How far back in the past does a novel have to take place for the work to be called a historical novel? As Kathy Lynn Emerson suggests in her fine book How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries, the answers to this question are numerous. “If you want a specific date—x years ago is historical; more recent than that is not—there are several available.” Some rudimentary Googling yields a lot of similarly inconclusive rules. Two that I find most intriguing are:

1. The plot must take place at least 50 years prior to the copyright date of the first edition of the book; and

2. The writing process must rely more on research than on personal experience.

The reason this question concerns me is that I have written and published (on Kindle and Nook) a family saga trilogy based very loosely on my own family history. I hasten to say that it’s primarily a work of imagination, but the inspiration for the central character of the first book, who is also a secondary character of Books II and III, is my own remarkable uncle. I call him Fergus Powers.

The first novel, Geronimo’s Skull, begins at the Saint Louis World’s Fair in 1904, when Fergus is nine years old, and ends shortly before the Stock Market Crash on 1929, when Fergus is thirty-four. This novel is a ghost story, a love story, a war story, a modern western, and a tale of high finance. It’s clearly dated more than 50 years prior to its copyright date, so I’m safe on that count. I’m in the clear about the research part, too. I wasn’t alive during that era, so I had to do extensive research on the life and death of Geronimo, the St. Louis World’s Fair, Skull and Bones, World War One, Paris in the 1920s, the history of Route 66, and much more. So yes, Geronimo’s Skull is a historical novel.


For more about this novel, see’s_skull.html

The second novel in the trilogy, Elephant Lake, takes place entirely in the summer of 1950, which satisfies the rule that the plot take place 50 or more years prior to copyright date. However I flunk the other requirement. I did no research for Elephant Lake, other than to mine my crystal-clear memory (don’t ask me what movie I saw last Friday night, but I’m certain of what a Pepsi cost in 1950). Actually, I relied not so much on memory of factoids, as on memory of my dreams of flight.

I suppose the novel, though it takes place 63 years ago, isn’t a historical novel, then. It’s based on my first summer living on my uncle’s country estate outside Dallas. It was a summer full of loneliness and fear, and confusion about the adults in my life; but it is buoyed up by an ability to escape. My fictional eight-year-old hero flies—literally—and rides an elephant, slays a dragon, and rescues a future President of the United States from drowning.


Check out this novel at

I’m afraid the third book in my Fergus Powers Trilogy is not historical in either sense. It is made up of three novellas that take place entirely in the year 1963. Historically 1963 was an important year for our nation and for the world, and as of now that year is fifty years ago; but Promises, Promises, was copyrighted and epublished in 2011. As for research, again I relied on my memories of that year, fictionalized by imagination, and I didn’t do much research except to check when the moon was full.

It was a big year for my uncle, and for Fergus Powers. He/they got married that year for the first time, at the age of 68. A big year for his sister, who had to leave her home at Elephant Lake. A big year for Fergus Power’s nephew, now 21-year-old artist spending his first summer away from home, painting a mural for a movie star. And 1963 was a horribly big year for the United States, when President Kennedy was killed and the world spun out of control.


Here’s more about Promises, Promises, Promises:

So is my Fergus Powers trilogy a work of historical fiction? Book I is historical on both counts. Book II is historical time-wise but not in terms of research. Book III is disqualified on both counts.

I’ve just done the math. The Fergus Powers trilogy is semi-historical. I wonder if there’s a contest for semi-historical fiction…?


2 Responses

  1. Looks as though you can lay claim to the semi-historical title, John. Fergus Powers sounds like a fascinating fellow. Especially with the name Fergus, which was the name of my own Scottish ancestor (so my clan says)–way back in the dark ages. Too far back to research, so if I ever try, it would be another semi-historical.

  2. Thanks, Nancy. Fergus is a fierce name, and one to celebrate.

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