Thursday, February 12, 2015

Writing through Nostalgia-Colored Glasses

We're all inspired to write, at least in part, by things we've seen and experienced before. It's just human nature. When those experiences are looked back upon fondly, that's the birth of nostalgia. It can influence everything from the kind of TV shows we like to watch to the way we dress -- and even we kinds of stories we tell and the way we tell them.

So, that's what we're going to look at this week, this idea of nostalgia and how much it can influence our work as writers.

How much does a sense of nostalgia influence (or inspire, and is there a difference) your current body of work?

Gordon Dymowski: I would definitely say nostalgia inspires my writing: I want readers to feel the same thrill that I experienced reading certain genres. I don't think nostalgia influences my work - I really work hard to have a modern, contemporary voice despite being set in a particular time period. I'm always thinking of what I would like the reader to experience, but work hard to make sure that my prose has a quality of immediacy rather than wistfulness.

Selah Janel: I think nostalgia tends to influence me a great deal, but it does so in different ways. There’s the obvious ploy of dating stories or writing them around pop culture to speak to readers, and I may do that a little with themes of music and the like, but I more or less gravitate to what I really enjoyed while I was growing up. Theme-wise, I’ve always loved folk and faerie tales, I’ve always enjoyed speculating about what else could be out there, and I still continue to hold to those themes. I also think I’ve had this weird romanticism of mundane life since I was a kid, and I find myself going back to that a lot when writing. Genre-wise, I think a lot of my sensibilities were probably shaped by the eighties in some form or another: you could argue that the rock music that creeps into my worlds comes from there, that the vampires I write are a throwback to being influenced by The Lost Boys, all types of things. Still, I don’t like making anything a carbon copy of those influences…I prefer to let it inspire me than to redo it wholesale. If anything, those feelings I got as a kid of being overwhelmed or feeling in love with life or spooked by what I love influence me as much as what I saw on the toy shelf any given day.

Percival Constantine: I think there's a sense of nostalgia in my work, particularly my current serial, VANGUARD. It was very much inspired by the X-Men/Avengers comics of the 70s and 80s. Lots of done-in-one tales that feature a villain and a story while there are plot threads that carry over in the background from issue to issue. My other stories feature this kind of influence as well--my fantasy novel SOULQUEST was very much inspired by Final Fantasy VII, one of my all-time favorite video games, and THE MYTH HUNTER's Elisa Hill wears the influence of Indiana Jones on her sleeve.

What are the benefits of having a strong sense of nostalgia in your work? What are the dangers?

Selah Janel: I think emotionally, people can connect to a very strong sense of nostalgia. If you make it too obvious, it might as well be product placement, but I think if done well, you can really have a type of conversation with your readers. When I read Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, it doesn’t feel dated to me. I remember what it’s like to have a friend move away, I used to love getting new shoes, that sort of thing. That whole book is nostalgia, and it works tremendously well and has touched a lot of people.  The danger is that if you load something with too much detail, too much pop culture, or too much of your singular experience, it becomes harder for people to relate to, and they’re picturing a materialistic image rather than what that object or experience may have meant to them. In some ways it’s why all these movie remakes miss the mark so horribly: because people are nostalgic for certain franchises, studios assume it’s because of one or two key reasons instead of realizing that it’s much more of an emotional thing, something that’s much harder to reproduce. In a lot of ways, that’s easier to do in books, but you still have to tread a certain line and give a reader a certain amount of space after drawing them in. Otherwise, you risk turning people off or distancing them.

Percival Constantine: The benefits of having a strong sense of nostalgia is that it gives readers something familiar. As much as audiences say they want something new and different, the truth is the majority cleaves towards the familiar. It's why sequels, reboots, and adaptations are so popular in Hollywood, because that's what audiences will go to see in droves. The downside is that too much nostalgia can make it seem like your work is nothing more than a cheap knock-off of whatever property influenced you. So there's a fine line to walk. You want the work to be familiar enough so that audiences will feel comfortable giving it a shot, but at the same time it has to be different enough to set it apart from what's come before.

Gordon Dymowski: Having a sense of nostalgia makes it much easier to build credibility with a reader - after all, if your tale of a two-fisted masked vigilante is like other tales of two-fisted vigilantes, your work is half complete. The danger (and I see this in quite a bit of New Pulp....especially in my own work) is the tendency to be blinded by nostalgia. Sometimes, it's easy to do variations on a theme without bringing anything new, original, or even distinctive. Nostalgia can only take you so far; the rest is dependent upon telling a good story.

How do you know when it becomes too much and starts to impact the story in a bad way, and how do you remedy that in your work?

Gordon Dymowski: My immediate tell-tale sign is when I identify too many plot elements or storytelling tricks that I've picked up from other writers, or I feel conflicted about a particular character's progress in the story. For me, the challenge is to remember that I'm writing within a distinct time and place, and that my writing needs to reflect *now*, even if I am writing in a familiar genre or with a familiar character.

Percival Constantine: That's a tough question. I think if you get to a point where you could replace your main character's name with the name of the character that influences your work without it seeming out of place, then that's a problem. I think nostalgia is good as a starting point, but once you have that template, you have to differentiate it from your influences and help the character come out from under the shadow of those influences. One thing I do is I try to focus more on a tone of nostalgia than nostalgic characters, or to mix and match influences from different characters. For example, if you compared those Avengers comics of the 70s/80s to The Ultimates revamp, there's a clear difference. The Avengers takes a much more hopeful, maybe even idealistic view of the world whereas The Ultimates approaches superheroes with a very nihilist view. I try to keep a similar tone to the former as opposed to the latter. So the world the characters are in, the way I choose to structure my stories, the types of characters I write about, these are all influenced by the Avengers. But the characters themselves aren't just ciphers for the Avengers. You can't point to Gunsmith and say, "that's Captain America" or Paragon and say "totally the Wasp." I may have used aspects of those characters as a starting point, but I built past them in order to stop the characters from being cheap knock-offs. So to answer your question after a very long-winded response, it basically comes down to character.

Selah Janel: For me, it’s not just overdetail, but it’s a certain type of overdetail. If I’m reading something and it’s way too concerned about what characters are wearing and dating every little thing within a certain time period, that’s going to get annoying and slow the story way down, especially if It’s set in the real world.  I lived through the eighties and nineties, I can picture it, I don’t need every little thing to help me live through it again. I think, too, that if people are writing about experiences or time frames that they’re not fully committed to or haven’t lived through and they don’t do the research and really get things wrong, that’s also damning. That just tells me that you were trying to play nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake and not because you care about what you’re writing about. There has to be some sense of emotional connection there and not “oh I’m writing about this geeky thing because people dig it, or this decade because it’s in right now.” People eventually catch on, and will stop reading if they feel that the nostalgia isn’t there for a real reason. At the end of the day, part of nostalgia is not just a love of what’s come before, but a longing for it, a sort of hollowness left by that love, and that’s what you really want to convey. It’s not just “oh, do you remember this?” It’s “Do you remember why you loved that, why you miss it now?”