I’ll open with a confession: this is a highly debated topic. I’ll spoil the premise and tell you now, my view is that the only wrong way to write historical fiction is to write it for the wrong audience. That doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with the work itself, just that the writer may not know who would enjoy it, who wouldn’t, and who may even be offended. This guide should help distinguish the different kinds of historical fiction, how they play with your story, and potential audiences for each.
A historically accurate story follows recorded historical events exactly – date, time, place, people, etc. History comes before story. If it isn’t accurate, it isn’t right. Any original elements must plausibly fall into the framework history provides. So, for example, Queen Elizabeth must be coronated on the 16th of November, 1558. You can’t change the season so you can have a beautiful scene where she walks through a spring garden in her royal paraphernalia.
However, so long as you follow established, historical events, she could have a love affair, have survived assault as a child, and could suffer from severe self-image issues (especially after the pox). History hints at all of these, but there is no absolute proof. They’re all theories worth exploring (and there are many more of them).
To be historically accurate, most readers will draw the line at things like a “secret” marriage, the old rumor that she was really a man (because no woman could possibly rule so well), or that she was actually aboard a ship, doing battle with the Spanish in person.
This approach is for scholars, history nuts, and folks who really – really – like research.
Historical authenticity is the middle road. It means the dates may not all be perfect, a few historical actors may slip a little out of character, but you know the era and its mores. Authenticity addresses the world more than the action. What do people wear? As sexy as you find corsets on bare skin, a historically authentic story would not include these in anything but a modern setting. Slips and chemises, people!
So long as the world is authentic, you can get away with a lot. A lot of critics see shows with clear fantasy elements like The Terror as historically authentic because everything apart from the monster is extremely accurate to what we know of Franklin’s doomed Artic expedition. On the other hand, book series like the one that inspired Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Aubrey Maturin) are extremely accurate about the period’s sailors, ships, and politics, but the dramatic events and characters are entirely fictional.
Authenticity is about making an accurate world so you can tell an inaccurate story. There’s wiggle room, but history buffs holding your book won’t spontaneously combust.
Like a horror story “inspired” by true events, a historically inspired book plays fast and lose with facts (if it acknowledges them at all). History is more set-dressing than anything else. People may not behave as they would in that historical setting, any recognizable characters from history are fair game, even if they lived decades apart, and women lounge in corsets on bare skin. There are no real rules, and so long as your audience doesn’t mind, neither should you (unless it’s a question of ethics, but that’s a different can of worms).
Who Wants What?
First, so long as you market carefully, you can always build your own audience. History nuts almost always prefer historically accurate and authentic works, and the closer you lean towards accuracy, the smoother sailing you’ll have. Pay attention to subgenres in other genres, too. The Regency romance subgenre has niches of its own that deserve attention, but in general those readers want an authentic/accurate world. They fell in love with Austen’s works, which were contemporary and therefore effortlessly authentic. To win their hearts, you have to court their secret history infatuation.
Historical inspiration often appeals to science fiction and fantasy fans. Just look at subgenres like steampunk. You don’t have to go that far, but you can if you want to. These readers are either looking for fun, fluffy set dressings for a more modern tale or they enjoy analyzing historical tropes and realities through modern sensibilities.
Always know who your audience is before publishing. Have you written historical fiction? Which category does it fall into? Share your thoughts and ideas with other writers below!