Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Bookending the Plague Year by Martha Reed

I’m hoping that by the time you read this you’ve scheduled or received your COVID-19 vaccination and we can finally start to put the Plague Year behind us. And what a year it was.

Voluntary quarantine isolation and a Presidential election cycle including a threat of insurrection would normally be enough of a distraction and life challenge, but in my case 2020 included corporate retirement after a 40-year financial services career, the indie publication of “Love Power,” my debut NOLA mystery series novel, and having my short story “The Honor Thief” chosen for the 2021 Bouchercon anthology.

How on earth do I process this?

The answer is the same as it was a year ago. Take it day-by-day. Keep your knees bent. Remember to breathe.

I have been keeping an eye on my output this past year to make sure I got the writing done. Blogging and editing seemed easy enough. Taking a deep dive into the creative well to come with more words, fresh and interesting characters and new story material ideas was not.

I did try. I broke out my storyboard and my index cards and I used NaNoWriMo to outline NOLA Mystery book two. The plot points are still sitting in neat stacks on my worktable gathering dust, and since this is Florida the sun has started to fade their black ink to a ghostly blue. Cracking the whip, I kept reminding myself that Shakespeare wrote “King Lear,” “Macbeth,” and “Antony and Cleopatra” in 1605-1606 while the bubonic plague ravaged London. Get to work, slacker!

That was the wrong approach. I forgot about being kind to myself. COVID-19 is a completely new experience. I needed time to get through it, to get to the other side, to stand on firm ground once again and then look back and think about things, because that’s what writers do. We process our life experiences into emotions and then develop that into stories we can share with our readers. When the emotions are true, when they’re real and genuine and powerful, that’s when we connect as humans. In life and in our stories, emotions are key.

I got my first shot of the Pfizer vaccine on March 16th with the second vaccination scheduled for April 9th. Right now, I feel like I’m standing on the threshold of the next thing, on the edge of the high diving board, looking out and down, my stomach filled with fluttering butterflies. What is next? What will I create or develop? I’m breathless with fresh possibilities.

Mostly, though, I’m grateful to be on the other side of COVID-19. I’ll never forget those who are not. I hope we’ve learned something from this but was it so different from the pandemics of 1606 or 1918? As an author, will I ever use COVID-19 in a story? I don’t know the answer to that yet. Will you?


  1. We're scheduled to get our first jabs tomorrow! I'm ridiculously excited!

    I think it's way too soon to tell if or how COVID will enter into our stories. As you said, it takes time to process. We don't know yet how the real story will end, so it's hard or impossible to figure out how it will find its way into our writing.

    But the emotions? Oh yeah. THOSE will definitely fill the pages.

  2. So far, I am not including any Covid-19 aspects in my stories, but I know if someone in 2070 writes an historical novel set in 2020, they darn well better have it included.

    I don't think we have a clue what the long-term effects of 2020 will be. Will new strains of Covid-19 appear that the vaccines can't protect against? Or will Covid-19 become like the flu where most of us get annual shots, and we still expect to lose a bunch of older people to it each year?

    Will the trillions we've thrown at the US economy and the national debt we've taken on accelerate the decline of the dollar as the benchmark currency? What will that mean for the American empire?

    Will the democratic party national victories and the attempted republican voter suppression that follows be the trigger than brings the 400 million guns into the streets? Will the heat under the simmering pot of inequality finally boil over? Or will the explosions of January be a pressure valve that gives us time to make structural changes to our society?

    And as our stories move forward, how will the emotional toll play out? How will the children who lived through isolation and remote learning react differently to love, marriage, family, work, play than those who came before or after? The next generation of YA authors might give us our first clue.

    We are all living in "interesting times." The question is whether we accept that as a curse or make something positive out of it. I have my fingers crossed.

  3. Hi Annette - I agree we'll need to give it time to see how this reaction plays out. I remember when cellphones were first introduced. I was halfway through drafting a mss when I needed to go back and rewrite in a reason that my protagonist didn't have one. It was the equivalent of "don't go down the basement stairs." My readers would've asked: "Why doesn't she just call someone for help?"

    Jim, I think your comment about how quarantine isolation will affect the kids and looking at YA stories for a clue is great. Yes, these are "interesting times." I sincerely hope we learn and grow better from it.

  4. I’m with you, Martha. For writing mystery novels, my imagination dried up. I put one back in a drawer after ten chapters plus research. I stayed home and often left the news off. Without seeing my friends in person, I couldn’t get a whole novel together. No sight of my children, no hugs with my grands for fifteen months. Then I got both shots. I’m now ten chapters into a new novel, and it’s going well. People and hugs are the difference. Will see children soon. What a year.

  5. I’m so glad to hear you’re back in action, Susan! I do wonder how much of my creative thought comes from my day-to-day interactions and sometimes from what I just overhear on the street during my walks. I’ve scheduled my writing time again 2 hours a day) to help me get back into the groove. So far, it’s working. My characters were like: where have you been?

  6. It's been a crazy year and not terribly productive. Despite having had the two shots, I'm still cooped up with impending variants and post-spring break surge.

    I wonder how kids will cope with in-person school and college classes after a year or more at home.

  7. Excellent blog, Martha. My answer, no. I won’t use COVID-19 in my stories except, perhaps, in 20 years as a passing reference! Congratulations on getting your shot. I’ve had my first as well and am looking forward to my second, and exhaling.

  8. Hi Kait - Looking at my current NOLA series, luckily it's set in 2017 so I have a few years before I'll need to address the topic. I can't imagine wanting to read a book set in 2020 with characters who are struggling with the disease. It strikes to close to home. I wonder though how 2020 and the pandemic will impact dystopian novels. Have readers had enough bleak? It'll be interesting to watch what trends over the next couple of years.

  9. Hi Margaret - One of the things I've been studying is why the 'flu' impact was relatively low this winter. I'm seeing that it may be because the kids were staying home. Right now, Florida is struggling with Spring Breakers in Miami. Kids really do think that they're bulletproof.

  10. Congratulations on your publications, Martha! It's too soon for me to even think about putting COVID into my stories.

    I also agree with your previous thought: Be kind to yourself.

  11. Thanks, Jennifer! I'm halfway through drafting a new short story and I'm loving the two main characters. One is a feisty older woman. She's pretty much telling me what to say, but it's the good kind of writing where I can't wait to get back to it and finish it.