history taking place in the year of 1912 about the biggest ship, the Titanic, and its imminent peril. The love story that takes place in the Titanic is entirely fictional.

This is Historical Fiction.

Made-up stories in real history.

Though, we can still learn what life was like at the certain time period as long as it is told accurately. You’ll see below in the subgenres, my recommended pieces of literature and film that respect history while telling an amazing story.

Contents

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Yesterday Reimagined

To quickly define, Historical Fiction is when the story takes place in the past, usually with real historical events in the background. This genre gives readers and viewers a diverse mix of time periods and settings. Think of it like a walking across a bridge taking you from the past and the present.

If you’d like to get into the genre deeper and understand the theories, I recommend The Historical Novel by Georg Lukács, which explores the social and political underpinnings of historical fiction. It is available on Amazon.

I also recommend to visit the r/AskHistorians Reddit page where some posts discuss recommended historical fiction works.

Historical Context

Ancient

The Ancient era is a goldmine for stories about the birth of societies, the myths that shaped cultures, and the people whose legacies still matter. For example, an excellent book, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. This story discusses a whole new take on Achilles and his buddy Patroclus, bringing in some myth and lots of emotions during the Trojan War.

Likewise, Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare is a gripping play that showcases the politics and betrayals surrounding the famous Roman leader’s assassination. It sheds light on the transition from the Roman Republic to the Empire.

Medieval

The Medieval period, a time of feudal lords, crusades, and the Black Death, also witnessed the seeds of the Renaissance. A great example is The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. It’s about people in 12th-century England and their struggles to build a cathedral.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, is another great example. It’s set in a 14th-century monastery and brings together a murder mystery and the intellectual debates of the time. It reflects the conflict between reason and faith in the late Medieval period.

19th Century

The 19th century was a filled with many historical events, from revolutions to industrialization, and growing empires. It inspired stories about innovation and the fight for social justice. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo is a classic that gives you a big picture of French society after Napoleon. It’s all about characters fighting for redemption and change in a time of political chaos.

On another note, we have the classic detective tale, Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s about the famous detective solving cases in Victorian London.

20th Century

The 20th century’s stories are deeply marked by conflict and transformation. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, set in Nazi Germany, tells the poignant tale of a young girl finding hope and resistance through the power of words amidst war’s devastation.

A serious as a story The Book Thief is, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller uses satire to mock the craziness of WWII, showing how military life is full of contradictions and how the war affects society.

Contemporary

Historical fiction nowadays tells stories about the recent past that hit close to home. In 2003, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini was released. This historical epic explores Afghanistan’s recent history, filled with friendship, betrayal, and redemption.

Ten years later, 2013, another memorable historical fiction was released, called Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This historical story discusses identity, race, and the immigrant experience in the 21st century. The importance of this story is how Adichie highlights the cultural and political landscapes of Nigeria, the UK, and the USA.

As we navigate through the different times of literature, you’ll realize how much in common and relatable the characters are. Even though some parts of history show different types of struggles, the characters still resonates with us today.

The 10 Historical Fiction Subgenres

Historical Romance

Historical RomanceHistorical romance takes you on a time-traveling adventure, evoking strong emotions. It’s history and love stories comin together. Imagine yourself in a fancy ballroom in old England, where love is all mixed up even with all the fancy clothes and rules. Their lifestyle may not be relatable to most of us today, but the character’s love and yearn for each other is that brings the magic touch.

Authors dive into history, digging up all the juicy details about how people lived, loved, and fought for their relationships, then sprinkle in a romance that feels so real you wish you could find it on Tinder.

It’s not just about the setting, though.

It’s about making characters with old-school problems relatable because, let’s face it, the quest for love hasn’t changed much, even if our settings have.

Historical romance is changing things up lately, exploring love stories from around the world instead of just English castles. It’s nice to remember that the heart does what it wants, even when the past had its rules. So, when you’re reading a historical romance, don’t forget it’s more than just escaping to the past.

Let’s take these books for example. Books like Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë,  brings you back to the 19th century. It’s about love, societal expectations, and personal growth in England’s class-conscious society and the rugged landscapes of Northern England.

