What is History?

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

So I have an idea for a new book and it takes place partly in the early 1980s and it suddenly strikes me that, though I lived through this decade as a young teen, for my own children this era is as much ‘history’ as the Edwardian age is…and then I started to worry, am I really contemplating writing a ‘historical novel’ set in the 1980s?!

I was at a writer’s conference a few years ago and on a ‘historical mystery’ panel I remember an editor saying that ‘the 1980’s are not history’ – at the time, I dismissed the idea out of hand because it seemed such a no-brainer. I mean, the 1980’s – that’s hardly ‘historical’ – but then I started thinking about what happened during this time and my ideas fermented…until, I started to write and then I wondered, so what is the recent past like the 1980’s. Is it history or not?

For the most part, classification hardly matters, but when contemplating writing a novel set in the early/mid 1980s, I have to confess I started to wonder…I mean, how does one deal with the recent past in novels? How to you write about an era that hasn’t quite passed into ‘history’ and which, with all its quirks, is very much open to scrutiny. 

Just watching an episode of the show The Americans makes me appreciate just how ‘foreign’ some of the 1980s can seem…but it also makes me worry about dealing with the ‘recent past’. I have to wonder, what is the best approach to writing about an era that seems ‘so near and yet so far’?  One thing is for sure, you have to be absolutely sure about all your references as too many people are ready to catch your errors. But what about the other pitfalls? Are the 1980s ready to be used as a backdrop for a novel, or is the era caught between the past and present and best avoided? 

So what do you think?
Is a novel set in the 1980s ‘historical’?

26 thoughts on “What is History?

  1. That’s a good question Clare. The fact is that to nearly 30% of the population alive today the 1980s is ancient past. Anyone under 25 has no memory of things like Ronald Reagan, the USSR, New Coke, or the concepts behind big hair and shoulder pads.

    I think historical fiction is anything in a world that inhabits the realm of ‘was’ versus ‘is’.

    • I still worry it’s too recent and therefore it falls between the cracks of historical and contemporary, even though for my kids everything from the 1980s sounds like some kind of ancient civilization!

  2. Well, Rhett and Link did a hilarious music video on youtube called “In the 80s”, where they lampoon things like car phones in bags, Deloreans, wood-paneled TV sets, and immense home movie cameras.

    I was a little kid in the 80s, so I missed most of it. I was too little to understand the significance of the fall of the Berlin wall. :-p (My father in law has a piece of it, though, because he was in the air force at the time.)

  3. The ’60s was well and truly a backdrop for films, tv shows and novels during the ’80s (“The Big Chill” anyone?) and that was only a 20 year gap. A 30 year gap is well and truly history – after all, the beginning of WWI and the end of WWII was within 31 years. That only takes you back to 1982.

  4. The closer it is to the present, the more difficult it becomes for the writer to make clear the differences between then and now. But actually being faithful to the past is a moral issue of great importance. Especially now, when fewer and fewer people–even so-called educated people–know much if any history.

    • Another good point – when I explain what happened in the 1980s re: fall of the USSR my kids are amazed. It seems so alien and strange and very much ‘history’ when compared to the world they know now. They are just starting to realize, however, how important it is to know and understand history. Without this its hard to understand the wold we live in now.

  5. Yesterday is history; it just has no context yet.

    Barry makes an excellent point. If the time is a key element of the book’s setting, then it has to be differentiated. As the time becomes closer to today, that may have to take two forms. Not just getting the technology and some cultural touchstones, but making sure the reader knows you’re writing about something that happened ten–twenty–thirty years ago instead of thinking you got a bunch of stuff wrong. You have to put them into what John Gardner called a “vivid and continuous dream.” Do it right, and anything can work.

    • Dana – excellent – and this is very much my dilemma. I guess if I’m going to try it I just have to get it right!

  6. For me, the thing that makes a backdrop historical is the use of those things specifically unique to that era. The 80’s: decorative head bands, knickers, leg warmers, Yo yo shoe comebacks, Candie’s, chic and fox jeans, pay phones with button dialers, Activision, Donkey Kong and Tetris…just to name a few.

    I think what counts is all in the details, not in the number of years which have passed.

  7. Funny, I was thinking how long ago the 80’s was when I was in the instructor’s classroom waiting for my banjo lesson to start and looking at a rock band poster on the wall. I don’t know who they were but all I could think was “It must be an 80’s band. They’ve all got really big hair.” *-)

    That said, I wouldn’t view it as truly historical, despite the whipper snappers out there (and there are many of them) who are way younger than me. But all the period details are what matters.

    BK Jackson

  8. I had the same thoughts when I finished reading Red Storm Rising. I remembered the book fondly from when I read it in high school, reading it now is almost surreal. The era seems so long ago, the concerns so different, the descriptions of the military just guesses (not great ones) of what has come to pass. Still fun to read, but so far off the mark and it certainly does highlight the changes of the past thirty years.

