This genre combines all the elements of good fiction with meticulously accurate details of life in another age. Real-life people often appear as secondary characters in historical fiction. Sometimes historical figures even are primary characters in a subcategory known as “faction,” in which the writer conceives some scenes and dialogue that are fictional but consistent with what these real-life characters might have said and done.
Authors of historical novels recommend reading only material related to the time frame of your story while you're writing. This technique helps you stay in your history, so to speak, and keeps you attuned to the tone, voice, and attitudes of the period you're writing about.
Readers of historical novels typically are interested in being transported to another time and place. They want to know what life was really like in pre–World War I England, for example, or colonial America. They want to experience the sights, sounds, smells, and flavors of the era, and they demand authenticity in these areas. Of course, readers also want a good tale to go along with their history, and in this regard the historical novel can blend with elements of virtually any other genre.
Most historical novels contain some bits of the action/adventure novel, using both people and nature as adversaries. Natural and manmade disasters are common ways to add action and adventure to the historical plot. A tornado or flood can change a family's fortunes in a heartbeat; a fire, accidentally or intentionally set, can lay waste to a town or even vast stretches of forest or prairie.
Mystery and suspense often play significant roles in the historical novel. Romance may be a part of any historical novel, although it is usually incidental to the main plot unless the writer is aiming to write a historical romance. There are even inspirational historical novels, in which faith and spirituality form the basis for characters' decisions and actions.
Saga novels sometimes are called roman-fleuve works, a term that means “novel stream.” Because they cover so much time and so many characters, the pacing of a saga novel tends to run fast, then slow, the way a river does. The challenge for the writer is to balance the action, drama, and suspense over the course of the novel.
The Historical Saga
The saga or generational novel is a massive work that centers on one family and follows their story through three or more generations. The problems, conflicts, and dangers of the times are complemented by the internal forces that shape the family dynamics — greed, love, jealousy, competition, misunderstandings, and betrayal. Usually, the head of the family is a powerful man or woman, strong, determined, often domineering, whose personality shapes and often overshadows those of the rest of the family. Occasionally, a saga will be covered in a series of books, but more often they are confined to one lengthy book of 150,000 words or more.