Friday 6 July 2018

How to Keep Nostalgia in the Past

By Nick Cross

Source image by Crossett Library

I’ve just finished a teen novel set in the early 90s, and it’s been wonderful to step back into a world without mobile phones, where tactile, analogue technologies like cassette tapes and vinyl were all the rage. Each time Donald Trump tweeted, or Snapchat redesigned their app, or something like #MeToo happened, I thanked my lucky stars that I wasn’t trying to write a story about modern teenagers. But there’s a flipside to writing a tale set within my own lifetime - I found myself constantly battling the seductive allure of nostalgia. The last thing I wanted to do was spend the whole book saying stuff like “Ooh, do you remember this? Wasn’t it great!”

“What’s so bad about nostalgia?” you might be asking. “Isn’t it all just harmless fun?” Maybe in small doses. But taken too far, nostalgia can be shaped into a dangerous lie. Without the pernicious effect of nostalgia telling us that things were better in the old days, would we have ended up with Brexit or President Trump?

What I particularly dislike about the use of nostalgia in fiction writing, is that it allows the author to choose easy truths, and prevents them digging deeper into the reality of what life was really like. Seen in this way, nostalgia becomes another form of privilege: because we remember living through a period in a certain way, we assume our experience was universal. And more than that, human memory is notoriously fallible. As writers, we owe it to our readers to do the research, so we can represent the characters’ experiences as faithfully as possible.

I’ve been fascinated by the phenomenon of nostalgia for many years. Even as a young adult in the 1990s, I was surrounded by people reminiscing about the 60s and 70s. I can remember my university friends getting dewy-eyed about Mr Benn or Alberto Frog and His Amazing Animal Band (look it up - or better still, don’t). In the mid-nineties, my friend Stefan and I created The Encyclopedia of Cultural References, a sort of anti-Wikipedia filled with lies and falsehood. For months, we wrote bizarre articles in which Roald Dahl was a secret Marxist trying to write “the definitive radical existential socialist children’s book”, or the Golden Delicious “Le Crunch Bunch” were hapless pawns in a vicious trade war between France and England (sound familiar?) Over time, these jokey satires have been subsumed by real-life events - who could have possibly imagined the grim reality of Rolf Harris’s off-camera life?

This is just one of many examples that show things were not always rosy in the garden, even if they appeared that way to our childhood eyes. So how can we, as authors, overcome our own in-built sentimentality towards the recent past?

  1. Know your audience
    How many times have I typed those three words in a blog post like this one? A lot. But that doesn’t make it any less true. If your audience is a bunch of adults roughly your age, then carefully deployed nostalgia can be a good way of engaging with them. I myself used nostalgia to get a laugh in my video introduction for last year’s Crystal Kite Award. But if your audience is a group of fifteen-year-olds, tread carefully. You might get a reaction from referencing exactly the right Cbeebies show, but you also might fall flat on your face.

  2. Highlight the bad along with the good
    Nostalgia is all about slipping on those rose-tinted glasses and indulging in a major feat of selective memory. But here’s a newsflash - whenever and wherever you grew up, your teenage years basically sucked! You don’t have to write a 500 page misery memoir, but equally, don’t sugar-coat stuff. Teen readers can spot a faker a mile off.

  3. Tap into the feelings, but not necessarily the details
    If you’re writing a YA book, the chances are that you’re probably carrying a lot of angst around with you. That’s great - let it all out! But mapping your own feelings onto the experiences of a fictional character can help you maintain some distance, and make it easier to see what’s best for the story.

  4. Ask yourself: is this bit of writing for me, or for the reader?
    If it’s just for the reader, that’s fine.
    If it’s just for you, remove it.
    If it’s for both of you, then great!

  5. Pick an area that you don’t know much about
    This is what I did in my book, although it wasn’t a deliberate strategy to avoid nostalgia, but more because that was what I wanted to write about! However, incorporating some unfamiliar settings, characters or themes will stretch you as a writer and force you to do additional research into the period.

  6. Don’t assume the good times are behind you
    We all fear getting older, and because the past is set in stone, it’s easy to imagine that our lives were better then. But the truth is that we have a huge capacity to grow and change, which is a big part of why we became writers in the first place. I don’t know about you, but I’m 46 years old, as fit and healthy as I’ve ever been, and I just wrote a kick-ass novel that I’m incredibly proud of. I’d say life is pretty good right here in 2018 :-)

So there you have it, six simple steps to banish nostalgia forever. But before you go, could you answer me just one question? Don’t you think my blog posts were better in the old days?


Nick Cross is a children's writer/illustrator and Undiscovered Voices winner. He received a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.
Nick is also the Blog Network Editor for SCBWI Words & Pictures magazine. His Blog Break column appears fortnightly on W&P.


  1. Huge congratulations, Nick! I can't wait to read it!

    1. Be careful what you wish for ;-)

    2. On the subject of nostalgia, I recently read a book for teenagers that was pretty much autobiographical and its value stood totally on a well observed and remembered nostalgia of growing up in the 1980s. When I finished it, I reflected for a long time about whether the specificity of its setting might be lost on its young reader. In fact the characterisation was skilful and engaging so the nostalgic world building strengthened rather than detracted from the story. But I wondered whether the book would have been better aimed at an adult audience.

  2. Huge congratulations on finishing your kick-ass good new novel! Hurray!!!
    Now to answer your question - were your blog posts better in the old days? Hmmmm. You have me going there, or should I just stay here. I fancy I shall move forward with your new self and let the past look after it's self, Besides I wasn't a member back then. Ho hum must go off and try finishing off my re-written re-written story. Best wishes
    Looking forward to another blog shortly

    1. Thanks, Erica. There were certainly a lot more posts in the past - I used to blog once a week! Not sure how I managed to do that and get any actual writing done though...

  3. Well, I’m one of those who grew up in the 60s and while I am nostalgic about some things - the clothes and the music, for example, and being around the day of the first moon landing - I also remember the Cold War and the fear of the bomb(mind you, with two lunatics wanting to show off the size of their nuclear genitals, we may be back there!). I remember Vietnam. And - I remember that computers were the size of rooms. I’m delighted with the advance of technology guy becUse I remember what it was like before.

    I did have a lot of fun researching a couple of stories set in the 60s, though - “Oh, yeah, that was the year this movie came out... Wow, was that the price of a jar of Vegemite in those days?” And so on.

    You might also want to remind people that if they are writing a novel set in the present day, they should use present-day technology. I’ve seen that mistake made - and novels set in the past for no special reason.

    1. Yes, I certainly enjoyed the novel from the perspective of rediscovering the past, and it was great to use some of my own knowledge of the period. That's a very good point about technology, too. Whenever your story is set, it pays to do your research!

  4. Hooray for finishing. And yes, live in the present! It's the only place we are...

    1. Thanks, Clare. And good luck with your new adventure in novel writing.


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