Tag: Historical Fiction

When does a contemporary novel become a historical?

Bookish Question #122 | When does a contemporary novel become historical fiction?

When do you think a contemporary novel becomes historical fiction (or vice versa)?

This question came up in a Facebook group recently. An author wanted to know if a novel set in 1979 would be classified as contemporary or historical. That got me thinking … and searching.

Who gets to decide whether a novel is contemporary or historical? It could be:

  • Libraries (if they classify by genre)
  • Bookstores (who usually classify by genre)
  • Writing organisations (especially those with genre-based contests)
  • Authors (especially when they’re self-publishing)
  • Readers

Most libraries I’ve visited organise fiction by author surname, not by genre, so that’s no help.

Bookstores often classify by genre.

But each store has different classifications, and it’s not always easy to tell what’s what. It doesn’t help that bigger stores usually classify a Christian historical romance as Religious rather than Historical (and if a book featured an African-American character or was written by an African-American author, it might be classified as African-American fiction, not Religious or Historical).

I checked Amazon, but couldn’t find any definition of historical.

That’s not to say it doesn’t exist. I just says I couldn’t find it. If you know where Amazon has a definition of contemporary vs. historical, please add it in the comments!

Amazon use the BISAC (Book Industry Standards and Communications) codes, and I couldn’t find any definition of historical on their site either.

Amazon also isn’t helpful in that publishers self-classify—which is how we find novels in the nonfiction categories, and The Tattooist of Auschwitz in the Australia and Oceania category. (I can only assume someone mixed up Austria and Australia …)

What about writing organisations?

American Christian Fiction Writers have Contemporary and Historical categories in their Genesis and Carol Awards. They define Historical as “up to and including the Vietnam era”. The Vietnam war ended in 1975, so I guess that’s ACFW’s current definition of “historical”.

In contrast, the Romance Writers of America RITA Award and Romance Writers of Australia Ruby Award both classify “historical” as set before 1950. If you’d asked me, I think this is what I would have said—but I’m equally happy with a 1975 or even 1980 date.

With more recent historical fiction, I expect the time setting to be deliberate. For example, Pamela Binnings Ewen has written several legal thrillers set in the late 1970s and early 1980s. She’s writing about things like women’s rights and women in the workplace, so the 1980s setting is important. They would be different stories if they were set in the 1990s or 2010s—no matter whether the stories were labelled “historical” or “contemporary”.

In general, I expect contemporary stories to be set today—this year (or last year).

I expect characters in contemporary novels to have smartphones and Facebook and GPS and the Uber app (unless they’re philosophically opposed to smartphones and Facebook and GPS and Uber … which could make for a fascinating story).

If the novel is “contemporary” and doesn’t have these things, then I need to be clued in pretty quickly that the novel isn’t set today.

When does a contemporary novel become historical fiction? Is there a fixed date? Or is it up to the publisher (or reader)? #HistoricalFiction #ContemporaryFiction Click To Tweet

I’ve recently reviewed West of Famous by Joni M Fisher, which was set in 2010. That worked for the story, but also worked because the opening made it clear the story was set in 2010. (And yes, there were a couple of plot points that wouldn’t have worked as well in 2019). In that respect, the story was actually historical … even though 2010 is hardly a long time ago.

But what about a story written and published in 2010 that I’m only reading today? Personally, I say that’s a contemporary story. Why? Because it was contemporary when it was written and published.

Using that same logic, Jane Austen was a contemporary novelist, because she was writing about the issues of her day. So were Charles Dickens and Agatha Christie.

So I consider a contemporary story as one that is written and published in the time in which it is set (whether that’s today or two hundred years ago). And a historical story is any story where the author is consciously looking back in time.

What about you? When do you think a contemporary story becomes a historical story (or vice versa)?

First Line Friday

First Line Friday | Week 81 | A Desperate Hope by Elizabeth Camden

It’s First Line Friday! That means it’s time to pick up the nearest book and quote the first line. Today I’m sharing from A Desperate Hope by Elizabeth Camden:

First line from A Desperate Hope: Alex Duval's first hint of trouble was when Eloise failed to appear at their hideaway.

What’s the book nearest you, and what’s the first line?

About A Desperate Hope

Eloise Drake’s prim demeanor hides the turbulent past she’s finally put behind her–or so she thinks. A mathematical genius, she’s now a successful accountant for the largest engineering project in 1908 New York. But to her dismay, her new position puts her back in the path of the man responsible for her deepest heartbreak.

