Are the 1980s ‘history’ yet?

Thanks to Jordan for posting for me while I had to go unexpectedly to Australia (sadly, it was for a family funeral). I have to admit it feels a little strange to be back on the blog even though it’s only a few weeks…Somehow 2020 seems to have started on a bit of an emotional roller-coaster so I think I might need to re-celebrate the new year sometime in March!

Traveling to Australia can be a surreal experience – not only do you clock in at about 28 hours door to door, but going there you literally lose a day and coming back you often arrive before you left…both of which can play havoc on the body’s internal clock. Luckily, I didn’t suffer too much from jet lag this time – though I did experience what I like to call ‘time lag’. Isn’t it funny how going back to the place you grew up often puts you in a bit of a time warp, especially when (in parts of Australia at least) it’s like nothing’s actually changed in the 25 years since you left!

I’ve never written a book set in Australia but this time round a story which has been swirling around in my sub-conscious began to take form. In fact there are two stories circling in my brain – one of which has a definite historical context, the other that would take place (and least partly) in the mid 1980s. As a historical writer who likes to use a particular time and place to ground my stories I’ve been grappling with the question of whether the 1980s can really be considered ‘history’ yet. My memories of that time period are still clear (I’m not that old yet!) but I think I would still have to do research much like I would do for any historical period. If I was setting my story in the 1960s or 1970s I don’t think I’d even ask the question – but the 1980s…hmmm…I’m not so sure.

When I was in Australia, I was struck by how little it had really changed and how easy it would be to mentally transport myself back to my teenage years. But I was also challenged by the prospect of using the recent past as a historical backdrop – especially given how many recent successful franchises have already started to play on this kind of nostalgia (Stranger Things and The Americans anyone?!)…so I’d have to tread very carefully if I was to ensure authenticity and also avoid the usual 1980s cliches.

In some respects it doesn’t even matter (a good story is a good story no matter how you classify it) but it’s funny how in my own head I identify as a historical fiction writer and (if I’m honest) don’t feel all that confident that I could pull off writing ‘contemporary’ fiction (ah, the joys of the angst-filled writer’s mind!). Approaching the 1980s as a historical era would (perhaps) give me the crutch I need to move forward, but then I wonder, if that’s true…then what really is ‘history’ anymore??

So TKZers, what do you think? How do you classify ‘historical fiction? Do the 1980s even qualify???

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40 thoughts on “Are the 1980s ‘history’ yet?

  1. Classifying the 80’s as historical would make me historical (and sometimes I feel it. LOL!) but you bring up a good question. I’ve heard numerous times that ‘they’ consider WWII and before historical, but I don’t know who ‘they’ is–who presumes to set that bar.

    You mentioned what you can remember–while I was alive during that time, the Vietnam War era seems historical to me because it is very vague in my mind, having been elementary school aged at the time.

    So maybe the definition of historical is what MOST people view as historical (hence ‘they’ declaring it WWII & before). I most definitely write historical because I’ve never written anything more ‘recent’ than 1917 and mostly 19th century. But even if I was writing contemporary, I would still feel there were millions of things I had to research.

    Bottom line, I suppose it matters in advertising your books–finding your niche of readers, but on the other hand, people grab so many keywords to link to their books, it probably doesn’t matter as much to findability. I’ll be curious to see what others have to say as well.

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  2. Sorry your trip was for a funeral, Clare. We had a trip to Australia, and another to South Africa, and those long travel days and time shifts can be killer (no pun intended.)
    From a purely practical reason–yes, write the book. We had an anniversary trip to Ireland and Scotland, and I’m working on a book set there. Tax write-off.
    As for whether the 1980s qualify as ‘historical fiction’? I have trouble thinking of things that happened in my lifetime as “history.” That would make me feel old. But as a writer, sure–go for it.

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  3. Technically, yesterday is history, but I get what you’re saying. I used to think of historical fiction as having taken place in the 1800s or before. But then again, I think of 9/11 in a historical sense.

    I wonder if our thoughts of history have to do with our age? You said you wouldn’t think twice about callings the 60s or 70s history, but not the 80s. I, on the other hand, have trouble thinking of the 70s as history because I grew then. Lots to ponder.

    Incidentally, a good friend wrote a book set during the 80s. I admire her for having done so. In so many ways the 80s were “modern” times yet we didn’t have Internet, cell phones and the likes. It would be so easy to throw in something that didn’t exist during those days.

    Good post!

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    • Joan
      It’s funny to think of all the ‘modern’ conveniences we didn’t have in the 1980s (like the internet). I think according to my twin boys this would definitely classify the 1980s as historical (lol!).

