Historical Fiction Through the Ages

Historical fiction is an incredibly popular genre at the library. People really enjoy experiencing the past through possible, though not probable, lives of men, women, and children. An author that really does the research can paint an incredibly detailed and historically accurate picture of the time period in question. As a child, I enjoyed historical fiction such as 'Catherine, Called Birdy' by  Karen Cushman and those books have carried on into my adult reading preferences. 

Catherine, Called Birdy

The time period that a book is set in effects not only the characters, but the entire setting. What behaviors were socially acceptable for men and women in this time period? What jobs were people performing and what tasks needed to be completed for life to carry on? Is there a king, queen, emperor, or religious leader dictating the rules for life? Here are some examples of the different time periods and the books written about them.


The prehistoric period is generally classified as between 30,000 BCE and 3,000 BCE. Books set in this time period have Neanderthals and other early hominids as the characters. Often the books are about tribes of hunter/gatherers and image what life must have been like based on scientific discoveries about the probable temperatures and conditions that existed then. Books set in the prehistoric period can also be considered speculative fiction, related to fantasy fiction, because they sometimes have creatures and animals co-exisiting in text even though they never lived at the same time. You may read of humans breeding and riding pterodactyls or other dinosaurs. If this sounds interesting, here are some options to get you started.

Historical Fiction: Prehistory

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Classical Antiquity

Books set during the Roman, Greek, or Persian empires, or roughly the years between 3,000 BCE and 500 CE. So you'll meet fictionalized versions of Jesus, Caesar, and Cleopatra in these novels. Since more has been preserved from this time, the novels can be much more detailed and true to life, at least life as it was recorded. Here are some popular books to start your adventures.

Historical Fiction: Classical Antiquity

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Middle Ages

The middle ages comprise the years 500 CE to 1500 CE. Historical fiction set in this time period sometimes features the average person and sometimes tells fictionalized lives of names we recognize. You may meet kings like Charlemagne and Genghis Khan, or religious figures from Pope Gregory I to Joan of Arc, and adventurers like Marco Polo or writers like Dante Alighieri. There are many interesting lives and events to generate stories from in the middle ages.

Historical Fiction: Middle Ages

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Early Modern Period

From about 1500 CE to 1760 CE is considered the early modern period. This time period seems so much closer to us, but when you really look at what happened, it's still really historic. Since these years are characterized by colonialism and imperialism, it is often talked about in terms of empires. This is the time of the Ottoman Empire, the Tsardom of Russia, the Mughal Empire in India, the Ming and Qing Dynasties in China, the Edo period in Japan, and the conquest and colonization of the Americas.

Historical Fiction: Early Modern Period

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The Industrial Revolution and Napoleonic Era

Historical fiction set between 1760 and 1850 is generally distinguished by the industrial revolution and Napoleon. Books about this time are more about the people and how their lives are changing than about big names, though there are still books about royalty. Modern times mirror peoples fears about jobs and livelihoods due to replacement by machines and new technologies, so even though these books are historical, they can still feel very now.

Historical Fiction: Industrial Revolution and Napoleonic Era

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Recent History

We are now up to about 1850 to 1950, so you can still know people who have lived through the history presented in these novels. Historical fiction set so recently can be a great way to learn about how other people experienced events in different ways.

Historical Fiction: Recent History

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Become a time traveler, read historical fiction!