Use Nostalgia To Energize Your Storytelling

Everything about the change of seasons makes me nostalgic. I feel energized by a return to my past. Thinking about ‘back in the day’ no matter my age creates such an emotional rush. It’s one reason I write. To remember and record these scenes from my past, whether it’s as fiction or non-fiction. Nostalgia does that for us. It sweeps us into a past that’s filled with scenes—from a school yard to our backyard. Eating snacks after school, doing homework and watching our favorite shows on TV. When our memory bank revisits these scenes, we not only “see” ourselves, we also “feel” what it was like to be there.

The brain is wired that way. The brain is energized and gets all juicy when we reconnect physically, emotionally, and psychologically to another time. vintage-nostalgia-web

The trick is to consciously work with triggers that take us back there—to feel it again, smell it, taste it, see it, hear it.

These sensory details incite super storytelling powers—whether we write non-fiction, memoir, or fiction.  As we’re swept into an altered space, we have greater access to write and re-create rich scenes filled with vivid descriptions, making it less difficult to conjure up scenes than if we’d started with a blank page or screen.

Here are some of my favorite memorabilia triggers to energize your storytelling:

  1. Photographs. A picture is not only worth a thousand words. It also reminds us of where we were (setting) and who we were with (characters). Now place yourself back in that scene. Use old photos to energize your setting and character details as you create scenes and paint pictures with words in your stories.
  2. Letters and journals, even emails, remind us of what we thought. They capture specific lines of dialogue (internal and external) from our past. Sometimes, just seeing a return address on a letter or email is enough to carry you back to a former relationship too. Use snippets from old letters and journals to jumpstart passages of dialogue for your stories.
  3. Recipes, cookbooks, and food. Have you ever noticed how certain foods connect you with a certain place or or point in time? Some foods we loved and enjoyed. Many we hated, and that caused a strong emotional connection that’s still in you today. What we ate matters. Use your history of food as a way to “feed” your characters.
  4. Books and toys have a way of reconnecting us to what we longed for. Longing is a vital emotional aspect of character development because it helps establish character and narrato goals. Visit websites like eBay, WishBookWeb,  and the Sears Catalog archive  to reconnect with your toys. Visit your local library to browse sections of your favorite books. Or websites such as Goodreads and online retailers such as and Barnes & Noble.
  5. Movies and TV may hold the deepest emotional content of our lives because we immersed in other people’s worlds. That taught us much about love, life, relationships and how characters come together in scenes to create powerful stories. Watch reruns. Tap into your personal video library. Or revisit your favorites via YouTube and other online media where replays are available 24/7. Use them to remember and record why they mattered to you.
  6. Fashion and clothing have defined every era. Your personal re-connection to what you wore is a perfect directorial tool for re-creating characters within your scenes. Visit vintage clothing stores or websites. Go through trunks and boxes in the attic, garage, or basement to rediscover and reconnect to the tactile sensations of fabrics.
  7. Music. Have you ever been swept back to a specific scene from your life when a certain song is played? Now imagine how that feeling you have can find its way into your story. Use that to energize your storytelling. Feel it. Groove with it. Pound your desk to the beat of it. When you do that, I know you’ll be crafting super-powered stories full of the rich descriptive details—from auditory to visual—throughout your scenes.

In my 4-week online writing class WRITING YOUR LIFE STORIES: WHERE TO BEGIN we use lists and writing assignments to assimilate the descriptive details of our stories. Revisting your personal memorabilia to energize these seven triggers is a quick way to begin. I’d love to see your name on my roster. Will you join us? Starts 9/24/14.


  1. Hi Debra,
    Love your blog! An excellent “jump start” for anyone’s writing.
    My plate is full at the moment and I will not be able to take your online class. I sooo much enjoyed the class I did take from you. You have a special way to motivate and bring out the best writing in all of your students.
    Best always,

    • Debra Marrs says:

      Thank you, Jan. Thanks for your kudos. For the blog. And for your participation in recent classes. I’ve loved getting to know you through your storytelling which you continue to do so well on your own blog at #keepwriting

  2. Wonderful guidance about memory prompts for writing life stories. The change of seasons is always a big turning point for me. Thank you, Debra!

  3. Debra Marrs says:

    Thank you for responding, Carolyn. See? There’s another reason we connect so easily. Reconnecting with memorabilia and entering a nostalgic state is also useful to fiction writers too. One of the most-liked writing exercise in my short story class is when students make lists related to 1-7 above; then begin to piece together elements to incorporate into their fiction. It makes it fun and works like putting together pieces of a puzzle. Thanks again.

  4. Ooh. The Sears Catalog archive. What a great idea. I didn’t realize there was such a thing. Fun browsing ahead! I used most of the other suggestions on this list in my memoir. Today I wrote a post which quotes Sue Silverman’s introduction to her book The Pat Boone Fan Club. She does a great job of weaving images, brands, song lyrics, and even seasons. Nostalgia can be lovely, especially when it doesn’t cover over the fact that it actually refers to pain. In Greek — an aching for home.

    • Debra Marrs says:

      What a lovely perspective, Shirley. Thanks for adding the etymology of “nostalgia.” I’ve always thought of nostalgia as a deep longing, something that may be painful at times. But, hopefully, nostalgia is associated with warm feelings of tenderness that connect us to our past. LOVE how you LOVE the Sears catalog archive. It’s perfect for those of us from a certain era. Please leave a link in the comments below so we can read your post on Sue Silverman’s site.

      You may also like Mike Andberg’s Maybe Boomer blog where he posts icons from our past in his Remember This? column. Thanks, Shirley.

Leave a Reply