How to Write About the Pandemic (or Not)

Note From KMW: For almost two years now, a question I have frequently received from readers is: “How to write about the pandemic?” Most often, I’ve heard this question from those who are (or were) writing stories set in the present day or the near future.

Now that both have changed, perhaps forever, in ways both subtle and dramatic, authors are confronted with many choices about how they adapt their fiction to our rapidly changing landscape. Even some historical and speculative authors are having to make adjustmentsas in, for instance, stories about plagues (whether historical or speculative).

Today, I’m pleased to be sharing a guest post from editor Harrison Demchick, in which he offers four pertinent musings about how you can avoid writing directly about the pandemic if that’s what you determine is best for your story, no matter its genre.

***

The universe allows few opportunities for true collective trauma, but COVID-19 has been a rare and most unwelcome exception. Between 2020 and 2021, it kept us locked inside and removed from friends and family. It’s cost us far too many lives. And just when we thought it was on a downward slope, along came Delta and Omicron, sending us spiraling into anxiety all over again.

After two years in the midst of a pandemic, authors as much as anyone need a way to process what they’ve been through. That could mean writing about the pandemic. But it could also mean just the opposite.

When my first novel The Listeners was published back in 2015, the notion of a pandemic-fueled dystopia seemed very much the stuff of science-fiction. More than once in the course of the last couple years I’ve joked about how I should have waited a few more years to seek publication—long enough to take advantage of this free firsthand research we’ve all been forced to undertake.

But—would I write the same novel today? Should you? A fictional pandemic may well hit too close to home. Escapism may be preferable to realism. And readers undergoing their own version of this same collective trauma may want to read about absolutely anything else.

So how to write about the pandemic and deal with the pandemic without actually writing about the pandemic?

Write What You Know

I’ve written on this subject before, but the classic literary aphorism write what you know is badly misunderstood. It can be taken literally, in that a retired police detective may be inclined to write mysteries or a nurse on the front lines of the pandemic might write directly about managing patients in a hospital in dangerous circumstances.

But it’s not just a matter of personal circumstance. It’s also about personal experience.

You don’t need to write about a pandemic to address, say, a kid isolated from his friends. Maybe he’s moved to a new town, or maybe he’s been abducted by aliens. But either way, the experience of finding yourself suddenly physically removed from those you love is something many people understand far better than they did two years ago. As an author, you can use the emotional realities of social distancing to help you empathize with this character in what seems on the surface an unrelated story.

That’s writing what you know—only in a different way.

Just because readers are sick and tired of reading about diseases and quarantines doesn’t mean they’re sick and tired of reading about heartbreak or loss, or the helplessness that comes with unexpected change. One of the best ways to write about the pandemic without writing about the pandemic is using the feelings of the last couple years to help define your characters, whatever their individual circumstances may be.

Consider Themes—Subtly

Writing Your Story’s Theme (Amazon affiliate link)

The trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic may be collective, but that doesn’t mean we’ve all experienced it exactly the same way. The last couple years have exposed many of the rifts and inequities in our society, and responses to it have been disconcertingly polarized. Maybe these ideas are arguments you want to make in your writing. That would make them essentially themes. What’s important about themes in fiction is that they’re usually best when approached as subtext.

That means that instead of making these arguments directly, we convey them on the page perhaps in a context entirely removed from the pandemic we’re facing at present. Instead of lionizing characters who share our own positions and vilifying those who don’t, we craft well-rounded characters and guide them through the events of the narrative toward the truths you mean to reveal.

In other words: Show, don’t tell. If you want to tell, you can give a lecture or write a Facebook post. Try lecturing in a story and readers will tune out, especially those who don’t already share your views—often the very people you mean to convince. The entire reason we present issues and themes in story is because a story has the power to show and guide rather than lecture and explain.

Get Ahead of the Curve

If you do want to tackle the pandemic more directly, and you don’t want to be subtle about it, then one idea you might consider is to write not about the pandemic as it’s been, or as it is now, but instead as it will be—or how you imagine it will be.

  • Will things ever be truly the way they were before March 2020?
  • Or will there be a new normal?
  • What will life be like five or ten years from now?
  • Will masks be more common?
  • Remote learning more frequent?

It’s important to consider that this speculative thinking is not just limited to speculative fiction. Any time we write a story set in more or less the present day, that present day comes with a wide set of assumptions based on everyday life as we currently understand it. Characters go to the park or the movies, or work at an office or a restaurant or the zoo, because these are things people do. However, present-day fiction has rarely revealed the collective awareness of lives upended by a shared trauma like COVID-19 because up to this point such a scenario has been inconceivable, or at least the exclusive purview of science-fiction.

