Monday 6 February 2017

Living in the Past

By Nick Cross

I've always been suspicious of nostalgia - that intense yearning for the past that often seems to be an excuse for not engaging with the present. As a result, all of my five novels to date have had a contemporary setting. Writing in the now just felt right - I was engaging with the issues that directly affected child readers, I was keeping up with popular culture and also avoiding doing much in the way of research (which I found tedious).

Yet I seem to have spent the last six months living in and writing about the past. What happened there?

In a word: BREXIT

While the Brexit vote was, in many ways, a victory of nostalgia over common sense, it awoke a strange need in me to retreat into history. So, on the day after the referendum, I found myself watching a film about the 1968 Chicago riots. The present had become utterly confusing, and I found myself compelled to reach back to a time that was equally bewildering. That might seem masochistic to you, but I think I was searching for reassurance, a sense that other people lived through such times and came out the other side.

I don’t know why late 20th Century American history holds such a fascination for me, but as the news got steadily worse through the latter half of 2016, I spent more and more time watching documentaries and reading about the past. I was attracted to scenarios where life and liberty were threatened by repressive right-wing forces, and the people affected rebelled against it: the black civil rights movement, civil unrest in the late 1960s, Nixon and Watergate (a particular fascination), the 80s AIDS epidemic, third-wave feminism in the early 1990s.

Some of the films I've watched over the last six months

It’s not hard to see the parallels between these times past and the current dark days of Brexit and President Trump. There’s a paranoid nutjob in the White House; racial minorities are being victimised and sometimes killed; women’s rights are threatened; liberal democracy is in the midst of an existential crisis. But for me as a writer, the great advantage that the past has over the present is that it cannot change. Who would dare to predict what will happen in the world in even a month’s time? Fictional scenarios that once seemed utterly fanciful have become more like factual accounts of modern American politics.

However, if I’m writing about the past, all I have to do is find a gap in the true story where I can place my fictional one. A gap that can never be closed by current events, however volatile. As a storyteller, it’s also a fun challenge – can I weave real events around my narrative to provide verisimilitude, but then imagine how my own characters would react in that situation?

Research in progress

I am doing a lot of research – one source book in particular is looking increasingly dog-eared - and I’ve been writing out endless timelines and mind-maps to make sense of the chronology of events. As ever, I’m impatient to get on with the writing, but I also have a strong urge to get things right. This is a particular hazard when writing about the recent past, as the real-life people involved may still be alive and could read the book!

If you read my last post Drifting Away, you’ll know that 2016 was a tough year for me creatively. And I have to think that the turbulent political climate was in part responsible for that. It’s all too easy to get fixated on the news and feel powerless in the face of unstoppable global forces. In order to find myself again, I first had to get some distance from the here and now.

Sometimes, the only way to make sense of the present is to get the hell out of it

Beyond the escapism factor, the past offers us something else that’s in perilously short supply right now: hope. Things have actually got better – a lot better – since the 60s, 70s and 80s. On average, we are living longer, healthier, more fulfilling lives. Black people and women have moved much closer to equality. Gay marriage is a reality in much of the world. And homosexual men aren’t dying every day from an incurable disease.

All that said, I still feel the heavy burden of middle-class guilt. Even though I spend my working life at a non-profit company, directly contributing to education programmes across the developing world, I worry that I could be doing more. Shouldn’t I be making banners and joining marches against Trump? Isn’t it my moral duty to protest?

Photo by Fibonacci Blue

When I look at our present-day struggles, I feel paralysed by the breadth of change needed to put the world back on an even keel. Yet, when I look at the past, I can see a blueprint for how that change could be achieved. My ability to affect politics - especially American politics - is limited. But by shining a light on the successful campaigns of the past to fight racism, sexism, social inequality and corruption, I hope to show young readers how they can join together and make a difference.


Nick Cross is a children's writer and Undiscovered Voices winner. He received a 2015 SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.

Nick is also the Blog Network Editor for SCBWI Words & Pictures magazine. His Ten-Minute Blog Break column appears fortnightly on W&P.


  1. You can see a blueprint! You're putting it into a book for young people. You've definitely got my interest, Nick. Best of luck with it.

  2. I found myself reflecting on the Cold War after 9/11 in a similar way; there is some comfort to thinking how totally F$%£ed things have been in the past ... but I'm far too lazy to do the research to go there in a story.
    Hope it goes well!

  3. I'm really excited by your new project, having also been working on a historical wip. "When I look at the past, I can see a blueprint for how that change could be achieved" So true! Would love to learn more about it. And what your dogeared book is. Write well!

    1. Thanks Candy. As you'll have guessed from my reticence, I'm not ready to talk about it yet, until I've got some more writing under my belt. But soon, hopefully!

  4. I think I've been searching for reassurance too and in a weird way my book us being affected by what's happening in the world. I'm adding in the the things I feel are unjust or uncomfortable and trying ti find a way for the characters to deal with them. It's an 'interesting' time. I do have hope for the future though. Because of the oast. Good luck with the project.


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