How to Handle the Pandemic in Your Stories

(This post originally ran in the Writers in the Storm blog, but it felt timely to me to post it again.)

Probably the concern I hear most from authors these days is some variation of, “What do we do about coronavirus?” Not in real life (by now I hope we all know to WEAR MASKS, socially distance, and stay home as much as possible), but in their current works-in-progress.

Do authors acknowledge the virus, the pandemic, these relentless months of quarantine by setting stories before the cataclysm of 2020? If we try to avoid it by pushing stories forward into the not-too-distant future, how can we predict how the world may have changed by then—socially, economically, culturally? And even in that case, when unspooling a character’s backstory, how should we incorporate it? Do we reference these unprecedented events—working from home (or on the front lines, for essential workers), managing our kids’ virtual education, the personal and financial effects that will befall so many? How can we know the full extent of them yet? Will our stories even be relevant in a post-pandemic world (whenever we’re finally post-pandemic…)?

As writer and critic Lily Meyer says in this Atlantic article: “No one has had time to truly refine their ideas about personal life in a state of widespread isolation and existential dread, and literature, even when political, is a fundamentally personal realm. It relies on the ability to channel inner experience outward, and because no inner experience of the coronavirus pandemic could plausibly be described as complete, prose that renders it static and comprehensible rings false. In the shaky realm of literature reacting quickly to a crisis in motion, mess and chaos are the forms that speak best to painful realities.”

That’s a literary way of saying what I think most of us already intuit: Who the #&*% knows?

But if anyone may have some guidance or insight, I thought it might be industry professionals who are more intimate with the market and its vagaries and responses to major world events—many current publishing professionals were around for 9/11’s effect on the industry, for instance. With that in mind, I asked a handful of colleagues—literary agents and editors at publishing houses—in the Age of COVID, what’s a poor storyteller to do?

Their answers all aligned along similar lines, and may offer some guideposts—and a breath of relief when it’s desperately needed.

1. Don’t overthink it.

Years ago I heard bestselling author Walter Mosley speak. Asked about research for his historical hard-boiled Easy Rawlins mystery series (Devil in a Blue Dress, et al), Mosley, the author of more than forty successful novels, laughed and said he made it all up. “It’s fiction,” he said simply.

Christine Witthohn, literary agent/licensing agent withBook Cents Literary Agency, is of this school of thought: “It’s fiction, so they can write whatever they want. I haven’t heard anybody (agents or editors) discussing that topic. I think those questions are writerly questions that cause a writer to spin their wheels and get hung up (i.e., worrying about issues that keep them from being productive).”

“To be honest, there hasn’t been a lot of conversation with editors about including the ‘new normal’ in manuscripts,” says Kim Lionetti, senior literary agent withBookEnds Literary Agency. “None of my recent sales have addressed quarantine, masks, or social distancing at all.  In most cases, I think editors just believe readers will go to fiction for escapism and don’t really need the new realities addressed…. I don’t think publishers are avoiding the topic, though. If it makes sense to an author’s story to include these new realities, then they should absolutely write about them.” 

Faith Black Ross, senior editor atCrooked Lane Books, has a similar take: “It seems to be a matter of personal preference, but for me, and most of the others I’ve talked to, unless it’s germane to the plot I prefer to just ignore it. I think most people read fiction as a form of escapism and so reading about people wearing masks and worrying about the virus puts me right back into the realities of today that I would sometimes prefer to avoid thinking about, especially when I’m taking a much-needed break with a book.”

There’s also of risking your story quickly feeling anachronistic, Ross adds: “Having all of your characters wearing masks, etc., might date the book a bit and tie it extremely securely to this one point in time rather than letting the work be a bit more timeless.”

2. Sidestep, for now.

Escapism is a theme that came up repeatedly with most of the industry pros I spoke with—that readers may not be eager to deal with the same weighted issues that consume so much of everyone’s daily realities at the moment in the stories they turn to for relief and release.

“There are so many unknowns with the pandemic, and the situation is changing daily, so attempting to address it even tangentially is tricky,” says Chris Werner, senior editor atLake Union Publishing. “I believe many readers are eager to escape into stories that are set pre-COVID,” the unpleasant realities of which have “shifted nearly every aspect of our daily lives. For example, making mention of masks would mean having to entirely reframe how characters interact in their home or work space.

“For that reason, I’ve been advising authors that I work with to set their manuscripts pre-2020. This makes for a far less complicated writing/editing experience because it allows authors to focus on the core story rather than trying to incorporate ever-changing details. I have some authors who have written author’s notes explaining their decision to set the story before the pandemic, which is an effective way to help ease readers into the world…. The risk of a story appearing dated seems lower than speculating about what the future looks like and getting it wrong.”

