Getting the Setting Details Right in Your Fiction

Wednesday, October 24, 2018
I've recently been researching different items from the late 80s and early 90s. No, I don't mean the 1880s or 1890s--but 25 to 30 years ago in the 1980s and 1990s for my current work-in-progress. And it's so fun to take a trip down memory lane to my college years. My current manuscript tells the story of a woman who is trying to figure out who she is after having her life consumed by a narcissistic man and an alcoholic sister, and that part of the story takes place in 2006. But to understand her and her story, I decided to set several chapters back in college and the "new adult" years (1989-1994).

For example, the other day, I wrote a chapter about my character, Gwen, wanting to veg out and watch some TV. If I set the story today, I would, of course, turn to Netflix or Hulu, but this scene was set in 1993 and summer. So, I googled (my best friend when first researching is always Google) TV shows in 1992 and 1993, and a list of some of my favorites popped up, including Quantum Leap, Northern Exposure and Cheers. I decided Gwen recorded on VHS several episodes of Northern Exposure because her roommate and she watched it all the time--early binge-watching--and I even referred to the actors as the men she wished her boyfriend was like.

Another time, I wrote a paragraph about my main character's sister, sitting in her bean bag on the floor, playing with a Rubik's Cube and watching Gwen talk on the phone with the cord wrapping around a chair. Someone from my writing group said, "If that's not a 90's paragraph, I don't know what is."

When I wrote my historical fiction novel, Finding My Place, set during the Civil War in Vicksburg, Mississippi, I knew that I would have to include several historical details to set the scene and make the characters' lives authentic. But when writing this women's fiction novel, I didn't realize that I would have to "research" so much. It's not really thought of as historical fiction when we set the book in the '80s and '90s, but it actually is. It's important to set the scene in any book, but especially if you are not setting it in contemporary times, without overdoing the description. It's also important to make sure that modern technology doesn't sneak its way in.

In 1865 historical fiction, my 13-year-old main character isn't using a phone or watching TV, so I didn't have to worry about technology sneaking in too soon. But with my current WIP, I'm constantly wondering: what type of cell phone would they have? Would they even have a cell phone yet? How much would a person text if they were using a flip phone as opposed to how much we text with smartphones? And in one scene, my character had to have a camera--remember those days when we used to have to get our photos developed?

It's been fun writing during this time period, but like all research, I have to be careful not to get sucked into the research, remembering shows and movies, looking at 80's fashion and reminiscing about rushing home to see who called and left a message while I was gone.

The important thing I'm realizing is that with any work of fiction, writers have to pick out the details that set the scene naturally and that don't pull readers out of the story. And luckily even if we're writing about 1880 or 1980, we currently have a wonderful resource to double check ourselves right at our fingertips, and we aren't making a trip to the library or dusting off our set of World Book encyclopedias!

Margo L. Dill is a writer, speaker, editor, instructor, and mom, living in St. Louis. You can find out more about her writing on her website here, her editing business here, and the classes she teaches for WOW! here

Rubik's Cube photo by Mike Gonzalez 


Sioux Roslawski said...

Margo--My, how our world has changed. I remember so vividly when our family got a set of encyclopedias. I relied on physical dictionaries and had a favorite thesaurus. I remember getting entangled in the phone cord.

Have fun as you delve into the ancient time of the 80s. ;)

Margo Dill said...

Thanks, Sioux. It's also a little scary how much I "forgot" about those ancient times. I swear that old wives' tale about losing brain cells when pregnant and while parenting is not really a tale. Thank goodness for our resources.

Angela Mackintosh said...

Oh dear Google, the oracle, how much better you are than encyclopedias! I've been writing a lot about my new adult years and Google is a lifesaver. I doubt the encyclopedia would have the names of early 90s Undergrounds (now known as raves)--Google barely has them because, duh, they were undergrounds and kept secret. You had to call a number with your phone at home or a pay phone since there weren't cells yet, get the approximate location where you'd meet a guy in a bunny suit on a corner somewhere and he'd give you the real flyer to the location if he thought you weren't a narc. Lol! Except I found a site that has old flyers people saved from LA undergrounds. I also found old techno music I used to listen to and it really helped put me in the mindset of that time.

I've lost brain cells too, but not from pregnancy or parenting, from years of partying. So you're not alone. :)

I'm really excited about your novel, Margo! It sounds exactly like something I'd like to read. OMG, 80s fashion has got to be the most ridiculous fashion of all time! The shoulder pads and big hair alone...

I'm thinking about doing NaNo this year. I've never done it before. I'm wondering if anyone else from our team is doing it? I'd like to get a first draft down of my new adult years. I'm writing essays here and there but not really putting them together in a cohesive timeline or arc.

Anyway, great post! :)

Renee Roberson said...

I crack up every time I watch an old episode of "Friends," because technology has changed so much since then! They didn't have cell phones and the cordless phone in Monica and Rachel's apartment is enormous. There have even been a few times where I swear I owned outfits Rachel and Monica were wearing when I was in college. I was working on a horror short story recently that took place in the late 1970s. I had to dive back in and look up some lingo from that time period to make the dialogue a little more authentic, and I snuck a Star Wars nightshirt on one of the teenage girls, too. I also like using Pinterest to pin things from that time period as research! Sounds like you are making great progress :-)

Margo Dill said...

Angela: This comment made me smile. One time in my MOPS group (MOMs of preschoolers) these two "Midwest" moms started talking about the undergrounds/raves on the east coast in the 90s, and I was fascinated. Maybe we had things like that in St. Louis, but no one I knew ever went to any. And how cool that you can look that stuff up on Google. The amount of information on Google (and the videos that show you how to do things on YouTube) is incredible. And I, for one, hope you do NaNoWriMo and that we all get to read this memoir one day. I know we can learn and be inspired from it, and I love your writing.

Renee: I was watching CHEERS on Netflix, and I watched this with my parents when I was younger. Now when I watch it I think: Sam's and Woody's clothes are so funny, and Rebecca's "professional' suits--those are also "something". But I think my mom might have had some of those herself. We thought that's perfectly normal clothing when we watched this show back in the 80s. Fashion is so interesting, and now that we have the ability to watch all these favorite shows on Netflix and/or just regular old reruns, it is so fun to be reminded of what was in style while these shows were popular. I love that you snuck the Star Wars nightgown on someone in your story--that's the perfect kind of setting detail I'm talking about in this post. :)

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