A Novel Approach to the 1980s

If you know me it’s no secret that I love the 1980s. I loved it then, I still love it now. So it stands to reason that I really should be writing about it, for my next novel no less.

Hallelujah! A Second Novel!

I’ve already written the first draft of one novel. Let’s just say it’s gone on a long break for now. It was my first attempt at novel writing and I know it will need a lot of work. I’ve left it because the subject matter of depression isn’t one I want to work with right now. I thought that was the only novel I had in me. Thankfully it turns out I may be wrong.

Write What You Know?

1980s - kid on skateboardI know there are many writers who go apoplectic at the thought of writing what you know. We should be creatives, invoking wispy muses and digging out ideas from the arty-farty caves of creativity. Yeah, yeah. All well and good. I love an exciting and unexplored idea when it comes along. I understand why you fantasy writing types like to go to other worlds. I do it too sometimes.

However, I also write from a place of what I know. I’ve been on this planet for over four decades now so I’ve accrued some prime writing material. Why not use it?

I lived throughout the ‘80s and made it. Therefore I’m going to write about it.

I lived on a council estate in England for about 10 years. I feel that makes me an expert, albeit a child one, on that particular experience. What better setting for a novel then than an ‘80s council estate through the eyes of a kid? The kid will not be me. I’m not that self-indulgent.

It Was Acceptable in the ‘80s

I am nostalgic but realistic about the 1980s. I have fond memories and realistic notions of dodgy fashions, silly fads, brilliant television programmes, cheesey music, amazing tunes, and bad political times. It’s rich writing ground.

1980s - kids fightingI love looking back on a decade where what was acceptable then certainly wouldn’t be now. In this uber PC world, the ‘80s can either horrify us or make us hark back to easier times.

I remember being able to buy chocolate cigarettes that were covered in realistic paper. Modern parents are probably horrified at the thought. I don’t think it created a mass of smokers. All it did for me was make me love chocolate even more in its various guises.

There is a tendency to look at the past with rose-tinted specs. I was a kid in the 1980s. My world was only difficult when I was getting a rollicking from my mum or falling out with a friend. Riots, the Falklands War, famines… childhood innocence and obliviousness meant they largely passed me by.

This is why I’m feeling enlightened researching the decade as an adult. My eyes are being opened to a decade of both boom and bust. I feel like I’ve lived the decade as a child and now I’m doing so as a grown woman, with a whole lot of that child still along for the ride.

A New Direction in the Future

1980s - kids in streetI’ve decided to write a thriller. This is new for me. I read a lot of them. I love them. I know they’re tricky little buggers to write. I’m never one to make life easy for myself. I love a challenge.

My novel is set both in the ‘80s and present day. The protagonist will be forced to go back to that decade to face up to some truths about what happened then and how it has changed the residents of a council estate since.

I am still in touch with some people from the estate I used to live on. Thank goodness for Facestalker, I mean Facebook. It’s fascinating knowing how their lives have turned out.

Some of us have ‘made good’, others are immersed still within their dubious choices as kids. None of us are clichés of council estate living.

Don’t believe what you’ve heard in the news, back then or now about those who come from council estates. We may be drug addicts, drug dealers, thieves or worse. We may also be teachers, executives, doctors and boffins.

Whatever we have come to be, we are all multi-faceted, multi-dimensional people. That is why I will try throughout my novel to never present flat characters. Now there’s a challenge!

Fashion Fails and Hits

I love research. I particularly love looking back at ‘80s fashions. I was a lucky girl in that my mum was always decking me out in the latest gear. She always managed to do it on a budget though. Having five kids demanded it.

1980s - woman and carI remember trips to the market particularly to get my little brother’s latest character based tracksuit or Tammy Girl for me. Many a ra-ra skirt was purchased and, of course, obligatory leg warmers.

I am visualising my characters already in their pom pom skirts, braces, side ponytails, jumpsuits, neon, shoulder pads, and porn star ‘taches.

Living on a council estate often meant trying to keep up with the Joneses. Parents would see her up the road’s kids in a new set of Madonna type fingerless lace gloves and within the day, her little love would be decked out a la the ‘Like a Virgin’ video. Poor little shit would also be subjected to walking round in a mini wedding dress.

Even on a council estate we wanted to look good, probably more so. We knew that where we lived had a bad reputation. We knew other kids would sometimes look down on us because of our postcode. Our parents often strove to rectify the situation by decking us out in the ‘80s finest, or worst I guess if the photos are anything to go by.

