“New normal” fiction

When a plot includes a pregnancy going to term or religious festivals that move around the lunar calendar it’s important to be precise with the timescale. I fine tuned my first two novels as I went along. Novel 3, currently under submission, is a response to a specific event, and ends at a point when the issues first raised begin to be resolved. All three books are “contemporary”, taking place not long before the projected year of publication.

Now, writing in New Normal times, the dates of the story are even more crucial. If the events I’m beginning to explore for Novel 4 take place before December 2019 the pandemic needn’t figure. Any story set later than that must now include the effects of Covid-19 on timing and location, wherever they belong on a scale from wispy background rumours to overwhelming. Otherwise it would be like setting a book in 1916 and not mentioning World War 1. So many political, physical and local variables govern the viral load infecting my story that I must factor them in from the start, or my timeline may be wrong, my characters unlikely and my events impossible for their setting and situations. I’ll sound as confused as our Prime Minister.

Although my chosen theme could work either side of the pandemic, so many of the story props around it will change that I can’t put off the decision. And, unlike for a book set during the Spanish flu epidemic, or during the worst of HIV infection, the number of victims is still unknown and the consequences and effects of lockdown haven’t been objectively measured. If I start my contemporary novel NOW, by the time it’s published my assumptions for how it progresses and ends could seem ridiculous.

In my case I’ll probably cop out and either not write at all or set the story well before bells ring in the new year 2020. (The many writers of Brexit novels couldn’t see they had the same problem, although the agents and publishers who rejected them did. Nor did they realise readers might be bored or repulsed by the subject matter, or, if interested, would by the time of publication know more about it than the author.)

Are writers in other genres any better off?

There are some great possibilities for crime writers. Smuggling and doctored vaccines come to mind, although it would be hard to better The Third Man. But plots can’t include: empty domestic property (though lots of empty workplaces); meetings, rallies, parties, institutional education, entertainment, non domestic accommodation, public events or sports venues. There’ll be no unobtrusive shadowing people through crowded streets or detectives interviewing ancient relations in care homes. Characters can’t travel far from home, let alone internationally, or use public transport without sticking out like a sore thumb; and they’re unlikely to go to hospital unless they have Covid-19. The public, bored at their windows, will denounce anything out of the ordinary for the sheer fun of it before the plot can develop; hunches will be hard to follow up and helpful contacts go awol; the criminal fraternity will be preoccupied looking after number one.

Romance is online only. Strangers can’t find love in bars, theatres, parks or at dinner parties. Physical contact is ill-advised even if they do meet. Attractiveness, let alone kissing, is just not the same with everyone in face masks. The media and a vigilante public hamper running secret affairs. Office romances don’t work from home and young nurses are too haggard and stressed to catch the eye of hardworking doctors. Lady Chatterley is indoors social isolating with her vulnerable husband and even Mrs Bennett reluctantly recognises now is not the time for matchmaking. Blood vows and pacts, balls, weddings, or christenings? Certainly not! Whether cops or lovers, characters will have little change in routine or conversation to propel the narrative forward. No chance meetings, few coincidences, most of their time spent staring at screens. Today’s idea of a giddy whirl is solving a Sudoku while the lockdown beer loaf bakes, and optimism means hoping the Patience will work out.

It’s easier for some authors. In the Fantasy genre anything can happen. (That’s why I tend not to read fantasy; I prefer the tension of limited possibilities – though not as limited as currently.) History is already over, so barring differences of interpretation and fact selection, fictionalising events involves the same storytelling skills it always did. As for Horror, Science Fiction and Dystopia – well. That’s what we’re in now, isn’t it? I predict most 2020 novels will fall into these categories.

A week is a long time in pandemics so having had the idea for this post, I’m not waiting till my usual Friday to publish. It might be out of date by then. I also wanted to remind you that The Magic Carpet is on promotion at only 99p until the end of May, if you’d like to visit an unfashionable London suburb between early September – 14th October 2016. Bizarrely, it’s currently selling better in Germany than the UK, but those pre-virus, post Brexit referendum days, just after Eid 2016 and still pre-Trump, may now hold a strange kind of charm and they’re still just about contemporary.

