Like fantasy, historical fiction often seems to favour the epic mode where authors (and readers) can get to grips with extensive world-building and a deep setting. That’s at least what you often hear these days on online forums and discussion groups.
But is that really the case? Of course at Alt Hist we don’t think that is true as we publish a magazine dedicated to short fiction with an historical setting. In the case of Alternative History, with its links to the Science Fiction genre, the tendency to write short stories is much more ingrained – Alternate History stories often focuses ideas and these can sit naturally with the short story length.
But I really think there is a place for the short story for historical fiction as well. Just because the tendency of historical fiction authors is to write epic tales of romance/adventure, doesn’t mean that you can’t fit historical fiction into a short story. After all in Science Fiction the author may have to create whole new worlds that they reader may never encountered before, so what would prevent the writer of historical fiction from portraying an historical setting, which might be much more familiar to the reader? I would suggest the tendency is more about tradition and commercial pressure. Short fiction today is strongest in Science Fiction, Fantasy and Mystery because it always has been and its often a good starting point for writers in those genres. But the same tradition isn’t the same for historical fiction – as far as I know there weren’t any pulp magazines dedicated to historical fiction unless you include Westerns.
Commercially the emphasis is always on the novel length work. Short stories tend not to be a commercial format for most publishers. So if you’re a historical fiction writer and you want to make a living then its only natural to turn to the novel. Interestingly it seems that some authors once they’re established do then turn to short stories – especially for characters that run through their novels – there’s some tales that fit better into a short story rather than a novel.
So maybe it is possible to write and read historical short stories, but are there many of these rare birds about? Well yes actually. Check the reviews on the Historical Novel Society website and you will find reviews for 72 collections of historical short stories – and most of these were published in just the last few years.
If you have a favourite historical short story then please post a Comment and tell us about it.