The Soundtrack of a Council Estate Life

Music was life on my estate. So much so that I would carry a portable stereo with me everywhere playing my illegally recorded cassette from the radio’s Sunday night chart (we all did it right?). It cost me (okay, my parents) a fortune in batteries but it was so worth it.

Many a shoot down the slide, a dangerously high push on the swing, or a game of British bulldog were accompanied by an ‘80s tune.

We’d make up dances to the Dirty Dancing soundtrack which we just had to perform to the cars that went past on the main road at the top of the estate.

We’d wish that we could be Banarama and band together with our female friends, listening to 45s on rickety record players. We’d raid our wardrobes and swap clothes to nail that Kylie Minogue look.

Many a house had the latest ‘Now’ compilation blaring out of open windows and doors. When it came to music, sharing was caring.

I’d even sit alone on the rare occasion when the estate was quiet, on a pavement, listening to songs on my trusty stereo, reveling in the relative quiet from a house of seven people.

Then chaos would come once more after tea time. Bellies full, knowing they had a small window of time, the kids would spill out of their houses gravitating towards the strains of The Cure, Wham, Duran Duran, The Smiths, and the like. Music was where it was happening.

Memory Lane is a Place on a 1980s Council Estate

1980s - graffitiMemory Lanes are odd places. We view them as joyous roads in the past where we think we can remember them distinctly. Sometimes it’s better to keep the memory rather than the reality.

I recently drove round my old estate. It was the first time I’d been there for about 28 years. It just wasn’t the same as the world I had built in my head.

It felt like I’d entered a kingdom I was once part of and I found it shrunk, re-sized and faded. It has aged like an elderly woman who reduces in size, and shows signs of time passing by.

I even drove straight past the road that I lived on, thinking it must be further down than that. As I drove back out I felt my heart grow heavy. I regretted going back. I worried that I had shifted my view of that old estate by seeing it in its new, boxed in reality.

Then I remembered that I am both a dreamer and a writer. That estate will be forever stuck in the 1980s for me. I can keep it there.

It will always be that hive of activity, community, frustrated hopes, arguments, sadness, gossip, love and milestones. It will serve as inspiration for this novel in its glorious and dubious ‘80s version.

There I can write it as it was, how it could have been worse, and how I wished it could be. I will occasionally be putting the shades over those rose-tinted glasses but it will forever be my 1980s council estate life, transcended into a novel. Let’s hope I do it justice.

Come Join My Facebook 1980s Group!

I have set up a Facebook group to help me research my novel, get help, and to share memories of living in the 1980s in the UK. You don’t have to have lived on a 1980s council estate, although if you did your help is very much needed. Do join if you love the 1980s, have some memories to share, want to get nostalgic, and want to help a writer get writing. Join here: Living on a UK Estate in the 1980s Facebook Group

About Lisa Sell

Lisa Sell is a fiction writer. When she's not wrestling with words she can be found showing the love for chocolate, cheese, coffee, books, the cats, and the husband. Perhaps not in that order.

14 comments on “A Novel Approach to the 1980s

  1. I’m a 90s kid and from the US, but your post still made me nostalgic. Loved the pictures, and your references to different styles painted fun images in my head. Good luck with your novel writing!

    1. Thanks so much for such a positive response. I’d love to write a novel based in the 1990s too. Maybe next time! Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  2. I was born in the late 80s, so I’m really more of a 90s baby, but your descriptions remind me of looking through my grandparent’s photo albums and seeing my mom and aunts and uncle being young adults. Definitely a fun memory, and I look forward to hearing more about this book!

    1. I bet there are some great photos in those albums Jamie! I’m really looking forward to getting stuck into this book. Thanks so much for your comment.

  3. I remember buying candy cigerettes as a kid and always thought they were fun. They didnt make me want to smoke….They were just funny to play with and eat.

    1. It would be interesting to know how many children who ate these sweets became smokers as a direct result of playing at smoking with them. I suspect it would be a very low number. I do understand why they can’t be around anymore, but still.

  4. Your writing just flows so easily that I want to continue reading. Best luck with your exciting new book. I, too, love thrillers and am intimidated by the thought of writing one. Good for you!- Paula
    PS. I used to eat loads chocolate cigarettes – perhaps a tad too visible now in my unwanted love handles – but I’ve never smoked or felt the need to do so!

    1. Thank you Paula! I’m pleased that you enjoyed reading this post. I hope you’ll enjoy the novel just as much when it’s done.

      Chocolate in any form is a good thing as far as I’m concerned! Thanks for commenting.

  5. Hi Lisa,
    What a great article that definitely took me down memory lane.
    Yes I remember the chocolate cigarettes too!:-)
    Look forward to reading the novel when you finish it.

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