“Ask an Editor” is a forum wherein SCBWI members submit questions that are answered as part of our quarterly Kite Tales blog.
Dear Editor – My YA book is set during World War II using some real characters, but the story is made up. Is this considered historical fiction or narrative nonfiction? —John, Pasadena
Dear John – Defining the genre of your book is an important step because agents often list which genres they’re seeking. Based on what you’ve stated, your book should be pitched as YA historical fiction. Let me explain.
Historical fiction may be set in a real period of time and include some real people, however, all or some of the story is made up. Still, research is required to ensure period authenticity. Real-life characters typically stay true to what happened but the plot can weave together fact and fiction. For example, if your fictitious character is in the audience at Washington D.C.’s Ford Theatre on April 14, 1865, around 10:00 p.m., when Abraham Lincoln is shot, this event should be mentioned, however, the plot and characters surrounding it could be made up.
The historical fiction genre may be as near as the 1980s or reach far into the past. Some historical fiction books are sweeping multigenerational stories while others are smaller, personal glimpses. Do your homework, then, from that vast amount of information, focus on elements best serving the story you wish to tell.
When straying from the facts, authors tend to explain why in a note at the end of the book. An exemplar of this can be found in Julie Berry’s Lovely War (2019, Penguin). In the Historical Note after the text, Berry explains which characters and events in her book were real but also goes on to provide a deeper look into World War I, how research influenced the book, and her opinions about this period in time.
Narrative nonfiction (sometimes called creative nonfiction) tells a true story in the manner expected of fiction involving a narrative arc. Sometimes the story has a new “in.” For example, if readers may know a lot about a topic, the inclusion of new material or proving common assumptions incorrect can enliven a familiar story.
As with a fictitious book, narrative nonfiction should be driven by characters and voice. Setting is important, however the story needs to go somewhere and this is usually done via the characters. Readers should care about them and be invested in the journey the main characters take through to the end. Lengthy descriptions, and too many or unnecessary details may bog down the story.
A narrative nonfiction book involving the night Lincoln is shot would have only factual information.
Memoir is an example of narrative nonfiction if the story is truthful.
SUMMARY: The quick way to remember the difference is to look at each genre’s name: historical fiction, narrative nonfiction. If some of the story is made up, then your book is historical fiction. If it’s all true, then it’s narrative nonfiction. Both genres may include bibliographies in the back matter to substantiate the research and provide additional reading. —Christine
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Answers by Christine Van Zandt, professional freelance editor and writer, and owner of Write for Success Editing Services.
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