Alex Duval is the mayor of a town about to be wiped off the map. The state plans to flood the entire valley where his town sits in order to build a new reservoir, and Alex is stunned to discover the woman he once loved on the team charged with the demolition. With his world crumbling around him, Alex devises a risky plan to save his town–but he needs Eloise’s help to succeed.

Alex is determined to win back the woman he thought he’d lost forever, but even their combined ingenuity may not be enough to overcome the odds against them before it’s too late.

You can find A Desperate Hope online at:

Amazon | ChristianBook | Goodreads

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As for her safety, God already knew when the end of her days would be.

Book Recommendation | Where We Belong by Lynn Austin

Where We Belong starts in 1890, in the Sinai Desert, with forty-five year-old Rebecca Hawes traveling to St Catherine’s Monastery to search for ancient copies of the Bible. It’s a start that hooked me immediately, both because of the historical setting, and because of the age of the heroine—it’s refreshing to read a novel where the heroine is out of her twenties.

I was also intrigued because I could relate to Rebecca’s thoughts about the desolate nature of the Sinai between Cairo and St Catherines. Her journey took seven days by camel. In comparison, mine took seven hours by minibus, but that was quite long enough to feel for the stubborn Israelites, condemned to spend forty years in the heat and dust.

It's one thing to learn a language and another thing to understand the people who speak it.But then Where We Belong left the Sinai in 1890, and travelled back to 1860 Chicago—and I wasn’t impressed. It was still Rebecca’s story, but now Rebecca was a pampered teenager in the days before the Civil War (which I knew was coming, even though she didn’t). Fortunately, it soon became apparent that Rebecca was no ordinary Victorian-era teenager, and nor was her sister, Flora.

The novel followed Rebecca and Flora from their teenage years in Chicago through to showing why they are travelling to the Sinai in 1890 with only a couple of young servants for protection. The most fascinating thing is that Rebecca and Flora are based on real-life adventurers, Agnes and Margaret Smith, born in Scotland in 1843.

This explains one of the strengths of the novel—the feeling of historical authenticity that can only be gained by extensive research (and then leaving out most of the detail of that research). The other strength was related, and that was the Christian element. Rebecca and Flora (like the real-life Agnes and Margaret) were women of deep faith. They were intelligent women who had the strength of character to choose to follow God, not society, and who had endless compassion for the poor.

Lynn Austin has yet to write a novel I haven’t enjoyed, but I do think this is her best yet. Recommended for Christian historical fiction fans, especially those who enjoy authors such as Elizabeth Camden and Jody Hedlund.

I’m a history fan, and I loved it from the first line to the last. (I don’t think I stopped in between). Even better, a recent article from the Smithsonian shows new manuscripts are still being discovered at St Catherine’s:

Lost Languages Discovered in One of the World’s Oldest Continuously Run Libraries

Isn’t that cool?

Thanks to Bethany House and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.

About Lynn Austin

Lynn AustinFor many years, Lynn Austin nurtured a desire to write but frequent travels and the demands of her growing family postponed her career. When her husband’s work took Lynn to Bogota, Colombia, for two years, she used the B.A. she’d earned at Southern Connecticut State University to become a teacher. After returning to the U.S., the Austins moved to Anderson, Indiana, Thunder Bay, Ontario, and later to Winnipeg, Manitoba.

It was during the long Canadian winters at home with her children that Lynn made progress on her dream to write, carving out a few hours of writing time each day while her children napped. Lynn credits her early experience of learning to write amid the chaos of family life for her ability to be a productive writer while making sure her family remains her top priority.

Along with reading, two of Lynn’s lifelong passions are history and archaeology. She and her son traveled to Israel during the summer of 1989 to take part in an archaeological dig at the ancient city of Timnah. Lynn resigned from teaching to write full-time in 1992. Since then she has published 24 novels.

Find Lynn Austin online at:

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About Where We Belong

The Adventure of a Lifetime for Two Indomitable Socialite Sisters
In the city of Chicago in 1892, the rules for Victorian women are strict, their roles limited. But sisters Rebecca and Flora Hawes are not typical Victorian ladies. Their love of adventure and their desire to use their God-given talents has brought them to the Sinai Desert–and into a sandstorm.
Accompanied by Soren Petersen, their somber young butler, and Kate Rafferty, a street urchin who is learning to be their ladies’ maid, the two women are on a quest to find an important biblical manuscript. As the journey becomes more dangerous and uncertain, the four travelers sift through memories of their past, recalling the events that shaped them and the circumstances that brought them to this time and place.

Click below to find Where We Belong online:

Amazon US | Amazon UK | Amazon AU | ChristianBook | Goodreads