History Comes to Life: The 20 Best Historical Novels About Real People

Historical fiction covers a wide array of stories, such as mythological retellings, touching romances, and lighthearted coming-of-age stories. Outside of a few runaway bestsellers, however, fictionalized biographies frequently go overlooked in historical fiction. 

The 20 Best Historical Novels About Real People

The list below contains 20 of the best historical novels about real people, from underappreciated releases to New York Times bestsellers, so you can check out all that this subgenre has to offer.

If you’re just dipping your toes into historical fiction for the first time, you’ll find that the genre can be divided into two very broad categories: those that religiously adhere to historical accuracy, and those that play around in history’s sandbox. 

Books in the latter category might be alternate histories, titles that speculate on history’s mysteries, or those that take a Baz Luhrmann-style approach to their subjects. Most readers prefer one or the other, but we aren’t picking favorites here.

The novels on the list below reflect a wide range of periods and figures, including famous authors, military figures, explorers, royalty, and more. No matter if you’re already a huge fan of historical fiction, or you’re just checking out the genre for the first time, you’ll surely find something to love on this list.

Best Historical Novels About Real People

Here are the 20 best historical novels about real people that you can read right now.

Carolina Built by Kianna Alexander

Carolina Built: A Novel

Carolina Built tells the story of Josephine Napoleon Leary, who was born into slavery in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1856. As a free woman, Josephine settled in Edmonton, North Carolina with her husband, Sweety Archer Leary. There, Josephine began a successful real estate career—the legacy of which lasts to this day.

The Whale by Mark Beauregard

The Whale: A Love Story: A Novel

Herman Melville’s passionate and short-lived relationship with Nathaniel Hawthorne has confounded scholars. No hard evidence exists of a romantic relationship between the two, but Melville’s surviving letters to Hawthorne drip with sexual tension. Mark Beauregard gives one take on what might have transpired between the two legendary writers, in The Whale.

The Mystery of Mrs. Christie by Marie Benedict

The Mystery of Mrs. Christie: A Novel

The Mystery of Mrs. Christie takes place during the two fateful weeks in 1926 when famed writer Agatha Christie’s disappearance captivated both sides of the Atlantic. After vanishing on December 3, Christie turned up on December 14, nearly 200 miles away from her home, with seemingly no memory of what had happened—a mystery that remains unsolved to this day.

Joan by Katherine J. Chen

Joan: A Novel of Joan of Arc

Katherine J. Chen’s Joan follows its legendary heroine from her childhood in Domrémy to her career as France’s seemingly divinely influenced military leader. Here, Chen pains Joan as an ambitious, headstrong young warrior whose innate charisma, not her faith, leads her to victory.

Breaking the Maafa Chain by Anni Domingo

Breaking the Maafa Chain

In 1850, the King of Dahomey gifted an enslaved girl to Queen Victoria. Renamed Sara Forbes Bonetta, the girl became the Queen’s “goddaughter,” and was later sent to boarding school in Sierra Leone. Anni Domingo reimagines Sara’s life, complete with a new name and a sister who becomes enslaved in the antebellum United States, in Breaking the Maafa Chain.

The American Adventuress by C.W. Gortner

The American Adventuress: A Novel

Among the so-called dollar princesses—American heiresses whose fortunes attracted the attention of the rapidly declining English gentry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—few are more famous than Lady Randolph Churchill. Born in New York as Jennie Jerome, Lady Randolph became an influential socialite and royal mistress—the latter of which helped her to shape international politics. C.W. Gortner recounts her storied life in The American Adventuress.

Matrix by Lauren Groff

Matrix: A Novel

Marie de France wrote some of the best-known poems to emerge from medieval England and France, and yet scholars know little to nothing about her—including her true identity. Matrix follows a 17-year-old Marie as she leaves Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court to take on an impossible task: revitalizing an underfunded abbey beset by illness.

My Name Is Ona Judge by Suzette D. Harrison

My Name Is Ona Judge: An absolutely gripping historical novel

Ona Judge escaped a life of slavery at then-President Washington’s Pennsylvania residence in 1796. She never returned, despite the Washingtons’ attempts to re-enslave her. Centuries later, Tessa finds Judge’s diary while working on a storied Virginia property. Suzette D. Harrison’s My Name Is Ona Judge moves between the two women’s stories, juxtaposing Tessa’s experiences in an abusive relationship with Judge’s fight for freedom.

Delayed Rays of a Star by Amanda Lee Koe

Delayed Rays of a Star: A Novel

Delayed Rays of a Star traces the lives of three famous women in film: Marlene Dietrich, Leni Riefenstahl, and Anna May Wong. Taking off from the moment the three are photographed together at an event in Weimar-era Berlin, Amanda Lee Koe’s novel spirals outward to explore not only their lives, but their circles of influence as well. 

The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami

The Moor's Account

Laila Lalami retells the story of the Narváez expedition, as seen through the eyes of an enslaved African man, in this Pulitzer Prize finalist. The Moor’s Account centers on Mustafa al-Zamori, an Arabic-speaking Moroccan man enslaved by Andrés Dorantes de Carranza. One of the expedition’s few survivors, al-Zamori narrates the conquistadors’ trek across what would later become the United States as he recalls his life as a free man living in Morocco.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall (Wolf Hall Trilogy, 1)

Wolf Hall may be one of the most famous works of historical fiction ever produced. The first installment in a trilogy of biographical novels about Thomas Cromwell, Hilary Mantel’s 2009 novel won both the Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Wolf Hall covers more than 30 years of Cromwell’s life, from his early military career to his work in King Henry VIII’s court.

