Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Aiming at a moving target

Since the pandemic began, I have posted from time to time about the challenge of writing it into my current work in progress. Or not. The book, the eleventh in my Inspector Green series entitled THE DEVIL TO PAY, is due for release in October 2021. Initially we thought the pandemic would last a month or two (remember those days?), but as I continued to write the novel, I gradually realized it might last into the fall or even winter of 2020. Authors everywhere agonized about what to do, and I posed the questions a few times on social media. Some wanted to write as if life was carrying on as normal and the pandemic didn't exist. People didn't want to be reminded of these grim times, or the experience was too raw, or it interfered with their planned narrative. Others suggested the book be set in 2019 or in the near future. And still others said that the pandemic should be in the background, but merely hinted at.

This last option was the one I chose. I couldn't imagine pretending it didn't exit. It's the defining event of the century (so far). Imagine writing a book set in 1942 without mentioning the war? But surely by the fall of 2021, the pandemic would be over, and I could write as if it were in the rearview mirror. The memory and the effects on people's lives would linger, but life would be normal. But in October, when I submitted the manuscript to the publisher, we had no idea how long it was going to last. There was no vaccine, and countries were lurching from opening up and shutting down as their health officials obsessively watched the case counts. I was changing the manuscript on the fly right up until the submission date.

Fast forward four months, and I have now working through the edits and doing final rewrites. Once again, the pandemic is centre stage. It will not be over by the fall of 2021 when people will start reading the book. Furthermore, it dawned on me that the book is set in May through July, just a couple of months from now.  There is no way things will be back to the post-pandemic normal I had envisioned in my original draft.

The one good thing is that now there is a clearer picture of what pandemic life will be like in a couple of months. Vaccines will be here but may not yet be widely distributed. Many Covid restrictions and protocols will continue. So I set about making adjustments to the manuscript to reflect what I thought would be the reality in May 2021. Police officers and many other essential workers will be vaccinated, but Plexiglas dividers in restaurants and shops will likely remain. Masks will continue to be worn. So each scene had to be analyzed. Activities in the police station like briefings and meetings would not require masks but interviews with the public would. Restaurant patios could not be "packed" and streets would no longer "bustle with tourists".

When characters are wearing masks, most of the nonverbal facial cues are lost. I had to remove all the friendly smiles and tightened lips, and find other ways to convey the emotion. Scowls, furrowed brows, and blinking eyes. Those tics get tired fast! And it is so much harder to recognize suspects when half their face is hidden. Note - this can be useful.

But I still didn't want to make the pandemic too intrusive. It's a mystery story about tortured relationships and murder. I didn't want the reader to be tripping over the pandemic at every turn. It's a fine balance, and I hope by the time the book comes out it October, it won't be too far off base. Time will tell.

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