Stay well everyone, and alert, although that’s not the word I’d have chosen.

©Jessica Norrie 2020


30 thoughts on ““New normal” fiction

  1. Great post. I believe it is way too soon to write about Covid-19 and social distancing. It would put me right off a book. To that end, I will set my stories pre 2020 or so far into the future any mention can be vague and totally plausible as to aftermath. Either that, or as with my current side WIP of short erotic romance stories, I won’t set a time frame at all. We know they’re modern because of the tech etc., but we could be anywhere this decade really. My main WIP is a trilogy set waaay into the city and on planets in outer space, so I’m safe enough there thank goodness, but any future writing I do is going to have to be given long and careful consideration. Thanks for raising this discussion. Best of luck with your writing! As with you, I’m ignoring the PM’s advice and am pretending I’m in a devolved nation instead. 😊

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  2. I think it is to soon to write about Covid-19. We don’t know yet what the economic implications will be, whether governments will have to drastically reduce pensions and benefits due to vastly reduced taxes (this seems reasonable but maybe they’ll just keep printing money and cause massive inflation). We don’t know if there’ll be a second round of infections as there was with the Spanish flu. Best to go with pre-Covid in my opinion.

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    1. Yes you’re right – it’s probably bad taste but I think I’ll avoid it like the plague! What I was trying to say was even if you’re not directly writing about Covid, if you set anything this year (or next?) you couldn’t ignore it in the background. Thanks for commenting and stay safe.

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  3. Interesting and thought provoking, Jessica. I had not even thought of this, being a writer of non-fiction. I tend to not want to write about what the majority are writing about, so I haven’t even written any blog posts having to do with COVID19. Thanks much for sharing your thoughts.

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    1. Yes, I predict a gap in novel settings from 2019 and 2022 while the world settles down. They’ll become rare collectables… Good luck with the 1968 novel (but if set in Europe don’t forget the students hurling paving stones in Paris, Danny Cohn-Bendit and co…or the Beatles).

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      1. The 1968 setting is in Sheldon Springs, Vermont. The outside world reached the inhabitants through television and the local newspapers. I will put my newspapers.com subscription to good use!

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    1. There’s a lot to be said for avoiding normal life! I’m going to miss the luxury of not deciding when something ends until I’m close to finishing but you should be all right with 1973 plus 40 years. Not much more though!

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  4. Yes, I think it is better to leave the current events out for a year or two. I’m working on Amanda in France and I think I will mention the fire of Notre Dame as it is a year ago now and the book won´t be out for another year or two. We are in the middle of history-making right now.

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    1. Well cathedral building and rebuilding time spans give you plenty of leeway. I hadn’t thought but of course in children’s fiction it’s an area that would need handling even more carefully – discretion may be the better part of valour!

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    1. I think she does mention the Napoleonic Wars in the later, more serious novels like Persuasion or Mansfield Park, but in terms of brothers away fighting or investments gone right or wrong. But you have to look for it… You’re absolutely right it’s the same point, you can keep your writing universal by omitting current affairs but does mean working harder to create atmosphere in other ways. Thanks for commenting!

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  5. A really interesting post, Jessica. I hadn’t thought of the implications Covid-19 will have for writers of contemporary fiction. I’m sure there must be many a clandestine meet up going on, possibly out in the countryside. We’re not staying ‘alert’ in Scotland, we’re still staying at home until Nicola tells us otherwise.

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    1. In a 2020 novel Covid is the elephant in the room. If you ignore it you’d look dim and unobservant and if you include it you’ll bore or distress people. On your other comment, I may be English but I’m following the devolved nations‘ advice. Thank goodness you’re all there to be the voice of common sense!

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