I can’t be the only writer unsure how (or if) to deal with an unpredictable global pandemic. COVID-19 didn’t exist when I started work on my upcoming novel – and given a whole chunk of the action hangs off events at a seaside cafe, I could have done without it hitting. I don’t mean to demean people who lost loved ones or suffered through lockdown, just for now, this is all about me.
There’s a sound argument that books are where the reader goes to escape. The world is ugly, so why drag misery to the table? I thought the same a few months ago. Now, I watch films, drama, and comedy on TV, and flinch as characters get too close or hug greetings. The rational me knows this isn’t an issue, but I feel like I need to make my story resonate more and mirror the time in which it’s set. And that time is ‘tomorrow’ – the immediate tomorrow, not the sci-fi future.
After scrolling many a blog and social media site, it seems there are six ways for writers to handle Coronavirus.
Pretend COVID never happened. Write the story you always aimed to write as if nothing in the world changed. Tell your story in a parallel universe. Most books reaching the shops were written long before the pandemic hit, so they make limited or no reference. They work. Why wouldn’t yours?
Predict how it might be
Soap operas have come back to UK TV screens. They’re filmed months in advance and handed the onerous job of having to appear current. The writers make their best guess at how things might be. And given our government’s hobby of confusing the Holy Bajesus out of everyone, that’s no straightforward task. Assuming your book comes out in six months, might there be a vaccine, might it be on ration, might more be dead, might there be an even bigger lockdown, or could everything go away … like Trump insists?
If you are as crazy as a coot and Trump’s predictions resonate, you could set your book in a time when the characters are ‘back to normal’ with the odd snippet of dialogue talking of how hard COVID life used to be. Things might be better. Lessons learnt by everybody. It might be a gentler world. I’m a natural cynic, so this isn’t the path I ever plan on taking. It sounds too much like science fiction.
Dark and desperate
I’m more prone to take this (total opposite) approach and force my characters to grapple with a post-COVID world where air is in limited supply and everybody lives in bubbles. There’s a place for this – and many TV commissioning editors are crying out for this kind of trite nonsense, but what if we move out of the shade in six months? It’s going to date your story – like that entire chapter I set in an Internet cafe in The Armchair Bride. That’s egg on my face.
Change your time
Most of us tell our stories in the here and now. With the here and now being just a tad weird, maybe we should change the timeline. If jumping into the future isn’t safe, why not skip back a year and set it in the recent past? To be fair, this is the safest bet. Although … if you gravitate towards present tense, a ‘find and replace’ exercise won’t change every ‘is’ into a ‘was’.
Write in the now
Perhaps the most straightforward way to write our stories is to react as if it’s unfolding now. Keep the references to lockdown light and universal. Stay out of places you know will be closed – don’t write scenes in nightclubs. Your characters can still meet in pubs or coffee shops by all means, but sit them at a table, not jostling for service at a bar. Romantic fiction suffers most here – how would two strangers overcome social distancing?
Whatever you choose, I wish you writing wonder.