What Can You Do Within Your Genre?
When writing or reading, genres are both a wonderful and horrible thing. They're wonderful because they can help you narrow down all the content available to get the stories you are most interested in, but they can also limit you and your scope. As a writer, this feels particularly true. When you're writing within a genre, it can feel limiting and trapping—like you can't be truly creative because you have to play by the genre's rules.
While this it true in some regards, writing or reading within a genre isn't as limiting as you might think. Within every genre are multitudes of sub-genres. These sub-genres blend ideas together so that you can get the best of numerous fiction worlds.
I classify myself as a historical fiction writer because I enjoy doing the historical research and anchoring all of my stories within the cultures, histories, and events that have already occurred. That said, I don't just write classical historical fiction but also several sub-genres of historical fiction. But what are these sub-genres? Every historical fiction fan and writer should know them and expand your own possibilities within genre writing and reading.
1. Classic or traditional historical fiction: this is a story that revolves around a historically accurate event or period. The characters and certain conflicts may be fiction, but they are set in a backdrop that is based on history and factually accurate. Similarly, the characters may be based on historical people and the author is filling in historical gaps of information with fictional plots but they stay true to known history.
My novel, "Orion's Honor" is a classic historical fiction as it is set in WWII on Wake Island. All events are historically accurate, but the characters and their personal conflicts are fiction.
2. Historical romance: this is a romance story set in a historical time period or with historical figures. Again, it is factually accurate based on known information but the author may be filling in missing details with fiction or creating fictional characters and situations against a historically accurate backdrop where historical events influence the conflict.
I love to read and write historical romance. Some of my favorite historical romance authors are Monica McCarty and Jackie Ivy who both write Scottish historical romance. I'll be adding my own books to this genre soon, because I love it so much!
3. Western fiction: historical fiction based in the American West, typically during the 1800's.
4. Historical mystery: it's a mystery story set in a historical time period or with a historical figure. A great example is the film, "The Raven" with John Cusack. It's a fictional mystery about someone in the 1800's committing the murders from Edgar Allen Poe's stories. Edgar Allen Poe (Cusack) is brought in to help solve the murder mystery. Obviously, Poe is a historical figure and his works actually exist. The premise is that this is what he was doing in the mysterious days Poe was missing before he appeared on a park bench hours before he died (which actually happened.) The fiction is what is filling in the gaps that is missing from history with a murder mystery.
5. Historical thrillers: it's a thriller or horror story set within a historical backdrop. "The Raven" would also be a fitting example for this category, as well. Others include "The Alienist" by Caleb Carr or just about any Jack the Ripper fiction story out there.
6. Historical adventure: it's an adventure story set in history. Anything to do with the crusades, treks across the unknown, etc.
7. Alternate histories: this is a fun category. The author poses the question, "what if?" What if Germany had won WWII? What if Alexander the Great had failed? What if the Huns ruled China? It takes historical events and turns the tables, creating another possibility for how the world could be if a historical event had gone differently.
8. Historical fantasy: this seems like a contradiction, but it's not. It takes fantastic elements and puts them in a historical location or time period. There may be elves, fairies, magic, etc. but it's all set in the 1700's with historically accurate technology, housing, clothing, etc.
a. I would also include time-travel as historical fantasy. A huge contender in this category is the "Outlander" series by Diana Gabaldon. It was initially released as "romance" but she considers it to be "fantasy." I like to think it's a bit of both. More importantly, and I don't think anyone can disagree, it is historical fiction. Set both in the 1940's and 1740's (to start and then other decades/centuries later) the historical events of those time periods factor in so heavily that it cannot be ignored.
Every genre has similar sub-genres. There's no need to compromise—either as a writer, or as a reader. You can have all the stories and beloved genre expectations wrapped up into one.