With the exception of my story set in the 1950’s about Mike Scott a reporter on a provincial newspaper, what I write is set very much in the present. However, by the time my books actually appear for others to read time has passed. My stories aren’t in general pinned to any particular event which would locate them in a specific time, but technology changes and advances so quickly that crucial plot devices become irrelevant – unless I pin the stories specifically. Phones not having good signal, or people not even having mobile phones, are an example, but in general that doesn’t really matter. I started self-publishing my books in 2012, but some of them had been written years before. There was only one where I consciously added in details to set the novel in the 1990’s, and that was my most recently published as paperback, Flipside. I mentioned music, I mentioned things people wore and fashion, I mentioned vehicles to alert the reader. In my first Radwinter novel, the first draft was written reflecting the actual date I was writing it – so November 1st in my world was November 1st in Thomas’s. By the time I had finished I had to rewrite parts of it because the action couldn’t have taken place in such a short amount of time – it had to extend over months rather than weeks. It was though, very firmly set in the autumn of 2013, The main character Thomas introduces each novel by saying he was born in 1980 and therefore thirty-three, or thirty-four, or however old he would be.
Up until now, the date actually didn’t really matter, it had no direct bearing on the story , and when my books were set didn’t rely on a specific year. However, 2020 has changed all that. I’m sure all writers who set their work in the present have the dilemma of what to do about the current situation. Everyone’s life has changed. Whether you are in lockdown, in a tier, self-isolating, in a bubble, not in a bubble, living alone or with others, working – as usual or from home, or are furloughed or made redundant, your life is not the same, and will never be the same again. The story I am writing at present, another Radwinter, was started last year, so it is set in 2019, there’s no problem there at all, but when I start writing my next novel when do I set it? Do I consciously set it pre-2020, or do I write something in the present as I always have done, which has characters affected in one way or anther by the events in this new world? I can’t pretend it hasn’t happened, that would be ridiculous, but do I make it a main feature, a deciding factor, or do characters lives go in in an ordinary but different way – as our lives have. Ok, we are in a way trapped in our house, although we go out as we like shopping or walking, we don’t meet our friends, we don’t go to our clubs, groups and classes, we don’t go to the pub – but that is very much now. In the summer, after lockdown was unlocked, we did have more freedom to carefully meet and associate at a distance. This was our experience – elsewhere it was very different.
So as a writer who is usually concerned about people’s relationships, about the puzzles and mysteries they have to solve, about personal interaction, to what extent do I include or reflect on what has happened over this year? As you may guess from the way I have written this, their are aspects of our present situation I don’t want to think about, I don’t want to dwell on. If life and things take on a different sort of normal (that well-worn cliché) should I focus on that rather than looking back over this year? Not all writers after the world wars had those conflicts as the main issue of their novels, some ignored them completely, but some just made everyday references about people who had served in different ways, loved ones who had been lost, lives which had been changed – and sometimes in unexpectedly positive ways, without dwelling on those terrible times. Sometimes it’s only possible with the perspective of passed time that a proper understanding of a period can be achieved.
I guess I won’t know how I will write or deal with this challenge until I write and deal with it – and I’m not sure when that will be!