Historical fiction is a rich and varied genre of novel, spanning from times of Mesopotamian antiquity to the jazzy period pieces of the 1900s. Historical fiction isn't just fun to read, however -- it can be incredibly fun to write, as it means that you get to spend a lot of time really getting to know your era before letting your characters step foot in it. But with so many historical time periods to choose from, how can you decide when to place your next project? If you're looking for a guide to picking a time period for your latest historical novel, then here's what you need to know.
What Kind of Research Do You Want to Do?
The kind of research you want to do will play a huge role in determining when and where your book should be set; if you're really into the minutiae of history, such as specific manners, dress styles, literature, etc., you're better off choosing a more recent time period with better documentation for those areas. If, on the other hand, broader research like government types and formations of empires is what fascinates you, you'll have an easier time writing in, say, Greek and Roman antiquity than you would about Egypt in the 1970s.
What Society Will Cause Conflict?
Conflict is the backbone of any story -- without conflict, you have no plot, your characters have nothing to do, and your book has nothing to teach its readers. If your main character is a priest, for example, a time of religious peace or a society where one religion dominates (like Orthodox Russia) won't cause as much conflict as, say, Reformation-era Germany, the Spiritual Awakening in 1800s America, or places such as Britain where, for a large part of history, Protestantism and Catholicism butted heads for control over the populace -- all the way up to the throne.
What Is Your Overall Theme?
Every book has a few themes within it, whether you put them in intentionally or not, but these novels also have an overarching theme, such as the power of love or the value of community, that they emphasize. If you're going for the theme of a community being the most important, for example, you'll probably want to steer clear of the heavily individualized Industrial-Era America and go for a time period where community was more important, such as America in the 1950s or 1960s.
Remember, your time period should make your book (and your theme) more clear and more vibrant, not cause you problems in editing or rewriting later down the road -- so choose wisely and watch your story fall into place.
For some great examples of historical novels, check out works like Rekindled.