Historical Fiction–1980s Style by Emme Rollins
Did you know there are people in the reading world who insist “historical fiction” has to take place in the 1950’s or earlier? I don’t know if they’re just ostriches with their heads stuck in the sand or they’ve been taking Rip Van Winkle naps for half a century, but the last time I checked, the 1950’s was sixty years ago. If that rule actually applied, then in 1950, a “historical novel” couldn’t have included the introduction of the Model T in 1908. Sorry, it didn’t happen in the 1890’s, it doesn’t count as historical!
My new novel, Dear Rockstar (a “new adult” rock star romance) is set in the 1980’s era. I made it “historical” because it needed to take place in a time when celebrities weren’t so accessible (ala Twitter!), a time when things like fan clubs and actual fan letters written on paper still existed. It was an era where “indie” wasn’t a known quantity and the music industry machine had a lot more control over who was played on the radio and who did (or didn’t) become famous.
I’ve had a few comments from reviewers and readers complaining “1980 isn’t historical!” They argue that no real, significant changes happened between then and now, except perhaps in fashion or trends, most of which people are grateful for—like the disappearance of big hair, parachute pants and the moonwalk.
Ah, how soon we forget!
Many of the things we take for granted today came along in the 1980s, but the fact is most of them didn’t really get established until the 1990s. Things that would change the world. CDs came along in the 1980s but wouldn’t replace cassettes fully until the 1990s. Portable phones were invented but only rich people had them in the 1980s. Personal computers were invented, but a majority didn’t use them yet.
Technology was taking baby steps in the 1980s, like the Model T did back in the 1900s. Walkmans made music portable. Home video game consoles were developed. Fax machines made sending documents easier. Answering machines made the busy signal obsolete. But while we had the technology, only a small number of people were actually using it.
Growing up in the 1980s didn’t just mean you owned a Rubik’s cube and listened to music on vinyl or cassette. Growing up in the 1980s meant huge social, cultural and technological differences from today.
For example, growing up in the 1980s meant that you had to go to an actual library to do research for a school paper. And while you were there, you had to look up information in a card catalog that pointed you to a place on big shelves where they housed these thing called “books.” (Okay, so we still have those, but they’re on their way out!) There was no computer database. In fact, there were no computers at all. They had newspapers cataloged on microfiche. (Go ahead, look that one up if you have to…) Some libraries had television stations with giant headphones (no earbuds back then) where you could watch VHS tapes they rented to you. (Buying video tapes was very cost-prohibitive. Rick Springfield’s one and only movie, Hard to Hold, was $80 when it was released. Don’t ask me how I know that.)
It was the decade when MTV first appeared and video killed the radio star. MTV played music videos twenty-four hours a day. Nothing else. (Definitely not shows like Sixteen and Pregnant!) And you couldn’t DVR it and fast forward through the commercials either. In fact, most households didn’t have a video player (VCR) at all (and some that did might have owned a Betamax—my dad had one, the equivalent of buying an Edsel) so you had to wait for a commercial to use the bathroom or grab a snack if you didn’t want to miss anything. (Note: Microwaves were new too, many people didn’t trust them, and people who didn’t own them had to wait fifty minutes—that’s not a typo, 50 minutes, five-zero—for a baked potato!) There was no Disney Channel or Cartoon Network either. You had to wait until Saturday morning if you wanted to watch cartoons.
Televisions had remote controls, but most also had antennae, often called “rabbit ears.” While cable was become more popular, it was rather expensive and many still balked at the concept of “paying for TV.” Average people didn’t own credit cards or were new to them. Credit card companies sent real, already-activated cards in the mail to encourage people to use them! (I’m not making this up…) But many places still only took cash or checks, and often closed down entirely on Sundays. And if you wanted cash, there weren’t many ATM machines in use yet. You had to wait for the bank to open to make a withdrawal from an actual teller. And you had to wait for stores to open before buying something too. There was no internet or Amazon Prime with two-day shipping.
There were no iPods. Instead, there were Walkmans. There were no playlists. Instead, there were mix-tapes. If you wanted music, you couldn’t download it—you had to go to a record store to buy it. And they were still called records and albums, even years after cassettes and CDs came out. Liner notes with lyrics were a big deal. Cassettes were for your boom box (it was a very large portable radio) or your car (although some cars still had 8-track players) where they would sometimes warp in the heat and your car player often “ate” the tape, so you ended up digging ribbons of music out of the slot and twirling a pen for what felt like hours to fix it.
Cell phones had been invented but weren’t really in use. A few rich people had car phones or giant, clunky portable phones. Most home phones had wires still attached to them. Some were even rotary dial. And even some touch-tone phones made a “rotary dial sound” on the line when you pushed the button. Call waiting was an optional feature you had to pay for. There was still such a thing as a “busy” signal. And if you dialed “0” you could still talk to a real live person. You also had to pay for long-distance calling, sometimes even just down the street.
There was no “texting” or GPS and growing up in the 1980’s meant reading real maps. Many people joined AAA (Triple-A) so they could get the “trip-ticks” for traveling. AAA would map your route for you via a real paper map, using a highlighter to show you which roads to take. There was no Google Earth, no Google maps, no GPS. If you got lost, you had to actually stop to ask for directions.
One of the things about the 1980s that particularly interested me was the concept of “fame” or “celebrity,” which is, in part, what my novel, Dear Rockstar, focuses on. In the 1980s, there were actual shows on television and the people on those shows were actors. Reality TV hadn’t been invented yet, so the only “real people” you saw were on the news or prank shows. The concept of being famous just for fame’s sake wasn’t even on the radar. If you wanted to be famous, you had to know someone, get lucky, or actually be talented. The 1980s television show, “Fame,” epitomized this philosophy, emphasizing that only the best, most talented people actually made it to the top.
So for anyone out there who wants to narrowly define “historical fiction” as taking place during the 1950’s or earlier, I’d encourage you to take another look at the differences between now and the 1980s. Even the 1990s! You may find they’re far more significant than you thought!
If I were to put a time limit on “historical” fiction, I’d probably draw the line at twenty years. About a generation. Time is a funny thing. It doesn’t exist when we’re young, and it begins to bend and warp as we age. For readers, I think going back to the 1980s will be a nostalgia trip for some—and feel like a time warp for others, who can’t imagine or remember a world without the instant gratification of pocket Internet.
For me, as a writer, it was just happened to be when my story took place, in a decade when “MTV played music videos, there was no such thing as American Idol, and becoming a star meant doing nothing short of crazy for that one, big break.”
Emme Rollins is an up and coming author of New Adult/Mature Young Adult fiction. She’s been writing since she could hold a crayon and still chews her pen caps to a mangled plastic mess. She did not, however, eat paste as a kid.
She has two degrees, a bachelor’s and a master’s, one of which she’s still paying for, but neither of which she uses out in the “real world,” because when she isn’t writing, she spends her time growing an organic garden to feed her husband and children (and far too many rabbits and deer!) where they live on twenty gorgeous forested acres in rural Michigan.
She loves tending her beehives (bees are wonderful pollinators and Hello!? Honey!) and keeping up with her daily yoga practice and going for long walks in the woods with her boxer, Rodeo, who loves chasing squirrels almost as much as Emme loves writing!
Learn more and order your own copy of Dear Rockstar here:
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