Real Life As A Plot Element

The other day, I saw a post on Facebook where an author asked if anyone else in the group happened to refer to Covid in their current work. The responses ran the gamut from “Of course, it makes it timely” to “Hell no!”. The discussion was interesting for several reasons: the thought processes of different writers on why they have or have not referred to Covid, the way the thread managed to avoid politics (on the whole), to how those who have referred to it have wound it into their various genres. It got me to thinking about my own writing and books I’ve been reading and how authors do sometimes pull in current events to add “flavor” to their work.

I’ll be honest. I haven’t read anything that refers directly to Covid-19 yet but I know it’s out there. I’ve seen a couple of books advertised on FB that reference it. Those ads brought me up short when I’ve seen them. Not so much because of the use of Covid as a plot device but because my first thought was “Nope, not gonna read it.”.

And that is something I’d worry about as an author if I was writing a book about a pandemic of any sort right now. My knee-jerk reaction basically came down to being tired of the restrictions, tired of the scolding (from both sides) over masks, tired of the politicization of the issue, etc. Why would I want to read fiction, which is my escape, that focuses on something that has had such a huge impact on my life this past year plus? (Especially if that fiction is depressing.)

It’s funny. I don’t mind reading about the bad guys using bioterrorism against the good guys. I love John Ringo’s Black Tide Rising series. In my Honor & Duty series, the bad guys have a biotoxin that is potentially a planet killer. I have no issue with writing–or reading–about such things. I just don’t want to have it called “Covid”.

That’s my knee-jerk reaction. My step-back-and-think-about-it reaction is to wonder how well it would age. The book might resonate today with readers but what about a year down the road? Two years? Five years? Will readers understand the panic Covid caused or the reaction (or over-reaction) of the government? Or will it simply age the book so that it won’t have legs as time passes?

This is something writers wanting to go the traditional route have to consider given how long it takes to go from writing the book to getting an agent to shopping the book around to publication. As indies, we don’t have to worry about that aging factor right off the bat, but it is still something we need to look at long-term. At least we do if we want our books to continue selling down the road.

So, do you want to read books that use the current Covid situation as a plot device? I’m really interested in what your thoughts are on the matter.

victory test base image 2Now, onto the business end of being a writer. Victory from Ashes (Honor & Duty 7) comes out Sept. 21.

War is hell. No battle plan survives the opening salvo. When the enemy is set on the total destruction of your homeworld, how far will you go to protect it and those you love?

This war has already cost Col. Ashlyn Shaw too much. She has lost friends and family to an enemy that doesn’t know the meaning of honor. Marines under her command have died doing their duty. Her enemies at home conspired and brought her up on charges, sending her and members of her command to the Tarsus military penal colony. But they didn’t win then and she won’t let them win now. She is a Marine, a Devil Dog, and they can’t take that away from her.

Ashlyn is determined to do all she can to protect her homeworld and end the war. She will lead her Marines against the enemy, knowing that if they fail, Fuercon will fall. But will it be enough and will those who have conspired behind the scenes to destroy her and all she stands for finally be brought to justice?

Duty and honor. Corps and family. That is what matters. It is all that matters.

Snippet 1 Victory

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Now it’s time to get back to work. Until later!

Featured Image by Reimund Bertrams from Pixabay

28 comments

  1. As a mention (not a plot device) it dates the book, but so can technology. I’d be cautious about using it in a series that happens in the “now”, though. 20-some years ago I was reading a detective series written by a British author, and I was jarred out of the series by the appearance of a cell phone. The appearance was at the very beginning of the book, and the book started literally minutes after the conclusion of the previous book. The problem was that one of the plot devices in the previous book was the cutting of the landline to the remote location. This meant they couldn’t call for back up, and had to solve the murder by themselves while the murderer was still on the remote island with them. Unfortunately, between that book and the next, cell phones came out (and went from those big bricks to phones that fit in a pocket, because the author was almost as slow as GRRM at putting out new books), and the author felt the need to stay current by introducing them into her world.

    I have noticed that JD Robb/Nora Roberts has managed to avoid any really recognizable modern references in her In Death series which takes place about 30 – 35 years from now in New York. The only thing I can recall is her reference to the Twin Towers having been rebuilt.

    1. Before “techno-thriller” was even a recognized genre, people were writing it. One of the early ones was Joe Poyer, who seems to be largely forgotten nowadays. He wrote fiction from the late ’60s to the early ’80s, and has moved to nonfiction now. (he’s still around!)

