Friday, February 5, 2021

Put It In

What do you know about cholera? Or what came to be called the Spanish flu? How about yellow fever? Or Bubonic Plague (outside of your world history class)? Let's go with what these all have in common. 

What they all have in common is that they show up in the fiction of and representing their times. If you know much about yellow fever, it's likely you gleaned at least some of that knowledge from Civil War narratives and/or stories centered around New Orleans during the outbreaks. Cholera is a bit player in Victor Hugo's work. If you saw Les Miserable, the latter portion of the story takes place during a cholera outbreak. Valjean and Cozette are taking charity to cholera victims when the barricades go up. Spanish flu haunts WWI stories to a lesser degree than the trenches and miserable conditions, but it killed more people worldwide than the war did. If you're of a certain age, maybe you saw some of the orphan train movies that followed the aftermath of that pandemic. Bubonic Plague features in Chaucer's tales and most of us know that Shakespeare got a couple of plays out a plague quarantine. We have windows into those pasts because stories told around these sicknesses endure. 

Does anyone imagine that those literary mentions of popular (at the time) culture date the stories in which they occur? They do, after a fashion, but it's not a bad thing. The pandemics and outbreaks documented in popular literature anchors the stories in a historical and cultural context. It's a fancy way of saying these stories that included the hard realities of everyday life offered modern readers a glimpse of what we had no way of knowing we'd end up facing - yet another pandemic. Looking back, we can see the repeating patterns of illness sweeping the world. Maybe we should have taken the warning. Maybe we thought we were too modern, too clever, too scientific to think that 'bad air' caused malaria, but we're clearly not so smart as all that because here we are. Living what our ancestors set down for us to read about in their fiction. Only now, we're living it. Same as they did.

So write about the time of Covid. I haven't. At least not on purpose - even though a weaponized pandemic is a part of my SFR series that was started several years ago. It wasn't this pandemic. If I were writing contemporary fiction, though, I would include the reality. It's a rich and textured landscape filled with loneliness and the longing for human interaction that's loaded with unseen danger. This is a place and a time where a single regrettable decision puts your heart in more than one kind of danger. Sure. We're all looking forward to looking back on our stories written at this time and laughing over how irrelevant and dated they seem. But our children's children might not laugh. They might read our stories and frown at one another over the lives we had to alter so suddenly and completely, or over the vast numbers of needless dead. 

Our reality has so much grim horror to it, so much pain; but it also has moments of shattering humanity and heartbreaking beauty in it. I can say this, and maybe you nod in comprehension, but it will take a fiction writer with a painterly hand to brush those images into a story so that it haunts the souls of readers who will look back at this pandemic and wonder what it must have been like. If you're writing, put your reality on the page. It means more than a writer trying to appear daring.

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