Three Random (But Realistic) Tips For Writing 1990s-Style Fiction

Before I got back into reading regularly a few months ago, I wrote a few articles about films, videogames and TV shows from the 1990s and what made them so distinctive when compared to their more modern counterparts. Well, for today, I thought that I’d do the same for books.

But, before I start this list, I should point out that I’ve decided to take a bit more of a “realistic” approach to this topic. In other words, rather than looking at stylised nostalgia, I’ll be looking at what actual books from the 1990s were like. And, if your impressions of what the 1990s were like mostly come from film and TV, then this list might surprise you.

1) Aim for the 2000s/2010s: One of the cool things about prose fiction is that it can often be surprisingly ahead of it’s time. This is especially true in more fantastical genres of fiction (eg: sci-fi, fantasy, horror etc..), where novels in these genres can often be years ahead of what film, games and TV will be doing.

For example, the general atmosphere and style of many parts of Neal Stephenson’s 1992 cyberpunk novel “Snow Crash” wouldn’t be out of place in something from the late 1990s/early 2000s, like “The Matrix” or “Deus Ex“.

Likewise, aside from a few things like the brief mention of a pager and the use of the phrase “peachy keen”, the horror/thriller/detective novel I’m reading at the moment (Laurell K. Hamilton’s 1993 novel “Guilty Pleasures”) could easily have come from the mid-late 2000s in terms of the general atmosphere and style. Seriously, at some points, it was really easy to forget that this book is actually from 1993.

Then there’s S.D. Perry’s 1996 sci-fi/horror novel “Aliens: The Labyrinth“. This novel, inspired by the “Aliens” films, is set in the distant future and it still seems like a modern sci-fi novel when read these days. Whilst it probably isn’t timeless, if it had been published for the first time this year, it would still seem modern. By contrast, try to think of a sci-fi film from 1996 that still seems modern these days.

But, of course, the most famous example of this is probably George R. R. Martin’s 1996 fantasy novel “A Game Of Thrones”. Yes, the first season of one of the most popular “modern” TV series is actually based on a book from 23 years ago. Let that sink in for a second….

So, if you’re writing horror, sci-fi, fantasy etc.. fiction and want to give it a 1990s-style atmosphere, then try to take inspiration from TV shows, films and games from the 2000s/10s. Or, just write a more general story in these genres that doesn’t include anything that is obviously from the 2010s.

2) Flowing writing: One cool thing that I’ve noticed in some American novels (particularly from the southern US) from the early-mid 1990s is a very specific type of writing style. It’s a little bit difficult to describe, but it is lush, vivid, flowing and descriptive.

It is a style that I’ve encountered in books like “Lost Souls” by Poppy Z. Brite (1992) and “Turtle Moon” by Alice Hoffman (1992) and it is absolutely amazing to read. It’s a style of narration that is very distinctively “90s” in the best way possible.

To give you an example of it, here’s a brief passage from the first page of Brite’s “Lost Souls”: ‘In the French Quarter the liquor flows like milk. Strings of bright cheap beads hang from wrought-iron balconies and adorn sweaty necks. After parades the beads lie scattered in the streets, the royalty of gutter trash, gaudy among the cigarette butts and cans and plastic Hurricane glasses.

The best way to learn how to write in this style is simply to read plenty of examples of it. Although, ironically, the novel that probably influenced this style the most actually comes from 1962 (again, books are often ahead of their time). I am, of course, talking about Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes“.

Yes, this 1990s writing style probably has other influences too (eg: noir fiction from the 1930s-50s, beat literature etc..) but “Something Wicked This Way Comes” is probably one of the more important texts in the history of this writing style.

3) Brevity: One of the cool things about the 1990s was that it was one of the last decades where books could be short if they needed to be.

Yes, there are plenty of tome-size novels from the 1990s but they were still just about the exception rather than the norm. It’s kind of like, with cinema, how the 1990s was one of the last decades where 90-100 minutes (rather than two hours or more) was the “standard” length for a film.

In other words, if you’re writing a 1990s-style story, then try to aim for 200-300 pages if possible. Edit a little bit more ruthlessly. Try not to let your story become too bloated. And, if you do need to write something long, then make sure that the length is justified.

I mean, if there’s one thing to be said for longer novels from the 1990s, it is that they will often, say, cram 600+ pages of storytelling (by modern standards) into 400-500 pages. For example, Neal Stephenson’s 1995 novel “The Diamond Age” is about 500 pages long (in the edition I read). Yet, if it was written by a modern writer, it would probably take 700+ pages to tell the same story.

