One Writer’s Thoughts on the Pandemic by Susan Oleksiw

This post was supposed to be about setting, but while I was working on my current project I came to a scene in which the character had undergone a significant change. I wondered how to present this. Should I explain the loss of the job as the result of the Covid-19 lockdown? Or should I just leave it as an ordinary layoff? I posed the question as a general one on my FB page and as of this writing 24 writers have made comments. I’m not the only one thinking about this issue.

One of the strengths of crime fiction, and traditional mysteries in particular, is the precise way authors describe a world. Crime fiction is dependent on an accurate presentation of reality, even when that reality is far-fetched–from the deadly allergy to the fragrance of roses to the importance of the tides. We look for this in our favorite books whatever the subgenre. You may think about the yarn shop where a charming owner gives knitting lessons–to the reader as well as the characters, with knitting instructions at the end. Or perhaps you prefer the cooking mysteries with recipes and menus. I enjoy these too but in this instance I’m thinking about something less obvious but equally significant for the story.

Over fifty-five years, Agatha Christie set many of her mysteries in English villages, so richly described that even now many of us Anglophiles still think of a Christie or Miss Marple village as the definition of English country life. But this would be only half the picture. Christie depicted the world she lived in, and then added a murder and an amateur sleuth. Her sleuths and murders weren’t realistic but her descriptions of the village was. So much so that we can read her mysteries to study the historic changes in English rural life. The tidy village streets with modest homes radiating out from the center are soon dotted with high-rises for low-income and lavish homes for the newly rich after World War Two. The farmers and tradespeople are soon joined by British civil servants and military back from the outer reaches of the Empire and immigrants from the Caribbean, Africa, and South Asia. She would not have set a book in 1943 and failed to mention the war, nor would a story set between the wars have been complete without a Colonel somewhere in the mix. She used technology as do we, relying on one in particular in her most famous novel.

The pandemic of 2020 will fold itself into history, just as 9/11 has, but it would be foolish to think that readers won’t recognize these dates if they show up in a story. If we ignore the changes the disease is making to our daily lives, will our stories be anachronisms? Can you write a mystery today without recognizing the change in the US population? Reading a novel in any genre in which every character is a WASP would be unbelievable today, and a character’s African-American heritage will not necessarily have anything to do with the plot. In some parts of the country you would be hard-pressed to get through the day without hearing at least one foreign language or seeing a few young people walking down the street with their eyes on their cell phones. These are the details that ground a story and make the world believable.

For some readers the current circumstances are too extreme to explore in literature, and they don’t want to read about it. Plenty of writers don’t want to write about it either. It will probably be several months or even a year before we see the first pandemic stories, but until then each one of us has to decide whether or not to use the new ways of managing day to day life as background for a story or as part of the circumstances determining a crime and its solution. I don’t have the answer and probably won’t have one, at least for me, until I reach the end of my current work. I write in uncertainty, just as today we’re living in it.

 

 

12 thoughts on “One Writer’s Thoughts on the Pandemic by Susan Oleksiw

  1. Good post, Susan. Like you and others, I’ve thought about whether to mention the pandemic in the novel I’m currently writing, and have decided I’m just not ready. Need to put some distance between myself and this horrific event first. Also, since I began the novel at the end of last summer, it’s very much rooted in that time in my head, and I don’t want to change that. Can’t say yet if it will figure in the novel after that, though I like Mike’s idea of using it in a short story.

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    1. Thanks, Leslie. It certainly is a dilemma because writers try to present a realistic world but some things seem to be too realistic. I don’t want to base an entire story on the pandemic but neither do I want to seem oblivious, creating a too-artificial world. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

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  2. Great post, Susan! I just finished a book set at a conference that may or may not take place this October. My thoughts were since I’d started it before the Covid became known, I’d leave it as is. Perhaps in the next book, how life is now, will be brought up.

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    1. I’m facing a similar problem, Paty. I’m nearing the end of a story set in summer 2020, not far from now, and wonder how I’ll feel about it at the end. We’re all going day by day, or page by page. Thanks for sharing your experience.

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  3. Susan, whether or not to put the coronavirus into our writing is a really good question. My solution was to write a story, titled Coronavirus Daze about a boy keeping a journal during the pandemic, He has a life transforming experience when he makes an unexpected discovery. This story allowed me to deal with a current topic in an uplifting and humorous way. I published it on Kindle but am giving it away to any readers who want a copy.

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    1. Mike, this sounds like a good solution. You get to use the pandemic as a setting, but the story still revolves around the character’s response to challenges in his life. With an uplifting and humorous tone, you let the reader acknowledge the time as well as escape its darker moments. Thanks for sharing this.

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    1. Thanks, Marilyn. I can’t seem to decide one way or the other. The allusions I’ve made in my WIP can easily be excised or altered without affecting the story line, but this ambivalence won’t go away. No matter what decision I make I’m afraid I’ll go on feeling doubtful about it.

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  4. I used post Covid-19 circumstances in a story I just submitted to the 2020 BOULD anthology. I expect I’ll include more in subsequent stories as everyone has gut level feelings and reactions to the effects.

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  5. Thank you. I agree that it seems strange not to acknowledge a circumstance that is affecting everyone. The ambivalence might stem from how personal the entire experience feels instead of being something out in the larger community that a writer observes and records. The pandemic certainly creates lots of opportunities to underscore personal character and challenges. Good luck with your new series. I look forward to it.

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  6. Wonderful post, Susan. I’m just starting a new series and I feel it’s important to begin “after” Covid19, and I want very much to include all the heart-warming goodness that has emerged over the past few months. I also want somehow to draw on the examples of excellent leadership that have, for me, superseded the bullish noise and nonsense so in fashion for a few years. I just can’t begin the series as though the pandemic and its lessons never happened.

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