Writing About The Pandemic, Or Not

We’re all so immersed in the COVID-19 pandemic that it seems nearly impossible to get through an entire day without hearing something from TV, radio, and social media. And maybe that’s as it should be. I’ve always felt that staying informed is crucial, despite the contradictory statements and misinformation.

0304_n13_covid_19_coronavirus_graphic_generic_file[1]I’ve been reading blogs from people around the world about their personal experiences. It adds a poignancy and depth to the medical stats and political statements we’re bombarded with. I appreciate the candidness of bloggers expressing their hopes and fears, or even when they simply discuss their altered routines.

But, here’s a question I came across from an author this weekend, and it’s made me stop and think. If you’re working on a novel set in 2020,  will you be making reference to the pandemic and, if so, how much reference? Will it become a major part of your plot or will you avoid it altogether? After all, there are certainly people out there who seem happy to pretend that the whole thing’s an overblown hoax, which opens up interesting psychological components in fictional characters.

Writing Clip Art(2)jpgShould you build a plot around the pandemic, or should you mention it in passing? If one of my Casey Holland transit mysteries was set in the spring of 2020, my characters would be working in quite a different way than normal. Bus drivers are not charging fares these days. Passengers must enter from the back and sit within social distancing guidelines. In other words, no full buses allowed. This kind of reality couldn’t be ignored in my work, as social distancing would have to play a role in everything my characters do, whether sharing information on Zoom or writing reports from home. Unless someone was breaking the rules, face-to-face confrontations wouldn’t be happening, yet they are a crucial aspect of mystery/thrillers.

Here’s another issue. If you want to set your book in the spring of 2020, how much detail is too much? How do you keep from slowing your story’s pace with too many unnecessary details? And do you risk losing readers who’ll be sick of hearing about the pandemic and don’t want to read one word about it?

Movies made about OJ Simpson’s murder trial and other real-life murders have never held any appeal for me, if I’ve already lived through those periods of time. I remember wishing the OJ trial would just end so we could all get on with our lives. The same is true for Richard Nixon’s impeachment in the early 70’s.

I’m curious to know if those of you who write contemporary fiction( mainstream or genre) plan to incorporate the pandemic in your work. What about those of you who are children’s authors? Is this a topic you’ll want to address down the road? What do you, as readers and writers, think is the best way to handle the pandemic in fiction?

Author: debrapurdykong

I'm a British Columbia author who's been writing for over 30 years. My volunteer experiences, criminology diploma, and security work inspired me to write the Casey Holland transit security novels set in Metro Vancouver. I'm also a part-time facilitator in Creative Writing Workshops through Port Moody's Recreation program. Feel free to contact me at dpurdykong@gmail.com

13 thoughts on “Writing About The Pandemic, Or Not”

  1. Hi Debra, if I was writing a book, I think I would have it occur after the 2020 pandemic. It could refer to changes or events from this time period but actually be past that. I think that is similar to 9/11 as so much changed as a result of that tragedy. It could be that on transit there will be changes after covid19, more protection for drivers (plexiglass), dispensers on buses, masks for purchase?

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    1. You’re quite right. I’m not likely to start a new novel until we see how 2020 plays out. On the other hand, I don’t lock my books into a specific time period, so they would still unfold prior to 2020 right now. We’ll see how it goes.

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    2. I’ve been thinking about this further, and you’ve raised an excellent point in that we need to be careful to not write about the pandemic too soon because the aftermath will shape our worlds in small and large ways. And you’re quite right. If I’m writing Casey novels after 2020, the use of masks and plexiglass and gloves could indeed be commonplace, It will be really interesting to see how things unfold over the next 12-24 months.

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  2. I think historically IF what is written is later deemed Literature (and not so deemed in the writer’s mind BECAUSE one includes the pandemic in the story) then including the pandemic is both natural and even demanded. But we cannot KNOW if what we write will or will not become Literature…So I would think we should focus on STORY –telling the one in the head and heart. In most stories then the pandemic will leave a story in a state of Before, During, or After… but only with such potency as is appropriate — and that may mean that in a character-driven story that the pandemic is a ghost that haunts the plot but does not dominate it until it becomes an exercise in soapbox diatribe. Those who lived it may only wish to revisit it in passing. Those who may want to know what it was like will find the poignant details without exploding them all over your art. If we focus on the story the rest will shake out…and no author belongs living in their work like a shadow creature…a thought that may lead to lots of revisions for the pandemically affected…

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  3. I thought of this as well. I don’t like to date my stories too much but they are contemporary. I’m writing a story that takes place in Paris so I thought I would include the fire in Notre Dame. I’m editing a novel for another author right now and it takes place at the time of 9 11 and beyond. So current affairs can be included if it works within the story. It is usually the effects of the event that play into the story. Perhaps we should see what happens once the pandemic scare is over, or we can imagine what life might be like. This will be a heyday for SciFi/Dystopian writers. I imagine there will be a glut of pandemic stories on the market in a year’s time.

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    1. You’re right, Darlene, there will likely be a glut of pandemic stories coming up, and I like the idea of you including real life events in your stories, such as the Notre Dame fire. The thing is, the crisis is far from over and we don’t know how things will look by the end of this year. Some countries will fare better than others. Some might have a total relapse. So, writing about it now is probably premature.

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  4. Great question. I don’t see how you DON’T include it. I’d be thrown out of ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ if a worldwide pandemic was ignored. Thankfully, I write historical fiction!

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    1. Yes, I was thinking about you as I was writing the post because you’re one of those authors whose historical books won’t be impacted by current events. I’m really curious to see how contemporary authors will handle this. 50 years from now, I guess COVID-19 could be the topic of historical fiction 🙂


  5. I think if one was writing something set specifically in early 2020, it would have to be mentioned, along with all the effects. But it could be avoided or just referred to in passing in stories set in the later 2020s, although it might be an idea to wait until we see when a vaccine becomes available, and when all the restrictions are lifted. I guess it’s sort of like writers in the early 1940s trying do decide what to do with WW2.

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