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    • FWIW, I don’t think anyone considers Sue Grafton’s novels as “historicals.” She just needs to keep reminding readers that there were no cell phones, etc. as Kinsey does her investigating.

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  4. Clare,

    Thought-provoking post. The 1980s as historical? No way, that was only the week before last, wasn’t it? Hard to believe two full generations have grown up since then.

    My husband’s grandmother, who lived to age 96, said the older she got, the faster time raced by. I know what she means. One blink and another week has evaporated.

    Since little changed in your former home, you kind of time-traveled back to your teen years. That era represented the first awakening of many emotions that were new to you and therefore more vivid. If you decide to write a 1980s story, that freshness will come through on the page. I say go for it.

    And check out the film “Peggy Sue Got Married” starring Kathleen Turner and Nicholas Cage.

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    • Thanks Debbie – and I like “Peggy Sue Got Married” as it is a fun way to show what it would be like if you could relive your teenage years (slight shudder!). I will certainly keep mulling over the 1980s story idea though I should really get the two true historical novels edited and out on submission first:)

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    • “Since little changed in your former home, you kind of time-traveled back to your teen years.” My children are third generation of their high school. I remind them from time to time one of their fellow alumns wrote a story about travelling back in time to meet his father in high school. The original version did not use a Delorean as a time machine, but the film version did.

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  5. Traditional publishers define what is and isn’t an historical novel, and what is or isn’t a time period they think readers will like. Years ago, you couldn’t sell an historical romance that wasn’t Regency England or the American West. I’ve not kept up with the market, but I’ve heard that WWII is a possible time period now, and any time in Scotland is fine. Hunks in kilts! Historical mysteries seem to be open to most time periods, particularly if your sleuth is historical or a major fictional character. Jane Austin! Bertie, the idiot Prince of Wales! Sherlock Holmes!

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  6. Five to eight years ago the Vietnam era that took us to somewhere in the 70s was considered historical. Therefore, it stands to reason the 80s would now be historical. It would definitely be challenging.

    It’s amazing to me how so much of my life should now be viewed as historical. lol

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  7. When I was in high school in the 80s, the 70s were in our books, and that was less than 10 years. 1980 are now 40 years ago. I’m afraid that’s history. Sorry. (But not as sorry as I am to realize how old that makes me…)

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  8. The ‘80s were when my children were growing up. They’re in their ‘40s now, so I would think of that time period as history. But that seems different than the label “historical fiction”. Reaching for historical fiction, I’d expect an era prior to the 20th century, but that’s just my opinion.

    So, in view of everyone’s comments, what bucket would Back to the Future be tossed into? 😬

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  9. The color of my hair tells me that the 80’s were indeed historical. I am high school class of 1980. Write the book. There are plenty of us who will enjoy the trip down memory lane.

    Times have changed quite a bit. I enjoy many of the movies I watched in my youth. But…Revenge of the Nerds, one of my wife’s favorites, is basically a long run of sex crimes and racial discrimination. Ditto, Animal House. The N word was tossed around with abandon. Pay phones, big hair, renting movies, VHS, dial up internet, big hair, a lot has changed.

    One thing I never thought of. I tell my children to look a 4 o’clock. They have no idea what I am talking about.

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  10. I sort of remember Viet Nam. Enough that the thought of going to Viet Nam as a tourist seems really weird. I knew draftees and draft dodgers. I remember body counts on the news every day.

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  11. First off, my deepest condolences. I was shocked to read that you had to make an unexpected trip to Australia…that’s a very daunting flight!! Certainly not one a person wants to do without adequate planning! I’m sorry it had to also be laden with sorrow.

    And yet you’ve brought us a fascinating topic!
    Although I’m right there in age with BJ, I can’t bear to think of the 80s as “historical” because, in so many ways in my mind, it just happened! Ha ha.
    Now, nostalgic? Yes! Absolutely!

    But, as Debbie eloquently stated, “That era represented the first awakening of many emotions that were new to you and therefore more vivid. If you decide to write a 1980s story, that freshness will come through on the page. I say go for it.”

    And look at the wild popularity of the novel, Ready Player One! If the 80’s were not already a fond nostalgia for so many, how could that story have won so many gamer hearts? (Personally, I found the sheer amount of references in the novel annoying on first read, but I loved them in the movie, which was a steeply encapsulated version of the book.)
    Go for it. I’m sure it will be a great story!

    Deb, I’m laughing at your question about Back to the Future because I have NO idea how tovclassufy that one! Ha ha!

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    • Thanks Cyn. I was a very sad, difficult trip back to Australia and the flight definitely reminded us just how far away it is.
      On a lighter note, both my boys loved Ready Player One (both the book and the movie) so there may be hope for the 1980s yet!

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  12. Judging by the Oldies radio station playing all the songs I heard in high school and the quantity of grey in my beard I must concede that the 80s are indeed moving into the realm of history.

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  13. I know I’m getting old because movies I saw as first run theatrical releases are now on Turner Classic Movies. Last night they showed Silence of the Lambs. That was released on Valentine’s Day 1991. I remember seeing it at the theatre in Century City. That doesn’t seem that long ago, but it was 29 years ago! They followed that with Taxi Driver (1976). Neither of these movies seem old to me, but in 1976 WWII definitely was historic, and we are a lot further away in time from 1976 than 1976 was from WWII.

    I do think part of it has to do with whether you were alive and have a memory of that time. I can take myself back to the 80s and 90s with a memory, so they can’t be historic, but I didn’t exist in the 50s so therefore that time period is forever historic to me.

    I do think you can use it as a historic period. Let me give a weird example. I recently read a few of J.A. Jance’s early (mid 80s) Beaumont detective novels. The thing that struck me most about them is that the Seattle she wrote about is exactly as it was then. I can remember the exact places she references. Seattle today is nothing at all like that. The city has the same name and location, but so much has changed that it’s all but unrecognizable. Those early novels are, in a sense, historical, or at least period pieces. (I haven’t read the later books so I don’t know if this is addressed.) So go ahead and 80s away.

    When I lived in Australia I felt like I was living in a place a lot like the US 20 years earlier. So did a lot of my friends.

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  14. I get the feeling that if it’s been fifty or sixty years ago, then it’s history; anything less might be considered “nostalgia” ~ like American Graffiti was to the mid-seventies or Back to the Future was in the eighties. That’s how I see Stranger Things ~ tho my kids may see it as ANCIENT history~ 😋

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  15. Speaking as a teenager, the 1980’s are historical enough that I would have to do extra research if I decided to write something set then :P.

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  16. Maybe the bottom line here is that what’s considered “historical” is entirely subjective! My history isn’t your history, my future isn’t your future.

    On a side note, my witty husband said just the other day, “Forever isn’t as long as it used to be…” 🙂

    I’m not sure of the connection to this discussion, but it’s got to be tied in somehow…and I’m convinced I can use it in my current WIP somewhere. 🙂 🙂

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  17. I still cannot bring myself to go to the Vietnam Memorial.

    My friends, classmates, and guys I went to school with are remembered there. Many of their brothers, sisters, cousins, and our mutual friends are still alive.

    No. The times of Bien Hoa, China Beach, Khe San, Quang Tri, Hue, Hamburger Hill, Tan Son Nhut are not history.

    As long as I’m alive, I’ll remember the guys, my friends and guys I studied geometry with–I’ll remember them. I’ll remember the way they were treated when they came home. In my head, I’ll not let them die. They weren’t part of history. They were living, guys who played baseball and football and ate the good hamburgers at Greer’s Big G, and sneaked into the Republic and Gazette Ranch to swim in the pool at 2 a.m. during the summers.

    I’ll remember them until my last breath. I’ll be damned if I can ever think of those days as history.

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    • Jim, I still remember being a freshman in college in 1972 in southern California and meeting a real, live Vietnam Veteran for the first time. He’d just gotten back the year or two before. He was 26, I was 18 and stupid. He was in one of my classes. I approached him and asked him to “tell me what it was like over there”, complete with stupid grin on my face.

      I still remember the look of disgust on his face. I didn’t know then why, but I sure know now. He stuck his finger in my face and told me it was none of my business and to never ask again. I remember backing away from him and feeling confused by his anger.

      Vietnam is one of those eras that should not be relegated to history. It should always be dogging our steps, or peeking from around a corner just ahead of us. “Never forget” is not just for 9/11.

      Thank you for reminding me.

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    • As a child growing up during the Vietnam War years, I didn’t recognize then but do now the media propaganda that fanned the flames of the soldiers’ mistreatment at home. My father served during Vietnam and I’m thankful every day he was one of the ones who made it home.
      I have often wondered if it brings any measure of peace at all to those soldiers to know that at least now, (for the most part) Americans have learned their lesson from that horrible time and treat soldiers more respectfully (though I’m sure there are always exceptions).

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  18. Hey Clare. I’m an Aussie. Was in my 20s in the 80s. Feels like history. Remember, Frank Zappa said ‘Jazz is not dead – it just smells a little.’ I feel like that about that part of my life. I’ve sent u an email. X jay.

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