The '80s Are, Like, Ancient: Writing and Researching Modern Historical Fiction
Leslie Pietrzyk | March 2018
I researched and wrote a novel set in 1900 Chicago, but what a cinch compared to writing about 1982 Chicago—though I was alive in 1982, with a brain actively recording memories. Some American eras beckon novelists seductively with auras of perpetual cool: Roaring Twenties. Grunge in the ’90s. The Sixties, everyone’s darling. Punk! Other historical times are lesser known, allowing the writer to do exactly what she wants: the 1200s. 1823. The Ice Age. But the time setting of my new novel, Silver Girl, is the late ’70s and the early ’80s, which I found was a challenging historical period to write about. (Yes, forty years ago is “historical fiction.”)
It wasn’t hard for me (and Google) to capture facts with references to presidents (ugh, Reagan) and the economy (in the crapper), but pop culture references were trickier, thanks to a parcel of cringey stereotypes: parachute pants, giant shoulder pads, leg warmers. That’s just the fashion! The late ’70s/early ’80s seem now to be pop culture wasteland, with bad fashion, bad music, bad food, and bad slang. And I don’t mean “bad”—I mean BAD.
My book is set in 1982 but veers back to 1979. Because it’s set in a college, about a complicated and destructive friendship between two girls, it wasn’t possible to ignore music and pop culture the way I could if the book explored complicated friendships in a 1982 convent. And writing about girls means it’s hard to ignore fashion and hairstyles. (Again, not a problem with nuns!)
A temptation is to go iconoclast: make the main character an outlier. My young ’70s girl could wear ironic hoop skirts to high school. She could play the violin and listen to Mozart on her 1982 cassette tape deck. Sure. But why choose a time period like the 1980s only to fight against what those years really were? Better to—as the saying went back then—go for it.
Most semi-familiar time periods have stereotypes. Flappers, hippies, and flannel shirts are merely the surface shimmer of extremely complicated times. And plenty of awkward pop culture realities get lost in translation (twenty-three skidoo? outta sight? hair scrunchies?). Here are my strategies for stepping into the wayback machine and returning with fiction that is accurate without making the reader recoil.
My fiction is very talky. But just as written dialogue is never exactly the way real life people converse, good period slang cannot be the way people talked because gag me with a spoon, we would, like, go totally out of our minds! While ’80s people maybe did talk like that, also they didn’t. Within our vast “America,” there are cultures and subcultures, based on gender, race, sexual identity, and geography. The people I grew up with in Iowa in the ’80s did not talk the same way people in California did. (We wish.) The writer must understand the deep influences on her characters’ lives: geography, education, class, and so on. The country wasn’t monolithic, ever. That’s why it’s a mistake to, say, binge the John Hughes oeuvre or Stranger Things and consider yourself schooled on ’80s dialogue.
Don’t choose the most obvious and stereotypical language. Google offers amazing sites listing your decade’s slang and phrases. Take time to read thoroughly and build a vocabulary for your world. I tried to choose words that would seem familiar to today’s readers (“totally” totally made that list). What I didn’t do was choose words that drew too much attention, that screamed ’80s in a brassy, look-at-my-online-research way, like “tubular” or “take a chill pill.” I didn’t overload my dialogue with slang, and I was choosy. For example, I remember saying, “psyche,” but I worried a young reader might find it confusing. Psyche! I totally used it. (Not really. Doesn’t it read as foolish? No, duh.) I also made up slang and chose classic words like “idiotic” that my young characters could repeat in dialogue to lend a sense of slang and keep me from typing “gnarly” over and over.
Syntax sells dialogue. The way words are put together is usually more interesting than the literal words, which, honestly, may explain why ’80s Valley Girl-speak fascinated so many and was so fun to parody.
In the end, the slang words are necessary—because your story won’t feel complete without them—but they’re not the full solution. Find authentic words and use them sparingly. Trust that one perfectly-placed “heinous” takes us to your galaxy far, far away.
I lived in Chicago, where it was cold, so slouchy leg warmers were a fashion “do” I embraced. But younger readers may not get the reference and wonder why characters are dressed like ballet students. (One glimpse of Jennifer Beals in the movie Flashdance got us scissoring out the necklines and sleeves of our sweatshirts and scrunching legwarmers over our jeans). So, again, select a few key fashion items and use these small, perfect details to suggest the greater whole of the fashion in your era. Don’t choose the most ridiculous attire unless you’re going for laughs; surely it’s impossible for even a minor character to pass through a novel wearing acid-washed jeans or Miami Vice pastel and white linen without readerly snorts of derision. Yes, even though people wore these things—and worse—in real life, it’s too much for fiction.
Fashion is cyclical, and trends return. If you’re writing about a fashion-wasteland like the ’70s or ’80s, think about which looks have risen from the dead, rejiggered for a modern eye. NOT poufy permed hair. NOT fanny packs. But the fit-and-flare dresses of recent times are not entirely dissimilar from the strapless, fluffy-bottomed cocktail dresses of the mid-’80s. So that’s something a character can wear without making a reader chortle. The return of pegged jeans is on the horizon, I hear. Dress your characters in clothing your reader can envision as a current look.