The Last Empress by Anchee Min

The Last Empress: A Novel

Anchee Min gives Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi the Wolf Hall treatment in The Last Empress. The second part of Min’s duology fictionalizing the often-vilified ruler’s life, The Last Empress covers Tzu Hsi’s time as Empress Dowager—a title she shared with the emperor’s widow, who was legally considered the mother of Tzu Hsi’s young son.

My Government Means to Kill Me by Rasheed Newson

My Government Means to Kill Me: A Novel

Rasheed Newson paints a rare and stunning portrait of Black, queer joy against the grim backdrop of the AIDS epidemic in My Government Means to Kill Me. The novel follows Trey, the heir of a wealthy midwestern family, as he tries to make it on his own in New York City. Young, Black, and gay, Trey’s adventures in the city connect him to many influential figures from the 1980s, including Bayard Rustin and Fred Trump.

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell

The Marriage Portrait: A novel

Hamnet author Maggie O’Farrell offers a fascinating look inside the House of Medici in The Marriage Portrait. The novel follows Lucrezia de’ Medici, a sickly teenager married to the much-older Duke of Ferrara—originally betrothed to Lucrezia’s older sister, Maria—as she’s forced to navigate the increasingly dangerous world of her husband’s court.

The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn

The Diamond Eye: A Novel

Kate Quinn’s The Diamond Eye brings the story of one of World War II’s most legendary snipers to vivid life. When the war pulls Mila Pavlichenko out of her quiet life in Kyiv, she joins the infantry, where she becomes a famed Nazi-killer and Soviet war hero. Soldiers aren’t expected to carry lasting trauma after leaving the battlefield, however, and Mila soon finds herself buckling under the strain of her “Lady Death” persona.

The Social Graces by Renée Rosen

The Social Graces

Fans of HBO’s The Gilded Age will love The Social Graces. Renée Rosen’s novel centers on New York City socialites Alva Vanderbilt and Caroline Astor. Newly married into the Vanderbilt family, Alva dreams of raising her husband’s family to the top of New York society. She’ll have to court Mrs. Astor to do so. But Caroline Astor comes from old money, and the Vanderbilts are nouveau riche. Alva has her work cut out for her in this turn-of-the-century drama.

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

Rodham: A Novel

Unlike many books on this list, Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham is a fictional biography of a living person. The novel imagines what Hillary Rodham’s life might have been like had she not married Bill Clinton. Instead of saying, “I do,” the fictionalized Hillary puts Arkansas in the rearview as she becomes master of her own fate, following a path that nevertheless leads her back to Clinton at different stages of their careers.

Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart

Girl Waits With Gun (A Kopp Sisters Novel, 1)

Girl Waits with Gun centers on Constance Kopp, who engages in a lengthy legal battle against a local gangster after he refuses to pay a court-ordered restitution for an automobile accident involving Kopp and her sisters. As a direct result, she becomes one of the United States’ first female sheriffs. Amy Stewart’s coverage of Kopp’s exploits continues in Lady Cop Makes Trouble and Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions.

The Book of Salt by Monique Truong

The Book Of Salt: A Novel

Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt follows Binh, a gay Vietnamese chef living and working in Paris. Binh witnesses the highs and lows of his employers, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, and their clandestine relationship. More interesting here, however, are the details of the chef’s own interpersonal relationships—including his complicated feelings toward his late father, a Christian minister. 

Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir

Innocent Traitor

Innocent Traitor follows its heroine, Lady Jane Grey, through the final days of her brief life. Known colloquially as the Nine Days’ Queen, Jane inherited the English throne from her cousin, Edward VI, after a last-minute change wrote his half-sisters out of the line of succession. Alison Weir gives her the space to tell her own tragic story here.

Final Thoughts

We hope these historical fiction novels about real people whet your appetite for more reading. Let us know which ones you choose to add to your TBR!


Can you write historical fiction about a real person?

According to Writer’s Digest, “the two main legal areas you need to worry about when writing about real people—defamation of character and invasion of privacy—only apply to living people.” Survivors cannot sue on another’s behalf for either issue, so if the person you’re writing about is deceased, you’re in the clear, at least in the United States.

Can you get sued for writing a book about someone?

The short answer to this question is yes, at least if the person in question is living, and especially if you portray them in a negative light. Avoiding legal problems isn’t as simple as changing a person’s name, either. If someone else figures out who you’re talking about, even if you’ve changed their name in your book, you could still face a lawsuit. For best results, Writer’s Digest recommends that you: “Disguise the names and biographical data and make sure that no one can identify the subjects from your description. Use a pseudonym if need be. And ALWAYS (it’s in all caps for a reason) talk with a knowledgeable lawyer first.”

Do you need permission to write about a famous person?

In most cases, no, provided the person was a public figure, such as a politician or well-known celebrity. Some estates may require you to get permission, however, so it’s always worth doing your homework before diving head-first into a new project.

Can I write a biography without permission?

The answer to this question is pretty complicated. Unauthorized biographies—that is, biographies which did not receive the approval of the subject or their estate—exist for a reason. But unless you’re absolutely certain that you’re protected under the law, we don’t recommend trying to write one.

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K.W. Colyard