“Literature is not journalism,” adds Courtney Miller-Callihan, literary agent/founder of Handspun Literary Agency. “There are incredible novels to be written about the coronavirus, but to be a little flippant about it, we don’t know how that story ends yet; maybe it’s not yet time for someone to write the Great Coronavirus Novel. Meanwhile, I’ve been encouraging writers struggling with this question to think about whether ignoring COVID-19 feels dishonest to their story, or whether including the pandemic would actively thwart the reader’s experience of escapism. A sizable percentage of my own work is on romance novels, which are about as escapist as it gets (in a good way!), and the industry consensus thus far seems to be that romance exists in an alternate dimension where coronavirus never happened.” 

Cindy Hwang, executive editor withPenguin Group USA, also favors this approach until we have more perspective on the current global crisis: “Honestly, if I had to give a writer advice right now, I’d say sidestep the virus and keep your dates vague. That won’t work long-term or for every book, but until this is over we just won’t know!”

3. Look to the future—eventually.

At some point, just as with 9/11, this global experience of pandemic is going to become a part of the collective culture that will undoubtedly be reflected in our literature. But just as many stories now make little specific reference to the Trade Towers falling and the radical shift in our society that followed, COVID-19 and quarantine may simply become part of the fabric of our fictional worlds—a thread in the tapestry, rather than a discrete swath of patchwork quilt.

It’s already showing signs of happening, according to Kim Lionetti: “Recently I did have an editor suggest that it should be incorporated into a manuscript in a small way (e.g., there’s scenes in a gym, and they suggested including some of the cleaning and distancing considerations being added). That’s the first time I’d ever heard it raised, though, and I’ve had quite a few sales since March. Generally, I just recommend doing whatever feels right to the story. If the new reality adds some integral dynamics, then go for it.  But don’t feel obligated to shoehorn it in.”

“On the flip side,” adds Chris Werner, “I’ve been seeing deal announcements for books that are themed around quarantining and the situation as it stands now. There is certainly a lot of material to tap into in this regard, and more writers may see the pandemic as an opportunity to explore new terrain.”

That concern and confusion you may be feeling as a writer amid this unprecedented disruption of society isn’t baseless—and you’re far from alone in wrestling with these issues. But as with every other major crisis in history, this too shall pass—and when it does, it will as always be art and artists that help society process, understand, and heal from our collective wounds.

“One day (God willing) we will come out the other side of all of this,” says Faith Black Ross. “Like so much of publishing, it’s all really maddeningly subjective. It’s all still very up in the air and unknown, but for now I like my fiction like I like the rest of my life, without any coronavirus in it.”

“Honestly, I would tell writers to write the stories they want to write!” says Christine Witthohn. “Don’t get hung up on things that will only cause them to procrastinate or block their creativity. That’s what editing is for. Everyone has enough to worry about right now.” 

6 Comments. Leave new

  • This has been one of my burning questions of late, as I write a story that starts in the fall of 2019. The bulk of my plot events end up fitting into just a few months, but I have a ending which lands smack dab in mid 2020. Thanks to this post, I feel better about tackling this.

    Reply
  • Bonnie Carlson
    February 18, 2021 3:53 pm

    I’ve been agonizing about this issue with a novel I’m just about done with, started way before COVID. Hearing advice from industry professionals has been very helpful. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      February 18, 2021 4:03 pm

      I’m glad! I was curious myself, and started asking around in the industry…and figured the answers were worth sharing. 🙂

      Reply
  • Martha Knox
    March 6, 2021 1:58 am

    I love the detective stories of the Golden age WWI thru WW2. Maybe we as authors can take heart. One of my favorite shows is Foyle’s war. When I read the Agatha Christie books written during that era, it’s like being in a time machine. I think of the scenes she describes, and she kept writing throughout the war years. The Grapes of Wrath was written during the depression. Great Gatsby followed WWI. Magnam PI followed Viet Nam. The Orphan’s Train followed the Spanish Flu epidemic.The COVID pandemic is the Elephant in the room, everyone alive today has been affected. So many great books come from hard times and tragedy.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      March 6, 2021 3:17 am

      Agreed. I think early in the pandemic (when this post originally ran) we weren’t sure how long it would last–and of course we still don’t know what long-term changes it might effect in society and the world. I do see a lot of folks reluctant to have COVID realities in their entertainment right now, and I can understand that. But I have to think this will become part of the collective scarring of our world, and will find its way into our stories.

      Reply

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