Should the pandemic shape the settings of our novels?

Should the pandemic shape the settings of our novels?

* An earlier version of this article was published on the Christian Writers Downunder Blogspot on August 30, 2021.

One of the dilemmas authors face if we write contemporary fiction or begin our speculative stories in a present-day setting, is whether or not we should refer to the Covid-19 pandemic.

I’ve written one young adult (YA) novel and I’m currently developing  a contemporary, amateur sleuth mystery series. My problem is that both stories begin in the ‘present day’.

Do I acknowledge the pandemic or not?

There are different thoughts on this.

I read on one forum that Amazon was taking down books that were focused on Covid-19. I tried to find evidence of this on Amazon’s website but I couldn’t find any prohibitions. In the early days of the pandemic Amazon was flooded with a wide range of dubious products claiming to cure the virus, which they subsequently took down from sale. They have also removed some nonfiction books of dubious merit, some of which have been reinstated.

I honestly don’t see how they could object to the pandemic acting as a backdrop to contemporary fiction but their bots do odd things at times. Mind you, I recently had a seasoned reviewer friend say they had a review removed from Amazon and the only reason they could think of was that they mentioned the lockdown in the review.

Bottom line: If you have a book in mind and you are not sure if the theme is okay then I’d contact Amazon directly and check.

A stronger reason to avoid referencing the pandemic in our fiction is because people often want to escape life’s problems when they read. I think it would depend on the reader and the level of realism they crave, but lighter reads have done well since the pandemic began.

I think that my friends who write fantasy are in a good position as they don’t have to choose. Werewolves don’t get Covid… although they could conceivably get parvo. Hey, there’s a plot idea!

But I digress. After thinking this through I decided to leave out any mention of Covid from my books. It seemed much simpler to ignore the mess the world was in and have fun in my writing bubble.

But then I saw this two-star review posted on another forum.

It makes me giggle – and groan – every time I read it.

My favourite line:

The author apparently wrote the book before the pandemic and made the assumption that summer 2020 would be just like other summers…

I mean really, what a terrible author. I know many writers are brilliant creative people but this one missed it, right? If they wrote a book in 2018 or 2019 why wouldn’t they know life would be totally disrupted in 2020? Fancy not being able to predict that a global pandemic would disrupt the world at some future date. Epic fail!

In truth this is both hilarious and sad. Funny that someone would blame an author for not being able to predict the future, and disappointing that this two-star rating could affect the author’s ability to sell their book in the future.

Crazy, huh?

Did you see that 19 people thought the review was helpful?

All groans aside, it did make me realise that some people can’t see past the current world circumstances. The impact of Covid-19 on the psyche of some folk is so profound that they can’t embrace an imaginary world that doesn’t acknowledge the virus.

The question is, what do we do about this?

  • When we are writing new books
  • When we’ve already written a book that refers specifically to 2020
  • When we get an irrational review like this

If we have a work in progress we might:

  • Continue to set the book in the present but include a forward note explaining why we left Covid-19 out of the story
  • Set the book in a specific year – say 2019
  • Do nothing – refuse to waste our energy on the minority that might not ‘get’ our work

If we’ve already published a book that mentions 2020, we could try similar things:

  • Rewrite the whole book (Noooooo!)
  • Change the dates in the book to less contentious ones
  • Including a forward note as above
  • However most traditional publishers would be unlikely to re-format books and put out a second edition unless there was a very good reason
  • Do nothing

If we get a review that shows *cough* a lack of insight like this one, all the conventional wisdom says: Do. Not. Reply. I guess it’s an opportunity to further develop the thick skin we need as authors (as if we don’t have enough of those opportunities 😆).

So back to my novels. I think I’m going to stick with my original plan to exclude the pandemic from my stories. The forward note idea sounds good to me, but I’d love to hear what you think. Is this a good plan?

How are you approaching writing contemporary settings in 2020?

Have you ever received a crazy review like this? I’d love to hear what it said 😎. 

What would you do if you received a review like this? Let me know in the comments below!

