Guest Post: Historical Fiction vs. Historical Novels

I’m thrilled to host historical fiction author, Margaret Skea, who is kicking off a discussion about the difference between “historical fiction” and “historical novels”. Please leave your thoughts in the comments below!

And without further ado…

By Margaret Skea

Last weekend I had the huge pleasure of appearing at an historical fiction festival in a little town in the Highlands of Scotland, organised by probably the most enthusiastic bookshop owner in Britain – a small lady (who makes me feel tall) with a huge heart, named Marjory Marshall.  It will be a big loss to Scotland’s literary scene if she ever retires.

The format was interesting and a little different. It was a whole day event, though folk could choose to come to the morning or afternoon sessions or both. 

Each of the authors had a chance to introduce their book and give a short reading, followed in both sessions by a panel discussion, with the audience also participating.

I was chairing the morning panel discussion, focusing on four historical periods – the Reformation, Mary Queen of Scots’ lifetime, the Covenanters, and the Cromwellian era. We covered issues including the influence and important of religious belief to characters and to plot; writing about conflict; handling the interaction between historical and fictional characters; conveying a sense of place; and the pros and cons of different tenses and viewpoint.

All good stuff, particularly the varied perspectives and approaches to writing which were revealed, and it was clearly of interest to the very responsive audience.

The controversy, though, came in the afternoon session, which divided us authors into two distinct camps. It began with a seemingly innocuous question about balancing fact and fiction and finished with Marjory suggesting a way of defining and dividing historicals into ‘historical fiction’ and ‘historical novel’.

Now, I’ve always thought of myself as an historical novelist, and it seems by Marjory’s definition, I may be right. Two authors were ranged alongside me, with the remaining two on the other side of the debate.

Of course my novels are works of fiction – they certainly don’t purport to be non-fiction – but two aspects are really important to me – creating as authentic a picture of the period as I can, based on solid research and, crucially, when I am dealing with an historic character, trying to present as close a reflection of the real person as is possible, given the historical evidence available.  I finish my ‘Authors note’ in my Katharina books with the statement:

‘This book is a work of fiction, and although based on extensive research, the Katharina depicted here is my own interpretation. I hope I have done her justice.’

It is that final sentence which really matters to me, and it is in this area of a ‘moral responsibility’ to historical characters, however long dead, where the division of opinion emerged. All five of us believe absolutely in the essential nature of good research to underpin our writing, but those who opposed my view, did so on the basis that the needs of story are paramount and trump the evidence.

Now, I don’t have a problem with tweaking minor points of history if the story demands it, though it’s unlikely to be controversial, and I will always confess any deviation from attested history in my author’s note; but what I won’t do is to ‘bad mouth’ an historical character, without good evidence. And this was the crux of the debate. One author was happy to make her main (historical) character have an affair because she felt it added to the impact of the story, despite the lack of any evidence. ‘This is fiction’ she said, ‘If the story demands it, do it.’

There are several counter arguments to this view – amongst them a responsibility to living descendants of the character in question, the realistic or otherwise depiction of the person concerned and, importantly, the fact that, like it or not, many people learn their history from fiction. That being the case, as well as a moral responsibility to the character, I also feel a responsibility to readers, not to mislead them. The opposing authors felt equally strongly that any misinterpretation of history remains the reader’s own responsibility.

And so to Marjory’s distinction between an ‘historical novel’, in which the author seeks to remain true to the history that underpins it, and ‘historical fiction’ in which, while the background is of importance, the story is king. Interestingly, one of the novelists who shared my view had written a novel in which all of the key characters were fictional, yet she still felt it was important to ensure she remained within the bounds of known history, for the sake of readers.  

Lest you think blood was shed, we all parted friends, but the vigorous argument indicated clearly that there are two distinct schools of thought in this respect and it’s a debate that’s likely to run and run…

What do you think?

