Far Out: Writing fiction set in different decades

I’ve always been fascinated by decades past, particularly those before my birth.  My novel spans the ‘70s and ‘80s, and I’ve written short stories set in similar periods. It’s not easy to capture the ‘vibe’ of another decade, because it goes beyond saying, “My story is set in the seventies so I’ll have my characters watch The Brady Bunch.”  Dropping popular celebrity names, fashion styles, or any peppering of timely—and obvious—pop culture references will not do the setting’s vibe justice.

When I first began to research my novel’s era, I was biting off more than I could chew. Countless hours were spent memorizing hairdos, current events, slang terms, and more. None of which, might I add, turned out to be successful in creating my story’s (totally far out) vibe. In movies and television shows these elements may be important due to their visual natures, but it doesn’t work the same way in literature. Though some well-placed epoch-relevant allusions work well, there is no need to constantly remind the reader what decade it is. The groove should take care of itself.

Nicolas Raymond → in Objects

So taking a step back and re-analyzing the situation, I found that taking a broad, academic approach to researching a different decade works wonders. Take any ten year period and think about the big picture. What were people’s hopes and fears at the time? What philosophies surrounded the era? This is what I mean by vibe.

Two great books have aided my process:

Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and The Making of Eighties America  by Phillip Jenkins

Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now–Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything by David Sirota

Both books gave a comprehensive overview of the 1970’s and 1980’s, respectively. Just having a sense of the overall climate of the two decades gave me tremendous insight.

In the meantime, I’ve developed some strategies to live by when researching the glory days:

  1. Peruse books, magazines, and newspapers from the era. I got lucky when my father-in-law came across boxes of old Newsweek compilation books in his garage. The books were categorized by year.  From obscure cigarette brands to long-forgotten car models, vintage kitchen equipment, and not to mention, the big stories of the day, these books greatly contributed to my setting’s ‘vibe.’
  2. Watch television shows, movies, and music videos (if applicable, otherwise, listen to the music) of the era. Also, read books written during the era. Particularly with film and television, this helps with the visuals. The semi-faded backgrounds, the slower day-to-day pace, the humor, and of course, the ‘look and feel’ of the decade. Translate this into the writer’s mind, and somehow, magically, it ends up on the page. I’ve made a point to watch movies like Saturday Night Fever, The Breakfast Club, and other pop culture classics circa…well, fill in the blank. Nick at Nite can be helpful, as can old episodes of Saturday Night Live.
  3. Watch television shows, movies, music videos, and read books that portray a different era. Get some ideas on how it’s been done. Which ones are believable? That 70s show, Happy Days, Mad Men, and The Wonder Years come to mind. As do films such as Dazed and Confused, Rock Star, The Sandlot, Forrest Gump and A League of Their Own.Some great fiction that depict the days of yore? Try Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone, Jodi Picoult’s Second Glance (Told in parts during the 1930s—what a feat!), and of course, many more.

My main point in this: the details do matter, but so does the bigger backdrop. Establishing setting (either time or place) on details alone just won’t do the trick. The vibe is crucial, even in its most subtle forms. Without the vibe, the story’s just stuck in some timeless purgatory.

Have you ever written in an era other than this one? Did you go back even further (in other words, a ‘real’ historical novel)? What was your experience like? How do you capture ‘the vibe?’








Filed under Breaking Through, The Setting, The Writing Life, Writing Tips

14 responses to “Far Out: Writing fiction set in different decades

  1. Ooo. Great post!

    I have a story idea that (because of how technology would affect the plot) would be best set in the late 70’s or early 80s. After reading this, I might just have to go forward with it. I was in middle school and high school then, but I would need to refresh my memory about the details of the times. The references you gave will definitely help!

    As for my other WIPs, I have one with a character who has slowed aging, so – although the story and sequel are set modern day – there are elements of a historical. My HR is set in the mid-1850s, and I’ve had to do a LOT of research for that one. Little things you don’t expect come up to complicate your plot, like how the story being set pre- civil war put limitations on weapons. I had to refrain from putting my hero in any rapid-fire situations.

