Four Random Tips For Writing Stories Set In 1990s America

One of the interesting things I noticed when I was writing daily short stories last spring was the fact that I started writing a few stories set in 1990s America, like this horror story, this comedy story and the sequel to it.

This was something that I’d wanted to do back in February 2017, but just didn’t know how to – so, back then, I took the easy option and wrote five stories set in late 1990s Britain instead (even though I’d previously made a comic set in 1990s America, I just couldn’t work out how to write stories about it back then).

So, since I seemed to have gained a bit more wisdom and/or confidence about writing stories set in a decade I can only vaguely remember and a country I’ve never been to, I thought that I’d offer a few tips about how to write stories set in 1990s America. Needless to say, these tips shouldn’t be considered expert advice or anything, but they might be a useful starting point if you’ve never tried to write anything in this genre before.

1) Do your research (and think like a critic): One of the things that helped me to write stories set in 1990s America last spring was the fact that, several months earlier, I went through a phase of watching Hollywood movies from the 1990s and watching/rewatching various TV shows from 1990s America. A while later, I also went through a phase of listening to more punk music from 1990s America than usual too. But, unlike previous times where I’ve done this, I also did something a bit different.

Unlike just watching and listening for entertainment like I might have done a few years ago, I needed to find some way of justifying all of the time I’d sunk into them. So, I started looking at them in a more critical way – so that I could write reviews and/or analysis articles for this site. What this meant is that I had to look for things that they all had in common with each other, I needed to find ways to describe what set them apart from more modern stuff etc…

And, all of this meant that I got a bit of an education about what makes 1990s America so distinctive. So, my advice would be to think like a critic whilst researching 1990s America. Look for what different things from the decade have in common (eg: visually, tonally, thematically etc..) and it will give you a lot of pointers for writing stories in this genre.

2) Optimism and cynicism: I’ve mentioned this many times before, but one of the things that sets the 1990s – especially in America- apart from other decades is the feeling of optimism. This is because it was the decade after the end of the Cold War and before 9/11. It was a decade where there seemed to be no major threats and that things could only get better.

If you don’t believe me, watch some Hollywood action/thriller movies from the time – the storylines are often hilariously silly or innocently generic, because the writers couldn’t just look to the headlines for inspiration. They actually had to use their imaginations to come up with fictional threats and horrors because things were relatively peaceful at the time. So, 1990s America had a bit more of an innocent and optimistic attitude. If you need further confirmation of this, watch the first season of “The West Wing” and ask yourself if anyone in America would make an uplifting political drama like that these days.

All of this cheerful optimism was, of course, counterpointed by the famous cynicism of the 1990s. Seriously, it’s one of the defining traits of 1990s America. Whether it is punk songs with depressing lyrics, a gloomier focus on more mundane problems (eg: crime, the environment, poverty etc..), sarcastic dialogue in movies, “gritty” comic books, “edgy” videogames or other such things, 1990s America is this wonderfully paradoxical balance between optimism and a more innocent form of cynicism.

3) Traditions: Although the world wide web was certainly around in 1990s America, it was still a “new” thing and not the ubiquitous thing it is these days. As such, there seems to be a slightly more “traditional” atmosphere to 1990s America. At least according to my research anyway.

For example, shopping centres (or “malls”) were apparently still popular meeting places and/or places to spend a few hours. Likewise, although VHS tapes (and, later, DVDs) existed in 1990s America, cinemas seemed to be a bit more popular back then. Popular culture was more heavily controlled by a few film studios and TV stations. Plus, of course, social media wasn’t really a “thing” back then, so groups of friends etc.. tended to be a little bit more varied in terms of opinions and personalities (which allows for all sorts of amusing “odd couple” style stories).

Likewise, just like twenty/thirtysomethings these days get nostalgic about the 1990s (like in this article), the older creative people who were making a lot of the popular films, TV shows etc.. in 1990s America were of course nostalgic about the 1950s-70s.

As such, things set in 1990s America will often have a slightly interesting contrast between modernity and a more rose-tinted “old” version of America. Look at the 1950s-influenced costume designs in seasons 1&2 of “Twin Peaks”, the vaguely 1970s-style newspaper office in all four seasons of “Lois & Clark” etc.. for examples of this.

4) It’s not that long ago:
Simply put, although there are differences between the 1990s and the present day, it’s still only 20-30 years difference. So, for the most part, your “1990s America” stories don’t have to be that different to more modern stories that are set in America.