These days, everyday looks different. The pandemic is an event that will live in the collective consciousness of all future real-world characters for many years to come. Maybe that’s very relevant to the story you want to tell. Maybe it’s a passing detail. Either way, awareness of it makes the pandemic part of the stories you write regardless of whether it is in fact the story.

Do What You Want

Of course, if you want to just flat-out write a pandemic story, write a pandemic story. That’s okay too. Odds are good that a lot of authors are doing the same—shared experience will do that. You’ll do it your own way, following your own muse, and that’s fine. COVID-19 will inspire many more stories than those that are obvious about it, and there are a world of ways to tackle the experience without denying would-be readers the escape they seek.

In that way, maybe these stories can be as well the escape you seek.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How has the pandemic affected your writing? Tell us in the comments!

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About Harrison Demchick | @HDemchick

Harrison Demchick came up as a book editor in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than seventy published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. He is an award-winning screenwriter whose first feature film, Ape Canyon, is currently in post-production. He’s currently accepting new clients for book editing in fiction and memoir.

Comments

  1. lcgconnolly says

    I like that idea of ‘Getting Ahead of the Curve’. I remember a writing teacher in university talking about how when he was a kid nobody had imagined something like a cell phone. He used this as an example of how to not use typical clichés in sci-fi stories or those set in the future.

    • When you say typical cliches, do you mean in terms of not assuming that certain expectations of everyday life will still be in place in a science-fiction future? I can see that as one of the burdens shouldered by sci-fi authors. Some details are going to turn out prescient. Some are going to read in retrospect as silly.

  2. Grace Dvorachek says

    An interesting post… while the pandemic has not affected me nearly as much as others (though I’ve had my share of losses), I have frequently wondered about where all of this has a place in my own fiction works. I’ve been able to put the matter off simply because my most recent works have been historical or speculative. But once I turn my attention more towards contemporary, I’m certain this issue will show itself. Thank you for offering insight about this!

  3. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Harrison!

  4. Thank you for writing this post! Although I have been greatly affected by the pandemic and probably will continue to be for the foreseeable future as I’m immunocompromised, like Grace, I haven’t had to deal with it in fiction because my books have either been speculative or historical. However, I started a contemporary story I hope to publish around Christmas. It’s a happy holiday romance—not the stuff of pandemic fears or woes. I was thinking about setting it in the early 2000s instead, but I after reading this, I might try to simply ignore the pandemic and focus on the romance. Or maybe have the father be at high risk, so the couple has to take Covid tests before spending time with him, but mentioning it only in passing.

    • I would say that if it doesn’t naturally relate to the story, then it’s not something you’re obligated to address. Readers aren’t likely to read a happy holiday romance and wonder why you’re not talking about COVID. But at the same time, a passing detail of reality *can* bring an extra note of authenticity and I can see readers responding well to it, so long as it doesn’t overcomplicate things.

      Thanks for reading!

  5. Eric Troyer says

    Interesting post, Harrison. Like Grace I have not been affected by the pandemic nearly as much as other people. But life does look, feel and operate much differently than it used to.

    Katie, I like the intro in this post. It helped me understand this was a guest post, so that when I started reading Harrison’s writing, I felt oriented. Thanks!

  6. I had a contemporary novel started before Covid. I’ve taken the easy way out and set it starting in June 2019 and ending January 2020. I feel a little bad for my characters. After all I put them through, there’s a whole pandemic coming for them next!

    • COVID: the Spanish flu sequel nobody wanted.

      Is this a novel you’ve already self-published or one you mean to publish or have published in the future? I ask because the 2019-early 2020 setting, if not specifically important to the story otherwise, might not be necessary. This post is about how to address the pandemic, but it’s also very much the case that you don’t have to. You see this in TV and movies all the time–they continue to exist in a general present we generally regard as “normal,” and barring action that specifically *contradicts* the pandemic as something that happened we don’t really question it. I wouldn’t want to leave the impression that COVID needs to be contended with in all contemporary fiction. If it’s not something that relates particularly to the story you want to tell, then it can be mostly or basically ignored.

  7. I am writing a post-apolyptic novel that mentions her parents died in the Covid pandemic. I’m worried that will cause the book to be outdated soon.

    • Well, it does set things in place to a point. But history will do that anyway. If your novel is still being read in a time when it’s no longer credible to have parents who died in the COVID pandemic, then you’ve already won. (See also: George Orwell’s 1984.)

  8. I think it’s been clear for some years that there would be a wave of zoonotic viruses as a result of human incursion and overcrowding. For me, the writing landscape now is not so much about Covid per se as about the shifts in culture and human behaviour that will inevitably occur as a result of Climate Change and species and habitat loss.

