This is a guest post by author Leah DeCesare whose novel, Forks, Knives and Spoons, is set partly in the 80’s.
In Forks, Knives, and Spoons, I wanted the late 1980s and early 1990s to be more than a backdrop. My goal was to have the reader feel the time period, whether they had lived through it or were millennials who’d only heard about it from their parents. Additionally, I didn’t want that placement in time to distract from the experience.
As you transport your readers to a different decade, of course, you won’t use every bit of time-related research or even every one of the following aspects. However, you should take time to consider each of them to decide what elements are important for your story. Having a general feel and understanding of the period you’re writing about in advance will allow you to more smoothly meld in tidbits that orient the reader to the time period. As you revise and do further research on the nitty-gritty, you can work to deepen the immersion into that era with each edit.
There’s a balance between detail for details-sake and adding specifics that augment the story and help place the reader in time. Aim to create a sensory experience by using varied senses. For example, early in the story between the action, I wanted to solidly signal the decade and I had some fun with descriptors that shouted 1988: from Love’s Baby Soft and Aqua Net, to Benetton and Sony Walkmans.
Throughout the book, I peppered the story with phrases, clothing and musical selections that were the cultural norm for the time but that don’t pull the reader out of the story to highlight these elements.
References to news stories and how they affect the characters can also add depth and realism to your story’s time period. How can your characters interact with and respond to the stories in the news? In part one of Forks, Knives, and Spoons, it is 1988 and the characters are in their freshman year of college. Historically, in December 1988 was the Pan Am Flight 103 explosion over Lockerbie, Scotland. This wouldn’t necessarily have been relevant to reference, but because the book is set at Syracuse University and twenty-six Syracuse students returning from studying abroad were killed on that flight, it became an important news event to include. Weaving that into the plot in a meaningful way became essential to the characters’ experiences and it was an opportunity for the reader to learn more about the protagonists through their reactions to a tragedy.
Living through the time certainly helps, but that doesn’t negate the necessity of research. It’s vital to double check the accuracy of any time-stamped nuances to ensure they don’t become anachronisms. Nothing pulls a reader out of a story like something dropped into the time period that didn’t exist then. Moms didn’t slather sunscreen on kids in the 1960s, for example; were the words sunscreen or sunblock even out yet? Suntan lotion perhaps, baby oil for sure, but this would be a key detail to research. Memory is not reliable on its own; even if you lived through the period you’re writing about, you must do the legwork.
Some sources for your research are, of course, librarians and the amazing World Wide Web, as well as reading books written in that time period and about that time period (caution: you may be relying on someone else who may not have done proper research), and interviewing people who lived through it to share personal insights, memories, and give you new ideas/words/products/things to dig into.
Naming characters is one of my favorite parts of writing, but it’s wise to do it with intention. Do the names of your characters fit the time period when they were born? Pull up lists of the most popular names for the year of your character’s birth (by state, by country) to give historical accuracy. A girl born in 1920 is unlikely to have been called Kayley or Destiny; name with meaning.
There are a wide variety of elements to examine as you work to create story in another decade.
When writing in a different era, consider what is time-specific for these ten areas:
Perfumes, foods, environmental, chemical or earthy? Subway smells, car exhaust or horse’s poop?
A ringing pay phone, a fax machine, what sounds would be time-relevant?
Clothing, colors, jewelry trends, hairstyles, makeup
Home decor, party/entertaining details, nail polish/makeup, hair color, automobile or bicycle colors
Are they relevant to the story? Can they be used to enhance the reader’s relationship with your characters? What is the role of newspapers/radio/reporters/TV?
Are they accurate for the time they were born? What about last names and nicknames?
Styles and tastes, number of rooms in a typical house, trending designs, stones or shingles?
What was the average salary, cost of a car, price of a stamp? What was the overarching economic state of the times and how does that affect the characters and their interactions? What were the cultural values? Who were influential thinkers? What were the religious events, philosophies, cultural ties?
Types and availability of foods, fast food, refrigeration? Would gluten-free be relevant in 1950? What times of day would people eat and where, with whom?
What phrases were popular? What words wouldn’t have been invented yet? How would a man ask a woman out? Can a character have a time-related speech tic or go-to phrase?