Likewise, Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl takes readers to the Tudor court, where a captivating narrative of love and power unfolds, showcasing the clash between personal desires and political aspirations.

Those three books also have cinematic adaptations you should also check out. Even though the books show much more detail in the story, the film adaptations are still pretty loyal to the medium.

If you’re into history and love, you’ll find the historical romance subgenre interesting. Its set against the richly painted canvas of the past, where the quest for love and understanding transcends the boundaries of time.

If you’d like to learn more about the Romance genre, check out The 10 Romance Subgenres.

Historical Mystery

Historical MysteryHistorical mysteries are where the dusty pages of history meet the thrilling chase of a whodunit. Imagine unraveling a mystery with clues hidden in ancient texts or catching a killer in gaslit streets, all while the past’s shadows loom over you. It’s like being a detective with a time machine, where every clue tells a story of its own.

Take The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, where you’re in a 14th-century monastery, tiptoeing through secret passages and decoding Latin manuscripts to solve a string of murders.

Or step into the foggy streets of 1896 New York with The Alienist by Caleb Carr, (The show on TNT is also recommended!) The story uses psychology as the latest crime-solving technique while chasing a killer using methods that seem like they’re from a CSI episode.

Could be a historical psych thriller as well.

But what about visual art?

A perfect example would be From Hell by Alan Moore is a graphic novel that takes you on a creepy journey through Victorian London, where Jack the Ripper is causing chaos and everything is eerily mysterious. Imagine diving deep into the foggy, gaslit streets, piecing together a puzzle that’s as dark as it is compelling. It’s like being handed a detective’s badge and a lantern, then set loose in an era where danger lurks around every corner. It’s a chilling journey into the heart of one of history’s most infamous unsolved mysteries, drawn in stark lines that make the past feel eerily present.

Solving historical mysteries is like a thrilling brain workout that takes you back in time. It’s not just about whodunit but about the world in which it all happens. The genre tells us that no matter the era, humans have always loved a good mystery, and solving them feels just as satisfying now as it would have centuries ago.

If you’d like to learn more about the Mystery/Thrillers genre, check out The 10 Mystery and Thrillers Subgenres.

Alternate History

Alternate HistoryExploring alternate history is not only historical fiction but also a subgenre of sci-fi. This subgenre is like entering a whole new dimension, where the “what ifs” of our past become the main event, flipping our world upside down and revealing a different reality.

Imagine if the Axis powers had won WWII.

What if dinosaurs never went extinct?

Do you think United States would run differently if Al Gore won the presidential election in 2000?

What if the Dark Ages never occurred?

Could we be communicating with other planets by now if the Space Race had never ended?

All of these questions could lead to a potential story of “What if?” By the way, I suggest you read Isaac Asimov’s short story What if? It is not a genre of alternate history but a fiction detailing what if certain events didn’t happen to a married couple, the main characters.

Other suggestions that is actually alternate history, books like The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick transport you to a 1960s America that’s divided between Japan and Germany. Then there’s Fatherland by Robert Harris, which brings you into a chilling scenario where Nazi Germany is a global superpower, and a murder investigation can unravel the most guarded truths of the Reich.

This genre not only entertains but provokes, pushing you to ponder how small changes in our past could dramatically reshape our present. Alternate history lets you reimagine our world and the endless possibilities that history holds.

It’s all speculative regardless.

If you’d like to learn more about the Science Fiction genre, check out The 10 Science Fiction Subgenres.

Biographical Novels

Biographical NovelsBiographical novels take us on a deep dive into the lives of some of history’s most fascinating figures, blending the rich detail of biography with the narrative drive of fiction. It’s like getting VIP access to the inner worlds of historical icons, seeing through their eyes, and walking in their shoes.

These works are usually classified as non-fiction since it’s the actual biography of the most prolific people in history. However, there is so much to say about a person’s life that putting it into a book barely scratches the surface. A whole series of books that’s a thousand pages long, each in a tiny font size, maybe. Then we’ll be fed exhaustive information and grow tired of the person we are reading about. Instead, we take a significant part of their lives and expand on that.

Maybe add some exaggeration to put some flare into it.

