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.

The (literal) nature of research

Writing fiction requires authors to ferret out a lot of facts.

On the surface, it seems like a paradox. Massive swaths of the story are pure fabrication straight from the author’s imagination. Why would a writer – particularly a fantasy writer like me – need to delve into research?

Ah, because the devil – as he so often tends to be – is in the details.

Those wide swaths of story that we conjure from our imagination need to be grounded in a bit of reality so readers can relate to it. The tiny grains of fact and detail that we sow into our writing give the words a sense of authenticity.

Sometimes my novel research is as simple as a quick trip to Google. (By “quick trip,” I mean the actual time it takes to find the answer … I inevitably tumble down a rabbit hole of reading articles and checking social media afterward. By the time I resume writing, at least twenty minutes have passed.)

Often research involves keeping a stack of reference materials nearby. Other times, it involves reading 400 pages of nonfiction or waiting for interlibrary loans to arrive.

A stack of reference materials I keep on hand while writing The Witch’s Witness.

Then there’s the firsthand research. For The Witch’s Witness, this has been my favorite kind.

Much of the plot centers around Heather Barlow, a flora witch with an innate skill to manipulate the inherent power in plants. A significant portion of the story happens outdoors and relies on describing the sounds, scents, and sensations of Heather’s surroundings.

Black was not the color of death. To Heather, it was brown.

When she had last seen the beech lying prone in the glen, the sawtoothed leaves had still held the vibrant, healthy green of summer. Even though she could no longer sense the steady beat of life in its wide trunk, the green still gave a veneer of immortality. 

The illusion was broken now. The leaves were withered brown husks, flaking away from the branches like curls of dead skin. Their crunch under her boots made her flinch with every step, as though she walked barefoot on crushed glass. Had the tree fallen in autumn, the scene would not have been so jarring. The color of death would have blended well with the color of seasonal sleep as the plant world went dormant. But here, in the vibrancy of July, it was as stark as blood on beige carpet.

– Excerpt from The Witch’s Witness

To capture the nuances of nature, I can’t sift through the pages of a book. I have to immerse in nature itself. For that reason, much of my research lately has involved abandoning the keyboard and tying up the laces on my hiking shoes.

A beech tree at the Morton Arboretum

The beech tree mentioned in the excerpt above plays a significant role in Heather’s life. I grew up on five rural acres with an assortment of tree species – oaks, Scots pines, balsam firs, spruce, pear, apple, cherry, walnut, euonymus – but no beeches, so last summer I ventured to the Morton Arboretum to experience a beech grove. I wanted to know firsthand details, such as what the texture of its bark felt like against the skin of my palm, or how its branches sprawled and spiraled.

Getting out of the house and absorbing the world through my own senses is the best research I can bring to my desk.

Another thought on firsthand research for writers: A great way to replenish inspiration and find new ideas is to put yourself into new situations. I’m a notorious wimp during Midwestern winter weather and rarely leave the house if I don’t have to, but earlier this year I went on a winter hike along the Illinois & Michigan Canal trail. It gave me the chance to experience a familiar place in a new season. The trees grow thickly along the canal, and for the first time I heard their barren branches grating against each other with a sound like a rusty door hinge. It’s a detail I’ve squirreled away in my mental log, ready for whenever I need to add a bit of color or authenticity to a fiction scene.