What exactly is historical fiction?

Published October 10, 2012 by A.J.B. Johnston

I’m a little puzzled by what is and is not considered historical fiction. I certainly understand why people consider Thomas, A Secret Life as historical fiction. It’s fiction and it’s set in an imagined 18th-century world. Yet many other novels similarly set in the past do not seem to be so labelled. Are not Leo MacKay Jr.’s Twenty Six and Donna Morrisey’s novels set in Newfoundland out-ports a generation or two ago — or for that matter any story set in London, California or anywhere else in the 1930s or 1960s — not historical fictions as well? Who makes the call and where is the line? Does the historical fiction label mean a novel is set a couple of centuries ago and not in the more recent past?

My opinion is that historical fiction is not a genre at all. It’s just a detail of when and where the story is set. It’s not — or should not be — the defining characteristic of the work. My aim with Thomas is to explore the many shifting moral compasses people have as they go through life. I try to make the historical period come alive as authentically as I can, but ultimately those details are incidental to the story I’m seeking to tell.

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