One recommendation I got was Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. This book was also the source that helped put the Stephen Spielberg film Lincoln (2012). This is an exploration of Abraham Lincoln’s leadership and empathy, revealing how his style was influenced by the rivals who challenged his journey to the presidency.

Another good example is The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. This story takes you to the lively and chaotic Paris of the 1920s, where Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson, experience the highs of creativity and the lows of betrayal.

Or let’s take a look at Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography, which offers an intimate look into the life of the tech visionary behind Apple. It’s not just a list of accomplishments but a deep dive into Jobs’ journey from a garage in California to becoming the CEO of one of the most influential companies in the world. The book digs into the life of Steve Jobs by sharing interviews and personal stories to reveal his brilliance and flaws. It gives you a glimpse into his motivation and creativity that shaped the digital world.

Each story offers more than just facts. It provides an emotional journey through the complexities of extraordinary lives. These narratives remind us that behind every historical event or achievement, there’s a human story of ambition, love, struggle, and desire, making the past feel vividly present and intensely human.

Historical Adventure

Historical AdventureExploring historical adventure stories is like venturing into uncharted territory with every page turn. These tales transport you to exciting places like jungles, deserts, or ancient cities, where the past is a puzzle to solve. You’re not just watching, you’re part of an exciting journey to uncover hidden secrets.

You get the best of both worlds – history and adventure – with thrilling stories set in significant historical events or periods.

This is one of the most fun subgenres. So much can happen from being chased by wild animals or unknown creatures to being hunted down by poachers or tribes-people. This genre is the ultimate escape from where you are most comfortable to unfamiliar places. It is fun, exciting, and at times can be scary and emotional. Lots of conflicts, lots of treasure. This is where all the fun lies.

Just imagine going on an adventure with The Lost City of Z by David Grann in the Amazon, tracking the footsteps of the famous explorer Percy Fawcett, as you make your way through a maze of greenery to uncover a lost civilization.

Or, picture yourself deciphering the mysteries of an ancient empire in The Egyptian by Mika Waltari, where the sands of Egypt whisper secrets of the pharaohs.

Maybe you’re standing shoulder to shoulder with the Spartans at Thermopylae in Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield, feeling the adrenaline of imminent battle.

These stories are immersive experiences that pull you into the essence of exploration and discovery. They celebrate the human spirit’s relentless quest for knowledge and the courage to venture beyond the map’s edge.

Historical Fantasy

Historical FantasyHistorical fantasy takes us to a realm where history comes alive with fantastical colors.

Imagine a world where fantasy and history collide, with magic and mythical creatures in the mix. This subgenre blends the rich narratives of the past with elements of magic and myth, creating a world where history’s boundaries are expanded by the imagination.

Let’s take, for example, The Hakawati by Lebanese author Rabih Alameddine. We get pulled into this cool tapestry of stories that go across generations and places, mixing Middle Eastern tales with magical folklore and myth. The novel serves as a modern-day Arabian Nights, where the art of storytelling itself becomes a magical act, capable of bridging the gap between the mortal and the divine, the past and the present.

Similarly, City of Jasmine by Egyptian author Olga Grjasnowa, immerses readers in the turbulent aftermath of the Arab Spring, blending historical events with elements of magical realism. The story takes us to a Damascus where reality and surrealism mix, showing the powerful spirit of the city and its people, despite the conflicts and whispers of ancient magic.

These examples show how Middle Eastern authors turn history into a dream world where ancient wonders mix with imagination. It’s a genre that’s both entertaining and enlightening, letting us dive into worlds where history comes alive.

War

WarWar is hell. That is something we can agree on. Too much bloodshed. Too much grieving and mourning and nothing but negative experiences for both opposing forces. The subgenre of war is to not glorify the violence and horrific imagery that occurs, but to bring an idea to readers why it’s horrible to begin with.

Let’s face it. War is terrible mainly for the working people involved who have the unfortunate luck to fight for those in political power. War stories are really anti-war stories told by people who suffered immensely during their history of war.

Diving into the subgenre of war in historical fiction, we’re invited to explore the profoundly personal stories of individuals navigating the tumult and trauma of conflict. This genre sheds light on the emotional and psychological landscapes of those who have faced the harrowing realities of war, beyond the strategic and historical accounts.

