Is the Coronavirus in Your Story?

March 6, 2020

One of the big taboos of writing fiction (of which there are many) is reference to current events. Especially in mysteries, the conventional wisdom is that it “dates” your story in a bad way, plus it’s hard to know what people will remember about the time a decade or so later. Personally, I find it disconcerting to see events missing in a story that is otherwise dated by things like bell bottom jeans and primitive answering machines. A story that seems to take place in the early 1940s without a war in the background is downright jarring. I think part of the appeal of twentieth century historical novels, which are quite popular at the moment, is that real-world contextual details are included.

PD James went ahead and included the SARS virus in The Lighthouse to good effect. SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) was a 2002-2003 epidemic with life-threatening symptoms that appeared in 26 countries. The number of cases was considerably smaller than those that have already appeared in the Coronavirus. The quarantine on an island became a technique for keeping modern forensics out of the story, making it a plausible Agatha Christie-type whodunnit.

There are many many rules about what not to do in fiction (and narrative non-fiction). Show don’t tell. Don’t use adverbs. Avoid adjectives. Keep description minimal. You might think this a side effect of the cottage industry teaching “how to write,” with experts spouting these rules to seem like they’re teaching something that really cannot be taught. There’s a little of that, but professionals in publishing seem to have picked up some of these rules and are even guilty of establishing a few.

The Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith spends a lot of time telling the reader what’s going on inside the heads of his characters, a big no-no. Remember: show, don’t tell. I noticed recently that I read a LOT of British mystery authors, to the point where I know the streets of London and the universities in the small towns. I know enough about the food they eat that I could probably cook some of it. The draw is decidedly not the location. I’d like to go to Britain someday, but I’m not an Anglophile. It’s not my spiritual home (at least I don’t think so, never having been). So why do I prefer 21st century British authors? I think it’s because they don’t follow those rules so carefully. I don’t think they have to. Getting published in America is extremely difficult, and the publishing industry in New York seems to be sold on those rules. Otherwise, there would not be so much sameness in the 21st century American novel.

As I was at my desk writing earlier this week, reflecting on my dissatisfaction with the many rules of the game, I looked down at the street and saw a person walking a Smooth Fox Terrier, McCall Smith’s “Pimlico Terrier” in his Corduroy Mansion novels. I took it as a sign that it was time to stop letting other people tell me how to write. I’m not saying that I’ll necessarily write about a virus, but I won’t avoid it, either. The experts are teaching us all how to write the same novel, and that really isn’t healthy.