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.