Or, dress them in something timeless. The preppie look was big in the ’80s, especially on my college campus, and that style literally feels without beginning or end, as if men wore blue blazers while painting the walls of the Lascaux Caves, as if women trudging across the Bering land bridge sported polo shirts complete with that iconic embroidered horse. Timeless clothing abounds, and when characters that’s what characters are wearing, readers stay in that fictive dream. Ray-Bans, Ralph Lauren, Topsiders … look beyond the Members Only jackets for ’80s classic style.
Jeans are familiar and timeless: but get the details right. My girls were early ’80s which was Calvin Klein; Guess jeans were later. Fashion is always about nuance. A brand name builds your world when it’s exactly right … or sends the walls crashing down when it’s wrong. (Don’t be afraid of the fudge factor: if America associates Ray-Ban Wayfarers with the ’80s, can I slip a pair into 1982, though Tom Cruise didn’t return them to popularity until Risky Business came out in 1983? You bet.)
My characters are always talking, and they’re always eating. I think a lot about how my characters think about food. Foods from the ’70s and ’80s are especially fraught.
Yeah, we all ate TV dinners, so what? Avoid using food for a simple comedic effect (unless you’re writing a simple comedy). Plus, modern readers are wondering what the heck TV dinners are…and it may not be too long before your readers are even wondering what a TV is. Be wary of one-off, goofball references like Tang and Space Food Sticks (real things).
On the other hand, characters can eat more than generic “chicken” at their meals. (But if they are eating chicken in the ’80s, you’ll have to know that likely it’s chicken on the bone. Boneless chicken breasts weren’t a big thing then.) Read cookbooks. Look at food ads in archival newspapers. Most of all, think about how your characters relate to food. There’s a powerful food culture now that feels pervasive, at least to this East Coast urbanite. But restaurants were different in the ’80s, from the type of food served, the serving sizes, the specialness of “going out to eat”; such differences were exacerbated by geography and local culture. In Iowa, and even later in college, I never once saw anyone order an appetizer in a restaurant. Not once. If a salad comes with the meal, why pay for more? Grocery stores barely carried out-of-season produce. Strawberries showed up around May, corn on the cob in August. Otherwise, choose canned or frozen. What your characters eat reveals who they are and builds your world. Push the writing beyond random brand names. Food is how we nourish ourselves, present ourselves, even punish ourselves: diving into food research helps capture any time period, leading to dilemmas and sources of tension. It’s not just what’s for dinner.
Music (and TV/Movies)
This is the trickiest category. If the real-life fashion of the late ’70s and early ’80s elicits chuckles, the music gets guffaws. Billboard’s Hot 100 Single list for 1979 includes three Bee Gees songs along with the “if you like piña coladas” song (you’re lucky if you don’t know what I’m talking about). I wish 1982 were better: two by Hall and Oates and the theme from Chariots of Fire. Yeah, I’m picking the corniest options, but it’s not like I didn’t have a Bee Gees album (or two). And I know that yes, somewhere people far cooler than I were slamming to punk in New York and the UK in 1979, but the reality is that most people weren’t. Historical fiction shouldn’t be our tastes and mores plunked into a different time period; it should feel like real people, living the lives that those real people lived.
Still, nothing chills a college novel colder than writing about a character carting her stack of Barry Manilow albums to college (as I, sadly, did). Music was the area where I cheated a tad. One of my characters is into jazz, going back to the “timeless” factor and the “iconoclast” route. It’s also helpful to think about the geography of the setting. Lucky me, with Chicago’s amazing blues tradition to draw upon—along with happy memories of listening to blues bands play clubs and frat parties. Be mindful of how your characters learn about music: probably the radio, and not many stations were showcasing Johnny Rotten or Lou Reed, as foundational as they may seem today.
I thought about which artists and bands from the time are still played today, and those were the ones I included, double-checking the dates of album releases and tours as needed so I could multi-task fashion and music markers with concert T-shirts. I eliminated the one-hit wonders and focused on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame folks: Rolling Stones, The Police, Pat Benatar (okay, she’s not in but damn it, why not?).
For me, the TV shows and movies weren’t worth it. Either Three’s Company is a snigger, or it’s paragraphs explaining the context of why it was considered risqué for a man to live with two women, why Jack had to pretend to be gay, why it was okay to mock gayness. It’s not no TV shows ever, more that I personally didn’t see them working deftly to accomplish as much as the other pop culture references did. The single TV show I focused on was from the ’60s, The Andy Griffith Show, popular in reruns during the time: again, going iconoclast, and, I hope, timeless. (Watch the famous pickles episode if you doubt its greatness.)
In the end, these are suggestions: one way to approach your task, not The Way. Do the work to create the world, navigating between the authenticity of what was and the realization that modern readers come with expectations and biases. What’s most important to remember about writing any historical fiction is that the people haven’t changed much over the decades: in all eras they laugh and suffer, fret and celebrate, eat and drink, love and hate. Those things are, like, timeless.
Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of the novel Silver Girl, which Publishers Weekly called “profound, mesmerizing, and disturbing,” and the novels Pears on a Willow Tree and A Year and a Day. Her collection of unconventionally linked short stories, This Angel on My Chest, won the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Pietrzyk is a member of the core fiction faculty at the Converse low-res MFA program.