I can’t pretend it hasn’t happened

A question which has been niggling at me, and I guess many if not most other writers whose work is set in the present, do we or do we not include the actual situation the world finds itself in? The first time I saw the question raised was on a social media site by the author Michael Ridpath, many of whose excellent books I have read. It was last year, probably during the first lockdown and I was rather stumped, and answered in a feeble fashion that I thought I might ignore the situation – I didn’t exactly say I would pretend it wasn’t happening but weakly suggested that I might write round it… I got the feeling from his polite response that he wasn’t exactly impressed, and I felt very awkward – although I’m sure no-one else noticed, and anyway many other people said the same, some in stronger terms! Looking back on it, I think at the time I was in a sort of state of denial; I was not pretending things weren’t happening, not hiding from the news, not ignoring the rules and instructions, but living in a mental pod where only the present and what was before me really existed. I haven’t explained that very well – I think I was denying the existence of the reality in my own imaginary world – the world where my stories happen.  Writing here on my blog, I skirted round any references to the dreadful global situation, and only alluded to it  indirectly.

I have been busy writing over the last year; I have blogged here, I have written two stories a month for my two writing groups, I set myself a thirty day writing challenge, I finished my novel ‘Winterdyke’, I published all of my previously only available as eBooks as paperbacks, I began to pull together all the notes and different chapters of my next as yet untitled Radwinter book – I have been busy. At the back of my mind there has also been the stirrings of the next Radwinter novel. The one I am writing now, possibly to be called ‘Missing, Presumed...’ is set in 2019 because that is when I first began to write it. So number 9 in the series will be set in 2020… it would be very strange in terms of the narrative if I skipped a year and set it in 2021, but writing it with the events taking place last year I cannot avoid at the very least mentioning  the national and international situation. All the way through the series, the characters have mentioned current events, the political troubles in the Ukraine, for example, so for the characters suddenly to be living in a parallel universe where life carries on the same as it always has seems not only ridiculous but somehow dishonest to my imaginary world based in semi-reality.

I referred to Michael Ridpath’s question – I came across another question on social media today which has had me puzzling once again. In essence the person who posed it, a writer, said this: I am fed up with the pandemic and all the horrors and trials it has caused and in my book at least I want it never to have happened. My story needs to be set in the present because of certain technical innovations, and the characters need to be free to do such things as fly anywhere they want. My question to potential readers is this, If you were reading the book and you knew it was set now but covid didn’t exist in the writing, would it bug you, or would it even register? This really brought it home to me that as a writer I am in a great dilemma, and to be honest, it has made me realise what I need to do with my Radwinter story. This isn’t to say every other writer has to do the same. I now think that I can’t ignore the pandemic, I can’t ignore how it would affect my on-going characters, I can’t base my Radwinter story in some imagined future. I could do that with a different story – I could write something set pre-2020, or in a more distant future, but I can’t (and again, this is me, not any other writer) I can’t pretend last year and the present year so far hasn’t happened.

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