Setting a Novel During the COVID-19 Pandemic

My latest novel, Winter’s Rage, takes place in January 2020, immediately before the coronavirus pandemic. This is book # 3 of my Paula Savard Mystery Series. When I started writing the next book in the series last fall, I knew it would be set in spring, but which year would it be?

Without COVID, I’d have chosen spring 2022 or 2023, the year series book # 4 will be published, and insert some topical details into the final draft to make the story contemporary. But last fall, who knew if the pandemic would be over by spring 2022 or still dragging on? And while we hope the world will return to normal by 2023, will there be lasting social effects? Perhaps many people will continue to work at home, wear masks in crowded locations, and refrain from shaking hands and hugging acquaintances. Will the pandemic’s demise usher in a decade of ‘roaring twenties’ frivolity or one of gloom and anxiety about the next disaster?

I could avoid the issue by writing the novel as though COVID didn’t happen or had minimal impact. At most, characters might refer to the pandemic as a recent event that didn’t significantly change anything. This will work for some books, but I want my novels to reflect life as Calgarians lived it in the early 21st century. I was also interested in exploring this remarkable experience through my writing, but as the backdrop to a story rather than the primary focus.

Spring 2021 might have been the practical choice, since it was fresh in my memory. This was a period of relative hope, which suits a spring season mood. Most of us were getting our vaccines and many thought the fears and restrictions would be over by fall. But something tugged me to write about the pandemic’s early months, maybe because enough time had passed for me to process that particular experience. I decided to set the novel in April 2020, during Calgary’s initial shutdown.

Paula, my insurance adjuster sleuth, is the only person working in her 100-year-old office building, making it effectively her home office. I like the idea of her having the creaky old building to herself and am trying to work in a ghost. Her live-in partner is stranded in Europe. Paula’s aging mother has moved in with her for protection from the virus and companionship. Paula’s workload has dropped. Fewer cars on the road means fewer accidents and whiplash claims, the bread and butter of her insurance job. Much of her remaining work has shifted online. My characters now communicate through Zoom and Skype in addition to phone, email, texts and face-to-face contacts.

I find it interesting to mine the pandemic for fresh characterization. When Paula’s daughter visits, Paula reaches out to hug her and then reminds herself to step back. Some characters ignore the pandemic restrictions; others follow them with conviction; a few are paranoid. Some are depressed by all they’ve lost: others welcome new opportunities.

I’m now half way through the first draft. The story is so embedded in the COVID world that it would require huge changes to switch it to a different time frame, even to spring 2021. I wrote a scene where two characters discuss meeting in a coffee shop, and later realized indoor dining was closed then. During the first wave, most Albertans didn’t wear masks in stores and talked about “bubbles” rather than COVID variants with Greek names. Verifying these first wave details feels like research for historical fiction. Let’s hope that by this time next year the coronavirus pandemic will be history.

Susan Calder, Author

Author of To Catch a Fox (BWL Publishing, 2019) and A Deadly Fall (BWL 2019), Ten Days in Summer (BWL 2017), and Winter’s Rage (BWL 2021), books 1, 2 & 3 of the Paula Savard mystery series.

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