Writing Nostalgia and Other Period Pieces

Nostalgia is the deep bond we have with the past. It is delicate, but potent. In Greek, nostalgia literally means a pain from an old wound, a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. It goes backward and forward and takes us to a place where we ache to go again.

This paraphrase from Don Draper, the über ad man from Mad Men caught my attention and describes my passion as a writer: taking the reader on a nostalgic journey.

It’s not as easy as you think, but here are some guidelines to steer you in the right direction:

There must be a reason for placing your story in a certain year or decade.
• A backdrop of world events or social customs unique to the era make a story feel organic.
• This establishes credibility and gives texture to the story even if it’s not the major plot.
• Everything else springs from this so choose your era and events wisely.

Research is vital.
• Historical inaccuracy breaks the “fictional dream” and pulls readers from the story.
• Memory is faulty, so it’s imperative to check the facts: music, TV shows, brand names, and products. If you get it wrong, your readers will tell you about it. (Ouch!)
• “Rule of Threes” – try to obtain three sources. Consider the reliability of the source. For example: government documents or professional journal articles are more reliable than random blog articles.
• Visit the setting. If that’s not possible, use Google maps for general lay of the land and read books and newspapers from the era for public opinions of the day.
• Don’t impose modern views on historical characters.
• Organize your materials (a whole other blog post!).

Vivid, specific details elicit emotion.
• Sights, sounds, and smells draw the reader in. Music is a powerful tool. Nothing nails an era like its particular “sound.”
• Smell evokes emotion because it is associated with memory.
• Visualize scenes like a movie in your head. Smell the popcorn at the theater. Hear the guns blazing in the wide screen of your mind. Watch the colors and the landscape drift by. Voices and speech patterns will come more naturally with this exercise.

Language and slang.

• Language and slang create a doorway to your time period and give regional distinction to your writing. You hardly ever hear anyone today say, “cool cat” or “the cat’s pajamas.”
• Likewise, don’t have your vintage or historical characters use modern slang.
• Dialect: Use sparingly, if at all. Use syntax and grammar to denote dialect. An occasional mention of an Irish brogue or that the character came from the hills of Arkansas, and readers will get it. Promise.

Are you up for the challenge? The ultimate sweet reward is having a reader say, “I felt like I was there and didn’t want to leave.” Transport your readers into the fictive dream and give them an emotional experience. They will thank you for it.


Carla Stewart’s writing reflects her passion for times gone by. A child of the fifties and sixties, she recalls it as a glorious time when the summers were lazy, colors were brighter, and music filled her heart. Carla’s desire is to take readers back to the times when they knew they were loved, to that warm, familiar place in their hearts called “home.”

Her award-winning novels include Chasing Lilacs and Broken Wings. Stardust is her newest release. She loves readers and participating in book club discussions. You can learn more about Carla and ways to connect with her at www.carlastewart.com, twitter: www.twitter.com/#!/ChasingLilacs and
FaceBook: http://www.facebook.com/carlastewartauthor

STARDUST Book Blurb:

In the bayou country of East Texas, the neon sign of the STARDUST stands silent, no longer beckoning visitors to its cozy cottages. But two days after Georgia Peyton buries her unfaithful husband, a curious thing happens: the STARDUST sign sputters to life and winks at her. Sustained by a memory from the past and determined to build a new life, Georgia acquires the STARDUST with hopes of breathing new life into it too.

But the guests who arrive aren’t what Georgia expects: her gin-loving mother-in-law; her dead husband’s mistress; an attractive drifter who’s tired of the endless road; and an aging Vaudeville entertainer with a disturbing link to Georgia’s past. Dreams of a new life are crippled amid the havoc. Georgia’s only hope is that she can find the courage to forgive those who’ve betrayed her, the grace to shelter those who need her, and the moxie to face the future. One thing is certain: under the flickering neon of the STARDUST, none of their lives will ever be the same.