What is historical fiction? As the executive editor of a literary journal of historical fiction, I get asked this question a lot. Part of the problem with trying to define historical fiction is that there are as many definitions of historical fiction as there are people who write and read it. That is a good thing because it means that there is no right way to write historical fiction.
However, since The Copperfield Review is a journal of historical fiction, there are a few elements of the genre we look for when we’re considering submissions. If you’re looking to publish your historical fiction or poetry with The Copperfield Review, you might want to take these ideas into consideration before you send off your submission.
- First of all, make sure your submission is actually historical in nature. We receive so many submissions from authors who blindly send off submissions without realizing that The Copperfield Review is a journal of historical fiction. If your story is set in the present day or has no recognizable historical period, save yourself the unnecessary rejection letter and send your submission elsewhere.
- Be sure that your fiction or poetry submission is clearly set during a historical period. We’ve received many submissions that name a date at the top (1872, for example) but then there are no historical details within the story itself that help us place the story in that year. When we read historical fiction here at The Copperfield Review, we look for historical details that could have only come from that era. Typing a historical year at the top of a submission but not bringing that year to life through vivid details is not a submission that will appeal to us.
- Be aware of dialogue. Wordy, unnecessary dialogue is a frequent problem we see in submissions. When we’re writing historical fiction, it isn’t necessary to try to perfectly mimic the way people spoke during whatever era you’re writing about. You want your dialogue to reflect elements of the era but at the same time it needs to be readable to 21st-century readers.
- Also, beware of writing in dialect. We see this a lot in the Old West or World War II stories sent our way. This is strictly my own taste, but I find having to decipher dialogue written in dialect a pain. My main man, Dickens, wrote a lot of his dialogue in dialect, and I don’t like reading his dialect any more than I like reading it from anyone else. Try to find the rhythm, the cadence of the speech patterns without making the dialect read like a puzzle. If you’re looking for examples of how to write historical dialogue, there are some wonderful historical novelists out there who do it very well. Look around for some examples written about the era in which your story is set.
- Again, this is strictly personal taste, but we are not overwhelmed by pieces that claim to be historical fiction but are really present-day stories with someone having a memory about the past. We’ve been getting a lot of submissions like this lately. Really, they’re present-day stories, but one character, probably someone older, has a memory about something that happened in 1962, and then it goes back to being a present-day story. Other journals may love such stories, but here at Copperfield, where we’re looking for historical fiction, this type of memory piece is not likely to work for us.
- Keep in mind that we receive many submissions set during World War II, the Old West, and the American Civil War. These are fascinating historical subjects, but because we receive so many submissions set during these eras we’re unable to publish too many of these stories. Sometimes a submission will catch our attention and be published for no other reason than it’s set during a time we haven’t published before. This is where becoming familiar with the journal you want to be published in can come in handy.
Remember that these are just our thoughts at Copperfield. If you go back through our archives, you’re likely to find stories that don’t meet all of the above criteria; however, for the most part these are the criteria we use to determine if a piece is something we’d like to include in our journal of historical fiction. The point is to make sure that the work you send us is clearly historical in nature through events, characters (real or imagined), dress, dialogue, and descriptions. If your submission seems like it could take place anywhere at any time, it’s probably not right for us.
There are literary journals that publish various types of stories, so just because something isn’t for us there’s likely another journal that will love it. Keep on keepin’ on. Continue sending out your work until you find the right home for it.
Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.