Last year about this time I began work on a new novel, making random notes on the main character, the obstacles thrown in her path, snatches of dialogue that came to me while I was out walking, and minor characters who might be interesting. This stage of the process is fun and always interesting. But there was one aspect that I couldn’t decide about.
We were in the middle of the pandemic. Should I include that fact as part of contemporary life, or write as though there was no pandemic, no masking, no social distancing, no crowding in hospitals, and no arguments over masks. I couldn’t make a decision. If I mentioned the pandemic and all that it entails, would the restrictions of the pandemic play a role in the mystery, or could it remain in the background? (A ludicrous idea, all things considered.) If I didn’t mention it, I’d have to be clear the novel wasn’t set in 2020 or 2021—or even 2022. I waffled for weeks. At last, I went on FB and posed the question there. Should I or shouldn’t I mention the virus? The responses ranged along with the passions of the commentator.
Some writers suggested mentioning some aspects that wouldn’t interfere with the plot. This is honest and pragmatic, but as I watched the pandemic evolve, I wondered how long it would be possible to curate features of the pandemic. Others made a case for maintaining realism, depicting life and circumstances as they are and how they affect individuals in crisis, which is an honest take on a difficult problem, and probably harder to execute in practice than express in theory. And then there were the writers who were adamantly opposed to any mention of Covid-19, mainly because it would date the story and limit its appeal. I’m not sure if I agree with this or not. When I pick up a mystery, I generally know when it was published, and if not I check the date. Unless the writer is clear about the time period being different from the present, I assume the story is contemporaneous with the writer. So, yes, mentioning the pandemic would definitely date the story to a specific period, which we think is going to be a limited period.
Every story is dated in some way. Cell phones, automobiles, DVDs, 45s stacked on a record player, or Polo coats, pedal pushers (not cropped pants), and jeans with the hems rolled up tell us where we are in time.
In the end I still had to make a choice. We writers face choices every day even though we may not think of our work that way. We can’t get from one sentence to the next without choosing a series of words to carry a particular idea, which could change in the middle of the predicate. Still, my new novel was taking shape, and I had to decide if that shape would include masks and talk about Covid-19. Would I use the details of this disease and its spread, the restrictions on gatherings and the dangers of the illness, to move the mystery along, or would it stay in the background? Could it remain in the background? That became the key question.
The issue boiled down to what I wanted to write about. If I included the pandemic and all its attendant issues, I had to make significant changes to the mystery, and in the end I didn’t want to do that. I decided to omit any mention of the pandemic, and I did so believing that this health crisis would pass and life would return to normal. I’m not sure I believe that anymore, but the decision was made and the novel written. It’s now in the hands of my agent.
But now I’m starting another one, and the question is once again before me. And I still don’t know the answer. But once again, I’m probably not going to include any mention of the pandemic. If you have decided differently, I’d like to hear about your experience.