Monday, 31 August 2020

Should the Pandemic Shape the Settings of Our Novels?

Photos courtesy of Pille-Riin Priske on Unsplash

One of the dilemmas authors face if we write contemporary fiction or begin our speculative stories in a present-day setting, is whether or not we should refer to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

I’m developing a couple of novels at the moment. I’ve been working forever on a way-too-complex time travel romantic thriller and I’ve recently started playing with an idea for a contemporary, amateur sleuth mystery series. My plan is to do the back-end work on both and run with whichever idea takes over. My problem is that both stories begin in the ‘present day’. 

Do I acknowledge the pandemic or not?

There are different thoughts on this. 

I read on one forum that Amazon was taking down books that were focused on Covid-19. I tried to find evidence of this on Amazon's website but I couldn't find any prohibitions. In the early days of the pandemic Amazon was flooded with a wide range of dubious products claiming to cure the virus, which they subsequently took down from sale. They have also removed some nonfiction books of dubious merit, some of which have been reinstated. 

I honestly don't see how they could object to the pandemic acting as a backdrop to contemporary fiction but their bots do odd things at times. Mind you, I recently had a seasoned reviewer friend say they had a review removed from Amazon and the only reason they could think of was that they mentioned the lockdown in the review. 

Bottom line: If you have a book in mind and you are not sure if the theme is okay then I'd contact Amazon directly and check.

A stronger reason to avoid referencing the pandemic in our fiction is because people often want to escape life's problems when they read. I think it would depend on the reader and the level of realism they crave, but lighter reads have done well since the pandemic began.

I think that my friends who write fantasy are in a good position as they don't have to choose. Werewolves don't get Covid... although they could conceivably get parvo. Hey, there's a plot idea! 

But I digress. After thinking this through I decided to leave out any mention of Covid from my books. It seemed much simpler to ignore the mess the world was in and have fun in my writing bubble. 

But then I saw this two-star review posted on another forum. 

It makes me giggle – and groan – every time I read it.

My favourite line: 

The author apparently wrote the book before the pandemic and made the assumption that summer 2020 would be just like other summers…

I mean really, what a terrible author. I know many writers are brilliant creative people but this one missed it, right? If they wrote a book in 2018 or 2019 why wouldn’t they know life would be totally disrupted in 2020? Fancy not being able to predict that a global pandemic would disrupt the world at some future date. Epic fail!

In truth this is both hilarious and sad. Funny that someone would blame an author for not being able to predict the future, and disappointing that this two-star rating could affect the author’s ability to sell their book in the future.

Crazy, huh?

Did you see that 19 people thought the review was helpful?

All groans aside, it did make me realise that some people can’t see past the current world circumstances. The impact of Covid-19 on the psyche of some folk is so profound that they can’t embrace an imaginary world that doesn’t acknowledge the virus. 

The question is, what do we do about this?

  • When we are writing new books
  • When we’ve already written a book that refers specifically to 2020
  • When we get an irrational review like this

If we have a work in progress we might: 

  • Continue to set the book in the present but include a forward note explaining why we left Covid-19 out of the story
  • Set the book in a specific year – say 2019
  • Do nothing - refuse to waste our energy on the minority that might not ‘get’ our work

If we’ve already published a book that mentions 2020, we could try similar things:

  • Rewrite the whole book (Noooooo!)
  • Change the dates in the book to less contentious ones 
  • Including a forward note as above
  • However most traditional publishers would be unlikely to re-format books and put out a second edition unless there was a very good reason
  • Do nothing

If we get a review that shows *cough* a lack of insight like this one, all the conventional wisdom says: Do. Not. Reply. I guess it’s an opportunity to further develop the thick skin we need as authors (as if we don’t have enough of those opportunities 😆). 

So back to my novels. I think I’m going to stick with my original plan to exclude the pandemic from my stories. The forward note idea sounds good to me, but I’d love to hear what you think. Is this a good plan?

How are you approaching writing contemporary settings in 2020?
Have you ever received a crazy review like this? I'd love to hear what it said 😎. 
What would you do if you received a review like this? 

Susan J Bruce, aka Sue Jeffrey, spent her childhood reading, drawing, and collecting stray animals. Now she’s grown up, she does the same kinds of things. Susan has worked for many years as a veterinarian, and writes stories of suspense, love and overcoming for all ages - usually with animal cameos. Susan also loves to paint animals. Susan won the ‘Short’ section of the inaugural Stories of Life writing competition and won the 'Unpublished Manuscript' section of the 2018 Caleb prize. Susan is the editor of 'If They Could Talk: Bible Stories Told By the Animals' (Morning Star Publishing) and her stories and poems have appeared in multiple anthologies. Her e-book, 'Ruthless The Killer: A Short Story' is available on You can check out some of Susan’s art work on her website .


