Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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August 24, 2020

Setting Your Stories Amid a Pandemic World

by Tiffany Yates Martin

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?

What Writing Industry Professionals Are Saying

Their answers 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 with Book 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 with BookEnds 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 at Crooked 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 at Lake 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 workspace.

“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 with Penguin 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.” 

* * * * * *

About Tiffany

Tiffany Yates Martin has spent nearly thirty years as an editor in the publishing industry, working with major publishers and bestselling and award-winning authors as well as indie and newer authors, and is the author of the Amazon bestseller Intuitive Editing: A Creative and Practical Guide to Revising Your Writing. She's led workshops and seminars for conferences and writers' groups across the country and is a frequent contributor to writers' sites and publications.

Under the pen name Phoebe Fox, she's the author of the Breakup Doctor series and her most recent release, A Little Bit of Grace (August 11, Berkley).

Visit her at www.foxprinteditorial.com or www.phoebefoxauthor.com.

21 comments on “Setting Your Stories Amid a Pandemic World”

  1. Such a thoughtful rendering of this question, Tiffany, which I have pondered too and, in fact, raised on a Facebook group for writers a while ago. I came to the same conclusion ("it's fiction") but how validating to read that people from all parts of the book world as well! I was struggling with the question for a specific reason, since my second book was in the tweaking stage and had actual dates for its chapter headings. I finally decided to replace all of them with either "then" or "now," thus setting the book in a vague contemporary timelessness, which I think is fine. That's only one way to do it, of course. It's harder when one wants a social, cultural, or political context for the story. The best answer, as you've indicated so clearly and intelligently, is to let the story lead, rather than trying to figure out what "they" (editors and readers) want. And isn't that always the best advice, no matter what the question is? Thank you for this much-needed piece!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Barbara! I've seen lots of people wondering about this, and was curious myself--so I went to the sources. 🙂 It's so hard to write about major disruptive events like this without the perspective of time.

  2. I started writing my just-release book pre-pandemic, and chose to ignore it. Living it is enough. I thought some more about it when I started my next book, and decided there was no need to include it. As you said, readers want to escape, myself included, and I know I won't be picking up a pandemic-themed book anytime soon. Until it's behind us, we're likely to get it wrong, anyway.

    1. Agreed! I admit I was relieved to hear the consensus about this in the industry. Like most of us, I'm getting plenty of pandemic reading and stress from the headlines--I sure don't need it in my escapes just yet. Maybe once we have some perspective, not to mention mental respite.

  3. For now I'm writing historical fiction so this particular pandemic is not an issue, but I like the idea of it as a thread woven into the tapestry of the story.

    Your thought "it will as always be art and artists that help society process, understand, and heal from our collective wounds."is probably the most beautiful statement I have ever read and rings true.

  4. I wrestled with this question for about 10 seconds with my WIP. When I realized that having my characters in airports, museums, public transportation and restaurants all became problematic--not to mention how I didn't want to "live/relive" the pandemic in the book--I simply shifted it to 2018. Easy peasy. What I'd written didn't need to be changed and what I have yet to write won't reflect our very fluid/frustrating/flaming realities of today.

    1. That's the overwhelming consensus so far--though I can see that a time will come when we have to factor it in--how can backstory talk about this time, for instance, without acknowledging the complete upending of our norms for nearly half a year now--so far? But it's nice that we have a respite from worrying about that for a while, per the industry. Thanks, Christopher.

  5. Not a subject I'd ever thought about (I don't write real-world, I write a fantasy Earth where magic works, and the Magicians would NEVER have allowed anyone to get away with claiming masks don't work, and if M95 masks were unavailable , They'd enchant cloth masks to make sure healthcare workers were SAFE. So even though I'd never use one damn thing from this period (my worlds are too scientific not to laugh this guy out of the Republican party) once again, your words are influencing fantasy novels "from now on." -trc

    1. Ah, that IS fantasy at the moment, unfortunately! 😉 As ever, artists lead the way with insight, education, and hope for us to live up to all the potential we have to tap into the best in us.

  6. I'm with the rest of these guys - I wouldn't set a story anywhere near this pandemic world, unless it served the theme in some way. I have romantic elements in my stories. We can't have a cute meet and kissing in the middle of viruses and social distancing so IMHO, it's better to steer far from reality. Plus, I agree with those you interviewed...readers like to escape this current reality!

    1. Can you imagine writing a romance with social distancing! 😀 Although part of me relishes the challenges and would love to see it (and I suspect eventually we will, at least in allegory or parable). I read recently--as a side note--that Hollywood, in its efforts to get back into production, is using mannequins for love scenes and other close-quarters interactions. I love it, actually--the adaptability of all the special-effects advances being used to approximate real life so we can continue to find solace and hope in art. <3

  7. Relieved to hear this, Tiffany. My 8th book is releasing in October with no mention of Covid, and I've begun to think about the next one. This was a question I wondered about. Thanks for the post.

  8. Even when setting a story in present time, we have to be careful about "dating" a work with too much information. Technology changes, music, TV shows, etc... Mentioning too much may mean a lot of updating in the future. Since we don't know how long we'll be in the pandemic, how much it will truly alter day-to-day activities in the long-term, I'm erring on not adding it at this time.

    And, much of Hollywood is quarantining actors and/or taking other protective measures, so it's not going to be seen on a lot of TV and major motion picture programming.


    1. Great point--I talk about this in my book as well. Making a story too much of its moment can tie it to that moment and limit its longevity. At some point we'll have to consider the pandemic, quarantine, and world events in stories--it's too global and defining not to in certain cases--but I agree that we need more perspective and distance.

      BTW, speaking of Hollywood, see my above reply about one of the film/TV industry's creative solutions to the problem. 😉

      1. It depends where they're filming, too. I'm a member of a screenwriting group and I follow a specific broadcast medium which is currently filming. They've been pretty transparent with what they're doing.

  9. I dove right in and started a serial Falling in Love While Working From Home. Posting each chapter on my website each week, I pulled the events right from the front page -- or my family's experience. My son and daughter-in-law's experience getting married in April is right in there, with their permission. It's been an interesting way to mark the everyday events of these times. I decided to post right away to give readers an opportunity to offer their own thoughts--and a few have. Mostly I've gotten readers from all over the globe.

    1. What a lovely way to share our common situation and your family's experiences! I can't think of another time we've collectively shared an experience globally, and in some ways that feels to me as if it connects us all to one another--a visceral and immediate reminder that we're more alike than we are different. I hope this idea lingers and helps mend some of the current breaches we're seeing.

  10. One of the more... poignant? ...reactions that I saw came across my Twitter feed in late March, and it was an author who said (basically): "I wrote this book! I wrote a whole book about this! And I never imagined that people would be hoarding toilet paper.

    I think you just write what feels right, what feels needed to you, and hope for the best. There are probably people out there who need it too.

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