One of my personal favorite books is The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. He takes us into the heart of the Vietnam War, skillfully intertwining various narratives that expose the immense physical and emotional hardships endured by soldiers. O’Brien’s narrative blends the line between fact and fiction, offering a poignant examination of memory, guilt, and the search for meaning in the aftermath of war. His captivating storytelling allows us to understand the intricate nature of bravery, grief, and the lasting effects of war on the human mind. Highly recommend!

Let’s not forget about one of the classics, All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. This story shows World War I from the perspective of a young German soldier. The novel gets rid of any romantic ideas about battle and shows the real, emotional experiences of soldiers. Remarque’s work really shows how brutal war is and how it messes people up. I also recommend the movie adaptations, both 1930 and 2022.

These two stories let us into the minds of soldiers from different times and wars, all dealing with the same things – resilience, searching for meaning, and trying not to lose themselves in war. These stories not only remember what soldiers went through but also make you think about how war affects people.

Family Saga

Family SagaFamily sagas in historical fiction let us dive into the lives of individuals and their families while also giving us a glimpse into the larger historical events. These stories really dig into family dynamics, showing how love, loyalty, ambition, and conflict shape generations.

One of the most prime examples is The Godfather by Mario Puzo. This book is the perfect example of this type of story, following the Corleone family as they become bosses in the American mafia. This story captures how organized crime shaped families and society during that crazy time in America. The book looks at power, justice, and the American Dream, while also showing the personal struggles and moral conflicts of the Corleone family as they deal with a dangerous criminal world full of rivalry and betrayal.

Through the saga of the Corleone family, The Godfather not only offers a gripping story of crime and power but also reflects on the immigrant experience and the pursuit of success in America. It’s a story that makes you think about loyalty, legacy, and what keeps a family together.

Family sagas like The Godfather remind us that amidst the grand sweep of history, the dramas that play out within the walls of a family home are equally epic. With these stories, you can journey through decades, experiencing how characters grow and the consequences of their choices across generations, while also getting a deep look into the social and cultural dynamics of the time.

I also believe that the film adaptation directed by Francis Ford Coppola is a masterpiece. Probably a perfectly made film. The Godfather Part II is also nearly perfect. Though some may argue that Part II is superior to Part I.

Nautical and Pirate

Nautical and PirateSimply put, this subgenre is all about the excitement of the open ocean, with stories about sailors, explorers, and pirates. The nautical and pirate subgenre takes us on exciting high-seas adventures. Danger is in the air and the horizon is full of both treasure and treachery. This genre is like a party for maritime fans, with cool pirates, intense naval battles, and mind-blowing adventures in uncharted territories, all happening in historically accurate settings.

This can fit into the adventure subgenre, but it deserves its own category, since sea adventures are so unique compared to land adventures. It’s got its own dangers and perils, along with other fun adventures.

With classics like Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian, we get to experience the Napoleonic Wars through the eyes of Captain Jack Aubrey and his ship’s surgeon, Stephen Maturin. When they’re out at sea, their adventures aren’t just about battles and strategy, but also about the ups and downs of friendship, loyalty, and life away from land. O’Brian’s series is legendary for its attention to historical accuracy, covering everything from sailing to politics, making it a classic in nautical fiction. I also recommend the film adaptation directed by Peter Wier, starring Russel Crowe as Capt. Jack Aubrey.

On the other hand, Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton takes you to the 17th-century Caribbean, where pirates and the Spanish Empire call the shots. In this place, finding treasure means facing tricky battles of wit and will, where surviving means more than just being a good swordsman—it’s about grasping the shady politics of pirates and colonies. Crichton’s novel is an exciting ride through the Golden Age of Piracy, with lots of adventure and historical mystery.

These narratives paint a vivid picture of life on the open water and make you want to go back in time and see it for yourself. Nautical and pirate stories have it all – history, adventure, and that irresistible ocean charm. They take you on a journey of exploration, conflict, and the never-ending pursuit of freedom and excitement on the open sea.

