Author experiences: How to handle Covid in fiction


06 August 2021
Contemporary thriller author Holly Watt explains how she wrote her novel on Big Pharma during the pandemic
Author experiences: How to handle Covid in fiction Images

How do you handle Covid in fiction? The virus, lockdown and big pharmaceutical companies all feature in Holly Watt's new novel The Hunt and the Kill

Where will we be by next summer? What will our lives look like?” Everyone spent most of 2020 asking the same question. I, however, had a slightly more selfish reason for asking.

At the start of last year, I was in the middle of writing a novel that - if all went to plan - would be published in July 2021. As people stockpiled loo roll in the spring of 2020, I sat at my desk (at home; I know I was very lucky) and tried to guess what the life of an investigative journalist would look like in five seasons’ time. 'It’ll all be over by June,' I insisted. Then it was Christmas. Then it was who knows when.

In hindsight, I’m glad that I didn’t realise that we would still be facing restrictions on our lives all these months on, it would have been too depressing. But it meant that even as I wrote The Hunt and The Kill - the third book in the Casey Benedict series - I also had to update it.

From the start, I knew I couldn’t pretend the pandemic simply hadn’t happened. The Hunt and The Kill is partly based on the machinations of the pharmaceutical industry and not mentioning the pandemic in a book that explored the issues around antibiotic resistance would require too great a suspension of disbelief from the reader.

Furthermore, my novels are partly based in a newsroom. Given that every newsroom in the world has spent most of the last eighteen months obsessing over coronavirus, leaving out the pandemic altogether would be impossible. But how should I include it?

I wasn’t helped by publishing’s timelines. In order for a book to be published in summer 2021, a publisher will hope to see it around a year in advance. As I wrote, I had therefore had several conversations with my editor trying to work out how to address the issue.

Eventually, we decided that I would have to assume that the pandemic would be more or less over by 2021, but that I would include various references to the global crisis. In autumn, as the persistence of the pandemic became increasingly apparent, I added more references.
It wasn’t straightforward. One of the central characters in The Hunt and The Kill has cystic fibrosis. At the very least, the characters would have to recognise that she had spent months shielding during the pandemic. Another character had had an organ transplant - he would also have had to shield.

There were smaller things too. For example, at one point Casey goes to the Public Health England facility in Colindale, north London. In April, PHE was scrapped. What would Colindale be called instead? No one seemed to know.

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Ultimately, I decided I would have to allow myself a degree of poetic licence. Plonking everyone on Zoom calls in their bedrooms just wouldn’t work. We all know the tedium of an endless stream of Zoom calls. My characters also use airplanes like normal people use buses (look, I don’t need to worry about their carbon footprint) and I decided that I would allow them to carry on globetrotting. Quite frankly, I write fiction. Making stuff up is one of the perks of being an author.

The other factor for me was that including Perspex screens everywhere and insisting on characters standing a metre apart at all times would make the book date very fast.

But there was another element too. For me, writing is a form of escapism. I am sure there will be many brilliant books written about the pandemic, but I didn’t want to write one. Surrounded by the life-inverting mayhem of the pandemic, I couldn’t face sitting down and thinking about it constantly. Instead, I enjoyed writing about it as if it were a past event, even on days when Chris Whitty was on the television prophesying doom and despair.

There were other complications to writing during a pandemic anyway. Looking out over the same Devon field for over a year wasn’t hugely conducive to writing pacy, international thrillers. The lack of interaction with other people was also challenging. I realised how much of my dialogue - and everything else - is magpied from conversations with friends.

Speaking to other authors, everyone struggled with both the isolation and trying to work out what the future would look like. How would people behave on dates in 2023? What would pubs look like? Would our lives ever seem 'normal' again? Anyone who could take our references to specific years and dates did so instantly. Everyone else wept into their laptops. Except the historical novelists, who looked smug.

In its final version, I believe The Hunt and The Kill acknowledges the disaster of the last year without submerging the reader back into the world of loo roll stockpiling and the immeasurable sadness of the death count climbing day after day. I’m now working on my fourth novel, due out in 2023, and I’m trying to avoid mentioning the pandemic at all.

For more on making the most of your writing post lockdown, see our articles in Writing Magazine, July-September.