A historical novel is a novel in which the story is set among historical events or, more generally, where the time the action takes place in predates the time of the first publication. It is a genre popularized in the 19th century by artists classified as Romantics, and must be distinguished from the genre of alternate history. Sir Walter Scott is usually considered the first to have used this technique, in his novels of Scottish history such as his novel Ivanhoe. Another early example is Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831).
Historical fiction may center on historical or fictional characters, but usually represents an honest attempt based on considerable research (or at least serious reading) to tell a story set in the historical past as understood by the author's contemporaries. Those historical settings may not stand up to the increased knowledge of later historians.
Many early historical novels were important factors in the rise of European popular interest in the history of the Middle Ages. Hugo's Hunchback is often credited with fueling the movement to save Gothic architecture in France, leading to the establishment of the Monuments historiques, the French governmental authority for historical preservation.
Historical fiction has also been used to encourage movements of romantic nationalism. The novels of the Polish winner of the Nobel Prize in literature Henryk Sienkiewicz wrote several novels set in the medieval conflicts between Poles and the Teutonic Knights.
In some historical novels, the main history takes place mostly off-stage while the characters are living in the world in which those events are taking place. Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped, tells mostly private adventures set against a background of the Jacobite troubles between England and Scotland.
As opposed to popular belief, the historical novel as defined above is neither dead nor dying. Understandably, contemporary authors often prefer more recent historical periods as settings for their novels.
- Under the name William Irish, Cornell Woolrich published Waltz into Darkness (1947), which is set in New Orleans in 1880. Interestingly, in both filmed versions -- François Truffaut's La Sirène du Mississippi (Mississippi Mermaid, 1969) and Michael Cristofer's Original Sin (2001) -- the action takes place at a later point in time (and also somewhere else, for that matter).
- T.C. Boyle's The Road to Wellville (1993) narrates the story of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, the inventor of the cornflake, and his Battle Creek Sanitarium. It is set in 1907.
- Kazuo Ishiguro's novel The Remains of the Day (1989) is set in 1956. Flashbacks explain to the reader the dubious history of (fictitious) Darlington Hall in the 1930s and its association with Nazi Germany.
- Patrick Redmond's The Wishing Game (1999) is a thrilling depiction of life in a strict and uncanny boarding school in rural Norfolk in the 1950s.
- Julie Myerson's novel Laura Blundy (2000) is set in Victorian London.
- Jonathan Coe's novel The Rotters' Club (2001) is an evocation of 1970s Britain.