Just remember that mobile phones were less popular in the 1990s, remember that the internet was less of a “thing”, remember to add a few 1990s pop culture references etc… and then just tell a slightly more “timeless” story that could theoretically happen at any point in the mid-late 20th or early 21st century.

After all, a lot of 1990s movies, a lot of 1990s novels etc.. are still very watchable and/or readable these days because they’re still relatively recent. For example, “The Matrix” was released in 1999 and it still looks relatively futuristic. Or, G.R.R Martin’s “A Game Of Thrones” was first published in 1996 and it was still easily adapted into a TV show in the early 2010s.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Short Story: “Frat House Blues ’95” By C. A. Brown

Told you it was oregano.‘ Roy suppressed a laugh and stared up at the silhouette of his fraternity house. Beside him, Lucy let out a hacking cough and crushed the embers under her boot. With a grimace, she brushed a strand of blue hair out of her eyes and grumbled: ‘I suppose you want your ten bucks back or something. I mean, we went halves and you didn’t..

It could have been because of the three crushed cans lying on the ground next to him, but Roy just smiled and said: ‘Nah. Keep it.‘ He was still just about sober enough not to point out that the entertainment of the past ten seconds had been more than worth the ticket price. A faint smile crossed Lucy’s face, before she frowned at him. He shrugged and chuckled quietly.

Well, this evening sucks.‘ Lucy said. ‘Aren’t your frat brothers throwing some wild party or something? I mean..‘ She gestured towards the oddly silent house ‘… It looks more like a haunted house or something.’

They’re on spring break. Lucky bastards.‘ Roy grunted. ‘No doubt, they’ll tell me all about it when they get back.

So, why didn’t you go?‘ Lucy sighed, as she reached down and plucked a shiny can from the six pack between them. Opening it with a quiet hiss, she chugged like a partygoer. Her mouth still tasted like burnt oregano. She grimaced again.

Roy flashed her a cheesy grin: ‘Tell you the truth, I prefer the stories. No doubt, in real life, it’s just a depressing mess of free clinics, police cells, sand in all the wrong places and exactly the same parties we have here. But, the way they tell it is really something else. Like a movie.

Lucy raised an eyebrow and said: ‘That’s… unusually profound. Don’t tell me you’ve actually got a brain in that pickled head of yours.

Roy shrugged his broad shoulders: ‘Ok, you caught me out. My brothers needed someone to stay back and look after the house. It’s a sacred responsibility. Plus, coach Watson also wants me in fighting form for the game next week. I’ve also spent too much money at that damn mall we keep going to. The….

Tell me your life story, why don’t you?‘ Lucy laughed, as she crushed the can and dropped it onto the small pile.

A frown crossed Roy’s face for a second, before it was replaced by another cheesy grin. Lowering his voice to a serious baritone, he said: ‘You know, we’ve got the whole house to ourselves. If we were together…

Both of them almost collapsed with laughter. Catching her breath, Lucy waved her arm at the silent house and said: ‘Now THAT would be a horror movie worthy of a haunted house like that.

Tell me about it! I’d have nightmares for weeks! That trendy new university shrink would resign from stress.‘ Roy picked up the fifth can and drained it quickly, shuddering at the thought.

Oh, please. I’d have got there first. The poor guy would already be a gibbering wreck by the time you showed up. Maybe you’d have better luck with his shrink.‘ Lucy collapsed with laughter. Roy opened his mouth, placed his hands on his cheeks and opened his eyes wide. In a deadpan voice, he said ‘Aaaaarrgh!’

Lucy laughed: ‘I didn’t know you were an art lover. If only old Edvard was around to appreciate the joke.

Old Edvard?‘ Roy raised an eyebrow ‘Is he like your grandpa or something?‘ He pulled a Dracula face, before creasing up with laughter again.

No, Edvard Munch. He made this famous painting of a guy screaming. Ok, I only know about it because some guy at an Offspring concert I went to a couple of months back had it printed on his T-shirt. But, hey, that’s actual culture. Where did you learn about it, the ads in the back of Playboy?‘ Lucy looked genuinely curious.

In Paris, many years ago..‘ Roy started in a serious voice, before laughing again ‘Nah. There was a preview trailer for a horror movie on TV last night. Doesn’t come out ’til next year though. Literally just an… Edvard face… or whatever you call it.

No way!‘ Lucy said ‘Well, I know what we’re going to see next year.

Both of their eyes met, then drifted down the final solitary can. It sat there in the dark grass like a monolith from some lost civilisation. Like a piece of forbidden pirate bounty, hard won through Roy’s well-honed physique and Lucy’s expertise with the campus copy room. Both of them reached out instinctively, before pulling their hands back.

