Nostalgic Writing: The Power It Wields And 3 Mistakes To Avoid

Sarah Rexford
June 29, 2023 | 7 mins

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Nostalgic writing is a powerful literary element writers can use to evoke long-dormant feelings. Using intention and care, nostalgic writing can take 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.

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What Is Nostalgic Writing?

Nostalgic writing is a literary device used 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:

  • Yearning
  • Desire 
  • Reminiscence 

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, using nostalgia in writing has mostly positive intentions (and experiences for readers).

Why (and When) Is It Used?

Nostalgic writing can be a powerful tool to evoke emotions and connect with readers. It should be used strategically in various contexts to achieve specific effects. Here are some situations where nostalgic writing can be particularly effective in books and writing:

  • Personal Memoirs: Nostalgic writing can be perfect for personal memoirs or autobiographical works. If you're writing a book base on a true story, sharing past experiences, cherished memories, and significant events from one's life can create a strong bond with readers and make them feel connected to the author.
  • Marketing and Advertising: Nostalgia is often used in marketing and advertising to tap into positive emotions associated with the past. You can leverage this in your own book marketing. Note how other brands and authors use nostalgic themes, images, or references to trigger feelings of familiarity and comfort, making consumers more inclined to engage with their products or services.
  • Fictional Stories: In most types of fictional writing, authors can use nostalgia to set the tone or create a sense of time and place. Recalling historical events, cultural references, or popular trends from a specific era can add depth to the story and enhance the overall atmosphere.
  • Reminiscing Articles or Content: Content that aims to reminisce about a particular time, whether a decade, a season, or a cultural movement, can benefit from nostalgic writing. It allows the audience to look back fondly on shared experiences and enjoy a sense of collective memory.
  • Historical Context: When writing about historical events or periods, incorporating nostalgic elements can make the past come alive for the reader. By tapping into the emotions associated with a particular time, the writer can humanize historical figures and events.
  • Reflection and Sentimentality: Nostalgic writing can be used to express feelings of longing, sentimentality, or reflection on the passing of time. It allows authors to explore themes of growth, change, and the cyclical nature of life.
  • Connecting Across Generations: Nostalgic writing can bridge the generation gap by evoking shared memories and experiences. It can be an effective way to communicate with readers of different ages and backgrounds, fostering understanding and empathy.

All that being said, it's essential to use nostalgic writing judiciously.

Overusing nostalgia or relying solely on it can come across as saccharine or insincere to your readers. Like any literary device, it should complement the overall narrative and serve a purpose within the context of the writing. The balance between nostalgic elements and other storytelling aspects is crucial for a well-crafted and engaging piece of writing.

How To Use Nostalgia in Your Writing

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 positively. 

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 the plot and storyline. For creative nonfiction, memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies, 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 Common Mistakes

Like all literary devices, nostalgic writing does come with the possibility of mistakes. Naming these mistakes upfront 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. 

  • A 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, the device falls flat when you use nostalgic writing without a specific purpose. 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.

3. 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. 

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 and feelings. Notice how the Netflix series Outer Banks uses the toll of the bell to quite 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 nostalgia, 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.”

Start 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 begin (or continue) your first rough draft of your book, 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. 

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