    • Isn’t it weird to see how different the world is now – especially when the 80s don’t seem all that long ago to me…yes, as you say, now the concerns we had then seem very much surreal.

  9. Clare,
    Our Louis Kincaid series started in fictional 1984 and advanced roughly 1 year in each book. So here’s my take on what to watch out for:

    1. Big question: Why did you choose to set it in 80s? Do you want to make a specific statement about the era? If so, then all the cultural signposts must be achingly accurate. And let me tell you from experience, it’s a pain in the ass to get it right. Don’t rely on memory!

    2. If you are doing crime, police procedure was very different. No DNA til nearly 1990, VICAP not til 1985, radios were primitive, profiling in its earliest years when most cops distrusted it as voodoo. You have to really know your stuff. Now it can be fun to play with this (ie no DNA makes your hero really rely on old-fashioned sleuthing.) But it can go wrong. And readers know this.

    3. As Barry pointed out, the 80s are sort of a no man’s land. They aren’t distant enough to feel old yet they truly are, esp for younger readers. You will be fighting the proliferation of TV shows that stress high-tech that now shape many readers’s expectations.

    4. Some editors won’t buy the time concept. I have had several editors tell us that crime books set in the 80s are a hard sell. Don’t know if it’s true but there it is.

    5. If you DO set the plot in the 80s, you should work hard to make sure the plot doesn’t scream dated. Good stories, regardless of time frame, have a universality that transcends era. But again, if you are dealing with crime, you have to address the technology problem.

    I probably have other suggestions! I might be back.

    • PJ – excellent advice and you sum up all of the nagging worries I have about setting a book in the 1980s. My idea is more YA as well which has added difficulties since no one in the YA reader category would remember anything from the 80s!

  10. I would think there needs to be a good reason to set the story in that time zone. I wouldn’t consider that era to be a true historical. It’s too recent in our memory. Can you call your work “A Novel” without terming it historical? That might work, if you make the era clear in the beginning.

    • Thanks Nancy – I’m still very much in two minds about the book and how I would categorize it. Might have to just let it percolate a little bit more to see if it’s really going to work…

  11. A good question. My novels take place in the late 1970’s. I have often wondered if categorizing them as historical would be appropriate. Hopefully, this discussion will shed some light.

    Claire says, watching an episode of the show The Americans makes me appreciate just how ‘foreign’ some of the 1980’s can seem. For the younger reader, it may be history. For some of us, it’s a stroll down memory lane. The challenge for the writer is to satisfy both perspectives.

    It could be argued that a historical novel takes place in a period before the life experience of the author. But, what about the near past? My novels take place during the Cold War and the stories are intertwined with actual historical events. I traveled to many of the places depicted in my writings during this period, but the stories are the products of my imagination. My second novel takes place in Iran and Afghanistan during the initial stages of the Iranian revolution and prior to the Soviet invasion. Writing about such times can offer insights about subsequent events, but the temptation to be too clever or prescient is to be avoided in order to maintain a credible point of view. I try to offer tidbits of fact and opinion and let the reader decide.

    Writing about the near past has many potential pitfalls. My protagonist arrives in Kabul on the day the American ambassador is killed, an actual event. The event was an essential element in the story, but dealing with it in a suitable way was not easy.

    PJ: Good stories, regardless of time frame, have a universality that transcends era. You’re right, that’s the real challenge.

  12. Well, why not? As long as you have an idea that really needs that period, as mentioned above. If, in the 70s, you had wanted to write a novel that took place during WW II nobody would have thought twice about calling it historical. Or, during that same decade writing about life under McCarthy. Think Woody Allen’s The Front. Even less time than now to the 80s. Or The Godfather. The book came out in 1969, and covered the mid 40s to mid 50s. Even closer than the 80s from today, and filled with period detail. Maybe the problem is that because you lived through it it just doesn’t seem “foreign” or “exotic” enough to you. That doesn’t mean you can’t make the right story “exotic” enough to the reader.

  13. The movie Argo just won an Oscar for best picture. The story happened in the timeframe you are targeting so I think there is an audience out there for what you are considering. If your target audience is YA, then yes, its certainly historical to them.

    Having spent my teens in that decade, if I were to attempt such a story I have no doubt in would quickly become a historical comedy.

  14. I’m still “discovering” bands from the eighties. I listen to the “oldies” station and find groups I never heard of. I think, Whoa. They sound cool. Then I find out the tune was recorded thirty years ago. Now at this point, we’re not even talking about how various groups looked at the time. That’s another story. However, dig out the old pics from the seventies for a real shocker.

    • My best friend from High School (class of ’86) was a Heavy Metal Glam-Rock up & comer who started to make a name for himself in the late 80’s (till discovering coke, booze & percocet put his music career on permanent hold). Looking back on those old pics I am glad I was the country looking dude in our gang of friends (also the pop fan vs. Ozzy or Iron Maiden devotee) and therefore was perfectly comfy with my cowboy boots & 501 Levi’s as opposed to all the big hair, pastel on primary colors and eye liner.

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