Historical Legal Thriller

Historical Legal ThrillerWho doesn’t like a good courtroom drama? As much as we are entertained by these stories, especially in film, the boring stuff is usually cut out like pre-trial procedures, jury selections, legal research, Continuances and Delays, sidebar discussions, and believe it or not, cross-examination.

Cross-examination may be the staple of courtroom dramas, but they tend to be very lengthy. Don’t get me wrong, I do love a banter between the lawyer and witness that’s called to take the stand. Probably one of my favorites to ever do it is the film My Cousin Vinny (1992). Click on the title to watch it on Amazon.

When it comes to historical legal thrillers, they bring real court cases to life and show us how landmark trials shaped public consciousness and legal precedents. These stories bring you right into the courtroom, giving you a front-row seat to the drama, strategy, and emotional rollercoaster of real legal battles.

Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood shook up the true crime scene with its chilling account of the Clutter family’s murder in Kansas and the crazy trial that followed. Capote’s thorough research and storytelling really get into the minds of the murderers and show how the crime affected the community. It also brings up bigger questions about justice and morality in America.

Another good example is The Trial of Lizzie Borden by Cara Robertson. This book offers a fascinating look into one of the most sensational murder trials in American history—the case of Lizzie Borden, accused of the gruesome axe murders of her father and stepmother in 1892. Using trial transcripts, accounts, and letters, Robertson recreates the intense courtroom drama, the societal gossip about the Borden family, and the public’s insatiable curiosity for every case detail. This book not just talks about the trial, but also looks at how society’s norms and gender biases affected people’s views and the legal stuff.

These two books give us a fascinating look into the American legal system. They’re from different times and have different stories, but both show how law, crime, and storytelling are always interesting. These narratives will make you question guilt, justice, and how the legal system works, all while keeping you on the edge of your seat with true crime and courtroom drama.

Writing Historical Fiction

If you want to write Historical Fiction accurately, just hop in a time machine and go back to that time period. Nice and easy isn’t it? Unfortunately, such technology does not exist and we must stick to our traditional research ways. And that is Google!

Writing historical fiction is probably one of the toughest genres to write depending on how far back you go. You’ve got to dig deep into the past, sifting through everything from big events to the tiny details of daily life while also making the characters relatable.

I’m talking about research, research, and research! Hit the library if you can, scour old letters of a specific time period, and maybe even rummage through artifacts to make your world feel real.

But here’s the thing: you’ve also got to know when to spice things up.

It needs to be entertaining and engaging. Stick too close to the facts, and you might lose your readers to boredom. As you write your story, still write the historical setting as accurately as possible. Most importantly, how does this time period affect the characters?

Remember. These characters must be of their time. Consider their way of speaking and acting that makes sense for the era, but without making your modern readers feel like they’ve time-traveled and can’t find their way home.

Their dialogue must also sound authentic, like it’s straight out of the past, but not so much that your readers need a translator.

Let’s not forget about the sensitive stuff. We can’t erase the history of the horrific things that have occurred, but it still must be talked about. Consider the ideas like wars or social injustices. You want to honor the real people who lived through these times, especially those whose voices have often been silenced.

Most importantly is avoiding anachronisms. This is crucial in making the past accessible and engaging for contemporary readers. Achieving this balance demands a nuanced understanding of the period and a creative approach. It requires combining rigorous historical research with the art of storytelling to bring the textures of the past to life.

Also remember, this is a creative project, so use your imagination and have fun with it. History gives you the outline, but there are always gaps. Fill in the blanks with your own colorful strokes, dreaming up the “what-ifs” that breathe life into the bones of the past.

Always remind yourself that it’s about making history feel alive, relevant, and fascinating.

Final Thoughts

Historical fiction offers a captivating blend of education and entertainment. It invites readers to explore the depth of human history through narrative storytelling. This genre helps us understand the past better by shedding light on the events, cultures, and people that made our world. Through historical fiction, we can dive into different time periods and appreciate the variety of human experiences that have shaped our world.

It’s tough for writers to strike the right balance between research and imagination when creating historical fiction. These challenges give authors the chance to bring history alive, making facts into stories that resonate with readers today. Historical fiction still shares the same themes we all experience in life, no matter the time period. It reminds us how important it is to remember our history, and recognize the strong connection we have with those who came before us.