  1. Good thoughts, Sue, I thinks authors should write what they want to and, yes, we need to develop thickness of skin. If it requires a whole story rewrite then, no, keep it as it is (unless you really like to rewrite stories.) I have included in one of my stories a pandemic-like illness but it only affects one town and I wrote that a while ago. I don't think it was prophetic and I certainly didn't foresee 2020. God bless.

    1. Thanks Ray, I don’t think any of us could foresee 2020. Truth is stranger than fiction. I agree, I’d avoid whole story rewrites if at all possible.

  2. I've changed my present-tense novel to 2019 - well, I could have begun it then - but I think it's silly. In a few decades, assuming all goes well, people will be really interested to hear about the pandemic and how people coped and felt. These days, many readers love war stories. Similar thing.

  3. Excellent thoughts, Sue. (And as per my flagrant use of parentheses whilst posting the CWD Facebook Group link, it is truly absurd to expect authors to accurately predict future happenings - 'normal' or otherwise.)

    Given the challenges associated with writing and publishing a 'contemporary' novel, it's a wonder anyone dares. When delays meant the time frame of my manuscript's setting drifted from yesterdays to yesteryears, I realised that, while I needed to keep what was factually contemporary for that time, I also needed to write and edit a story that was not freeze-framed in time, but had longevity built into its message and presentation. While things like pandemics might influence/challenge the nitty gritty of setting and 'permitted activities', I'd like to think most readers are savvy and astute enough to focus on the big picture items that make a story great - voice, plot, theme, emotion, the characters and their journeys/development, and quality writing that aids and abets these.

    Now that we know what true-to-life trials 2020 has thrown up, we can incorporate sensitivity to that in our future writing endeavours and come up with innovative speculative complications. Or decide to leave the planet.

    On another note, as I've still to write my blurb, I could suggest that one of my characters endured 'lockdown' for years, sans world-wide pandemic. ;p

    1. A positively purposeful use of parentheses, Mazzy :). Yes you are right, we need to look for creative solutions to dilemmas like this. Just as well we are creative people :)

  4. Btw, I didn't mean to sound callous in my attitude. But I do think that, once all this is over, people will appreciate books etc written remembering these times, even remembering the horrors some endured, the losses. I can't handle the 'turn a blind eye' stance.

    1. You didn’t come across callous in attitude, Jeanette. Is it a case if we go there, we go there properly? I’m sure people will appreciate novels dealing with such things but some people want to avoid thinking of those things too. One of my favourite old war movies is Mrs Miniver. It deals with a family with WW2 as a backdrop. It’s a beautiful film that deals with what it meant to be living in Britain under the shadow of the war.. But is there a difference between writing a canine cozy mystery and a women’s fiction where her spouse is hospitalised with Covid? I don’t know. I’m just thinking out loud. I find it fascinating that lots of the superhero comics were birthed around that time.

  5. Thanks Sue, I sympathise with that poor author who was called out for not being a prophet at the time of writing :) It's an unexpected problem for sure, and your advice pretty well covers it, I think. Perhaps in the not so distant future, authors may be able to mention Covid lockdown lifestyles as a backdrop to anything set in 2020. I've come across several post September 11th novels since 2001 which do this well, without making a big issue of it, if it isn't concerned with the main plot.

  6. Maybe this is a little like bible references. If you are going to use them they must be a necessary part of the plot. If we are writing in 2020, the pandamic needs to be included, but the plot needs to include it as well.

  7. I'm writing a story set a few years in the future. The pandemic is mentioned as a reason a) the government is broke, and b) people have accepted the government is heavy-handed with law and order. That's all.

  8. I'm writing a story set a few years in the future. The pandemic is mentioned as a reason why a) the government is broke, and b) people have accepted the government is heavy-handed with law and order. That's all.

  9. Mark my words...
    There will be a rom-com movie called "The Lockdown"
    Story is as follows:
    In a last-ditch effort to save their failing relationship, Brett and Amy book a Caribbean cruise, only to have their holiday cut short by Covid-19...and now must spend two whole weeks in lockdown together.

    I'm not saying I want to write it, or that it will be any good: I'm just saying watch this space.

    ... And copyright to Jo Sarah Stanford.