Is a Novel Set in the 60s Historical Fiction?

Dear Cricket…

Your 1963 novel is historical fiction if the story’s events depend on the time period. If the story could just as easily take place in another time period, then it’s general fiction. The historical fiction label gets tricky with modern time periods—especially the 80s and 90s. Reviewers call Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints historical fiction, but the Library of Congress catalogs it as “domestic fiction.” The 80s time period is important to Henderson’s story, but the primary focus is on the protagonist’s drug dependency. Deborah Wile’s Countdown: The Sixties Trilogy, which is as much about 60s America as it is about 11-year-old Franny, is historical fiction.

Happy writing!
The Editor


  1. What an interesting post — I never thought about time limits or subject matter limits with regard to “Historical Fiction” (and never heard of “Domestic Fiction”!). Thanks!

  2. Thanks! I’ve had the same question. Mine is set in 1995 (because there are trends from that time that affect the characters), but I wasn’t sure if I should call it historical or not. Honestly, I’m still not sure. This helps though.

  3. I had a manuscript ready to go about the civil rights issue in the Sixties from the POV of a woman involved. Since I’d done the civil rights thing and a couple of other issues mentioned, I figured I could make it sound pretty authentic.
    Problem is, it was dated. I think there’s a limit to how close to today you can come.
    It would be useful to think of a period of time between now, going backwards, in which a historical novel is dated rather than historical. Is it twenty years? Forty years? Should we avoid it?
    Is there a way to overcome the issue?

    • I don’t understand the distinction you’re making between “a historical novel” and “a dated historical novel,” Richard. Can you clarify it for me? Thanks.

      • Ref. Historical vs. Dated:
        IMO, historical novels are placed far enough back that the settings and details are interesting in themselves. They provide different problems, from a woodpile big enough to get through the winter to the reason we have wingback chairs to needing to put a file of archers before and behind my lady love when she wants to go for a walk.
        Materially, about the only difference between now and 1968 for most folks is computers and cell phones. We had cars and automatic transmissions and even in MS, air conditioning was coming along.
        About the only difference of note is that there was, probably, more drawn-out sexual tension before a couple hopped into the sack than there is now. At least, the hook-up culture hadn’t been the subject of scholarly discussion.
        People are either ignorant of or bored with stories about the civil rights issue, and Viet Nam, and in either case don’t want to hear more.
        Outside of that, there is nothing exotic or interesting about forty years ago. The same budding relationship between the woman and the omnicomptent man–who turns out to be an emptiness surrounded by a clean shirt–could be placed elsewhen.
        I guess I would relate it to my email about YA historicals. If the setting provides issues that today does not–how does a young guy do as a centurion on the Wall in the fifth century?–then you have a historical novel. If you’re trying to use earlier times as a background but the plotting and the issues are the same, and if it’s recent enough that people are, or think they are, familiar with it, it’s dated.

        • Thanks for clarifying your distinctions, Richard. This gets to the very heart of why it’s so difficult to know what time period qualifies as “historical.” Today’s 10-year-olds may very well see the 1960s as a different world altogether, thus making a novel that explores the unique political and cultural elements of that time historical fiction. The many adult writers who lived during that era may very well be bored of exploring the political and social issues of the time since they’ve done that all their lives, making the material feel dated to them. Perhaps this means we can draw the line for YA historical fiction much closer to our current date. For young people, anything much beyond their age may qualify as “history” and inspire their curiosity.

  4. Very interesting information. I was a research historian and wrote 3 history books. Then I decided I had to write a historical novel. Wow was it difficult! I’m very critical of historical novels that screw up historical facts, especially when they can be easily looked up online. Example: eating Boysenberry jam on your biscuits while traveling in a wagon on the Oregan Trail. Or, I’ve read novels in which the author has chocolate, tomatoes, and other New World foods on the tables in the 13th century! Argh.

    • Indeed, it is frustrating when details aren’t historically accurate. Thanks for sharing your perspective as a research historian moving from straight history to historical fiction. Interesting!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Latest from Publishing Biz