This is no. 57 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
My second novel, The Prettiest Star, examines America during the time of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, when the U.S. government, churches, schools, and families turned their backs on gay men who were dying. I was a young teenager during that time. I remember Ryan White on TV, the jokes at school, the rampant homophobia. For my research I read many books, newspapers, magazines, oral histories. I watched feature films and documentaries. I talked to friends. Much of the research was difficult and heavy and sad.
But I also needed to study and compile those seemingly more frivolous details that are actually crucial to capturing a specific time and place: the clothes, music, movies, hairstyles, and so on. My personal memories of the 1980s helped, but for inspiration, accuracy, and veracity, I knew I had to explore a variety of archives to lead me into the past.
If you grew up in the 1980s, you may remember the JCPenney and Sears catalogues. The size of phone books, they arrived in the mail with each new season. The most important was the Christmas catalogue; when I was a kid, I pored over the newspaper-print pages of toys and wrote up a detailed list for Santa. My parents had thrown out our copies years ago, so I ordered a few from eBay. When the catalogues arrived, they smelled faintly of cigarette smoke. One of them featured model Cheryl Tiegs wearing a safari-style jumpsuit and cuddling with a Bengal tiger kitten. The catalogues made excellent coffee table books—my guests flipped nostalgically through the pages, laughing at the absurdity.
There were pages and pages of fashion: watches with bright bands, women posing in leotards and leg warmers, very serious men in silk pajamas. I studied the clothes and shoes my characters would wear, hairstyles. I learned the cost of things: men’s warm-up suit, $37.99; sheepskin car-seat cover, $99.99; answering machine, $179.00. The pictures helped me design my characters’ homes, too: the heavy peach drapes, the harvest-gold oven. Which objects would show up in my characters’ rooms and closets? One of my narrators, Jess, who’s fourteen, wears a Walkman to escape family tension and secrecy. I remembered the art of making mixed tapes, the sound of the rewinding cassette, the feeling of the foam on my ears.
At antique and secondhand stores, I hunted for old magazines and found copies of TV Guide, People, and Life. Online research opened up a world of music videos and TV commercials, sound bites from Casey Kasem’s America’s Top 40, and eighties photographs of malls, SeaWorld, and high schools. On a wall in my office, I hung a picture of a tape store at a mall next to a found photo of an old woman in her kitchen, which reminded me of one of my characters. Along with all the found photos, I hung xeroxes of Nan Goldin’s brilliant photographs documenting the queer and artist community of 1980s New York—all the pain and loss, and love; Alvin Baltrop’s photographs of queer life and the West Side Piers in the seventies and eighties; and William Yang’s heartbreaking portraits of gay, HIV-positive men. And, because Jess loves whales, I tacked images of orcas that I’d cut out of the issue of National Geographic she would have read in 1984.
It’s easy to get lost in the writing. I enjoy the hours and hours of research and immersing myself in the world of the novel. For me, the pictures on the walls and photographs and catalogues create a collage of visual reminders, a kind of map that inspires me to step inside.
Carter Sickels’s second novel, The Prettiest Star, will be published by Hub City Press on May 19. He is also the author of The Evening Hour (Bloomsbury, 2012), which was a finalist for an Oregon Book Award and a Lambda Literary Award. His essays and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications, including Guernica, Bellevue Literary Review, Green Mountains Review, and BuzzFeed. The recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award, Sickels has also earned fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. He is an assistant professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University, where he teaches in the Bluegrass Writers low-residency MFA program.Thumbnail: Daniel Schludi