This school is the subject of several of my recent novels.

How to write about the past

Several of my novels describe past decades. Amiga includes scenes in the 1980s, and my upcoming Christina’s Portrait describes high school in the late 1970s. Here are several things I’ve learned about using the past in fiction.

Your audience shouldn’t need to know about the time period to enjoy the work.

You don’t have to know anything about Regency England to enjoy Bridgerton. You pick up the general gist from the costumes, architecture, and overall setting of the story. For many of my readers, the 1970s will seem as far in the past as the early 1800s.

I recreate the 1970s for my readers the same way as Bridgerton. The characters wear clothes, drive cars, and use language that is appropriate for the period. If events of that period affect the story, I include them. This leads to the second point.

Only use cultural trends and events that are relevant to the story.

A mistake I see many books, movies, and TV shows set in the past make is when they throw in as many fads, products, and events as they can. It’s the “if it’s Tuesday, it must be Watergate” effect. I only use cultural trends and events in my book if they advance the story or reveal an aspect of the characters.

I reference fashions in my novels, but only to show how my main characters can’t afford them. Here’s an example from Amiga:

I looked in the clothing stores. Maybe I’d buy some outfits instead of bothering Mom to ship things to me. It was all summer stuff. Shorts, miniskirts, swimwear, and whatever Madonna wore in her latest video. I came across a Macy’s. It had summer-weight business clothes that looked pretty nice. Or did until I saw the price tag.

I had money saved from the summers I worked, and I paid off my credit card each month. But I spent a lot on gas and on meals when I lived with Tina. I didn’t know when the Posners were going to pay me.

And in Christina’s Portrait, clothing also reveals what my main character feels about her friends and home life:

I wore jeans to school. I had to wear the no-name discount store jeans with the plain pockets because we couldn’t afford Levi’s. When the knees wore out, which they quickly did in those cheap jeans, I cut off the legs and wore them as shorts. When I got home from school, I changed into them so I can deal with the heat in the house.

I couldn’t afford the cute little butt-hugging shorts like the ones Jenny and Georgia have. Sometimes, I wished I could wear those long and pretty conservative dresses like Christina.

Everything that appears in a story should move it forward and enhance the reader’s experience. That’s why we need to be selective about period trends and events we use in our work.

Make sure the details of your historical period are correct.

While fashions and events of the time period are secondary to the story, they still have to be right. Anachronisms annoy readers, even those who aren’t familiar with the time period.

For Amiga, I had to relearn how to use that computer after I hadn’t touched one in 25 years. Christina’s Portrait makes reference to several songs, as in this example:

“You call disco good music?” Jenny sneered.

“What do you call that noise you listen to by British bands with spiked hair and safety pins through their cheeks?”

“Better than that ‘Get Down Tonight’ crap you listen to.”

I had to make sure those songs were released and popular at the time the scene took place.

Details like these add to the story and deters the “Well, actually…” complaints from the overly pedantic.

Don’t let nostalgia get in the way of telling the story.

While readers may enjoy experiencing a different time and place, they come for the characters and the challenges they face. The time period should add to the drama and not distract from it.

Amiga came from my love of early Commodore computers, but it was about Laura and her struggles in the past and present. Christina’s Portrait derived from my high school experiences. But as I wrote it, Reseda High School faded to the background, and my characters took center stage.

This is why I needed to fictionalize the main event in the story. If I wanted to write about Mary Ann Henderson’s murder, I would have written a true crime book—and I have many reasons not to do this. If I wanted to capture my high school experiences faithfully, I would have written a memoir. Frankly, there are much more interesting periods of my life than high school. I chose to write a novel, so I needed the emotional separation to give my characters and story freedom to emerge. It was fun to recreate the experience of going to football games and the unique uniforms our cheerleaders wore. But in a novel, story comes first.

The value of writing about the past

The past can be an effective tool for storytelling. It can give us perspective to see how much things have changed and how people dealt with challenges long ago. It also enables readers to escape to a different world or a relive a time in their own history.

While the fashions, music, products, and trends of that period can help bring the setting to life, we can’t let ourselves be bogged down by nostalgia. Characters and story always come first.

Let’s also remember that the present is in the past for our readers. Christina’s Portrait is set in part in 2021. With everything that has happened in just the past two years, it seems as far away as the 1970s. As we write, we are creating a time capsule for future readers. Take care with the worlds you create, whether they are set in the distant or soon-to-be-distant past. We create a place no one can travel to, except through the pages of our books.