Beth Miller

Writing and tea


On setting a book while living in interesting times

Posted on July 7, 2020 at 8:20 AM

‘May you live in interesting times...’ Damn you, apocryphal Chinese curse, I want my uninteresting times back. When you’re slap bang in the middle of interesting times, all your usual certainties vanish as fast as my interest in The Archers now they’ve gone monologue.

Living in the maw of uncertainty causes a great many problems, large and small. But none are as small as the issue of when to set my next novel, my sixth. All being well, though let’s face it, all may not be well, this will be published in Autumn 2021, an impossibly futuristic date by which uninteresting times will hopefully have resumed.

Small problem though it is, I thought I would pull it apart, why not, as it’s easier than actually writing my novel. Plus the guy outside with the strimmer and a grudge against hedges is still at it, for feck’s sake, and it’s been four hours, and my concentration’s shot for the day.

This new book is contemporary fiction, like my previous novels. But what does contemporary mean, right now? With previous books I’ve always known when the events in them take place, to the day (though only after I’ve finished the first draft; more on this later). I keep a sacred document which tables what happens on every day of the novel’s span, even if those events don’t appear on the page, because, well, I suppose because I am a top level nerd.

But this new one is tricky to set, because of Being In the Middle of Interesting Times (henceforth BITMOIT, like Bitcoin, only not really like it at all).

So when to set this book? I have several options, none problem-free.

1. Set it in 2019

Ah, good old 2019, when all we had to worry about was Brexit, Trump, climate change, racism… but at least we didn’t have to worry about a massive unfolding daily-changing POX, as those fake Samuel Johnson quotes doing the rounds call it.

Advantages - Characters can display old-school, scarcely remembered behaviours: standing close together, kissing and hugging, going to pubs without a detailed explanation of the seating and hand sanitiser arrangements, travelling to foreign countries when the writer has tired of setting scenes wherever they kicked off the first chapter, running in and out of shops mask-less without a care in the world… *gazes wistfully off into the distance*

Disadvantages – Firstly, publishers are likely to receive a massive rash of 2018 or 2019-set novels this year. I don’t mind being one of many, but will readers tire of books which shy away from at least addressing the biggest thing most of us have lived through? Secondly, is it possible to have a meaningful ending to a book when the reader knows that something much bigger and more meaningful is just over the horizon?

Book: ‘They lived happily ever after.’

Reader: ‘Until a few months later, when she was furloughed then made redundant, he got really sick and had to quarantine, his business went bankrupt and they discovered that under pressure, they weren’t actually as in love with each as they’d thought.’

It’d be a bit like writing a book that ends in 1939, without any hint of approaching swastika-shaped storm clouds.

2. Set it in the recent past

How I envy my historical fiction colleagues, who already know how big events have played out, or at least, how they’ve played out till now. Unfortunately, my story idea doesn’t lend itself to the distant past, but maybe I could go back a little bit, say to 2005?

Advantages - No corona virus, hurrah! Can put in wryly self-aware references to Camilla Parker-Bowles/Hurricane Katrina/Revenge of the Sith that give colour to the times without overdoing it, probably.

Disadvantages - Won’t it look like I set it in 2005 purely because I don’t want to set it now? Also, I can’t remember anything about 2005, apart from eating Ben & Jerry’s by the fistful, because I had two kids under two and was sleep-deprived. What phones did people have? What did a loaf of bread cost? I know I can look these things up but what’s the point of being a contemporary author if you have to look things up? If I wanted to do tons of research I’d be a historical fiction writer, and I wouldn’t because I’ve just remembered that I don’t like doing research. Maybe I don’t envy them after all.

3. Set it far into the future

How I envy my sci-fi colleagues, who shine a light on our current world via the brilliant creation of a brand new world of their own devising. (I don’t really envy them – world-building looks awfully difficult.)

Advantages - No corona virus, hurrah! The year 3020 sounds wild! There will be no food, only nutritionally-precise pills! We’ll all live till we’re five hundred years old in hygienic white bubble-pods! Hover-boards will finally be a thing! In a thousand years there won’t be men or women, as Renton says in Trainspotting, only wankers!

