A Strange Time to Tell Stories

The Empty Las Vegas Strip. Photo credit: Tod Seelie/The Guardian

Everybody has their particular challenges to face during the Covid-19 crisis, some bigger, some smaller. As a writer, I’ve discovered a small one that I wasn’t expecting.

There’s a chapter in the next John Crane novel, The Vengeful, in which Crane is searching for someone up and down the crowded Las Vegas strip and in and out of the casinos and hotels. The Strip is written as a difficult environment to navigate, full of people and traffic. Crane has a car, but he ends up using an Uber to get around because it’s easier than finding a parking place everywhere he checks, then just having to go back out a few minutes later and drive and part at another place.

But of course that’s not what the Vegas Strip is like at all these days, is it?

So as writers telling stories set in the here and now, how much of that here and now should we acknowledge? Should our characters be hunkered down in quarantine? Risking their lives by going out? Losing supporting characters to the disease? Or do we just ignore Covid-19 and set our stories in a world untouched by it and blissfully unaware?

That’s the choice I’ve made. John Crane won’t be wearing a mask as he fights the bad guys. My books are meant to take readers on exciting adventures in exotic locales, to provide a bit of escape from the mundane. When the mundane gets bad like this, that’s even more important. The last thing readers need is to find themselves confronting the same dark realities in their fiction.

But at the same time, it feels kind of odd to edit and filter the real world that way. The 1918 “Spanish Flu” is high in the public consciousness now, but it wasn’t always. For decades after it happened, it was largely forgotten. It wasn’t suppressed – there were books about it – but few people bothered to read them. Parents didn’t reminisce about it to their children. It just wasn’t talked about and so it slipped from memory. Will we end up doing that with Covid-19, I wonder? Will the stories we leave behind simply make no mention of it because we find it unpleasant to talk about, and thus give the impression that nothing particularly noteworthy happened in 2020?

Or perhaps we’ll wait a while, and then, when we decide it’s been long enough, we’ll mention the pandemic as something that happened. Characters may speak of having lost friends and family. It will be acknowledged, but as something distant.

I don’t know how we’ll address this pandemic in the future. Right now, I’m going to keep my stories set in a world free of it. I think we need escape right now, and John Crane works best with villains he can fight and defeat more actively than by staying at home.