Novels During Difficult Times: A Pandemic Roundtable

pandemic roundtable

Last week I blogged about writing during the pandemic, citing my own experiences and those I’ve gathered from other conversations.

I ended that blog by asking if the pandemic will show up in fiction and how. Of course, none of us can predict the future, but I asked three writer friends for their thoughts.

Judith Arnold, Jennifer Greene, and Shelley Costa, aka Stephanie Cole, agreed to join me for a pandemic roundtable. Many thanks to them for taking the time to participate.

Unfortunately due to distance and social distancing, our roundtable was as deserted as the one in the photo, conducted by email instead of in person. Nevertheless, I think you’ll enjoy what everyone had to say. As a group we cover a lot of ground, and you’ll find longer bios and book links at the end.

Judith Arnold is a prolific, popular author of women’s fiction, romance and mystery.

Jennifer Greene has many award-winning romance and women’s fiction novels to her credit.

Shelley Costa not only writes mysteries, she’s also a writing instructor.

We began by discussing some of our previous experiences with life changing events and the way they affected our books.

I pointed out that two separate times I’ve had to rewrite my timeline well into the book and set it back a year to avoid having to change the story to incorporate historical events that occurred as I was writing. One was 9-11 and my novel Prospect Street, the other event was the pandemic and Lies and Other Mercies, which debuts next summer. I wasn’t alone in having to make changes.

Here’s what Judith said:

Years ago, I wrote a book set in New Orleans. It was the first book in a continuity series Harlequin was publishing, about a classic French Quarter hotel. I wrote the book, submitted it…and then Hurricane Katrina happened. There were many intense discussions among the editors and authors about whether they should move forward with the series, and if so how we could address the catastrophe. I wound up having to revise my book to include references to how the hotel was recovering, both physically and financially. I added water stains to many buildings. I had guests at the hotel talking about how happy they were to be able to return to New Orleans. I think it worked out okay.

A similar problem recurred recently as she wrote an addition to her series about a popular Manhattan food emporium.

I wrote the original version of Love In Bloom’s in 2001 and sold it just before 9/11. Since that book was set in NYC, I had to go back and revise certain details. For instance, the heroine had a kitschy framed print of the WTC towers hanging in her office. After 9/11, that print became a precious sentimental memento.

Jennifer was more concerned with the needs of her reading audience than actual events.

I was writing on 9/11…writing when the market crashed in 2008. Those weren’t the same issues (even remotely) as this pandemic, but my answer is the same. I think readers need more ‘relief’ from real life in tough times, rather than dwelling on something they’re already worried about every day.

Our readers needs us as much as we need them…to remind each other what really matters in life, above and beyond the crises that inevitably interrupt our lives.

Shelley’s problem was a little different.

My own experience has been more nuisance than anything else. I have re-written my two earliest female private eyes novels again and again. . .over a span of thirty years! So I’ve had to catch references that have gone out of date. It would be terrible to get called out for being, well, behind the times.

We turned to the ways novelists will tackle the pandemic in works to come.

  1. Ignore it.
  2. Mention but not focus on it.
  3. Incorporate it into your plot or character development.

Here’s Shelley’s take on the possibilities.

It takes time for writers who want to address these historic events even to understand how they feel about them. To absorb their magnitude. I think the pandemic will prove to be the same. Already we see smart, incisive op-ed pieces. But art? Yet to come. In my own work, I don’t expect I’ll address it. It’s just not the sort of thing I turn to for grist in murder mysteries.

Judith’s feeling were similar.

My romance readership wants to see couples meeting, navigating the rocky terrain of falling in love, kissing, and having sex. I just don’t see face masks and Zoom virtual dates fitting into that scenario. My hope is that by the time I write my next mystery, the worst of the pandemic will be over, we’ll have an effective vaccine, and our society will “open” once more.

And Alison has ideas on what to avoid and what not to.

I’m afraid any mention of the pandemic would remind the reader of a time they want to forget–and would also date the book/make it very difficult to resell a few years from now. I’d think a story about a character who is starting over would be ideal now? Or themes where people are moving past a difficult time.

My own take was a little different and showed up in our final question.

I’m already noticing book reviews that mention how odd it is to read about people going about normal lives, going to restaurants and clubs, hanging with friends in crowded places, and not thinking about masks or vaccines.  I notice this on television programs and in books I’m reading myself.  So I asked our pandemic roundtable if we choose to ignore the present situation entirely, will readers be distracted by the reality of their life? Will that take them out of the story and make it harder to stay absorbed?

