To anyone reading this in the future: In 2020, a virus called Covid 19 spread throughout the world, and a lot of people caught it and died. People were advised to self-isolate to slow the spread, and most of us did, and it worked, and it was a really weird time. Sad, of course, and for some of us absolutely devastating. But the survivors learned things about ourselves that we didn’t expect, and the experience changed us forever . . .
It’s only natural for writers to want explore a worldwide lifechanging event like Covid 19. Writing about such events are good ways to process feelings and can be cathartic. Flannery O’Connor’s famous quote – “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say” – applies here. For so many of us, writing is thinking and feeling, and the bigger and more complex those thoughts and feelings are, the more we need to write about them.
But just as some people are expecting there to be a baby boom following our time of self-isolation, publishers are already fearing an onslaught of novels and stories about Covid 19. If you write about the pandemic just for yourself, with no intention of ever seeking publication, then it doesn’t matter what you write about Covid 19 or how you do it. So just let it rip! But one of the things I’ve learned after teaching English Composition classes for thirty years, is that there are shared human experiences that, while transformative for individuals, are common as dirt, and often as interesting to read about. Every mother has a birth story. Most people have accident, injury, or illness stories. The first time a person experiences death, loses their virginity, falls in love . . . Of course, a talented writer can make any subject into an enthralling piece of literature, but how many novels do you think publishers want to bring out each year exploring the same basic concept and theme, even if each writer has done so brilliantly? How many of those stories will readers want to read? Not a lot.
So if you feel compelled to explore your experiences during this time in your writing, and you want to try to get the resulting work published, considered listening to Emily Dickson’s advice from one of her poems: “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” Don’t write an essay detailing how your hair got long while you self-isolated, played Animal Crossing for several months, and hoped to hell you and your loved ones didn’t get sick. That’s telling the truth straight-on. Instead, try to find other ways to write about your experience, ways that disguise the real subject while at the same time digging into the actual emotional truth.
The following areas are can be explored in any genre: horror, fantasy, mystery, romance, mainstream, literary, thriller . . . You can interpret them through any lens, but no matter how you tell your story, your pandemic experience will be the seed from which your work grows.
First off, don’t write your version of The Stand, or The Andromeda Strain, or Outbreak, or . . .
This is the first thing writers are going to try to do to disguise that they’re really writing about their own pandemic experience. There will be an absolute glut of pandemic books hitting editors’ and agents’ inboxes within the next year or two. No matter what you do, a disease story will still be a disease story, and everyone and their cousin will be writing one.
On the other hand . . .
You could find an analogue for a virus. (Not a zombie plague, though, unless you can come up with a really original twist.) Vampire plague, werewolf plague, a violence plague (ala The Crazies) . . . Your analogue could be an ideology or a false belief that spreads and causes damage. Any type of contagion analogue could work.
Fear of death
You can write about this on a small scale: an individual fearing for his or her life or the life of a loved one. Or you can write about it on a larger scale: a threat of death to a family, a group of people, a town, a region, a country, the whole damn species . . . The threat doesn’t have to come from disease. It can come from anything. An alien invasion. A rogue asteroid heading for Earth. Mutant cockroaches. You name it. You can write about what an individual facing death might do, as in Breaking Bad, or how humanity will behave when they know the world’s coming to an end, as in Bryan Smith’s extreme horror novel Last Day or the Seth Rogan-starring comedy This is the End.
Fear of strangers
People fear catching Covid 19 from others, so write about the fear of the other. The classic Twilight Zone episode The Monsters are Due on Maple Street. The 1981 film The Wave, about a high school teacher creating a real-life “Movement” to teach his students how Nazi Germany happened. Don’t forget the racist reactions some have had – and are still having – to Asian people during the pandemic, either. Issues of racism, persecution, scapegoating . . . all of these can be themes to explore without you ever having to mention a disease.