Their eyes narrowed. Roy’s voice lowered itself to a Texan sheriff’s drawl: ‘Looks like we got ourselves a little stand-off here.

You’re damn right, pardner.‘ Lucy replied.

Short Story: “Food Court ’95 ” By C. A. Brown

It’s, like, totally not true.‘ Roy said as he sat back in the metal chair and sipped his coffee. Although it was a bleak Wednesday morning, the food court of the Westview Street Mall somehow seemed to be at least half full. He checked his watch. It was ten in the morning and the shops surrounding the rectangular court were already a riot of neon and strip lights. He wondered what it looked like at night.

Beside him, Lucy picked up a French fry and sighed. ‘I’m telling you, they make these chairs uncomfortable on purpose. It’s all part of a cunning plan to get as many people to buy as much food as possible. They could put proper chairs in here, but of course, they want you to just eat and leave so that the next people can eat and leave. It’s like we’re robots or something.

An impish smile crossed Roy’s face and he leant sideways. With one fist, he tapped his behind, whilst secretly tapping the chair leg with the other at the same time. As a quiet clang echoed across the table, he said: ‘Buns of steel. It’s probably why I don’t notice it.

Lucy wasn’t sure whether to laugh or roll her eyes. So, she did both. Finally, Roy said: ‘Seriously, did someone at one of your punk concerts tell you that thing about the chairs?’

No, there’s a couple of books about it in the campus library. You know, the building you’re supposed to go to every week.‘ Lucy gave Roy a sarcastic smile, before eating another French fry. Above the babble of conversation, the tannoy pinged and a muffled voice babbled for a few seconds. Neither Lucy nor Roy could tell what it was trying to say. Obviously, no-one else could because, ten seconds later, the same garbled mumbling filled the air again.

Roy sipped his coffee and said: ‘We’ve got a guy in our frat who takes notes for all of us. We each give him five bucks a week. The time savings are incredible.

Lucy didn’t dignify that with a response. Instead, she ate a couple of French fries and slurped her milkshake. On the table next to her, two blond guys in leather jackets hastily exchanged dollar bills with each other. A smile crossed her face and she got up and walked over to them. Roy raised an eyebrow. When she returned, she slipped something into her bag and said: ‘We’re all set for Friday night. You owe me ten bucks.

Roy lowered his voice to an indignant whisper as he fumbled for his wallet ‘Ten bucks? You talk about the evils of capitalism and then let – he isn’t even a hippie – rip you off like that. I mean, there’s probably thirty cents of oregano in there.

He handed her the note and stared at his coffee cup. There was an advertisement on the side of it. It was an advert for coffee. As Roy wondered why on earth these supposed evil geniuses would try to advertise coffee to someone who had already bought it, Lucy stood up and stretched her legs: ‘Anyway, I’m going numb. We should probably get out of here. I hear they’re still showing Pulp Fiction at the cinema.

Waste of two hours. It doesn’t even make sense.‘ Roy sighed. ‘Seriously, a guy dies and then he just appears a while later like nothing happened.

It’s meant to be art house, I think. Don’t tell me that you want to see the intellectual masterpiece that is Die Hard With A Vengeance instead.

Roy shrugged: ‘At least it probably makes sense. I mean, it’s the last film in the trilogy, so they’re probably going to go out with a bang. Hopefully lots of them.

Lucy rolled her eyes and said: ‘Whatever. Hey, do you want another coffee?

Roy shrugged again: ‘Sure, why not? More to the point, aren’t we supposed to be leaving here like robots? I mean, you said that whole thing about the chairs earlier. How this place was designed to get people to stay for as little time as possible…

I’m rebelling. Proving them wrong.‘ Lucy grinned. If Roy had bothered to read his frat brother’s notes about dramatic irony in 20th century literature, he’d have probably creased over with laughter. Instead, he just stared at the empty coffee cup that remained on the table. As his eyes fixed on the advert on the side of the cup, they widened and he muttered ‘Holy sheet! THAT’S why it’s there! Well played, evil geniuses…

Short Story: “Floor Seven” By C. A. Brown

After the garish lights, incessant muzak and crushing crowds of the Westview Street Mall, I was actually glad to return to my apartment block. Of course, I hadn’t emerged unscathed. The two reflective red bags in my hands and the pamphlet advertising “X-MAS SPECTACULAR ’97” that had remained stuck to my shoe like a piece of gum were proof of that.

