I Wrote A Book Set in 1986. Why?
Special guest post by Skye McDonald
Rake dukes, feisty ladies in waiting, and isolated manors in remote areas. That’s what we usually associate with historical novels.
But I got in my Delorean and went back to the 1980s.
The summer of 86. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Top Gun, and Labyrinth were new releases. “Papa Don’t Preach,” “Sledgehammer,” and “Invisible Touch” were hot on the charts. A gallon of gas averaged $.89. Mir space station was orbiting the Earth, but Challenger had tragically exploded upon liftoff. Cell phones, pagers, and the internet were not universally known words.
It was a different time. This is where I returned to for my new adult romance novel, The Not So Nice Girl.
A book set in the 80s doesn't classify as historical fiction. Not yet, at least. You need to go back 50 years or more to meet that criteria. I didn’t need a deep understanding of the British royal line to create this world. No swords or corsets appear in this novel.
That said, I did a lot of research in order to bring The Not So Nice Girl to life in 1986. I have fuzzy recollections of pre-1990, but not nearly enough to accurately portray the era. It’s hard to remember not having a cell phone. To recall dialing into AOL with my friends on a summer evening. I don’t remember Challenger’s demise, although Mom says we watched it on TV together. So, to do justice to the time, I immersed myself in cultural markers such as music, clothing, and Saturday morning cartoons.
The Not So Nice Girl is set in the 80s because it is technically a prequel to my contemporary Anti-Belle series. Sam and Eleanor, the main characters in the book, become parents to Celeste, the heroine of Not Suitable for Work (my first novel), which is set in “present day” with no definitive year. The math is definitely fuzzy, and getting fuzzier with each year that passes. When I wrote NSFW in 2015, the mid-80s made sense for the timeline. I stuck with it simply because I thought it would be fun to create an 80s romance.
I was right. It was a lot of fun.
When I was in high school, friends of mine started an 80s club as a way to pay homage to the rad decade. I remember that my entry hinged on naming three songs from the 80s without thinking. “Take On Me,” “You Spin Me Round,” and “Money for Nothing” were what I blurted. I got bonus points for using more than one genre. We loved to talk about John Hughes movies, Labyrinth, and Run DMC.
But when it came time to write The Not So Nice Girl, knowing a few songs wasn’t enough. Because the book is set in 1986, I wanted to make sure that the cultural markers were correct. Sam and Elle couldn’t gush over The Cure’s Disintegration because it wouldn’t come out for three years. My favorite Tom Cruise 80s movie, Cocktail, doesn’t exist yet in their world. A book should reflect the moment in time it occurs, not be a general nod to the decade. Therefore, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Labyrinth, and Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me all appear in the book as new releases. The Red Hot Chili Peppers are an obscure funk band from California that Sam has never heard of.
I loved getting into characters’ heads to imagine what it would be like to have only heard about Ferris Bueller. To witness David Bowie as the Goblin King and not be able to stop singing “Magic Dance.” Even more fun was realizing just how little they would’ve heard about any of these pop landmarks ahead of time.
Without the internet, early access to information simply wasn’t a part of people’s framework. You didn’t have constant contact with your friends, and you didn’t follow Bowie on Twitter to catch sneak peeks of his upcoming movie. The lack of information changed the way people interacted and what was important to them. I used that in The Not So Nice Girl to create more than one surprise moment/lack of awareness for my characters.
A favorite line from my book is super low-key: Sam is in his apartment and the phone rings. Monica, his friend, answers in a panic with, “Where are you?” Sam says, “You called me, Monica. Where else would I be but home?”
Nowadays, “where are you?” is a perfectly logical thing to ask when you call someone. But before our phones lived in our pockets, the question made no sense. I loved adding that little detail in. It’s easy to miss, but a great marker of the time.
The 1980s aren’t an historical era (yet), but our culture has changed vastly in the past few decades. The advent of technology can truly make pre-internet times feel like ancient history. Perhaps that’s what makes the 80s so delightful. Perhaps that’s why, even now, there is a nostalgia for those years. Shows like Stranger Things are hot; remakes of 80s movies are super hot. There seems to be a fondness for that brink decade. Hip and cool were priorities, but we hadn’t yet broken into the information age. The Not So Nice Girl is a love story of that time, and I loved bringing the 80s to life once more.