What A CD Single Insert From 1997 Can Teach Us About Worldbuilding And Historical Fiction – A Ramble

Although this is an article about worldbuilding and/or writing historical fiction, I’m going to have to start by talking about stuff from the 1990s for the next eight paragraphs or so. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that will become relevant later.

Anyway, whilst looking for something in my CD collection, I stumbled across an old CD single of Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn” from 1997 that I’d forgotten that I even had.

Musical nostalgia aside, one of the interesting things about the CD single was that it contained a cardboard insert that initially just seemed like a silly piece of ephemera. But, the more I looked at it, the more I realised that it couldn’t have come from any time after the 1990s.

The insert is a form that allows the record company to send (what would probably be considered) junk mail to anyone who fills it in. Not only that, there’s a box at the bottom of the form that contains a hilariously transparent exhortation to send in the form even if you’ve already signed up to their list, just so that they can collect record sales data.

For a second, I wondered “who the hell would actually sign up for this?

Then I remembered that the internet was a lot less widely-used during the 1990s. So, getting advertising brochures in the post was actually a valid way of keeping up to date with things like concerts, release dates etc…. if you didn’t want to buy music magazines every month.

I also realised that the fact that the internet was less common back then meant that there was much less awareness about things like spam, advertising tactics, giving out your details etc… So, companies could do this sort of thing and actually expect large numbers of people to respond.

Then I remembered that music was only sold on physical media during the 1990s, so there was less musical variety easily available to the public. This is noticeable by the fact that, although the limited list of genres on the form thankfully includes heavy metal, it doesn’t include genres like punk or gothic rock. Likewise, CD singles were popular enough back then for companies to actually add advertising to them too.

I could go on, but it’s amazing how much you can deduce about 1997 from a simple piece of ephemera.

But, why did I spend the last few paragraphs dissecting a piece of advertising? What does any of this have to do with worldbuilding and historical fiction?

Well, a lot actually. The CD single insert I’ve been talking about is a perfect example of how the general conditions of a time or place can shape even the smallest things. It is the sort of thing that could only have existed during the 1990s (or earlier). It only exists because the internet was a lot less common back then.

If you’re creating a fictional world, then it is small details like this that really make your “world” feel authentic. These are small details that can easily be ignored but which allow attentive members of the audience to deduce more about your fictional world by looking at them closely.

So, think about how your fictional world would shape “everyday” things. For example, if you were writing a story set in a world where television and film never existed, then your story should contain small details about things like radio, theatre, literature etc.. instead. But, these things should be presented in the same way as TV/film-related stuff is these days – since they would be a lot more mainstream in that particular world.

If you’re writing historical fiction, then things like this are what can really make your historical fiction feel authentic. Small, everyday details that couldn’t exist in any other period of history are one of the quickest ways to immerse your readers in the world of your story.

Even if it’s something as simple as showing a character from the 1990s picking up some blank VHS tapes or audio cassettes when shopping, small details are incredibly important when writing historical fiction.

So, yes, a single piece of junk mail-related ephemera can say a lot about an entire decade.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Very Basic Tips For Creating Fictional Historical Ephemera (In Comics And Stories)

Disclaimer: This article is NOT totally rad. Although it may be a bit gnarly.

Disclaimer: This article is NOT totally rad. Although it may be a bit gnarly.

A while back, I was randomly surfing the internet when I happened to learn that Jennifer Aniston and Matthew Perry starred in a “comedic” instructional/ promotional VHS video for Windows 95 back in the 1990s.

Out of curiosity, I looked for it on Youtube and – as well as being a wonderful piece of 1990s computer nostalgia, it’s also hilariously awful. In fact, it’s “so bad that it’s good”. Kind of like this article, I guess.

Anyway, this video from the 1990s made me think about old ephemera. Every decade is filled with wonderful examples of “disposable” culture that are only expected to have a short shelf-life. These “disposable” things give us more of an impression of the culture of a particular time than an entire history book can.