      Poyer’s most famous novel is probably “North Cape”. It was first published in 1969. He strong together a bunch of current topical elements – the Cold War, the Gary Powers U-2 shootdown, the new SR-71, the booming drug culture, submarines, search and rescue… it’s a pretty good read, but it might as well take place in an alternate universe. The “one step into the future” technology in the book was based on extrapolations of existing technology. And Poyer wrote it just a year before the first microprocessor hit the market… Poyer’s hypersonic SR-71 successor had no modern avionics; the pilot was plumbed into a flying pharmacy that turned him off, on, and adjusted his reflexes and state of awareness according to the mission profile; every flight ended in a hospital on dialysis to mitigate the toxic brew. All logical and well-thought-out, except reality-as-we-know-it hooked a sharp turn and went down an entirely different path.

      I expect a reader with only vague memories of the Cold War and no memories of life before cheap computers or various now-historical events referenced in the story would have his WTF? light flashing quite often… but I’ve had my copy since 1975-ish, and I still re-read it every now and then.

      1. Before “techno-thriller” was even a recognized genre, people were writing it.

        Oooh, ooh, read the brain toy that Dracula was a techno-thriller for its time?
        Had typewriters, and telegrams, and blood typing, and….

        1. _The Modern Prometheus_ (Frankenstein) was truly cutting edge in terms of the medical tech and science that Mary Shelly used, and the consequences she explored. When you read it that way, all of a sudden you see why it has lasted so long as a story.

  2. Sue Grafton froze her alphabet murder series (“A is for Alibi”, etc) in the late 1980’s to avoid these problems. A whole lot of plots are difficult now due to widespread communications and camera coverage, and will be impossible soon due to ubiquitous camera coverage and comm.

  3. Because Covid 19 is still playing out, it could be problematic using it in even a near future sense.

    But it’d be an interesting plot device for a mystery, as the ubiquitous usage of near-identical masks renders one more difficult to identify, while a person using a strikingly individual hand-made mask would be easy to impersonate.

    More distant future things “After Covid, everyone wore masks” may age as poorly as “After the Covid hoax, no one took the warning seriously . . . ” might. At this point we simply don’t know what it will look like from five of ten years in the future. “After the Plague” would have a longer tail, but possibly not the immediate sales>

    And I’m with you, Amanda, I’d avoid any book associated with Covid. Don’t need someone else’s whiny fear added to my impatience and irritation.

  4. My response to COVID, or any other current controversy, is that if I want to be preached at, I’ll pick up an apologetics tract. I don’t need to be informed of My Proper Views by my entertainment choices, any more than I appreciate being told what views I’m Allowed To Have by creators putting fashionable beliefs in the mouth of Demographically Aligned To Myself characters.

    If they can’t support them rationally, I don’t want to PAY THEM to support them irrationally!

  5. I feel like Romance could probably make the best and least annoying use of Covid as a Reason Why Protagonist Moved To Small Town. Since that’s a pretty common trope in Romance, after all. And maybe get some Mistaken Identity Introductions out of masks.

  6. I came across a Romance thingy on Royal Road that I read a little and haven’t come back to.

    Blurb basically mentions Covid Lockdown, and the romance aspects.

    Gave it a try, it makes sense because of the choice of tropes to implement.

    It isn’t really my genre, and I am a bit stressed, so the writing would have needed to pull me in, and it didn’t. Or, it hasn’t so far.

  7. “So, do you want to read books that use the current Covid situation as a plot device?”

    If I see the word “Covid” then book will meet wall. Seriously, I’m sitting here looking at it, I don’t want to read about it too.

    Besides which, no author can come up with anything nearly as incoherent and farcical as what’s going on right now.

    1. What the Phantom said. _The Strain_, _The Andromeda Strain_, _Hot Zone_, only one of those aged well, and a lot of that was character development and writing. How many Cold-War thrillers still work? OK, maaaybe _Day of the Jackel_ and some Tom Clancy stuff. _Grey Lady Down_?

      No, I have 0 desire to read or write anything about the current Virus-of-the-Month-Club offering.

  8. I was tempted to write a plague novel, but I realized that there was no way people would believe it.

    Mostly because the “official” response to COVID was such a disaster that there was no way anybody would believe in a conspiracy creating the disease before the fact (exploiting the plague, maybe…).

    Oh, and for even more fun, the plague was testosterone-keyed, so that it would cull most of the “manly” men and women out there, because they’re all the icky people that make the world terrible. Nobody knew that there was a test group for DARPA trying out a new universal vaccine that covered this disease…until after.

