Nostalgic writing is a powerful literary device writers can use to evoke long-dormant feelings. Used with intention and care, nostalgic writing can take both your fiction and nonfiction to memorable levels.
But what exactly is it, why should you use it, and how do you write with nostalgia? Are there mistakes you should avoid? Are there any examples to learn from? In this article, I cover all of the above. Let’s get straight into it.
Table of Contents
What Is Nostalgic Writing?
Nostalgic writing is a device used in literature to create an atmosphere of empathy between the characters’ feelings and readers’. When you incorporate nostalgia into your narrative, you aim to draw out the following emotion in your audience:
How you employ nostalgic writing largely influences the specific emotion your reader experiences. Does this make nostalgic writing a subtle form of creative manipulation? Not exactly. In fact, why it’s used has a particularly positive background.
Why Is It Used?
When you use nostalgic writing you craft words and phrases in a way that enables readers to come alongside the character they’re reading about—you create empathy. At the core of creativity is the ability to craft experiences (film, books, art, etc.) that influence viewers.
Whether you turn on a comedy for a laugh at the end of the day or open your favorite thriller to get lost in a crime scene, consumers of creativity crave the subtle influence of art.
Nostalgic writing is simply another form of creating a feeling within readers. This literary device is extremely helpful for drawing on the empathy of readers. While readers do not (and shouldn’t) agree with every character you write, nostalgia can help readers see the humanity of your villains and the innocence of your hero.
How To Write It?
A few key techniques can help you create nostalgia well: Include references to the past, mention past moments readers will resonate with, and describe all references with positivity.
When writing with nostalgia, keep this phrase in mind: Life was so good back then.
How can you describe the past in a way that highlights the positive? Remember the music ice cream trucks used to play? Remember when you went to a movie theater in July to escape the heat? Remember the butterflies on your last day of school, excited for your first summer adventure?
To create detail, try to draw from true memories. For fiction, write what you know, then add and change details to accommodate your story. For nonfiction, simply write what you experienced.
To build specificity, draw from actual time periods. For instance, if you write historical fiction set in the 1870s, what decade will create nostalgia in your characters? If you write nonfiction, what time period are you covering and how can nostalgic writing enhance your story?
3 Mistakes To Avoid
Like all literary devices, nostalgic writing does come with the possibility for mistakes. Naming these mistakes up front can help you avoid the common pitfalls of this type of writing.
#1 – Overuse Of The Device
Unless you write sappy romance novels, overusing nostalgia can come across as disingenuous. Overusing a literary device is one the most effective ways to take away its power.
- Simile can start to feel like poetry
- Allegory can feel a bit like a hidden agenda
- Personification can feel like a children’s book
When writing nostalgia, keep in mind the following: Everything in moderation.
#2 – Creating Nostalgia Without A Goal
Second, when you use nostalgic writing without a specific purpose, the device falls flat. If your character is remembering the good ol’ days but nothing comes of their reminiscing, you leave your readers hanging. When using this literary device, ask:
- How do these memories add to the story?
- What does this memory reveal about my character?
- Why does it matter?
Whether you write fiction, nonfiction, poetry, essays, or blogs, use nostalgic writing with a specific goal in mind.
An Unclear Grasp Of What You Describe
Writers are often encouraged to write what they know. This writing truism applies to nostalgic writing in several ways. First, if you don’t understand what you’re writing about it will be difficult to convey the memory itself.
Second, if you can’t describe a memory, how will you describe any nostalgia attached to it? And third, just as it’s important to understand more of a topic than you teach, research is critical for great storytelling. Refuse to stop your research when it comes to nostalgic memories.
Real Examples Of Nostalgic Writing
Charles Dickens offers a classic example of nostalgic writing in his Little Dorrit: “I must confess I suffer greatly from homesickness, and I long so desperately for home, so when nobody sees me, I am pining for it. I so dearly love my poverty and your kindness.”
Do you remember your first time away from home or the homesickness that seemed to follow a week or two behind you? Dickens sums it up well with a simple phrase. “When nobody sees me, I am pining for it.”
Consider F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and the undertone of nostalgic writing throughout the novel. “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter… We beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Nostalgic writing can be used to pique the senses as well as the feelings. Notice how the Netflix series Outer Banks uses the toll of the bell to literally ring in nostalgia.
You can include this type of example in your own writing by bringing the senses onto the written page. Your character could remember:
- The feel of their grandmother’s wool blanket she always kept on the couch
- Their favorite childhood birthday party whenever they taste vanilla cake
- A missed family member when they see her favorite meal cooked
- Hometown vacations when they smell salt air
You may also want to consider how songwriters incorporate nostalgia into their lyrics. In an article on Taylor Swift’s use of nostalgic writing, Dr. Lasaleta said, “When people feel lonely, this loneliness evokes nostalgia, which in turn leads people to feel less lonely, through a sense of nostalgia-evoked social support.”
Incorporating Nostalgia Into Your Prose
Now it’s your turn. Before you go and start writing, notice the similarity between prose in literature and music:
“There is a video I found from back when I was three. You set up a paint set in the kitchen and you're talking to me. It’s the age of princesses and pirate ships.”
This is a few lines from Taylor Swift’s song, Best Day, but it’s full of nostalgic writing that could be applied to various types of prose.
- Home videos
- Paint sets
- A kitchen turned art studio
- Dressing up as princesses and pirates
These are nostalgic moments that many audiences can relate to. As you go off to your writing time, ask yourself who your audience is, what evokes nostalgia in them, and how you can write to it.
Last, but not least, ask yourself why nostalgic writing matters in your story and what role it plays in your overall storytelling. Have fun with this one! Once you practice, you'll be surprised how much power this literary device can add to your writing.