Our hero has locked herself away from the diseased masses outside. She hears them, within earshot, shouting at confused pigeons about the dangers of 5G. Having witnessed an entire continent burn just two months earlier (remember Australia?), she wonders whether the Doomsday Clock has yet struck 12.

She has time on her hands at least. She grabs pen and paper, takes a seat, and begins to write. “If the dystopian nightmare that is 2020 can deliver anything positive,” she thinks to herself, “it’s inspiration for a stunning piece of fiction – just look outside and write what you see.”

Isolated, directionless and often jobless, many have decided that a global pandemic is the perfect time to write a novel. And in many ways it is. But along with opportunity, these turbulent times have brought with them a unique challenge for authors too.

To COVID, or not to COVID

A large portion of fictional literature is set in the present. The present version of the present, however, is batsh*t crazy.

As highlighted in a recent Guardian article, authors writing novels set in our present reality find themselves in a dill of a pickle. As demonstrated by our opening paragraph, if you’re writing a novel that is supposed to be set in today’s world, you run the risk of it seeming a little outlandish. On the flipside, if your present-day novel doesn’t mention the ground shaking events of 2020 at all, it’ll feel similarly odd.

Authors who were part way through a novel have been forced to either furiously rewrite their story with a COVID twist, or shelve it until ‘the present’ returns to something resembling normality. Others (with quick hands) are managing to capitalise on the current state of affairs, with books like Love in Lockdown and Why We Stay Home proving instant hits with an audience wanting the current volatility to be reflected in the things that they read.

In the same way that seeing on screen diversity helps marginalised groups feel that they belong, there’s an odd sense of comfort in knowing that a character whose story you’re following is going through much the same thing as you are.

The question for you, our author extraordinaire, is whether to COVID, or not to COVID?

The importance of place and time

Whether or not you need to worry about this pandemic malarkey will come down to one simple question: when and where is your book set?

It’s not set here or now

If it’s an historic or futuristic novel, or set in a different universe or reality than our own, you can happily ignore (or perhaps be inspired by) the events of 2020.

It’s set specifically in 2020

Your story should accurately reflect the realities of the place and time. January was very different to March, which was different again to July. The US was different to Sweden, which was different again to New Zealand. Whichever place and time you pick, thoroughly research what life was/is like there and then.

If you choose to set it in the now, be wary extending too far into the future, as you have as much chance of guessing what will happen next as you do of picking which reality star will be the next US President (I write this at the end of July and I do hope you future folk are doing okay… thoughts and prayers.)

It’s set in ‘the present’

A large chunk of fiction avoids naming an exact time, and sets itself instead in ‘the present’. Historically this present has been whenever the reader might be reading the book, but with the world changing dramatically day by day, writing with the intent of reflecting the future world of the reader is a risky strategy.

You have two choices here:

  • You can continue to write in the reader’s present, and minimise the role of COVID in your book. Stories set entirely in nature, a house or even a local community could be told with minimal references to the pandemic.
  • You can write in your present, anchoring your story to the time that you put pen to paper, and reflecting its realities.

Risk and reward

Writing is a lot of work for often minimal reward, and a global pandemic has formed yet another hurdle for writers to leap. The risk of focusing too much on COVID and doing too much crystal balling is that your story will date quickly and dreadfully. The risk of totally ignoring COVID is that your story won’t seem realistic, or will have a five tonne elephant sitting on each page.

But there are ways to minimise these risks.

If you’ve set your book in the present, there’s no harm in massaging it back a couple of years, to more normal times. You could equally veer into an alternate reality – a hypothetical future where the pandemic plays out however you choose. If you haven’t yet put pen to paper, it’s perhaps easiest to avoid the current period altogether.

Our hero takes pause. Pen to her lip and eyes asquint, the shrieks of anti-maskers begin to fade, forming a calming white noise. She lowers her hand and begins to write.

“The year was 2018…”

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