Fear of doctors/medicine/hospitals
No one wants to get sick or injured, and doctors are not only the bearers of bad news – I’m afraid you have hypertension – they often cause discomfort and pain while treating us. Just relax. This’ll all be over in a few minutes . . . Medicines that have rough side-effects, painful surgeries with complications . . . Medical fears and anxieties are fertile ground for fiction.
Fear that you’ll be unable to save a life
Think how overworked and stressed-out medical staff feel knowing that no matter how hard they try, they can’t save everyone, and may in the end be overwhelmed by the sheer number of patients. Can you find a way to base a story on this fear, one that doesn’t take place in a hospital? I’d argue Sheriff Brody in Jaws feels this pressure. The same for the American President in Fail Safe.
Fear of not being supported
Medical professionals aren’t being supported by our government in America and feel lost and abandoned. Again, can you find a way to draw on that emotion to write a story without using disease or medicine? What about how an individual feels knowing they’re not supported by family, friends, their partner. . . ?
Write a survival story. (Avoid zombies.) Open Water. The Gray. Deliverance. Alive. Cujo. No disease in any of those stories, but the struggle to survive is front and center. The classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode “Breakdown,” in which Joseph Cotton plays a man paralyzed and seemingly dead after a car accident. He struggles to get someone, anyone, to notice he’s still alive before he’s taken to the coroner for an autopsy. Jack London’s famous short story “To Build a Fire.” Someone trying to survive a soul-crushing job or an abusive relationship. In many ways, survival is the ultimate story of our species, which is why it’s such a rich theme for writers.
Fear of running out
Of supplies (toilet paper, anyone?). Necessities: food, water, money, a place to live . . . Any or all of these things can be threatened by circumstances other than disease. Vampires that fear running out of blood. Angels who fear running out of good souls for Heaven. The days become shorter – 24 hours becomes 20, then 14, then nine – as the universe literally runs out of time. The fear of not having enough – whatever enough means to your characters – and what people are driven to do by this fear, can make for enthralling fiction.
Isolation and Separation
Bird Box. Castaway. The Shawshank Redemption. Cabin Fever. Buried. Room. Silent Running. The Shining. The Lighthouse. The Breakfast Club. The Martian. Cube (and its sequels). It Comes at Night. Gravity (also a survival story). All of these movies deal with one of humanity’s worst fears – being alone (or nearly so) and being cut off from others. Sure, some of us are misanthropes who prefer our own company, but in general, humanity is a herd animal, and we suffer when we’re too long apart from others. There are many ways to tell stories of isolation and separation as there are people.
One of the worst parts of Covid 19 is how many patients must suffer – and sometimes die – alone, quarantined from friends and relatives. This is the ultimate in isolation and separation, I think, and it’s such a strong fear that I think it deserves its own category. Choose a different situation than a deadly disease for your character and tell the story of their facing the ultimate human experience on their own (which is perhaps all our fates in the end, regardless of how and when we die).
Shutdown/Breakdown of society
There’s large-scale systemic breakdown of countries, but states, cities, and families are all societies. A workplace can be a society. Same with a family. What happens when the system – whatever its nature and size – starts to show stress, break under the pressure, and shutdown in whole or in part? Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, Children of Men, The Handmaid’s Tale . . .
There have been a lot of the Earth is empty (or mostly empty) stories. The Quiet Earth is one of my favorites. The Langoliers is another. So is A Vanishing on 7th Street. If you can find a way to give this trope your own unique spin, it could work well for you to write about how empty our streets and cities seem right now. Or you could write about how empty your house or apartment feels.
Untrustworthy, cold, calculating, incompetent, evil leaders
I think this one is self-explanatory, but the leaders in your story don’t have to be world leaders. They can be a boss, the head of a family, the dominant partner in a relationship . . .