  9. I refuse to read a book with a Covid plot device. Just NO. I am entirely sick of the topic. (I’m ducking from whatever you’ve all thrown at me for that). But really, I’m fine with historical plague novels, I’m fine with future plague novels, I am just all out of tolerance for the current Covidiocy. Reading is supposed to be either relaxing or educational for me. That would be neither, so I’m not going there.

  10. Me, I get a little nervous about a plot featuring contagion (superhero story), but being mostly high fantasy I generally don’t have a problem.

  11. I read fiction primarily for escapism; Covid and all it’s associations are something I want to escape so anything that mentions Covid right in the summary or title isn’t getting picked up and anything that sneaks Covid in later is getting walled. Not to mention the high risk of enduring a sermon/lecture from the author on Covid, which is always a real hazard for a book that is billed as topical, or addressing real life themes.

  12. For some reason this ‘using current events’ reminds me not of a fiction book but of the science textbooks they had at my old grade school, many years ago now. Their last chapter warned about ‘The Next Ice Age’, and how the glaciers would return within the decade (70’s or 80’s, I’m not sure after all this time). Complete with pictures of the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx freezing over.

    It seems that prediction was a little off.

    I also remember a seeming endless parade of stories about ‘VIETNAM! VIETNAM! The most important and socially-shattering conflict ever!’ It felt like every single ‘current’ (as of that time) SF novel was all about The War or Legalizing Pot or The Impending Race War with the wild hordes murdering in the streets (yet they were still the good guys, somehow). And if you wanted to read about anything else you were being a coward and ignoring your duty to society and BLAGH!

    Thank Heavens that same school library had some Poul Anderson, Andre Norton, and Manly Wade Wellman or I’d have turned my back on SF and fantasy forever.

    1. Oh, believe me, the Looming Racial Conflict has gotten a revival in recent works. But then, the Leftist race-peddlers have been trying to undo the Civil Rights Movement since the second half of the Obama years, for some reason.

      1. Oh, believe me, the Looming Racial Conflict has gotten a revival in recent works.

        Oh, gads, don’t remind me!

        I grew up reading my uncle’s old comic books– the BAD rehashes of 50 year old stories that were only defensible when they were new because folks hadn’t lived through the next 15 years and DIDN’T know what actually happened is NOT ENJOYABLE.

  13. If you want your story to age well, I think it’s best to wait at least 5-10 years before including a reference like this, because it takes at least that much time for the culture to absorb and make sense of it. Shorter for pop-culture references, longer for major current events, especially the traumatic ones.

    There is still a lot of ruin left in the United States. A century from now, I suspect that 2020 will not be remembered as a historically significant year, just like 1921 or 1936.

  14. Maybe as a part of “causes leading up to”, but I don’t think I’d name-check it.

    It’s got potential as a vignette in a “things fall apart” montage.

    By now, most people have a deep-seated feeling that they’ve been had.
    The divide is mainly between those mad at the people who fooled them, and the people mad at those who are pointing out that they were fooled.
    There’s a good scene to be had in showing that dichotomy. But it’s a framing device, not a major plot element.

    Isolation is a big part of horror. As is science run amuck. There’s plenty of room for both with the Kung Flu, but I still don’t think name-checking is a good idea.

    1. This isn’t science run amok, this is science run juramento (sp?).

      Amok was a more or less random spree killing using a blade in certain cultures. Random people would just snap, etc. This science is not, and has not, ‘run amok’.

      This is science on a killing spree that starts with religious ritual, shaves the head (including IIRC eyebrows), and binds the body with cords to slow death by blood loss, and prolong the killing. This is a deliberate spree killing, with religious fanaticism and malicious forethought. So, instead of running amok, it is what some of the old Philippine Muslims, at least, would do before the invention of suicide bombing.

      It is exactly the sort of thing that we have the 1911 and .45 ACP to deal with.

      1. Actually, when the British announced that “amok” would not be accepted as a defense at trial, amazingly they managed to avoid “snapping.”

  15. In the opening chapters of Robert Kroese’s “War of the Iron Dragon,” he makes passing reference to “the pandemic that started in 2020,” as an explanation of economic context for a Very Big Investment a character makes under the table with the government of Iceland. But that’s Covid’s whole role in five books.

  16. i was tempted in one of my near future stories to have a throwaway plot element where a bunch of people caught Covid-25 and certain government people were calling for a lockdown

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