Although the lobby was thankfully empty, the rancid stench of last night’s drunks and a rotting hot dog still hovered in the air. As I pressed a scuffed button and waited for the deathtrap to descend to the lobby, I also detected a subtle note of spray paint chemicals too. Yet, there didn’t seem to be a single new piece of graffiti on the tiled walls. How odd.

Finally, with an unsettling clatter, the dented metal doors of the deathtrap creaked open and I stepped into the dim streetlight-amber chamber. It must have been because I was carrying bags, but I actually looked at the buttons this time. Normally, I’d just reflexively jab the “32” button with the speed of a roadhouse knife-man, but the effort of putting one of my shiny bags down totally threw my reflexes off. So, I looked at the buttons.

And, just like realising that the videotape you’ve been looking for for the past two weeks was inside the VCR the whole damn time, I realised that the “7” button was still covered with tape. It had been one of those things that I’d seen every day ever since I moved into this crapheap six years ago. Yet, now, it seemed odd. Surely someone living on that floor would have complained by now? Was anyone living on that floor?

It could have been because the prospect of sitting back on my bed-of-nails couch, sipping rotgut whiskey from a paint-spattered glass and admiring the beautiful view of smog-darkened bricks from my lounge window had lost some of it’s appeal. It could have been that the idea of working out where I was going to store all of my newfound festive bounty in my match-box apartment seemed like too much of a stress. It could even have been because there was nothing but commercials on TV at this hour. But, whatever the reason, I found myself pressing the button.

I’d expected nothing to happen. The button was probably broken. But, a second later, the deathtrap squealed. The doors began to creak shut and, for a pulse-pounding second, I thought about making a jump for it. The moment passed. Slowly, I felt the floor rise beneath me as the air was filled with the soothing howls of gears and cables. Like a cabaret line of drunken fireflies, the buttons lit up one…. two.. three.four.five… six… Then nothing.

For a second, I’d worried that the doors wouldn’t open. That the deathtrap might have jammed on this floor. That the tape was actually there for a good reason. But then I remembered that it had sailed past this floor many times on many days before. No, it was just the usual “will it won’t it?” delay. I let out a sigh of relief half a second before the doors reluctantly parted.

Above, the strip lights flickered like red carpet paparazzi in the middle of a thunderstorm. The walls were a floral pattern of flaking green paint. Looking down, I noticed that the floor wasn’t even carpeted. It was just pitted concrete covered in scraps of paper and alleyway trash. As another flicker lit up the hall, I saw what looked like a rusting bed frame propped up against one of the walls. Then something touched my foot.

I flinched. But, it wasn’t a rat. It was just a ball of faded yellow paper. Kneeling down, I picked it up and unfolded it. In the dim light of the carriage, I squinted at it. It was the front page of the City Post & Courier. The faded date read “198-“. Below it, in surprisingly fresh ink, the headline read FLOOR OF DEATH. Against my better judgement, I read on.

Police were greeted by a scene of unprecedented carnage at the Brite Fields Apartments this morning. It began when the janitor had noticed an unusual lack of complaints from the seventh floor….‘ I stopped reading for a second. We actually had a janitor once? ‘…When authorities entered via the stairwell, they found themselves in the middle of a grotesque charnel….

Plod! Plod! Plod!

The footsteps got louder. I didn’t even pause to drop the paper. I heard it tear with a deafening rip as I watched my finger punch the “32” button repeatedly. The deathtrap didn’t even bother squealing or groaning. With eerie efficiency, the doors slid shut and I felt the reassuring rising feeling beneath my feet. As the buttons lit up erratically, I let out a long sigh. I’d obviously been imagining things. The “footsteps” were probably just the frantic pounding of my heart or something like that.

By the time I saw the threadbare carpet of my floor, I was practically laughing. At the very least, I was smarter than every dumb schmuck I’d ever seen in a horror movie. I hadn’t even set foot outside the carriage for the whole time I was on the seventh floor. No doubt that this would make for a funny story to tell the guys tomorrow night. Maybe I could even start an urban legend? I’ve always wondered how they got started.

As I turned the key in my apartment door, I noticed that someone had slipped junk mail under the door again. It was the third time this week. If I wasn’t used to it, I’d have probably done a Charlie Chaplin pratfall on top of the shiny leaflets. Dodging them and chuckling to myself, I squeezed into the narrow hallway and nudged the door shut with my heel.

The laughter died in my throat. The bathroom door was closed. It hadn’t been closed when I’d left.

Plod! Plod! Plod!