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.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