Or to give a more “low brow” example, Raymond Benson’s 1997 novelisation of the James Bond film “Tomorrow Never Dies” is an efficient 213 pages long. 213 pages! Seriously, even by the 2000s, film novelisations were often 300 pages long or more.

So, yes, brevity is important when writing 1990s-style fiction. In fact, it’s important for writing any kind of fiction.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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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 🙂

Two Basic Tips For Adding Some Nostalgia To Your Stories

Well, since some of the short stories that I begun posting here last February were nostalgia-based stories, I thought that I’d offer a couple of fairly basic tips about how to add nostalgia to your stories.

1) Small details: One of the best ways to add nostalgia to your stories is through small details. In other words, include items and things that are strongly associated with the time period you are nostalgic about.

For example, this “2000s nostalgia” story briefly includes a description of an old early-mid 2000s mobile phone. This other “2000s nostalgia” story briefly includes a reference to a defunct chain of video shops that were popular in early-mid 2000s Britain. Likewise, this 1990s nostalgia-based story briefly includes a segment about POGs.

However, you need to remember that not all of your readers will have memories of the things that make you feel nostalgic. So, it is often best to include a brief physcial description of the nostalgic items in question.

For example, here’s the segment about POGs in the “1990s nostalgia”-themed short story I mentioned earlier: ‘ “‘Oh my god, is that a tube of POGs? No way!” Since the next student loan instalment didn’t arrive for three days, she knew that she’d have to ration herself. Even so, the translucent green tube of cardboard discs was only 25p. It even included a couple of gnarly-looking slammers too.

As you can see, this passage also includes a brief physical description of what POGs are. Since it’s possible that many readers didn’t grow up in the 1990s, they may not have had the nostalgic connection to them that I have. They may not even have heard of them. So, it’s always a good idea to include a brief physical description of more random, ephemeral or obscure nostalgic things.

2) Rules, commonalities and differences: If you’re going to include nostalgia about a particular time period in your story, then you need to understand what made that time period so distinctive.

In other words, you have to examine your memories and/or lots of things (eg: TV shows, books, pop culture etc..) from that time in order to see what they all have in common – and how this contrasts with the present day.

Not only will learning this allow you to subtly add the “flavour” of a particular time period to your story (eg: stuff involving the 1990s will often be a bit more optimistic), but it also allows you to make the kind of pithy observations that can really add some emotional and/or intellectual depth to your story too.

For example, in one of my “2000s Nostalgia” stories, there’s a segment where the two characters are talking about silly rumours that they heard during the (early-mid) 2000s. Finally, one of the characters comments: ‘These days, it’d be pics or GTFO. I miss folklore.

This is the kind of detail that comes from thinking about what made the early-mid 2000s different to the present day. Back then, smartphones/camera phones weren’t as common and social media was very much in it’s infancy. Likewise, the whole “fake news” thing hadn’t happened. So, there was less of an impulse for people to document and/or question literally everything. As such, things like silly rumours were more likely to be spread and believed by more naive people. It’s a small difference, but a noticeable one.

So, yes, study the time period that your story revolves around and see what everything in it had in common, and how it differs from the present day.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Tips For Writing 1990s-Style Cyberpunk Fiction

Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk about 1990s-style cyberpunk science fiction. This is mostly because I’m reading a cyberpunk (or, technically, post-cyberpunk) novel from 1995 called “The Diamond Age” by Neal Stephenson at the time of writing.

This novel is surprisingly different from traditional 1980s-style cyberpunk (Neuromancer“, “Blade Runner” etc..) and it also reminded me a bit of other 1990s cyberpunk works like Warren Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan” comics and the original 1995 “Ghost In The Shell” anime film.

So, since 1990s cyberpunk is kind of it’s own distinctive “thing”, I thought that I’d offer a few tips about writing this style of cyberpunk.

1) The technology isn’t everything: If 1980s cyberpunk focused on amazing the audience with what the internet, virtual reality etc… could be like in the future, 1990s cyberpunk takes a step back from this. Although futuristic technology is obviously still a major part of 1990s cyberpunk, it’s a little bit more of a background element. In short, there’s more of a focus on “functional” everyday technology than on things like virtual reality etc…

In 1990s-style cyberpunk, the technology tends to be a lot more subtle and insidious. For example, nanotechnology features heavily in “The Diamond Age” and “Transmetropolitan” – where it is used for purposes like surveillance, weather control, weapons, motion tracking, compact computing etc.. But, in both stories, it is just shown to be an “ordinary” thing to the characters.