Margaret Skea is an award-winning novelist and short story writer. Short story credits include Neil GunnFish, the Historical Novel Society, and Mslexia. Her debut novel, Turn of the Tide, the first book in a Scottish trilogy – including A House Divided and By Sword and Storm, gained her the Beryl Bainbridge Award for ‘Best First-Time Novelist 2014’. She is now a hybrid author publishing both through a mainstream publisher, Corazon, and under her own imprint, Sanderling Books.

Katharina: Deliverance, a fictionalized biography based on the life of the reformer Martin Luther’s wife, was placed 2nd in the Historical Novel Society new Novel Award 2018. The sequel, Katharina Fortitude, was released in July 2019.

She is particularly interested in the challenge of bringing relatively unknown historical characters out of the shadows. In an attempt to embrace the digital age she now has her own website at www.margaretskea.com and you can also follow her on Twitter , Facebook or Amazon.

6 thoughts on “Guest Post: Historical Fiction vs. Historical Novels”

  1. I do think there is a difference between “historical fiction” and “historical novels,” though I think the label “historical fiction” can also be more broad and apply to both.

    My novels use history as a backdrop while focusing on fictional characters. History drives the plot and circumstances and I enjoy using my fictional characters to imply a fictional reason behind a small detail of history.

    Either way, whatever history an author does include in their novels should be as accurate as possible. It is also important to note in the back of the book what is true and what is fiction.


  2. At a writer’s conference this year I noticed the distinction. There were definitely people who do a lot of research and take tentative steps into the story, and others who start with the story and do the research afterward. I got to the point that I asked people if they were historians first, or writers first, because it made conversation easier.
    I started writing romance, and I still do that, but the project I’m focusing on now is historical. It’s a story that is largely unknown in the west; long story short, the story of the Girl Scouts in Poland during World War II. And I run across these tantalizing bits (like whether there was a team of female Nazi commandos in the suburbs of Warsaw during the Uprising) that, by the time I track down the truth, I think everybody would be interested to know.
    I started writing seriously in the first place because I thought there were Truths that people should know that they didn’t. In romance, that’s things like “your life isn’t over if you make mistakes.” In historical fiction, it’s “this is what a Nazi looks like.” To make up one’s own history is antithesis to my core beliefs about stories and fiction.


  3. I think it is maybe a distinction authors like to make, but I suspect many readers see the terms as interchangeable. Perhaps unwise to make too many niche categories? Let’s all just enjoy stories that use history as a backdrop! People can always check the history themselves if they are interested enough.


  4. Margaret Skea has found the perfect way to enthrall readers. I love the historical facts but need a fictional input to allow me to believe entirely in the fictional characters alongside historical facts. How she manages to do this I do not know, but she does.

    ‘Fetch yourself a spade, we have work to do’. These words precede the final paragraphs in Turn of the Tide. Never ever, has any book got into my soul, enough for me to read and re-read the final words. Pure magic, yet believable. The best ever end to a story I have ever, or will ever read again.
    Thank you Margaret Skea


  5. I think this is a distinction without meaning. Fiction is something you make up, if necessary totally. Historical Fiction only means the work is set in an actual period of time in the past. The extent to which it conforms to the genuine history of that period is up to the author. Some range very far away; some, like my own, try to stick close to historical reality. Either can make a good story. Readers can choose which they prefer. The term “Historical Novel“ is surely a simple synonym for “Historical Fiction”.


  6. Very interesting differentiation but I don’t think the terminology quite works. Hard not to include ‘novel’ in ‘fiction’ or vice versa. I do sign up to the idea of biographical fiction or fictional biography which assumes a responsibility to a particular historical mc (and includes Margaret Skea’s Katharina, and I would like to think my own ‘In the Blink of an Eye’ – plug!- I wouldn’t expect these to veer too much from recorded ‘facts’. Sadly ‘fictional biogrphy doesn;t really rol off the tongue!
    I also expect any historical fiction to be well researched and feel authentic. There will always be a mix of fact/fiction. Just the idea ‘this could have happened ‘ is enough for me.


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