As I started to edit my upcoming novel, The Weary God of Ancient Travelers, the pandemic loomed large in my head. When the world started opening up again I found myself staring at new writing projects like a deer in headlights. The world changed so much during the pandemic and with the vaccines it feels like the world is changing once again now that we’re almost on the other side. What will future readers look for when they read about these times? This question keeps me up at night as I venture into new projects and because of that I find myself unable to commit to longer projects, especially when I write fiction. For now, I’m writing poetry and short stories. I also write short articles so that I don’t have to account for the changing world as much. How do we write about the real world when it changes so much (and so often) right in front of our eyes?
Look to the Past
Other literature from other times of upheaval and change are great resources. Times have always changed and writers have been at the forefront of documenting that change since the Fall of Rome (and honestly before). Whether it’s war or cultural revolution it’s the job of the writer to explore how our world is changing and to comment on it. Pre-World War I and II German writers like Herman Hesse and Rainer Maria Rilke explored the way German society was changing as the country was gearing for war. After World War I, Hesse predicted in his novel, Damian, that Germany would enter another war that would be more destructive to German society than even the previous war. In Virginia Woolf’s, Mrs. Dalloway, the after-effects of World War I are all over the place. Every character thinks about what they lost, whether it was a person, a home or something more existential, like their sense of safety and security.
Focus on Character
World Building, like many other narrative elements such as plot and theme, reflect character. When it comes to writing in a pandemic and post-pandemic world, it’s important to focus on characters. Don’t just consider how the pandemic affected people in general, but how it affects your characters in your unique story. What did your protagonist lose (or gain) during this time? How did it change their personality?
Think Outside the Box
We can all see very clearly how the pandemic affected us but that doesn’t mean you want to just write about the obvious issues everyone faced. Yes, the Quarantine-15 is something many people dealt with, as was feeling trapped inside the house and the pressure on parents when school went online. While it’s good to add some of those universal qualities to your work, you also want to think outside the box. What are some unique pandemic-related issues that might crop up? Maybe while everyone around your character is losing work (and money) your character makes bank during the pandemic.
Focus on the Positive
While the pandemic was for many people not the best experience (to put it mildly) and we do want to acknowledge that in our writing and out in the real world, that doesn’t mean all pandemic centered writing needs to be doom and gloom. Many readers want to see the bright side of things, even when they acknowledge the bad. You might focus on a relationship that flourished during the pandemic. I knew a few couples who moved in together quicker than they wanted to because of the pandemic and ended up really falling in love. So much doom and gloom has been said about the pandemic already and a different, more positive angle, might be a welcome relief for pandemic-weary readers.
Consider the Details
When I thought about writing in the post-pandemic world, I wondered what details would be important and how to really use them. After considering other times of crisis, like World War II, I realized that there are some tried and true methods.
Make it Top-Heavy: When you’re building a world, it’s important to give the reader a sense of that world right away, whether it’s location, time period, or the culture. You want to continue that sense throughout your story but you want to hit them hard at the beginning. There should be more pandemic related details earlier so that you can get on with your story.
Realism is Important: You don’t want to oversell the pandemic. While it was a time in our history that has definitely shaped us, people are still people and the pandemic did not turn us into aliens. Remember to create realistic characters even during the strangest of times.
Focus on the Now: We don’t know how this post-pandemic world will shake out and while predicting some after-effects might make for great science fiction, we don’t want to risk a more realistic story feeling obsolete. Focusing on what we know, and elaborating on that, will help keep a story from feeling off-kilter in a short period of time.
At the end of the day, we’re still feeling out this post-pandemic world. Will people continue to wear masks? Will Zoom become the new normal for work related events? We still don’t know. When it came to my recent novel, The Weary God of Ancient Travelers, I decided to make sure that the book took place twenty years in the past, just to keep it from touching this time period. While there’s a lot up in the air as far as our post-pandemic world is concerned, that doesn’t mean the world has stopped. Writing shouldn’t stop either. It is the job of the writer to document the world around them, even when that world changes so fast it’s hard to keep track of it.
About the Author
Jessica Stilling has published three literary novels and three YA Fantasy novels under the pen name JM Stephen. Her work has appeared in Ms. Magazine, Bust Magazine, Tor.com and The Writer Magazine. Her short fiction has appeared in places such as The Warwick Review, Wasafiri and The New Reader Review. She has taught Creative Writing in New York City at The Gotham Writers Workshop, The City University of New York and The New School. She lives in Vermont where she currently lives with her family, her dog, her cat and a bunch of chickens. She writes for The Deerfield Valley News.
About the Book
Jessica Stilling’s third novel, The Weary God of Ancient Travelers, follows Lydia Warren, a young woman suffering from amnesia after suffering a deep trauma, to the Greek Island of Santorini. There she must find her memories of her past or risk losing her future. As Lydia wanders the island, discovers clues to a past life in another country, meets an eccentric old man with a secret past of her own and begins to fall for the man she thought was her best friend. As Lydia comes closer to remembering her trauma and finding herself, she must confront her own mistakes and move on.