Beyond Nostalgia: authentic historical detail from fads, trends, and headlines can help you write books readers will relate to.
by Ruth Harris
Writers of historical fiction, whether Regency, Middle Ages, Victorian use the markers of the era—clothes, furniture, manners, leaders, resisters, war, peace, prosperity, recession—to create character, conflict, and plot.
Writers of fiction set in more contemporary times can use these powerful assets to add depth and texture as well. Adding authentic historical detail to novels will trigger a rich web of personal memories and associations. Those will engage readers in an emotionally profound way.
From the dot-com bubble of 2000 to the housing crisis of 2007, from passing fads to mega trends, the social and cultural settings of a story give us ways to draw readers into our stories. From fidget spinners, Beanie Babies and hula hoops to Madonna, Madoff and Zuckerberg, each specific detail evokes personal memories.
Each detail gives your characters memorable, relatable backdrops in which to act out their dilemmas, challenges, setbacks and successes.
Authentic Historical Detail Brings Up the Reader’s Own Experiences.
Whether you’re writing mystery, horror, or romance, readers will be able to connect well-chosen references to their own experiences.
- The buttoned-down Eisenhower Fifties, the Man In The Grey Flannel Suit and “Togetherness” evoke memories a past era
- The stylish Kennedy Sixties was note for Twiggy, the Cuban missile crisis—and the assassination of the president
- The gloomy Carter Seventies brought recession and the “me” decade
- The glitzy Reagan Eighties meant a rebounding economy and “Reagan Red”
- A Sinatra song can evoke a lonely guy at a bar or erotic ecstasy
- An angry rap can refer to inequality and police brutality
- An ultramodern Shanghai Skyscraper signifies modernity and optimism
- A Jakarta back alley brings to mind secret doings and thuggish brutality
- Pre 9/11 evokes more innocent days
- Post 9/11 brings forth darker moods and security issues, ID badges and bomb sniffing dogs
- “Too big to fail” evokes the era of financial meltdown and the housing crisis
- the “feminine mystique” signifies rebellion against an era limited opportunities for women
- the “Cosmo girl” leads to the goal of “having it all” and, after that, advice to “lean in”
Enrich Your Fiction with Precise Setting Details.
The judicious use of references appropriate to the setting of your novel will expand and enrich your fiction.
As you invoke relevant cultural, political and social trends in your stories, you will draw your reader into recognizable and relatable settings against which your characters’ problems and pleasures can play out.
The days when Nice Girls Didn’t morphed gradually but inevitably into the present when Nice Girls Do—and sometimes even post the video.
The years when girls who got inconveniently pregnant were sent away in shame has become today’s Single Mom.
Within our memory and certainly that of our parents, the changes have been breathtaking. The drama, the resistance, the acceptance, grudging or gleeful, of those changes form a rich tapestry no writer can afford to overlook and no reader will ignore.
But Don’t Write a History Lesson.
We’re not writing non-fiction. I’m not talking about giving your reader a history lesson—that’s Doris Kearns Goodwin’s job—but you do want to give your characters a recognizable world in which to live.
But your characters can—and should be—shaped by the attitudes of whatever setting and period you choose to write about.
- John Le Carré’s spies making their way through the bleak, grey years of the Cold War
- Peggy and Joan in Mad Men coming face to face with the casual sexism of the era
- Popeye Doyle, the obsessed cop not overly concerned with the rules in The French Connection
- The characters in Downton Abbey caught up in a long-gone upstairs-downstairs world
- Two young, big-city journalists pursuing the story of the decade in All The President’s Men
- Carrie and Brody in Homeland enmeshed in a paranoid present complete with bi-polar disorder, psycho-active drugs and a hero who might also be a terrorist
- Tony Soprano dealing with his two families—the one at home and the criminal one
Using the details of social and cultural history, past or recent, will reflect the world around your characters. Some will choose to drop out. Others will rebel. Some will learn to manipulate. Others will be swamped. Some will be defeated and still others will triumph—not always in the way the reader might expect.
Are you writing about a period in which people feel positive about the future and confident about their prospects?
Or are your characters coping with the Depression of the Thirties or the feel-good years of the Sixties? How they think and feel and what they do to deal with opportunity (or lack thereof) offers a potent way to explore and expand the inner and outer lives of your characters.
How to Trigger a Reader’s Memories
Just as in the movies, the strategic use of hair styles, wardrobe and makeup relevant to the period can add powerful, memorable details your reader will recall with affection—or a shudder.
- Garter belts, push up bras, or Spanx?
- The perfect prom dress or the tragic hair cut on the eve of that important first date?
- A 2015 hedge fund titan in a seven-thousand-dollar suit
- A 1940s punk in jeans and a pack of cigarettes in the rolled-up sleeve of a T-shirt
- A caffeinated, billionaire techie bro in hoodie and sneakers
- Are their clothes worn ironically? Or un-?
- 1940s pancake or today’s “natural look” adapted from a You Tube video
- A crew cut or a pompadour?
- Lip gloss or va-va-voom Marilyn Monroe red lipstick?
- A natural Fro, an old-fashioned perm, a blow dry bob or a Gwyneth dead straight ‘do?
- Pink streaks or platinum blonde?
- Dark roots or spiffy, stylish grey?
Work In-The-News-Details into Your Plot.
Twists to in-the-news items can give you ideas for making it more difficult for your protagonist to reach his or her goals—and extra motivation for your readers to cheer them on.
- A liberal-leaning philanthropist donating money for a girls’ school in rural Afghanistan must navigate unfamiliar social and cultural terrain
- A reporter with strong feminist views must question a happy-go-lucky stripper during a pole dancing contest
- A brilliant but shy female engineer at a tech company must learn to cope with aggressively unfriendly office politics to get the promotion she has earned
- A pompous, self-important CEO accustomed to private planes must take a crowded, rickety bus over unpaved roads after his plane crashes in a remote jungle area
- A hurricane or flood prevents a doctor/parent who is unfamiliar with boats and doesn’t know how to swim from getting to his/her patients/children
- Lost luggage forces your protagonist to wear the grungy sweats he/she travelled in instead of looking his/her best at an important company event
- A lawyer—male or female—accused of sexual harassment must defend a victim—male or female—of sexual abuse
- A 300-pound football player recovering from an injury is forced to take a ballet class as part of his rehab
Our world—past and present—is rich in incident, personality and conflict. Every authentic historical detail is filled with inspiration for every book, each character and every writer.
Keep an open mind, lively curiosity, and a habit of reading widely. Your own unique memories, passions and interests, plus basic research are your friends.
Love them, embrace them, and use them to write fiction your readers will relate to and engage with.
By Ruth Harris (@RuthHarrisBooks) October 29, 2017
What about you, scriveners? Have you researched fads and trends from the past to use in your fiction? Do you find authentic historical detail can trigger memories when you’re reading? What kind of detail do you find triggers the most emotional response?
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