Imag(in)ing the past

The story I’m writing at the moment is set in the past, in a vague and never-specified summer at the end of the 80s: 1988 or 1989. Certain signifiers are there – and necessarily there – which tie it to this particular era. Thatcher is Prime Minister; the 1984-85 miners’ strike is described as having happened “a few years ago”; a group of teenagers listen to the latest music, in this case acid house.

Writing fiction that’s set in the past is challenging, not least because you need a certain amount of things which make plain that it is in the past (assuming its historical nature is important) while running the risk of what I’ve seen called the “bakelite” problem, whereby you over-describe common objects, and in highlighting their period features lose all subtlety.

One of my favourite writers, Clive Barker, is on record (I’ll find the quote sometime) as saying that he deliberately leaves out things like brand names in his fiction. This is in complete contrast to Stephen King, whose amiable voice can’t cram in enough pop-culture references. Who didn’t first hear of any number of American brands via King’s fiction? I know I did. But Barker’s choice leaves more space in the reader’s mind, and doesn’t tie them to certain expectations or imagery. Also, it means the work is less likely to date. Obviously, the advent of mobile phones and the web means any fiction from before about 1997 can feel dated to an extent, but at least you’re not building the obsolescence into the work.

I have an image in my head of (for instance) the High Street of the town in my story, filled with retailers now gone (Dixons, Woolworths, Wm. Low [a Scottish supermarket chain bought by Tesco in the 90s]), and while those may be a necessary or relevant part of the story, to name them feels like a shortcut: as if I’m merely listing the detail of a period without capturing the texture. But surely the texture of an era lies in the ephemeral things (as I noted in my article on nostalgia)?

If I think of things that differentiate a street in 1988 from one in 2018, what is there? More graffiti now (but how do you express the absence of graffiti?); more street furniture now (again, how do you suggest that?). What was there but no longer is? It’s a tricky one to navigate.

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One thought on “Imag(in)ing the past

  1. I’ve had this dilemma myself; and the question (without an answer) I arrived at is are ‘period details’ there to set the scene for people who *were* there then, or people who weren’t? Ideally both of course, but what seems a significant/telling detail for one group might well be obscure to the point of meaninglessness to the other – but maybe that’s a good thing for creating a believable ‘world’? It’s definitely tricky!

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