How people behave in a crisis
Do people turn toward each other or against each other? Do they work together or go it alone? Do they play it safe or take a risk? Do they calmly and rationally debate the best way to handle it? Do they argue? Come to blows? Do they continue to abide by cultural norms and societal rules, or is it Mad Max land? You can explore these ideas through any kind of crisis: a natural disaster, a war, a large-scale accident, an economic crisis, a familial crisis, a hostage situation, a home invasion, kaiju attack . . .
Trying to live daily life/find a new normal
One of my settings that I’ve revisited for stories is the World After. I first wrote about it in my novella The Last Mile. The premise is that the Masters (basically ancient, all-powerful Lovecraftian gods) have returned to reclaim the Earth and are now its new rulers. The few human survivors find ways to adapt to and survive in the insane hellscape their world has become. My theme in these stories is that no matter how bad things get, humans will find ways to adapt, ways that might once have been unthinkable, but which – like it or not – are necessary. We’ve all been striving to adapt and create a new normal in the wake of Covid 19, but that’s what we’ve done throughout our history. It’s a quality that you can explore in all kinds of stories, not just ones about pandemics. And trying to distract/entertain/teach/manage children during Covid 19 is something that parents have had to do during times of great change and societal upheaval, which adds a different wrinkle to the theme of adaption.
Trying to maintain mental health
The world is far more aware of the importance of maintaining mental health than at any other point in history, and people are working to take care of themselves and their families both physically and mentally during self-isolation. You can explore all kinds ways characters deal with normal mental-health challenges, but you can explore more uncommon – and interesting ones. How does the crew on a generation spaceship maintain their mental health? How would a superhero deal with PTSD after failing to save someone’s life, or maybe the lives of many someones? What sort of mental and emotional challenges would a psychic medium who regularly sees and interacts with dead people have to deal with? Think Larry Talbot, the tortured Wolf Man who suffers from guilt over the murders his fur-covered alter ego commits. The living vampire Morbius, who is driven to feed by bloodlust and then regrets his actions afterwards. How do characters like these keep going? How do they hold onto some shred of humanity? Or is it even possible to do so? Think about all the shit adventure characters go through. The various Star Trek crews, the different incarnations of the Doctor . . . it’s a wonder they’re not all locked away in mental institutions somewhere.
What’s the emotional reality of YOUR pandemic experience?
If you really want – or need – to write about your individual experience during these difficult times, ask yourself what that experience is, and write about it. What fears have you had? What mental and emotional challenges? Make a list, and then go through it and consider how could view the items on that list through different lenses, how you could tell them slant. Then start writing.
And we all know that writing is one of the cheapest forms of therapy, right? And sharing our stories is a positive community-building act, whether we submit them for publication, post them on our blogs, share them with friends and family, or just go back some day – when all of this is long over – reread our words, and remember.
Want some free stories to read/listen to during self-isolation? I’ve got you covered.
I have several stories available to listen to at Tales to Terrify:
· My Bram Stoker-nominated story “A Touch of Madness”: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/tales-to-terrify-427-gwendolyn-kiste-tim-waggoner/id492711030?i=1000470370767
· “Long Way Home”: https://talestoterrify.com/episodes/tales-to-terrify-no-14-tim-waggoner/
· “Portrait of a Horror Writer”: https://www.spreaker.com/user/9319595/tales-to-terrify-show-no-106-tim-waggone
· “Picking Up Courtney”: https://www.mixcloud.com/talestoterrify/tales-to-terrify-no-129-dowker-waggoner/
· “Do No Harm”: https://www.iheart.com/podcast/256-tales-to-terrify-30961232/episode/tales-to-terrify-no-39-tim-32909543/
I also have several stories posted on my website:
Text: “Picking Up Courtney,” “Met a Pilgrim Shadow,” “Portrait of a Horror Writer.”
Audio: (read by Julia Morgan): “Water’s Edge,” “Foundling,” “Hungry Man.” (All Lovecraftian stories)
Free Story Collection: My third short story collection, Bone Whispers, is currently out of print. If you email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, I’ll send you a free PDF of the collection.