There’s no denying that COVID-19 has affected a significant chunk of our history, but for writers, it begs another question: how much of the pandemic should I include in my story? Portraying these years accurately is a justifiable urge, all-too-common for writers. When we see a person smoking on a plane, even if typical at the time, it destroys our willful suspension of disbelief, removing us from the story entirely. That’s the last thing writers want, so we strive for accurate portrayals.
This dilemma posed itself to me last year, albeit in a unique way. My recently-published novel, Dilation, was written primarily in 2019. The beginning of the story was intended to occur in the near future, so I created fictitious world events for the time in between. Unfortunately, I had to step back from the book for two years, finishing it in 2021. The delay not only created a strange, brief alternate history, but one without a pandemic. As a first contact/alien invasion story, there were multiple conversations about quarantines and a detailed one about flu vaccines.
They didn’t age well.
For months, I contemplated whether or not I should retroactively update my story to include COVID. Those dated quarantine conversations seemed unrealistic, and I routinely found myself thinking “why is nobody mentioning this s***?”
Thankfully, I’m lazy by nature, so I simply deleted the dialogue.
It was the right call. Jarring, unrealistic moments come from the inclusion of a fish out of the water, not the exclusion of fishes in the water, and from a storytelling standpoint, an absence of smokers on a 1960’s plane doesn’t invoke the same dissonance as someone lighting up in-flight. It’s a distinction between creating realistic events and building your theme, so if masks are relevant to scenes in your story, go nuts. Otherwise, it’s not going to add any believability to your narrative, and in a few years, your story will be the mile-high smoke.
It harkens back to one of my favorite writing tips from Mark Twain, “get your facts first, then distort them as you please.” If you’re writing fiction, you’ve already created a fantasy. For Dilation, this includes a premise that involves humans surviving for 10,000 years and given our pandemic response, that’s a far greater piece of fiction than the absence of COVID, anyway.
Stay safe. Suspend willfully.
Travis Stecher is a writer and musician in Los Angeles, California. Having penned short stories, non-fiction articles, and screenplays, his first novel-length science fiction thriller, Dilation, was released in January 2022. He writes from a distinctive collection of experiences, having worked previously in statistics, private security, eCommerce, and EMS. Travis is a martial artist, magician, and vocalist with a degree in mathematics who has both arrested a terrorist and won a national mascot competition.
My recent YA time travel book toggles between 2015 and 2053, but it’s set in West Seattle with elements that mark 2015/2016. Having published in Jan. ’22 I dreaded how to move the second and third books forward, wondering if I’d have to drag COVID along with it. My first inclination was simply to ignore it. Would it bring anything to the story or just mark it’s accuracy as a timestamp for 2020-2022? Would anyone really want to read more about COVID in a time travel adventure novel… probably not!
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You are probably right. On the other hand I think shying away from the reality of Covid and its impact may take away from trueness of the story.