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.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