 

When Characters Have a Life of their Own

When Characters Have a Life of their Own

Have you ever felt as if your characters have taken over your story? In one of my works in progress (yes, I have two, or is it three?) my characters keep taking over the narrative. I want the tale to go in a certain direction and voila I wake up the next day and the characters insist on doing their own thing. I mean, how rude? I’m the author and so I should be the boss of my story. Right?

I suspect something like this is happening:

It was quiet. The author had gone to bed but Chloe couldn’t sleep – not now that she’d found out what could happen to her. She stared at the screen that was the barrier between herself and her creator. What could she do? She didn’t want to die.

It was a conundrum. She had only just become aware of the screen and that there was someone on the other side determining her destiny. What right had the author to dictate her fate? That she could die in 1952? It wasn’t fair and it wasn’t right. But, other than Ethan saving her (and he’d disappeared) what could she do about it? No, she had to save herself.

Chloe reached out and touched the screen. She thought it might have been electrified but it was cool to the touch. She placed both hands on the shimmering surface and to her astonishment they went through the iridescence. She stumbled forward and found herself in another realm.

She caught her breath. How could this be possible? Then again she’d travelled in time and space from present day Melbourne to 1950s France. That hadn’t been impossible – not according to the author – so why couldn’t she leap beyond the story? She was real – in all the ways that mattered – and she could determine her own destiny.

Chloe glanced around the room. She was in a house not that much bigger than her own.  She smiled to herself at the snoring coming from what must be the bedroom then jumped as a little voice behind her said, “Hello.” She let out a nervous giggle when she realised it was a small pet bird.

The snoring stopped and she held her breath, cursing her lack of self-control. What would she do if she were discovered? But the snoring resumed again and all was well.

Chloe turned her attention to the computer. She’d memorised the password from the last log on and it was simple to find the Scrivener file. She frowned as she read through the latest chapter. This would never do. She pondered for a moment. If she erased the text, the author would just rewrite it. Chloe didn’t know if she’d be able to escape from the pages again any time soon. The author usually shut the computer down at night. She bit her lip as she searched through the other files. Research … character … outline … . That was it!

Chloe opened the file. Her eyebrows lifted as she read. She hadn’t thought of that outcome… She chewed on her lip again and a small smile quirked on her lips as she began typing.

The sky outside was developing a faint pink hue when Chloe finished her work. She stood, stretched and placed both hands on the cool screen. In an instant she was back in her own world. At least now her destiny was surer.

The antagonist watched as Chloe reappeared through the shimmering screen and hurried away down a dark street. He’d been waiting for his chance ever since he’d seen her disappear into that other world. He placed his hands on the screen as she had done and leapt. He smiled with delight as he sat at the desk, cracked his knuckles and began to type.

Several hours later, the author plonked down into her seat and placed a steaming mug of coffee on the desk next to her computer. She yawned as she logged on but the yawn developed into a sigh. The outline file was open – again. Who was it this time? Last week it was Ethan who seemed to have a life of his own. Didn’t these characters realise that she, the author, was in charge? Why did they always want to take over? She pondered for a while then decided that this would be a great topic for a blog.

It fascinates me that this phenomenon happens again and again when I write. Well … characters don’t literally leap out of the screen and rewrite the story. Mind you, sometimes it would be good if they could. It would help me dig myself out of those dreaded plot holes. But most of us have experienced the protagonist who refuses to behave in the way we want them to. The characters take over the story and leave us, the creators of the work, to clean up the mess.

I once heard author Diana Gabaldon talk about the writing of her Outlander series. In the initial stages she tried hard to give Claire, her female protagonist, an eighteenth century voice but she kept sounding like a 20th century nurse. In the end Diana gave up and constructed a scenario where she could get this 20th century woman into the eighteenth century. The rest, as they say, is history.

There is an element to every creative process that goes beyond the normal workings of our rational mind. The creative brain (mind, soul, spirit) reaches into places we would never have dreamed of going ourselves (or maybe we would only have gone there in a dream). It makes writing a wonderful, crazy voyage of discovery.

How about you? Have you had characters take over your story. Do they have a life of their own? Did it help or hinder the story? Please let me know in the comments below :).