Fiction in the Time of Plague

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From Writer Unboxed:

Six months into the worst pandemic in a century, we’ve passed five million cases with more than 170,000 dead, more than 30 million out of work, and the economy collapsing faster than it did during the great depression. Our politics have grown even more divisive, making it harder for us to act together. The world is changing around us in ways that we can’t possibly understand because we’re right in the middle of it.

So let’s talk about how this affects your current work in progress. That is, assuming you’re actually working on your novel instead of binge watching or binge baking or binge eating or binge drinking or crying quietly into your pillow every night. Or all of the above.

Of course, if you’re just starting out on a new manuscript, the virus offers all sorts of opportunities for drama. Covid is the ultimate A Stranger Comes to Town, upending peoples’ lives, putting them under strain, and revealing their true character – think Shane in virus form. But there’s something you’ve got to watch out for if you do decide to work Covid into your story — we still don’t know how the pandemic is going to end. Stuff could easily happen in coming months that will eclipse anything you might use as a background now, leaving your story feeling dated before it’s even finished.

Probably the best solution is to keep the disease as far in the background as possible and focus your story on how it affects your characters. I’ve written before about how to create tension when your story takes place against a background where readers know what’s coming – if your characters are passengers aboard the Titanic, for instance. You can use a lot of the same techniques when you don’t know what’s coming but your readers will by the time they see your story.

Mrs. Miniver started out as a newspaper column and then a book about everyday life in the country, which grew darker as the war approached. But most of us are more familiar with the movie. It was released in 1942 but was set earlier, at the height of the battle of Britain, when the outcome was anybody’s guess and the United States hadn’t yet joined the war effort. The story is still gripping today because the focus is entirely on how the war transformed Mrs. Miniver and her one small corner of Britain, where the big excitement used to be the annual flower show. Mr. Miniver takes the family pleasure boat to Dunkirk. Mrs. Miniver is threatened by a downed German pilot. Kay is killed in a raid. The suffering is set against a historic backdrop, but it is all very personal.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed