How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? There are no good answers for either the topic question, or the tongue twister. But at least the wood chuck knows her limitations. When it comes to a historical novel, the historical novelist does not.

Let us start with the basics. Historical fiction is a literary genre in which the plot takes place in a setting located in the past. That’s pretty much as far as it goes in terms of genre governance.

Admittedly, there are what we could call rules of thumb[1] for writing historical novels.

A fine writer named Elizabeth Crook penned Seven Rules for Writing Historical Fiction.[2] As a prologue to her rules, she reminds us that we ought to write what we know and clarified that by saying, “history is the unknown.” Her rule #1 is, “Sweat the Small Stuff: the authenticity of historical fiction depends on your knowledge and use of historical detail.” Her second rule is, “Dump the Ballast: in order to write authentic historical fiction, you must know a period of time well enough to disappear daily through a wormhole to the past and arrive at the location of your story.” All seven rules are good advice. All make for a stronger and more authentic book, but they aren’t rules; they are suggestions for success in the genre.

The Writer’s Digest suggests “Eight Rules of Writing Historical Fiction Research.”[3] All of the rules are grounded not in the writing of historical novels, but rather in researching the history.

Caro Clarke gets closer to the topic question. She asks incisively, “Who rules, researcher or story-teller?”[4] Rather than chucking wood, she takes the topic question head on. “Do you need to be one of the world’s experts in Byzantine history to write about a Varangian slave in Byzantium? Of course not. Will reading Gone with the Wind tell you enough about the American Civil War to write a Confederate soldier’s story? Of course not. If you don’t want to do the research, perhaps you should think twice about writing historical fiction. If you’re so absorbed in the history that you aren’t really gripped by your characters, perhaps you should be writing non-fiction. But if you want to achieve that balancing act that is a good historical novel, then you need to know what history to put in and what to leave out.”

Rather than look for rules, maybe the way to answer the topic question is to think about genre choices. The core difference between non-fiction and historical fiction lies in what the writer has to sell. It’s history if that’s all you want. It’s historical fiction if you want to tell the story, rather than just the history. Edward Rutherford[5] said it well: “Complete historical truth is unknowable. At the end of the day, the novel is a construct, as is a biography, or a work of narrative history, for that matter. All you can do is use the best modern scholarship available. The next generation will probably laugh at your efforts anyway.”

Gary L StuartI am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

If you have an important story you want told, you can commission me to write it for you. Learn how.





 [1] The ‘rule of thumb’ has been said to derive from the belief that English law allowed a man to beat his wife with a stick so long as it was no thicker than his thumb. In 1782, Judge Sir Francis Buller is reported as having made this legal ruling shortly before he was struck off the bench.