As such, if you’re writing a comic or a story set in the past, then it can be a good idea to include verbal or written references to some of these things.

However, thanks to the bizarre way that our copyright laws are set up, you often won’t actually be able to directly include excerpts from these things in your story or comic. I’m not a lawyer or a copyright expert, but even disposable pieces of culture that are long-since past their sell-by date are still often unfortunately covered by copyright. Seriously, don’t even get me started on how copyright laws urgently need to be reformed.

The rules seem to be a bit more hazy when it comes to -say- brief visual references (eg: a small cartoon drawing of Jennifer Aniston and Matthew Perry on a TV screen in the background of a comic panel), but the rules also seem to be a lot stricter when it comes to things like quoting song lyrics. However, I’m not a lawyer or a copyright expert – so, do your research.

Often, it’s much easier to just make up your own examples of these ephemeral things. But, how do you do this? Here are a few tips:

1) Research: This goes without saying, but if you’re going to create fictional historical ephemera, then you need to look at plenty of real examples of it first. These days, this is fairly easy to do, since pretty much everything is on the internet (including obscure old promotional videos about Windows 95, of all things).

Take a close look at things from the time – look at the fashions, the speech patterns, the catchphrases, the humour, the pop culture references etc…. Once you have a good knowledge of these things, then you’ll be much more well-prepared to make convincing fictional ephemera.

Likewise, see what new things really fascinated people back then too. For example, computers were still sort of a “new” and “cool” thing for most of the 1990s. Yes, if, like me, you grew up in the 1990s and have been around computers for your entire life – then they probably weren’t that spectacular. But if you were in your twenties or older during the 1990s, then computers were probably still an exciting new thing (unless you owned a ZX Spectrum, a Commodore or a BBC Micro in the 1980s, I guess).

In each decade, people are fascinated by new things. In this decade, it is – unfortunately- tablets, smartphones and social media. But, in past decades, it has included things like hallucinogens, consumer electronics, recorded music, horseless carriages, mauve clothing, the internet, VHS tapes etc…

If you can make something that enthusiastically talks about one of these things, then your fictional historical ephemera will automatically be at least slightly more convincing.

2) Parody: One of the easiest ways to create interesting fictional historical ephemera is to mock and ridicule existing pieces of historical ephemera.

After all, the past often tends to look at least slightly silly in retrospect (as an example, I refer you to pretty much any item of clothing that was fashionable in the 1970s), so it’s absolutely perfect for parody.

Not only that, although the rules vary from country to country, most copyright laws tend to make exemptions for parodies. This is why, for example, people can make funny videos like this 1990s re-imagining of “24” or this hilarious series of fake 1980s/90s-style instructional videos for modern websites.

So, if you can’t think of any good original ideas for historical ephemera for your comic or story, then don’t be afraid to parody actual historical things. But, although this can add a lot of subtle humour to your story or comic, it can also make it seem less “realistic”. So, don’t go overboard with this.

3) Change a few things: Another easy and quick way to come up with convincing fictional historical ephemera as background details for your story or comic is to just take an existing piece of historical ephemera and change enough details about it that it can be considered an original work.

Again, I am not a lawyer here – but it’s important to remember that copyright only covers how something is expressed (and not the underlying idea behind it) and trademarks only often cover specific brand names.

This means that, say, if part of your story or comic involves someone playing a 1990s computer game with a very recognisable “action hero” protagonist, then you could change his hair colour, give him a different outfit and change his name to something like Luke Proton or something like that.

If this is just going to be a small part of your story or comic, then you probably won’t have to change too much – but, if it’s a much larger part of your story or comic, then you’re probably going to have to change a lot more.

Doing this has the advantage of making your fictional historical ephemera seem more “realistic”, whilst also providing something of a knowing “in joke” for people who remember the original thing.


Sorry for such a basic and badly-written article, but I hope that it was useful 🙂