    Thank you! I’m saving this post! 🙂

    • Glad I could help! I give you credit for writing a story set in the 1850s…wow, what a feat. It’s tough with the research, especially if you’re going that far back. But I love reading stories set in different times, because in my opinion, it’s the closest to time travel we’ll ever come!

  2. I admire those of you who write fiction set in different decades. As you mentioned, the research required to do it well is pretty intense. But it’s important to get things right. I’ve read a few books set in past decades, and every now and then I’ll stop and think, “Hey, they didn’t have those back in 1975.” 🙂

    Thanks for stopping by my site and for the follow. I am happy to reciprocate. You have a wonderful blog here. Now I’m going to seek you out on Twitter, too. 🙂

  3. Love this post, especially because I have somewhat unexpectedly taken on the project of setting part of my novel in the late 1960’s. I appreciate that you wrote about how the philosophies of the time can affect the story, because in the sixties, so many things we take for granted were different. Women, for one thing, had nowhere the equal rights we have now. Civil rights were just beginning to become part of the American way of life. And of course, here in the U.S. we were contending with the effects of the war in Vietnam. All of these events offer rich opportunities for story-telling and conflict.

    The funny thing is that, because of the way my story drew me into this era, (I didn’t plan this, it just happened, blame the music!) my research has become more of a passion and an obsession rather than a chore. I can’t seem to get enough of movies from that time, as well as books and photographs. I would love to have a stack of magazines like you had!

    I am always surprised at the places writing this novel takes me, and landing in the era of the first Apollo missions was one of the biggest surprises of them all!

  4. Oooh the late ’60s…nice time period! I have a fascination with this era as well, actually. I always have. I know you had that awesome list of songs from the era 🙂

    It’s true…novel writing is the only venue to really “time travel.” Watching movies, TV shows helps too, but I don’t feel as involved. Knowing the philosophy of the times is crucial, and you make some good points about all those things we take for granted in this day and in age. The sixties was a springboard for all these notions, and yes, somehow it must reflect in the literature!

    I’d love to read your ’60s novel.

  5. What a great post! I’ve debated writing historical fiction before (I have a gooey spot for cowboys and the Old West) but haven’t really tried to delve in before. I’m a fantasy writer, and interestingly, a lot of your ideas transition well there!

    I have a good friend who’s writing a 1960s novel and I’m forwarding this along to her. A well-written article with very pertinent information–thanks!

  6. Hi Kiersi, thank you for stopping by. And for sending my article along! That’s so flattering 🙂 I like cowboy stories too.

  7. I think some of the challenge would include making sure not to let the characters use any devices that haven’t been invented yet, even subtle things like cordless phones. Or mentioning things that haven’t happened yet. It would probably be easier to write if you actually existed during the time that you’re writing about! Someone who grew up in the seventies, or was in high school during the seventies, would probably have a way easier time writing a story set in that decade, than someone who was born in the late seventies and doesn’t remember anything!

    • Yes, very true. It is a challenge. I went to high school in the late ’90s early ’00s, so yeah….it’s definitely a rough patch for me! There’s a certain situation in my novel that makes the time period crucial…otherwise I might have considered setting it in a different time. But either way, I’m having fun with it. And besides, there IS a story to tell, so in some ways, once the setting has been established, the readers will accept it and (hopefully) get lost in the plot.

  8. Groovy! This is my coming-of-age decade (egad, I feel old). I love writing about the era because it is in my very bones! (born in the 60s, actually). For me, it would be tought to write of the 40s and 50s with authenticity. But people do it (write of times before or after their own) all the time! Best of luck!

    • Thanks! Like I said above, my coming-of-age was the ’90s and early ’00s,so, this is definitely a challenge. But in a way I think that even if I were to write a novel during “my time” I’d still have to go back and double check facts, etc., because, we do tend to forget. It’s a lot of fun though!

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