Disadvantages - My creative imaginings of the future are pathetically derivative. I have always been hopeless at picturing events further than a couple of days ahead. Plus the future feels a slightly odd setting for my small, domestic story about family relationships. I could see myself constantly having to make up reasons why my characters don’t use the fabulous technology available to everyone else in their world, but insist on communicating via emails and phone-calls.

4. Set it in a parallel universe

How I envy my speculative fiction colleagues! (I don’t: world-building again.)

Advantages - It may be 2020, but there’s no corona virus in this world, hurrah! This will be a wistful, shimmering picture of what our lives would have been like had that pesky disease not reared its ugly molecules. All those 2020 things we’ve had to cancel, all those carers and nurses we’ve been worrying about, all those shuttered shops, restaurants and theatres, all those ill people, all those people who’ve lost relatives and friends, oh god, I’m so depressed.

Disadvantages – It’s clearly not going to suit my mental health to spend more than five minutes trying to imagine the world as it would have been.

5. Set it now

Yes, real 2020, I’ll grab you by the horns, you twisted, demented monster, and wrestle you onto the page.

Advantages – One of the problems when starting a novel is that there are too many choices. Before you’ve properly pinned down your characters, they can do anything, go anywhere. You have to make so many decisions that fatigue sets in. Setting the book in lockdown could be a blessing in this regard: your character can’t go anywhere, and they can’t do very much either. Far fewer choices: marvellous!

What’s more, everything can be subject to delicious, conflict-producing misunderstandings, as Zoom links freeze and masks muffle. People can fight over whether it’s safe to meet in the pub, and tell off young people congregating too bigly, and argue over who is morally superior. Loads of conflict: marvellous!

Disadvantages – Whatever this book thinks it is about, it is actually about the corona virus. Speaking as a reader, do I want to read a corona novel? Feck, no. Mind you, this is also subject to BITMOIT. I sure as eggs don’t want to read one now, but I suppose I might well want to read one in a year or two, to try and make sense of the strangeness of it all. Speaking as a writer, do I want to write a corona novel? NO I DO NOT.

6. Set it in the near future

Dear sweet 2021, you’re going to be better, aren’t you? Aren’t you? Well, look, as I write, lockdown has already started to dismantle, and we’re determinedly not focusing so closely on the death rates, la la la la I can’t hear you Statistics, which means that there’s a vague hope that 2021 will be back to some kind of normal.

Advantages - Like 2020, but with more eating out.

Disadvantages - It’s impossible, in the midst of a crisis, to know how we will look back on this year. I could have my characters referring vaguely to Covid as something that happened the previous year, but what if a vaccine comes along and completely rewrites the narrative (forcing me to completely rewrite my narrative)? What if it turns out that the lockdown method of tackling the crisis is a mistake, and the Swedish model of staying open is right? Or vice versa? It’s too soon to call.

Looking at earlier writers BITMOIT, what did they do? For instance, how did writers depict the second world war during the war? Casablanca, released in 1942, sure stands the test of time, but it had lucky prescience on its side. There must be hundreds of books and films that we no longer consume, ones which tried to second-guess the outcome, or how we’d feel about the outcome, and got it horribly wrong.

So, whither the setting of my novel? Well, I’m only three chapters in. I don’t need to know exactly when my books are set until the end of the first draft, when I'll go back over it, sobbing. That’s my method, and while it doesn’t work, I defend it to the death. I go through the completed manuscript carefully, with increasing hysteria, noting that I have three Wednesdays in the same week, July coming after October, a pregnancy that lasts 18 months, and a character who is younger at the end of the novel than the start. Slowly and painfully, I sort that out.

I haven’t even got started on the extra uncertainty of having parted with my agent last month, after eight years, so I’m living through another Great Uncertainty of submitting Novel Five to agents, and waiting, waiting, waiting.

So I think I’ll kick the setting decision into the long grass, until the first draft’s done. By then we’ll either know the ending of the corona story, or there will be a new world-shattering event to take into account. Or maybe, just maybe, we’ll be back to uninteresting times, and The Archers will be back to normal, and if so, I will never complain about Will Grundy’s unnecessarily aggressive line delivery again.

Categories: Novel, Agents