    • That’s an interesting point, BM. It somewhat speaks to the notion that everything becomes dated sooner or later, because the world for better or worse does change. Where climate change is concerned, it’s entirely credible that at some point we’ll be looking back on a novel set in a coastal town that no longer exists.

  9. Very wise, as always, Harrison! Thank you!

  10. Well said! The pandemic affects everyone, but in their own way. There are so many stories to be written and shared. Thanks for sharing this.

  11. The novel first draft I wrote in 2020 was based on ideas (including a basic plot) I came up with in 2019. So the main ideas predate the pandemic. But since I wrote the first draft during the pandemic, it shifted the way I emphasized certain things. Particularly the part where the protagonist has to isolate herself on an island with no other people because she’s a danger to others (for speculative fiction reasons). It’s not an infectious disease/plauge but… I can see a connection to the pandemic there, and IIRC some of my beta readers picked up on that too.

    • I have a short story concept kind of like that–a man paranoid about the coughing in the apartment above him. It wasn’t going to be a commentary on the pandemic because at that time the pandemic didn’t exist, but now, how can it not be?

  12. Thanks, I hadn’t thought deeply enough about this. Your post has pointed up a few things for me.
    Years ago, Anne McCaffrey wrote about a planet-wide pandemic in her PERN series. There were two books in particular: “Nerilka’s Story” and “Moreta”. I’ve found myself thinking a lot about those stories for the past two years and comparing them to reality. I think her characters dealt with it better than our elected officials.
    On a side note, I have a manuscript, that beta readers told me needed more depth, now that I’ve experienced it, I think I can improve my narration of how my characters cope (or not) with isolation. My novel is near future SF about colonizing Mars with existing technology and focuses more on the human aspects of the experience. I don’t invent any technology, as it is just the background environment, my whole concept has to do with what happens to real people when they are in such an environment, both individually and socially.

    • That in particular comes down to the whole “write what you know” conceit, I think. We’ve not been to Mars, but we’ve certainly been removed from our fellow humans. Post-COVID, there are definitely things I would go back and improve in The Listeners if I could.

  13. Wow, this was a great post! Thank you, Harrison! I found this really interesting and helpful.

  14. The pandemic has not affected the content of my novels in any way, because when I began writing [before covid], I consciously chose to avoid setting any of my stories in the 21st century. I grew up in the 20th, I’m more attuned to it, and have more affinity for it. Life in the 21st has changed in ways I prefer not to dwell on or address in my stories. I’m not trying to yell at clouds and say life is worse now, but it is very different.

    • Yeah, historical fiction is a good way to steer clear of the pandemic. But in terms of the emotional experience, who knows what might yet make its way into the work? Either way, thanks for reading!

  15. This is a really great post. I have some ideas for a YA dystopian novel started by a pandemic, and this article gave me some good tips for that. Thanks!

  16. Usvaldo de Leon says

    I appreciated the thoughtful post. It was illuminating. It’s interesting as I was just recently mulling these things. I have frequently referred to the Before Times in a humorous, ironic way but it is slowly becoming clear that we aren’t going back to the Before Times.

    Thus, I expect there to be more stories to come that utilize the dramatic irony inherent in the End of the Before Times, roughly 2015-19. I expect to read some story in the future set at Christmas 2019 with a woman saying. “Christopher and I can’t wait to vacation in Barbados next spring!” and the reader thinking, uh huh, good luck with that.

    I think right now it’s a bit of not seeing the forest for the trees and I’ve been staring at a tree for two years now, lol. The grand sweep and theme and meaning of all this suffering I have no idea.

  17. Great post! I wrote a contemporary romance & then the pandemic hit. I agonised over what to do, finally deciding to ignore it. My story is set in a small town & I wanted to keep the timeline vague. Years ago I read an English novel which I was totally immersed in until 9/11 was mentioned. It totally drew me out as that horrendous event had no relation to the story I was reading. It felt wrong to mention it. The author probably wanted to show the global impact but to me it felt disrespectful, even though I’m sure the intention was the reverse.

    • There’s always a question of how much you want reality to intrude on what is essentially fantasy–and specifically how. Certain issues or concepts are cans of worms you only want to open if you intend to deal with them. In some stories you can’t ignore them. In others, you almost have to depending on the tone you want.

  18. michaelcapriola says

    Interesting. Back in 2018 I introduced an epidemic in a story I was working on at the time. Apparently, Life imitates Art.

  19. Great list I’m glad you added Nancy Kress–Beginnings, Middles and Endings and Dynamic Characters–both great. John Gardner The Art of Fiction and Janet Burroway Writing Fiction (I think there is another book about half the cost of her textbook) Your books certainly belong at the top of the list, but you are too modest to brag. Thank you, K.M. Weiland again and again. When ever one of your posts comes up, I read it immediately.

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