Likewise, whilst 1995’s “Ghost In The Shell” focuses on robotics and cybernetics (like 1982’s “Blade Runner”), these mostly aren’t presented with quite the same level of emphasis and fascination as they are in “Blade Runner”. They’re just an ordinary, mundane part of everyday life. The main character has a cybernetic body, ordinary people sometimes have them and sometimes the antagonists do too. They’re just ordinary. However, this is a lot more obvious in the spin-off “Stand Alone Complex” TV series made during the 2000s.

In other words, in 1990s cyberpunk, the futuristic technology usually isn’t everything. It’s an important part of the story, but it’s also – realistically – just a mundane background element, rather than the central focus of the story.

2) Protagonists: There’s a brilliant scene in the earlier parts of Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age” (spoilers ahoy!) which shows the difference between 1980s and 1990s-style cyberpunk protagonists absolutely perfectly.

Basically, the story starts with a typical 1980s-style cyberpunk character called Bud, who is getting a powerful weapons system implanted in his skull. He wears very cyberpunk-like leather clothes and he’s a freelance street criminal too. These scenes are also narrated in a typical 1980s cyberpunk style too. Initially, Bud seems like he’s going to be the main character.

But, he is then shown to be more of an unsympathetic character (eg: he’s shown to hold racist attitudes, he shoots defenceless people etc..). Almost as if he’s a…scary violent criminal (who would have thought it?). Then, before we even reach page fifty, he has been arrested and sentenced to death. This is both a perfect parody of 1980s cyberpunk and a great example of how 1990s cyberpunk differs from 1980s cyberpunk.

By contrast, the rest of “The Diamond Age” focuses on ordinary people within the story’s futuristic world. The main characters include people like a judge, an actress, two impoverished children and a prestigious engineer. In short, not the typical “anti-hero” characters of the 1980s. In fact, one of the story’s philosophical discussions briefly features a character mentioning how computer hackers were used as “trickster” archetypes in late 20th century stories.

You can see the same things in other 1990s cyberpunk works too. In Warren Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan”, the main character is a drug-addled journalist (inspired by the one and only Hunter S. Thompson). In “Ghost In The Shell”, the main character is a member of a military police unit (who are shown to be the good guys, rather than the dystopian villains they would be if it was 1980s cyberpunk).

In other words, 1990s-style cyberpunk is more about ordinary people living in futuristic cyberpunk worlds than about “cool” anti-hero computer hackers or anything like that.

3) Narration and tone: Simply put, 1990s-style cyberpunk fiction will often ditch the traditional “Neuromancer”-like narration and do something a bit different.

For example, although the scenes involving Bud in “The Diamond Age” do use 1980s-style cyberpunk narration, this quickly gives way to a highly-descriptive and slightly formal narrative style that is more like something from a 19th century novel (Dickens, Conan Doyle etc..) than a 1980s cyberpunk novel.

Likewise, the general tone of the stories tends to be a lot more varied too. For example, whilst “Transmetropolitan”, “Ghost In The Shell” and “The Diamond Age” might have a few scenes set at night in the dystopian, rainy, neon-lit streets of a mega-city, they also feature much brighter scenes set during the day too. Kind of like pretty much every other story, comic or film would probably do.

In short, like with the other examples, 1990s cyberpunk (or “post-cyberpunk”) focuses more on what ordinary life in a futuristic cyberpunk world would be like. It focuses less on dazzling the audience with a unique version of the future, but uses it as a backdrop for a much wider variety of drama, science fiction etc… instead.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Today’s Art (18th December 2018)

Well, today’s digitally-edited painting was an inspired one 🙂 Basically, whilst re-reading an old horror novel from the 1980s called “Erebus” by Shaun Hutson, the novel’s rural settings evoked a very particular emotion in me. A kind of part-memory, part-imagined nostalgia for a very particular type of gloomy, dingy “amazing crappiness” that is associated with 1980s-early 2000s Britain.

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“A Daydream Of Dismal Delights” By C. A. Brown

Today’s Art (16th December 2018)

Well, thanks to having a bit more time and feeling inspired, today’s late 1990s/early 2000s-style digitally-edited gothic/film noir painting turned out a lot better than I expected. Surprisingly, I actually ended up using some digital lighting effects (in combination with more traditional ones) in this painting too.

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“1999” By C. A. Brown