Browsing through a box of old family photos and scrapbooks, I found myself weeping, while remembering happy events. Why such contradictory emotions? Nostalgia. 

The dictionary defines nostalgia as : a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life, to one’s home or homeland, or to one’s family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time.

That seems like a dry definition for such an emotional state.  

A further exploration of nostalgia determines it is a truly meaningful emotional experience, usually fleeting and fragile, that underlines a sense of something lost and finding it again, for one brief moment.  As one paper put it In that moment, you are connected; you have placed a phone call directly into the past and heard an answering voice .

Longing and Loss

In preparing this post I read several papers on nostalgia and they consistently pinpointed longing and loss as critical to feelings of nostalgia. That is why I cried over photos of happy times. They are gone now, the people passed away or scattered, the places changed almost beyond recognition. The happy memories are edged with loss. 

Beyond the dictionary definition, nostalgia evokes powerful emotions and thus, is useful to a writer of romance. In this genre, perhaps more than any other, the emotional reponse of the reader is paramount. We want our readers to fall in love with the hero, to weep with the disappointed, to despise the villain.

Nostalgia for Writers

    So, how can we, as writers, use the power of nostalgia to add impact to our stories?

    1. We can use it to put ourselves in an emotional state. Look at an old photo or call up an incident in your memory, that evokes nostalgia in you. Now that the writer is feeling fragile, vulnerable and maybe a little weepy, she can transfer that state to the character on the page.                                                                                                                                                             
    2. Use nostalgia triggers to hook the reader. The town of Mayberry never existed, yet millions of viewers identify with the place and the time, when they watch the Andy Griffith show. Why?  Because they long for the security and friendship and sense of belonging that attach to Aunt Bea, Opie and the rest. I’m not suggesting you set your book in Mayberry, but use a word or two to tap into that longing that resides in your reader and you’ll have them hookedon your story.                                        
    3.  Find triggers for your characters that will call forth a response from readers as well. Perhaps your heroine catches the scent of apple blossom and is swept back to a happy time in her own life. Even if your reader doesn’t like apple blossom, the sense of smell is a strong trigger for memory and they may recall their own favourite blossom or scent.  I just read an article citing red roses as a touchstone and my mind flashed to my Dad. To him, the only real flower was a red rose. In an instant, I was down the rabbit hole of memory, and the blog post that mentioned a red rose became memorable to me.                                                                                                                      
    4. We all share a longing to belong, to be part of a continum, to have roots. Help your  characters to find their HEA, by giving them that place, literal or figurative, that is “home.” The place they belong.  Call upon your own nostalgic moments to define the emotions that surround that place.    
    5.   In historical fiction, incorporating nostalgic elements can enhance the tone and setting to draw the reader into your imaginary world. Who can resist the image of a team of draft horses pulling a plough across the wide prairie? You can even mention the smell of leather harness, the dust in the nostrils of the ploughman, and the heat of the sun beating down from a cloudless sky.                                                                                                                                           
    6. Use nostalgic writing for reflection. Let your character muse on the passage of time since she was the prom queen at her high school, and all the changes and growth she has experienced since then. She may look back fondly or sadly on the girl she was then. That’s a decision for the author. Whichever it is, the reader will be drawn in — she’ll reflect on her own teen years, she’ll be emotional, maybe even shed a tear– and she’ll love your book.

    There are many ways a writer can tap into the powerful emotions that nostalgia elicits, these are only a few. Don’t pound your reader with all of them at once, but sprinkle a few bits here and there. Your story will have that little bit extra emotional writing that readers crave.

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