Wednesday, April 20, 2011

What is a Historical?

By Lisa Karon Richardson

There seems to be a good deal of confusion over just what constitutes a historical these days. To be fair it is a bit of a moving target. After all, what is historical to me, (I was born in 1978) is like yesterday to a lot of the Inkies.) And yes, yes I did have to rub that in a little.)

Publishing houses define historicals differently as well. It all seemed a bit random to me, until I realized that they were likely basing this off their understanding of their typical market. In other words, if they generally appeal to an older audience, then what they consider to be “historical” is likely to be earlier than a line that appeals to younger readers.

In general I’ve found that most houses consider historicals to be World War II and earlier. A few consider historicals to Vietnam Era and earlier. Of course this will likely change as we get further and further from the events in question.

So what do you call a novel set in the “twilight area” between contemporary and what the house calls historical? I heard a suggestion that these gems should be referred to as Vintage, which I personally love, but isn’t necessarily a term in popular usage yet.

It can be a quandary.

In my opinion the best way to handle it for now is to use the underlying genre rather than worrying about the setting. In other words, if the story is a romance just call it a romance, if it has a mystery at heart, just call it a mystery. If it’s a story about relationships between women it’s women’s fiction right on down the line.

Do you like novels set in the twilight zone between contemporary and historical? What do you think they ought to be called?


  1. Lisa, I love the term "vintage". I think a good book is a good book to be enjoyed no matter when it is set. But I personally don't enjoy reading books set in the Vietnam era. I'm not sure why that is, but I did grow up seeing images of it on TV and my dad was in the military at the time. Maybe that's why?

    And I love you, but I don't think I'm quite ready for my high school years to be considered historical. Nor do I want them referred to as vintage years. =) I did not realize you were born the year I graduated from high school. You are only four years older than my son.

  2. Lisa, you're making me feel old!

    I'm not sure I've read what you refer to as 'vintage' novels. I'm wondering, with the popularity of nostalgia, if 'nostalgic fiction' might also be a good term.

    The closest I think I've come is reading old contemporaries. I have to say it's interesting to see people dialing rotary phones, back in the days where only landlines are available. And the only way to do research is in the library or newspaper morgues.

    Technology is a challenge to mystery and suspense writers. Now you can Google your suspects and call for help on your cell--sigh--the good old days.

  3. Hmm, Lisa, that is a good question.

    For me, historicals are anything up until 1979. Now sure why I don't view the 1880s as historical, other than I can remember the 80s. Not so much of the 70s. When my oldest son asks me why, I tell him, "We lived in Germany, which actually was West Germany at the time."

    I could go with Vintage as a designation.

  4. I'm not a big fan of the Vietnam era myself, Suzie. I guess because it doesn't seem to have the same romance and glamour of other times. To much emotional strife in people.

    Sorry to make you feel old! You're really not!

  5. Barb, I really like "Nostalgic fiction" what a positive term! That won't make anyone feel vintage.

    And yep, it was a lot easier for the villains in the old days. Now we have to try hard to make it tough on the hero.

  6. Gina, I didn't know you lived in Germany when you were little. Were you a military brat?

  7. Lisa, I always felt you had an incredible amount of spiritual maturity. I guess that's why - even though I knew you were young - I was so surprised by your birth year. I'll tell you what really makes me feel old: when I see someone I used to babysit, and they have gray hair. Lol!

    I do have to say as far as history goes, my favorite era to read about is from 1880 to 1900 - although not particularly anything war related. I do enjoy later periods if the author captures just the right flavor that I'm looking for. I guess my best example of that would be a certain book called Chasing Lady Liberty. That author, a fabulous author, btw, captured the era quite superbly.

  8. I like the term "nostalgic."

    Kathleen Eagle's Sunrise Song is set in 1973 (with the story-within-the-story set in 1933). It felt a little weird when I realized the characters were roughly my parents age. (My parents married younger than the main characters in SS.) I mean, I know on an intellectual level that my parents were young once, but I only knew them as middle aged or older.

    I think it sounds difficult to write about a "past" period that still in the living memory of so many people. People with first hand experience are likely to find every error in historical accuracy. It's hard enough getting the details right when you know none of your readers was alive during the story's setting.

  9. Ooh, I like "nostalgic" too. Patti Lacy's The Rhythm of Secrets would fall into that category.

    I enjoy stories set up through the 50s; I'm not sure why I don't get excited about books set in the 70s. Maybe it's because I have a hard time with the fashion aspect (meaning I don't find disco pants, wide ties, or big collars particularly appealing. Not even on Magnum PI!). Suzie's motives are far purer than mine.

    I wonder how long it will be before Vietnam-era stories are considered historicals.

    Fun post, Lisa.

  10. Okay, I really must respond to Susie. I not-so-humbly disagree with one thing. Thomas Magnum looked great in everything. I suspect he would have looked good in bell bottoms. he looked especially wonderful in his military uniform. Although, I did not care for the Vietnam flashback episodes. Thomas Magnum...sigh...I wish that show was still on.

  11. I like books set in anytime, except I'm not the hugest fan of futuristic novels. I especially like 1300's and Elizabethian, Western and Regency. Also WWI, the Guilded Age, the Roaring 20's and the Depression era, and the 60's. Though I am pretty young by most peoples standards. Still too young to vote.

  12. CJ, even though you'd have more resources that way, it would seem like if your portrayal didn't jive with that person's recollection they might be critical, even if you're historically accurate.

  13. Sorry to be so scarce today girls. Suzie Jo, you know how to make me smile!

  14. Faye, I like all of the eras you mentioned, except I'm not crazy about the 1300's. I don't really know why. But I do love the roaring 20's and it hasn't had much love from the publishing industry. Still, I have a book ready to go when that changes!

  15. Suzie, I have to disagree about Thomas Magnum. With that mustache and smile, who noticed what he was wearing?

  16. I've enraged the Magnum lovers! Tee hee. Sorry, ladies.

    "The Dukes of Hazzard" has been on a lot at my house lately. I've noticed that those tight, high-waisted early 80s jeans fit the Duke boys just fine, but that particular fashion did not do much for Cooter, for instance. Of course, that's arguably unfair of me to mention: John Schneider vs anybody else is no contest.

  17. Not enraged... just miffed.

    I can't imagine there are many who would look as fabulous as Daisy did in her wardrobe either.


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