Writing Fiction During the Pandemic: “It has universally and globally altered everyday life.”

From a post on crimereads.com by Wendy Corsi Staub on writing during the pandemic:

On Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, I was headed from my suburban Westchester County home to lower Manhattan to meet an editor in the Woolworth Building, two blocks north of the World Trade Center. My husband was in his midtown office, about to leave for a breakfast meeting, also in lower Manhattan, when he heard that a plane had just crashed there. He turned on the television, saw the second plane hit live after hearing it flying low over his building, and called home. Our nanny answered and caught me before I pulled out of the driveway on my way to the train.

When my husband told me not to come to the city because it was under attack, I was incredulous. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe him, but…

Okay, yes it was. I totally didn’t believe him—notwithstanding the fact that he’s a quiet, understated kind of guy who doesn’t have a dramatic hyperbolic bone in his body. Yet he was insistent that I call and cancel my meeting.

“What am I supposed to tell my editor?”

“I don’t care what you tell her. Just stay home.”

I called, got her voicemail and left a vague, fumbling message about a sudden stomach bug. Then—unaware that she was in the precise moment leaving me a frantic voicemail that they were evacuating the building—I turned on the TV….

The incessant news coverage included a report that all other violent crime had more or less ceased to exist in the city that day as New Yorkers, including the criminal population, struggled with the horrific aftermath….

That information, coupled with another segment about the thousands of people who’d gone missing that day, triggered a series of What Ifs in my Writer Brain. Almost instantaneously, I had the fully formed premise for a psychological suspense novel.

I didn’t write it—not then, not that year, or the next….

Only when an entire decade had passed had I gained enough distance and perspective to revisit that idea. Nightwatcher is about an unhinged killer preying on vulnerable New Yorkers in the days after the 9/11 attacks, was published eleven years after I’d conceived it, in 2012.

Flash forward to March, 2020. I was between books, having just finished revising my upcoming release The Butcher’s Daughter and about to begin writing a new one, when the world was again irrevocably altered. My husband returned to his midtown office after lunch to find the building cordoned off, surrounded by law enforcement, the press, and medical teams in hazmat suits. It turned out that the first confirmed local case of Covid-19…worked in the building.

In short order, things escalated—Governor Cuomo closed the universities, the NBA curtailed its season, and businesses skidded to a halt. No more commuting to Manhattan for my husband and our older son; no more college for our younger son, two months shy of graduation and plucked from his Ithaca apartment to be locked down with us in his childhood bedroom.

With four of us suddenly stuck under one roof 24/7, perpetually short on supplies, with illness and death surging all around us, I put my new proposal aside for a while. My time was encompassed with domestic tasks….When I wasn’t scavenging local shelves for paper towels and yeast, I was hiking in the woods to preserve my sanity and some semblance of fitness….Throughout, my Writer Brain was in overdrive and the What Ifs kept coming—several ideas for crime novels that would take place, could only take place, amid this grim new world of quarantining and social distancing. But once again, it was all too raw, too fresh, as yet unfolding.

I back-burnered those ideas and eventually returned to the standalone psychological suspense novel I’d been brainstorming in early March….

I quickly realized that back-burnering my pandemic-set books didn’t remove the issue of how to write contemporary crime fiction from now on. Unlike the 2001 terrorist attacks, the pandemic has universally and globally altered everyday life for the foreseeable future. We’ve all been impacted by this crisis; most of us are facing varying degrees of social and physical isolation, virtual workplaces and education, nonexistent travel, restricted or shuttered businesses and recreation, limited resources, financial impact, concern for our own health and our loved ones….

The real question, for novelists, is whether we want to write about a fictional world that’s grounded in reality, or alternate reality? Have our characters experienced the pandemic, or has it never happened? If it has, then how, and when, should we write about the new normal?

For me, the answer to all of these questions is hell if I know. But writers can’t put our work on hold indefinitely until the crisis plays out. Writers have to write….


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