Judith has already gotten a response from a reader on exactly this.

She said she was taken aback by the book’s descriptions of crowded city streets and store aisles teeming with customers. This didn’t spoil the book for her (thank goodness!) but she did find it disconcerting. I don’t know if some readers may find the contrast between the New York City of Full Bloom and the world we’re living in today too distracting, if it will spoil the book for them. I hope it won’t. Like so many of my books, Full Bloom is a comedy. I think readers need to be able to laugh.

Jennifer is thinking about what will both help and entertain her readers.

I’m conscious the same way–of going anywhere, noticing whether people are social-distancing or wearing masks. But I don’t see that as helpful to ‘spend time on’ in a story. I expect our world will have drastically changed in 3 months, 6 months, and for quite a while? It makes more sense in writing (for me) to concentrate on using settings where those issues aren’t distracting and on characters struggling with ‘real life’ issues that always mattered and always will.

Shelley had this to say:

I think it very much depends on the story. If we write a story set in 2020 in New York City and we don’t incorporate the pandemic in a very real way, then we are at the least missing a gargantuan opportunity, and run the risk of being tossed aside by readers due to what they might perceive as unawareness or insensitivity. Other stories, other places, other years, not the same thing at all.  I feel a certain wistfulness, yes, but then I turn myself over to the story itself, and look for its own realities.

I’ll let Judith have the final say.

When I watch TV or read books that don’t acknowledge the pandemic, I don’t find the scenes of social mingling problematic. I like to read and/or watch these fictions because they allow me to believe that we’ll someday be able to live that way again–dining indoors at restaurants, visiting ailing relatives, sending our children to school, hugging our friends.

That’s what we all wish, I think.

Once again, thanks to my friends for taking time from their own writing to add to this blog. Enjoy their bios and follow the links to find some of their wonderful work. 

Judith Arnold is an award-winning, USA Today bestselling author with more than 100 published romances, mysteries, and women’s fiction novels to her name. Her current release, Full Bloom, is available in ebook and hardcover:

Jennifer Greene is the award-winning author of 86 books who took a hiatus from writing after a serious accident. Recovery took forever but she’s back at the computer again now.

Shelley Costa writes as Stephanie Cole. She is the author of the new Tuscan Cooking School Mystery Series, which debuted in February with Al Dente’s Inferno, and she also taught creative writing for many years at the Cleveland Institute of Art.


  1. DELORES on August 5, 2020 at 7:10 am

    From my perspective as a reader, this is fiction, and I don’t really want to be reminded of the pandemic when I am reading for enjoyment. Casual references might be fine, but crowded streets and shops will, hopefully, once more be part of our lives in the not to distant future.. another author I enjoy reading write a book centering on a serial killer/mass murderer. Unfortunately, that has become part of our reality, but I didn’t enjoy the book. It is a choice to read it not read, but once I start a book, I usually finish it. Sometimes too much reality leaves me unsettled instead of enjoying.

  2. Shelley Costa on August 5, 2020 at 7:11 am

    I enjoyed participating in our roundtable. Wouldn’t it be interesting to re-visit these same questions in, say, a year from now?

    • Emilie Richards on August 5, 2020 at 11:09 am

      I would love that, particularly if things have changed drastically for the better.

  3. Kylie Logan on August 5, 2020 at 9:02 am

    Thanks for the interesting insights!

  4. Kate on August 5, 2020 at 9:15 am

    I enjoyed this discussion. I think I will pass it on to my book group and use it as as a basis for discussion at our August meeting. (Via Zoom)

    • Emilie Richards on August 5, 2020 at 11:09 am

      Let me know if they have an questions we can answer.

      • Kate on August 5, 2020 at 4:23 pm

        I’ll certainly pass that along. We also have to pick a book for October and November. Lots to talk about.

  5. Judith Arnold on August 5, 2020 at 10:34 am

    Emilie, thanks for including me in this interesting discussion. It made me think about what I’m writing in new ways–always a good thing!

  6. Dorothy Schreyer on August 5, 2020 at 10:48 am

    I think to put this situation in books, would at least date the book, at most drive people away. But, I would hope readers would understand that a book doesn’t come out overnight, so anything anyone is already working on or sent to be printed isn’t going to have the ‘new normal’ references. I hope that in a VERY short while masks, social distancing and all of this is a BAD memory!

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