#LetsDiscuss2020 #18 – Defining Historical Fiction – #DiscussionSunday.


There’s something that’s been bugging me for quite a while now, and I think it is time to clear the air, and I think people should understand …

What should be called Historical Fiction, and what should not…

Discussion Sunday #letsdiscuss2020


These are my personal opinions. I do not expect anyone to agree with anything here, and in fact, I’m certain that many will disagree and/or even hate many of the things I’ve written below. Sorry about that, but you are always welcome to express your own opinions – be they contrary or comparable – in the comments section. So, with that out of the way… let the controversy begin!

What is Historical Fiction?

I think most publishers and book critics would agree that technically, “Historical Fiction” is a novel where the action takes place during an era in the past, which is at least 40 years (although sometimes some say 50 years) before the publication date of the novel itself. So, we are in 2020 right now, and by the liberal terms of this definition, that means a book where the action takes place before 1980 (or 1970, if we’re being conservative). It really is as simple as that!

What is Contemporary Fiction?

Going by the above guidelines, “Contemporary Fiction” is therefore a book where the action takes place any time within 40-50 years before the publication date (depending on how liberal or conservative you want to be). Yes, I know, that might sound strange to younger readers and reviewers who want to put the label of “historical fiction” on a book published this year, but set in 1985 because they weren’t born until 1990, but you can’t. That’s the cold hard facts here; live with it – that book is “contemporary fiction” and that’s that!

Okay so… what about books written over 40 years ago?

If you ask me, the answer is simple. Books written over 40 years ago should be called “Vintage Fiction.” I know it isn’t a very well-known term (and maybe I just made it up for this post), but I’d really like it to become popular.

To be more precise, a book written in 1910 where the action takes place in 1890 should be called “Vintage Contemporary Fiction” because the action takes place only 20 years before the book was published, but it was released a long time ago. That also means that a book published in 1910 where the action takes place in 1830, would be called “Vintage Historical Fiction” because the release date was long ago, and the action happened over 40-50 years before publication date. Get it?

Now, I know that many people will want to call these older published books “classics” but I think that’s a mistake. While many classics are vintage, not all vintage books are classics. Vintage should only refer to when the book was originally published, not the overall worth or importance of that novel.

What is Classic Fiction, then?

When we think of a classic, one definition I personally like is books that “… have cultural importance. A book that may not have the best writing but was the first book in a genre to do something ground-breaking is a classic.” I would add that a classic book has some societal importance, and that its themes are evergreen as well. This definition is wide enough so that it means that tomorrow someone could write and publish a book that is so different from anything ever published before in that genre, or so culturally or socially important, or so insightful into the human condition, that it will automatically become a “modern classic.” Of course, in 50+ years from tomorrow, that book will just be a classic, but that’s beside the point! (If you want to know the difference between Classic Fiction and Classical Fiction, click on the link at the top of this paragraph.)

In conclusion:

  • Historical Fiction novels are books set at least 40-50 years prior to the publication date
  • Contemporary Fiction novels are books set less than 40-50 years prior to publication date
  • Vintage Fiction novels (if you choose to accept this term) are books published over 40 years ago (meaning before the current year and/or before the year the reviewer published their review). Therefore, depending on the setting of that novel, it could be either Vintage Historical or Vintage Contemporary.

Okay, rant over!

So… what do you say?

Can we all finally stop calling books written a long time ago “historical fiction” unless they really are set 40-50 years before they were published?

What do you think of my idea of calling older books “vintage fiction”?

This post is my 18th entry in the 2020 Discussion Challenge, hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!


39 thoughts on “#LetsDiscuss2020 #18 – Defining Historical Fiction – #DiscussionSunday.

  1. Davida this topic was discussed myriad times at cataloguing meetings back when I was working for our public library system. The various opinions differed greatly – and most had valid reasons for their opinions.
    What we settled on as an in-house library rule was anything prior to the END of WWII (1945) was to be considered historical fiction.
    In order to address what some of us called ‘cultural and historically significant’ topics we would add subject headings such as: Nineteen sixties in fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s an idea… but… if it was written prior to the end of WWII about that same era, wouldn’t it still be contemporary? That’s my point, you see… it seems to me that we shouldn’t be calling, oh… for example, Dickens historical fiction because he wrote about his own era. In that case, I suggest calling it vintage contemporary fiction.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I just finished an online course on historical fiction and the professor said that a book is considered historical if the events are 60 years in the past. Otherwise, I agree with your definitions. Interesting post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There is no longer any 100% agreed upon rule about this anymore. However, I’d say most would agree that it really need to be set, at the VERY least, 40+ years prior to publication date to be historical. I’d prefer 50+ years prior to publication date. Mind you, it wasn’t that long ago that a book was only considered historical if it was set 50+ years before the author was BORN! For your purposes, if you prefer the 60+ yardstick, that’s fine. No one will argue, but the definition is clear as mud these days, that’s for certain!


