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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Writing Nostalgia - Part Two

Things to consider when writing nostalgia:

There must be a reason for placing your story in a certain year or decade. To simply place a story in a past decade because it sounds cool is not enough. You need a backdrop of world events or social customs that are unique to the era. Some examples from the 1950s and 60s might be the fear of communism, man first entering space, the Civil Rights movement, or the emergence of a new sound in music (Elvis, the Beatles). The backdrop doesn’t have to be a part of the plot but will give texture to your story and make it ring true. Everything else springs from this so choose your era and events wisely.

Research is vital. Even if you grew up in the age you’re writing about, it’s important to double check the facts: the year a song first came out, what was on TV at the time, brand names, and products. It’s surprising how many everyday items we use today have been developed only in the last thirty or forty years. If you’re not accurate, more than likely, someone reading your story will spot a mistake and tell you about it. Building trust with your reader should be a priority.

Note: This is true no matter what you write. I once hurled a book by a very famous author across the room for a blatant error that would have taken thirty seconds to research. Don’t be lazy about research.

Vivid, specific details that elicit emotion. This is probably my favorite part of writing nostalgia. Sights, sounds, and smells that capture the flavor of the era draw your reader in. I use a lot of music in my writing because nothing nails an era like its particular “sound.” Smell can evoke memories of a farmhouse kitchen or a trip to the lake or the cologne of a favorite relative. Hair styles and clothing provide visual cues that can illicit emotion—the torture of sleeping in brush rollers or the twirl of a poodle skirt at a sock hop.

Language and slang. Certain phrases come and go and can be good markers for an era. You hardly ever hear anyone today say, “cool cat” or “the cat’s pajamas.” Likewise, you should refrain from having your vintage characters say modern phrases like, “Awesome” or “That was phat.” (disclaimer: these may not be the “in” phrases today but were in the recent past, so I’m just a saying . . . ) Language and slang, can create a doorway to the time period as well as give regional distinction to your writing.

A few resources to help you with phrases and slang:
Online Etymology Dictionary
Meanings and Origins of Phrases, Sayings, and Idioms
Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: Eleventh Edition

Most of all, have fun. Accept the challenges and immerse yourself in the favorite parts of the era you’ve chosen. The ultimate sweet reward is having a reader say, “How did you know what my childhood was like?” or “I felt like I was there and didn’t want to leave.”

Isn’t that the goal of all good fiction? To transport the reader into our fictive dreams and give them an emotional experience?

Less than three months until Chasing Lilacs comes out. In the next few months, I’ll be sharing some of the things that have been going on behind the scenes and what’s coming up. If you have any questions, let me know in the comments, okay?


Julie Garmon said...

Great tips, Carla. :-)

Patti Lacy said...

WOW! Really helps me think about how to capture the "fictive dreams" in my next book.

You are sounding like a literary professor today.

Love you,

carla stewart said...

Thanks, Julie, for stopping by. So many of the things we learned at the GP workshop are applicable to fiction, don't you think?

Patti, Literary prof?? Hardly. I wrote this to remind myself as much as anything. I love being immersed in a story, thinking I'm reading about real people back in the day. You're a master at that. Can't wait to read your next book.

Josanne said...

Carla, this is great! I remember when I left my first writing class with some measure of success in writing exercises. I thought, "this is easy...why...I think I could write a book today, if I wanted!" Oh, my goodness, I just hope I didn't say that aloud at the time. But, in my defense, I think what happened to me at the time was that I was awakened to the fact that I almost always had writing embers burning in my heart and imaginations loping through my brain. It's so good to be among experienced writers at WIN who are generous in wisdom and expertise. Thanks always for sharing.

Myra Johnson said...

Loved these last two posts, Carla! And you did such a wonderful job of capturing another era in Chasing Lilacs So many of my own '50s memories surfaced again through the pages of this exquisite novel.

Oh, but doesn't the Internet make research so much easier!! I love it when I'm in the middle of composing a scene and need that one shining detail. I pop on, Google my subject, and voila! The world at my fingertips!

Of course, nothing beats firsthand experience and the power of memory.

Erica Vetsch said...

I'm forever slaying anachronisms on edit.


筱婷 said...