Are you writing a novel that is set in the 1980s? Do you need some help with writing an environment in this period? Scroll down to get 11 top tips on how to write a story set in 80s.
1. Read and watch contemporary material
One of the best ways to immerse into the decade that you are writing about to write as authentically as possible is to take a deep dive into the media of that time.
For example, watching 80s TV shows and movies can help you to pick up on the dialog patterns people were using, any relevant slang, and also give you visual inspiration of how to describe settings and fashions of the time.
Magazines from the 80s will also help you to understand what topics people were concerned about, fashion trends, and help you to refine your narrative tone to have a distinctly 80s feel. Novels written in the 80s and set in that time can also be a great resource to pick up colloquialisms and see how other authors have depicted the decade.
2. Be aware of the location
Although it was only 40 years ago, there are some significant things that went on in the 1980s that you’ll need to think about depending upon what location or country your novel is set in.
For an example of how location can play a huge factor, most of Eastern Europe, including East Germany was part of the Communist Soviet Union, and towards the end of this decade, tensions were rising as many countries sought to free themselves from their rule.
As a result, you’ll want to brush up on the history of the particular place where you are going to set your 1980s story for any significant factors that may affect the narrative, as well as global events picking up some non-fiction books from the library might not be a bad call!
3. Technology boom
The 1980s was a time when technology really started to come to the fore, with Microsoft and Apple leading the way in terms of personal computing, arcade games, and consoles becoming an obsession for many, and of course, the iconic bricks that were the first cell phones!
It’s important to bear in mind what sort of technology will have creeped its way into your setting, and what things are brand new, or simply not around yet. For example, you don’t want to be writing about the internet as we know it today or text messages when such things didn’t exist!
Another key point to consider is how your characters react to this new technology, especially if you are writing about older people, those working in offices, or on the flipside children and teenagers.
4. Create a soundtrack
A great way to help propel you through writing a story set in the 80s is to get into the groove with some 80s music. Although it might sound cheesy, pop music was a huge part of the culture of the 1980s and helps you to get into the mindset.
Think about what sorts of songs your character(s) might listen to, and what lyrics might resonate with them. This can sometimes help you through some serious writer’s block, and also give you the option to start to write about the songs that your characters are listening to in more detail, to build a soundscape for your reader to enhance their immersion.
5. Brush up on some 80s slang
One of the best ways to increase authenticity within your narrative is to utilize slang and phrases that are true to the decade.
This is especially true if the characters in your story are younger or in their teenage years when such language will set them apart from adults and show how they are navigating the changing world around them.
Teen magazines are a great place to pick up relevant slang for the characters in your novel, although for true authenticity you can delve deeper and look at slang that might have arisen in the local area in the 80s, such as in New York or other urban hubs by reading local publications or watching news reports from the time.
6. Take a trip down memory lane
Some of the best inspiration and information can come from personal sources. If you lived through the 1980s, think back on your experiences, and maybe root out old diaries or photo albums that you can use as reference material.
If the decade is hazy to you, or perhaps you weren’t alive during it, then ask an older friend or relative who lived during the 1980s what life was like for them. Often this can give you a much more realistic view of how things were compared to movies and TV shows, which are often highly stylized and rely on clichés and stereotypes.
7. Character concerns
Depending upon who your characters are, you will need to think carefully about any contextual factors that might affect them within the 1980s.
For example, characters that identify as LGBTQIA+ will have to navigate the AIDS pandemic and the prejudice, devastation, and heartbreak caused by the disease.
Following the Black Power movement of the 60s and 70s, Black people start to see more representation in the media and in prominent positions in society. However, tensions still existed during this time.
Women were starting to break through the gender barrier more and more, gaining further acceptance and professional treatment in the workplace, and many influential jobs and posts saw their first female assigned to them. However, it was still a hard fight for validity against deep-seated prejudices.
8. Try not to exaggerate too much
We all know that the 80s were about going big, from massive hairdos to shoulder pads, and bright and colorful graphics and designs.
But, it’s important to remember to not go overboard with references and stereotypes in your 1980s story. Yes, it is key to include details to help your reader to know that the narrative is set in the decade, but if there are too many details it can start to become clichéd and feel forced and fake.
The trick is to make sure that you carefully season your story with references. Think of it a bit like putting salt and pepper on your food. You want to use just enough to enhance the flavor of your meal, but not so much that your dinner only tastes of seasonings.
9. Be aware of the year
As with any story set in a historical time period, even if it is modern history, you need to bear in mind the exact years and timeframe across which your plot is set.
For example, if your story is set in the early 1980s, and you reference a major event that happened in the latter part of the decade, it’ll make you look like you haven’t done your research and break the illusion for your reader!
One way to make sure that you don’t end up in this pitfall is to look for a chronology either of the entire decade, or of the years that you are covering for both global events, and events more local to the setting of your story.
10. Balance nostalgia with relatability
While the 1980s might be a decade that brings back many happy memories for some and be a time that they remember well, remember that they are not your only audience for your novel.
For example, people born after or during the late 1980s may not be able to understand or pick up on the experience to the same extent as other readers. This could lead to them feeling alienated and potentially putting your novel down!
Try to strike a balance between 80s references to help build the setting, while still keeping the language and the situation relatable to a wide readership. This can be done either by providing background to new or niche concepts, or by making the focus on the essential 80s details in the narrative rather than every piece of nostalgia.
11. Get 80s proofreaders
Once you have finished your first draft and need feedback on it, who better to help you to see whether you have hit the brief than some proofreaders who were around in the 1980s?
This is especially true if back in the decade they were of a similar age or shared similar experiences to the characters that you are writing about, helping you to pick up on details that you otherwise might have missed.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t also get others to proofread for you too to check general understanding, but if your concern surrounds the way in which you have utilized 80s tropes, first-hand experience is always a great asset!