  3. I really like the Vintage Fiction label—I’ve never heard of that! It makes me feel far less old than calling books that take place in the ’90s or early 2000s as Historical Fiction. (I only went along with that because that’s what I’d heard it referred to since it’s not “contemporary”). I have definitely been using Historical Fiction incorrectly, as I didn’t know there was a specific time-frame for it. I’ll add Vintage Fiction to my genre list. (I know—next you’re going to tell me it’s not a genre, but that’s the only place I have to put it. LOL!)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I didn’t know about the idea of historical fiction taking place at least 40 or 50 years before it was published; good information! Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Carol made the comment I was going to make! Speaking as a librarian, I felt my blood pressure go up when you said a book’s genre could be both historical and contemporary at the same time! 😉
    I think of historical fiction as a subset of fiction, with the historical setting and accurate details being key to making it fall into this genre. If a work is primarily character-driven or plot-driven, I don’t like describing it as historical fiction just because of the book’s time-frame. I don’t see the need to say contemporary or vintage; if it’s not historical fiction, it could be literary fiction, a family saga, a multi-generational family story, or just plain fiction — regardless of when the story takes place!
    I get what you’re saying, though! Hearing Jane Austen’s books, for example, described as historical fiction has always irked me, too!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Um… actually, I think my point is that historical and contemporary (and futuristic, for that matter) aren’t actually genres. When a story takes place is much like where it takes place – it is a setting, not a genre. So if there is more than one time line – say for instance, 2002 and 1902 – it is both historical and contemporary. The genre is either literary or something else (romance, horror, Sci-Fi, etc.). See what I mean?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I think so! I went on to my own thoughts after seconding yours, sorry! Didn’t mean to imply that I was repeating what you were saying! Meant to agree that a 40- or 50-year time period in relation to pub date doesn’t always make a book historical fiction. It could be a Bildungsroman or an alternative history.
        In library land, historical fiction is a genre, but so is literary fiction, which I disagree is a genre. Any categorizing can seem limiting, and the term “genre fiction” sometimes is used to imply formulaic or simplistic.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Interesting approach. I never thought of it that way – maybe because I’m not a librarian. (But hey, that’s why we have these posts – to discuss these things.) As for “genre fiction” implying something formulaic or simplistic, that also kind of irks me. Hm… food for thought!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. As a reader and writer of historical fiction, I wholeheartedly agree with your definitions. It drives me nuts when I hear someone refer to classic novels of long ago as historical fiction. The Historical Novel Society defines it as 50 years or prior to the birth of the author because if a twenty-year-old writes a novel set in 1985 then he or she approached the era entirely from research, but I’d personally have a hard time defining it as historical fiction. I kind of arbitrarily draw the line just after WW II, I think probably because I don’t know anyone who can share really solid memories of that time, but that’s just me. Really, genre labels just help us know where to look on the bookshelf anyway and “historical fiction” is kind of a frustrating one because it’s extremely broad. HF can be romance, fantasy, science fiction, crime, horror, etc. It’s a label that doesn’t actually tell the reader a lot about what to expect.

    I absolutely love the term “vintage fiction” by the way. I am going to begin using it immediately.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, I know about the definition of 50 years prior to the birth of the author as well. However, it seems to me that today we need to be more… flexible in order to be a touch more inclusive. As you can see, the arbitrary line of this date or that date for determining historical vs contemporary makes no sense to me either. And yes, of course, the timing of the novel has nothing to do with the genre of the novel – two very different things. I’m glad you like my “vintage fiction” label. I hope it catches on.


  7. I have never thought about the vintage fiction thing but I do agree that a Jane Austen novel is not historical fiction but contemporary vintage fiction. I do consider Austen’s novels as classics because they had a societal impact then and are still relevant and loved today by a bunch of readers. I agree with the fact that a novel should be about a period more than 50 years before publication to be considered as historical. But in that regard I still struggle with dual timeframe novels. Sometimes the focus is really on the historic setting but sometimes it is not. I do regard The seven sisters series for example as contemporary novels rather than historical fiction as the story focuses not on the history, although it concludes a lot of historical elements. It’s a thin line.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I’m nearing 60. Historical fiction to me means WWII or before. Vietnam? I remember it! The 80s? I was a taxpayer! I enjoy a lot of historical fiction though–regardless of whether it is “historical” to me, so long as it is done well. My pet peeves–using newspaper headlines to pad the story, playing to the cliches of the era [example: Few people truly were hippies and much of the so-called 60s occurred in the early 70s!]. I do not like characters having views modern views unless it is based on fact/real person. I also love to spot errors–I recently caught a young author saying someone in the 1920s picked up the “handset” of a phone. I laughed so hard. Oh, for editors.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’m 63, and I’ve decided I’d prefer to have a flexible definition of historical fiction rather than putting a set date on it. This is why, although I feel it is very strange to call a new book that was set when I was a girl or teenager “historical,” I am still going to call it that. Just call me Vintage!

      And yes, I love spotting errors. My favorite one was finding people using the word “paparazzi” to describe the press prior to 1960. Nope… that word was coined in the 1960 movie “La Dulce Vita” and it only came into popular use afterwards.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Of course it is, because 1830 is 80 years before 1910. If it was published in 1930 and set in 1910 it should be vintage, contemporary fiction. Vintage, because it was published over 40-50 years ago, contemporary because it was set less than 40 years prior to publication. See?


  9. As far as I’m concerned, nothing set after the First World War is historical fiction – it’s modern fiction! I find it very odd to see books set in the 1950s described as “historical fiction”, and I wouldn’t even class the Second World War as “historical”. And, as you say, books which were written when they were set aren’t historical fiction, even if that was 100 years ago. “Vintage” is as good a term as any 🙂 .

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s an interesting point. My only problem with that is that it puts a set point in time for these definitions, and I think it should float instead. That way we won’t be searching for a new term in 40-50 years from now when someone publishes a novel about… COVID-19, for example.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Ok I like having a certain number of years as a guideline! And your discussion of vintage and contemporary is enlightening!
    But what about content? Is a simple setting enough to qualify as histfic or should histfic include a specific historical event or person? I’ve been annoyed lately by books labeled as histfic that are really just women’s fiction in content. Examples might include The Last Train to London as true histfic and The Summer of 69 as women’s fic disguised as histfic. I started referring to the latter as light histfic because aside from setting there’s no historical significance to the story. Is this simply a personal pet peeve or is there solid ground to stand on here?

    Liked by 3 people

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