No pubs, no kissing, no flying: how Covid-19 is forcing authors to change their novels

Alison Flood

Tom Watson, the former deputy leader of the Labour party, has been having a busy lockdown. Signed up to write a political thriller called The House, he and his co-author Imogen Robertson have been rapidly rejigging their novel to reflect a post-Covid world.

Their near-future setting now includes a national inquiry “about what’s going on in the background”, where characters – if they meet socially – “choose not to drink out of glasses and they wipe the bottle before they drink”, and undergo temperature checks when entering public buildings, “which everyone is used to by then”, says Watson, who is finding life away from politics as a newly minted thriller author “a relief”.

Watson and Robertson have had to decide: will there be a vaccine, in their vision of the future? “To be honest, we still haven’t quite worked out whether we’re going to have one or not,” he says. “But whatever happens, people are not yet safe in that near future, but they’re kind of over the worst. It’s not a dystopian, post-civilisation world – we’re in a slightly weird world, where things have changed, but not completely.”

While there have already been numerous announcements of novels purposefully set during the lockdown – Avon has already snapped up Love in Lockdown, about two neighbours who meet on their balconies, while Hodder & Stoughton has acquired Stay Home, in which a married woman breaks lockdown to find her lover murdered in his living room – many more writers are in Watson and Robertson’s boat, making tweaks and adjustments to reflect our current situation, rather than big changes to plot or character. After all, who among us knows what our future will look like?

I’m trying to work out where we might be. Will getting on a plane feel wildly anachronistic? Will working from an office seem weird?

Holly Watt

“I’m finding it incredibly difficult to work out what to do,” says Holly Watt, author of To the Lions, winner of the 2019 CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger. She is working on her next novel, the third in her series following investigative journalist Casey Benedict, which was due to be published in summer 2021.

“I’m trying to work out where we might be. Might there be a vaccine? Will getting on a plane feel wildly anachronistic? Will journalists working from an office seem weird? How interesting can a book actually be when everyone is sitting in their sitting room in their pyjamas?” Watt asks. “It feels odd to be writing about people hopping on trains or popping to the pub, but focusing on Covid might make it date hideously. But if you don’t mention it, it is the massive elephant in the room.”

Anatomy of a Scandal author Sarah Vaughan was recently writing a scene where two characters meet in a dingy London pub full of tourists. “I started putting the tourists in face masks, then describing the character’s discomfort in the insalubrious surroundings; then realised that actually she’d be more likely – for a novel published in 21/22 – to have her meeting, perhaps with a takeaway coffee, along the Embankment,” says Vaughan, who scrapped the pub “because who knows if this will make my novel feel anachronistic”.

“But there’s a more substantive point: I can’t make my characters exist without interaction,” she says. “While, for instance, I can edit out cheek kisses because this may no longer seem the norm, my characters need to meet, to row, to fight, to make love – and in a thriller, to murder. There will be insufficiently little exciting plot, in other words, if they can’t interact as they did pre-Covid.”

Many writers have decided to shift their novels to the near past to avoid the pandemic entirely. Romance novelist Romy Sommer was writing a contemporary romance set in a Tuscan vineyard, but has agreed with her editor to put it on hold until Italy’s situation stabilises. “Maybe I’ll set it in the past, maybe I’ll incorporate Covid once it’s blown over. Certainly can’t set it now,” she says.

Going back in time … Harriet Evans. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

And Harriet Evans has moved her next novel, the follow-up to The Garden of Lost and Found, back to 2018, “to give clear blue water between the action and our reality”. The coronavirus is not entirely absent, however. “There’s one bit where a character is talking about various projects opening in 2020 and she says, ‘I’ll be travelling all over the world come 2020: Singapore, Abu Dhabi, New York,’” says Evans. “Since she’s rather grand, I hope the reader will like that as a nod between us all that no, she won’t.”

Conducting a crime investigation under lockdown rules would be a mammoth task … I'd fail unless I sought advice from officers working through it

Jenny O'Brien

Jenny O’Brien, a nurse whose debut thriller, Silent Cry, has just been published by HarperCollins, is now planning to leave a gap in her detective series from January 2020 until a still-undecided future date. “I think conducting a crime investigation under lockdown rules would be a mammoth task, throwing up all kinds of unimaginable difficulties, which I doubt would be particularly interesting to read,” she says. “As a writer, I like to make a good attempt at ensuring that my books are well researched. I think I’d fail unless I sought advice from officers working through it – that would be inappropriate in the current climate.”

Others authors who were writing novels about illness are now facing a unique dilemma. Like Lesley Kelly, whose Health of Strangers series, which she started writing around five years ago, is set during a pandemic similar to Covid-19. Watching reality echo her fiction has forced her to reassess where her writing will go. When TV presenter Samira Ahmed recently tweeted: “To anyone thinking of writing a novel about their midlife crisis, set against the backdrop of the coronavirus: please don’t”, Kelly replied: “But what if you’ve already written a novel about a pandemic, set against the background of your midlife crisis?”

Kelly says: “When I started writing I was able to make up everything to do with the governmental and societal response to the virus. Now all my potential readers are armchair experts on pandemic responses. Do I nudge my world into reacting like real life, or do I continue with my own way of doing things? I can’t really complain, because never has an author been handed so much inspiration on a plate. I could fill 30 books with new angles on the virus that I hadn’t thought of.”

Claire Fuller, winner of the Desmond Elliott prize, is 15,000 words into her fifth novel, which was, up until recently, set in the near future and dealing with an illness. “It’s taken a lot of thought about how to deal with the pandemic in the world of the novel – I don’t think it’s possible not to reference it, and also I’m sure we will all, including governments, behave differently towards future threats,” says Fuller, who has found her own solution: the book is now set in a 2020 “with a slightly different reality, without Covid but with an alternative illness”.

But some authors are making a virtue out of necessity. Suzy K Quinn was writing The Bad Mother’s Wedding, the latest in her Bad Mother’s Diary series, when the pandemic struck. The novel became The Bad Mother’s Virus, following single mother Juliette Duffy as her world is sent into chaos by the coronavirus crisis. It is now being rushed out on 31 May, with all profits going towards research for a vaccine and healthcare funds.

“I’ve been up at 4am most days and working seven days a week, whilst trying, and often failing, to home school the kids. It’s been great having a project during all this, because I have felt quite sad and worried sometimes,” says Quinn. “Being able to do something positive and write a charitable book has felt amazing.”

People need relatable fiction about a confusing time. I hope it might make some feel less alone and give a sense of hope

Fiona Woodifield

And Fiona Woodifield, the author of the balcony-romance Love in Lockdown under the pseudonym Chloe James, faces a unique challenge: conveying the severity of the crisis in what is an ultimately positive tale about how love can always find a way – even in a pandemic.

“At first it was easy to hope that perhaps we could just ignore the pandemic and bury ourselves in romantic fiction, far away from the reality of this awful situation,” she says. “However it seems this lockdown and social distancing is going to be here to stay for some time. People need to be able to read relatable fiction about a very confusing and potentially isolating time. I hope it might make some feel less alone, and give people a sense of hope in a way that love, community and kindness triumphs over all.”