Where History and Fiction Meet: Top 15 Historical Novels

“Cold Mountain” by Charles Frazier, a Civil War-era odyssey, is a best-selling and award-winning historical novel.

“Cold Mountain” by Charles Frazier, a Civil War-era odyssey, is a best-selling and award-winning historical novel.

Historical fiction, the vast territory where history meets fiction, can be a story about prehistoric times or the Elizabethan era or the American Civil War. It can be a sweeping epic or a thriller or a bodice ripper. What is historical fiction?  What are the qualities of a good historical novel?

This is how the Historical Novel Society defines the genre:   

  • The novel must have been written at least 50 years after the events described in the book.

  • It must have been written by an author not alive at the time of the events.

 Historical fiction is such a diverse genre that it offers something for every type of reader. A good historical novel doesn’t have anachronisms. It shouldn’t bombard the reader with mind-numbing facts and details. It should read and sound like the period it’s describing. More than anything, it should strike a fine balance between historical facts and storytelling born out of imagination. And just like any good book in any genre, it must be compelling.

Top 15 Historical Novels

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I often think I was born too late. I love old cities, buildings, and houses. I swoon over timeworn photos, letters, and mementoes.

I’ve poured all my love for the genre when I wrote “My MacArthur,” a novel set in the 1930s. It’s a fictionalized account of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s relationship with Isabel Rosario Cooper, a young Filipino actress. Sand Hill Review Press, based in the San Francisco Bay area, published it in November 2018. It was chosen as a quarterfinalist in the 2018 ScreenCraft Cinematic Book competition.

To celebrate my favorite genre, I rounded up some of the best historical novels I’ve read. If you haven’t read any of these books, I highly recommend them.

1.     “Cold Mountain” by Charles Frazier (U.S. Civil War era, North Carolina)

2.     “Loving Frank” by Nancy Horan (1907-1914, Illinois)

3.     “The Piano Tuner” by Daniel Mason (1880s, Burma)

4.     “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr (World War II, Europe)

5.     “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen (Depression era, U.S.)

6.     “The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco (1300s, Italy)

7.     “The Age of Innocence” by Edith Wharton (1870s, New York City)

8.     “Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Tracy Chevalier (1600s, Holland)

9.     “Henry and Clara” by Thomas Mallon (1860s, Washington, D.C.)

10.  “Ragtime” by E.L. Doctorow (Early 1900s, New York)

11.  “A Reliable Wife” by Robert Goolrick (1907-1908, Wisconsin)

12.  “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” by Jamie Ford (World War II, Seattle)

13.  “Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden (1920s, Japan)

14.  “The Promise” by Ann Weisgarber (1899, Texas)

15.  “Woodsburner” by John Pipkin (1844, Massachusetts)

Note: I’ve updated this post, first published on my old blog on Oct. 23, 2014, from a list of 12 to 15 historical novels.