Pandemic and fiction: Handling a plot in a post-2020 world

The calendar is one of those pesky little details that matters in fiction.

If a writer says Christmas Day is on a Friday, then New Year’s Eve better fall on a Thursday. Or if a full moon occurs in one scene, it better not be a clear moonless night the next week. Otherwise, a reader will inevitably catch the discrepancy.

When outlining The Witch’s Witness, I started plotting around the 2020. The calendar featured an uncommon Halloween convergence: a full moon and the end of daylight saving time. The “fall back” of the clock (marking the end of daylight saving time) at 2 a.m. on November 1 essentially added a thirteenth hour to Halloween night.

That thirteenth hour paired with a full moon was too significant to pass up in a novel about modern Vermont witches. As the outline evolved, those two details became pivotal to the story’s climax.

And then 2020 … well, it happened.

All evidence points to the story taking place in 2020, but there’s an enormous 50-ton purple elephant lurking in the margins, waiting for someone to notice it.

There’s zero mention of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Initially, I tried to pin down a different calendar year that could still fit the major plot points. The most important element was preserving the details about Halloween, so I started by hunting down years when daylight saving time falls on November 1. From 2010 to 2050, that only happens six times (2015, 2020, 2026, 2037, 2043, and 2048).

None of those Halloweens align with full moons – in fact, a Halloween full moon only happens once every nineteen years. The Farmers’ Almanac reports only six occurrences in this century (2001, 2020, 2039, 2058, 2077, and 2096).

With my plot firmly stuck in 2020, I started to worry about that 50-ton purple elephant trampling over the authenticity of my story. What happens if an astute reader points out the calendar that aligns with my plot?

Members of my writers’ group were quick to point out that there are witches and a system of magic in my novel’s fictional Vermont community, so the lack of COVID-19 doesn’t require much more suspension of disbelief. (Or so I hope.)

But the pandemic creates a unique challenge for modern fiction. Not all major historical events have to have an impact on a story’s plot – I could arguably write a book set in 2001 and not include details about 9/11 (unless the book is set in New York City, Washington D.C., or Somerset County in Pennsylvania). Even though 9/11 created an emotional response on an emotional level, it didn’t change most people’s day-to-day lives in the weeks to follow.

The pandemic, on the other hand, continues to have a daily impact on people’s lives. For novels that don’t have the wiggle room of fantasy and magic, it’s difficult to ignore how COVID-19 has altered daily routines. Masks in the grocery store, canceled high school sports seasons, mortality rates, the changed workplace landscape, the impact of isolation …

The more removed we get from the early days of the pandemic, the easier it will be to weave those details into the background while the main story takes the foreground. But for realistic fiction set in 2020, the pandemic is an immutable truth. Even if it’s not the main focus of the story, it’s a fixed part of the setting.

In the alternate Vermont where The Witch’s Witness takes place, I can only hope the magic system is strong enough to make readers believe in a world where the pandemic never happened.

How COVID-19 changed my perspective on being an introvert

Image by Mira Cosic from Pixabay

It doesn’t take new acquaintances long to learn two things about me: I’m an introvert, and I’m a homebody.

When stay-at-home orders first were issued at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, my life didn’t change much. I couldn’t go to the movie theater anymore, and I had to wear a mask to the grocery store, and there were a few days I tried to avoid using the bathroom until I really had to go so I could conserve toilet paper.

Other than that, my routine remained status quo.

I didn’t think I would mind hunkering down for a while. Even before the pandemic, I liked to spend my free time around home – reading, writing, bingeing a Netflix series, doing a little yard work. Quiet days at home give my thoughts time to roam. I can daydream at my leisure and explore ideas for stories.

In the past, I’ve found an abundance of writing inspiration in corners and crannies around my house. For example:

  • Reading Jane Goodall’s Seeds of Hope helped inspire part of my work-in-progress, The Witch’s Witness. (In fact, most nonfiction is a good source for inspiration when the well runs dry … truth isn’t always stranger than fiction, but it can certainly kindle it.)
  • The harebells blooming wild in my backyard are also called witch’s thimbles, which help put me in a spooky mood to write about witches in high summer.
  • A trip to my attic uncovered three dusty boxes left by the previous homeowners. Further investigation revealed a treasure trove of 100+ year-old books.
  • An evening on the porch swing listening to cicadas, bird calls, kids shouting down the block, and distant train horns sparked a sensory poem.

But as much as I value and cherish being at home, spending the past year and a half in my house finally began to replete my fiction-writing resources. I reached a point where I wanted to tear up my introvert card and fling myself among people. I longed to refill my cup of ideas, to people watch for ideas about body language quirks and dialogue tidbits. I wanted a long road trip where I could see new scenery of the United States, hear new accents, taste new regional flavors. I especially wanted to book a cabin in Vermont, where The Witch’s Witness primarily takes place, so I could authentically capture what it’s like to breathe the air in the Green Mountains and walk those trails.

But COVID-19 safety precautions kept me home.

Writing can be a solitary endeavor at many stages of the process, but I never realized how often I need to break out of my introvert shell for the sake of a story. Suddenly I couldn’t go to the library for research. I couldn’t visit the coffee shop or park for people watching. I couldn’t experience life beyond the borders of my home-work-grocery store bubble.

By December 2020, writer’s block descended. I thought endless hours at home would mean the most productive writing months of my life, and at the beginning that was true. But as weeks piled up into months and then mounded into a year, I learned the value of being among people to write about people. I missed encountering other places to help envision settings and bring them to life.

In 2019, all I wanted was more time around home, to be left alone to write. I wouldn’t have believed anyone who told me staying home in 2020 eventually would hinder my writing more than help it.

Now that it’s 2021, I’m grateful to be experiencing life beyond my front door and outside city limits again. Home is still my recharging station (and believe me, extended time outside my house still depletes my batteries), but this introvert is happy to be entering society again.