Where History and Fiction Meet: Top 12 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 makes for a good historical novel?

According to the Historical Novel Society, these are the qualities that define a historical novel:

  • It 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. Most of all, 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 12 Historical Novels

I often think I was born too late. I love old cities, buildings, and houses. I swoon over timeworn photos, letters, and mementoes. I'm especially enamored with novels that transport me to the past.

These are my favorite historical novels. See how this list stacks up against your own list. Leave a comment if you have any recommendations.

  1. “Cold Mountain” by Charles Frazier (Civil War era, North Carolina)
  2. “Loving Frank” by Nancy Horan (1907-1914, Illinois)
  3. “The Piano Tuner” by Daniel Mason (1880s, Burma)
  4. “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen (Depression era, U.S.)
  5.  “The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco (1300s, Italy)
  6.  “Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Tracy Chevalier (1600s, Holland)
  7. “Henry and Clara” by Thomas Mallon (1860s, Washington, D.C.)
  8. “Ragtime” by E.L. Doctorow (Early 1900s, New York)
  9.  “A Reliable Wife” by Robert Goolrick (1907-1908, Wisconsin)
  10. “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” (World War II, Seattle)
  11. “Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden (1920s, Japan)
  12. " The Promise" by Ann Weisgarber (1890s, Texas)

 Historical Fiction Lists

The diversity of historical fiction is reflected in this list of top 20 historical novels by Bookmarks Magazine.

Alix Christie, author of “Gutenberg’s Apprentice,” lists her top 10 historical novels in a story published by Publishers Weekly.