I’ve been lucky in this dreadful time. I live way out in the countryside and have no real need to mix with people unless I want. I’ve been fortunate too in that early on I felt this was going to be a long haul and took a strategic decision on how to deal with it. Namely: work. I’ve had my head down for four solid months.
Some has involved self-publishing two books that would, in present circumstances, have taken years to come to the public through conventional means, if ever. Namely the Venetian lagoon thriller Shooter in the Shadows and my love letter to Italy in the form of the travel/history book The Appian Way.
I’m not done either. There’s one more project yet to come this year and early next I’ll have a new novel out in the mainstream, a standalone story set in Venice. Oh, and there’s the audiobook of The Appian Way which is taking far longer to complete than I ever expected because audio is so very hard to do.
All the same the work phase of my pandemic is coming to an end and it’s time to face up to facts. Normally after I finish a project I have a variety of ideas to choose from for the next one, and the battle is deciding which one to pick.
This time round I’m stuck. I haven’t a clue what to write next and I’m wondering if I’m alone.
Let me try to explain…
What world is this?
If I had a theory of mainstream narrative fiction it would run something like this. There’s a tear in the fabric of a settled world, one that prevents people in the story achieving what they want… security, protection for their family, achievement, peace. Someone takes on the task of trying to fix that tear, perhaps at great cost to themselves. There’s the heart of most stories.
Or let’s put it another way. We are all children of some god, struggling in a fallen world, trying to find our way back to the heaven that rejected us, be it Paradise or Valhalla. We won’t get there and we know it. Hardship, struggle and eventually death will get in the way. But it’s the trying that matters and that makes the story.
Fine. But here’s the problem. Both of these structures depend upon a writer creating a well-defined and understood world. Usually the one we currently inhabit. So what’s our world, riven by pandemic, bitter politics, and the shadow of financial collapse, really like now?
I no longer know. It’s not just that I’ve hardly set foot in it for six months. That’s beside the point. We all suspect we’re living in a transition, from the world before Covid to the one after. And no one seems to have a clue what that post-Covid world — more The New Abnormal it seems to me than any New Normal — will actually be like.
My stories usually take place in the ‘now’. But what’s ‘now’ like? Who knows? A story set in August 2020 may well look decidedly odd when it finally makes it way into print in 2022 — any number of events might have happened to change our perspective by then. It’s not just that the future’s a misty blank. The present is too, and so’s the point at which the two join.
How do you deal with this? Oh right…
Put a mask on them, bro…
No. Just no. I simply cannot see Nic Costa or Pieter Vos donning face protection and navigating a sea of health restrictions and bureacracy in order to get to the bottom of some crime. In my head those characters belong to the pre-Covid world. Giving them masks, rubber gloves and swabs just feels wrong. I wrote the first Costa in 2001, the first Vos in 2012. Today is not the place they live.
Write in the past
The January book runs through three eras, 1943, 1999 and 2019. Thank god I didn’t push it any later than that. It doesn’t go near pandemic either and has no need to. Stories that are, if you like, pre-watershed have a lot going for them in my view.
Write in the future
Project Two, which is due to go into the studio any day now, is set a few years out. But this is, quite deliberately, an exaggerated, almost dystopian version of a possible future. Not one I’m predicting. Not one that in some ways pretends to be an extension of the present (whatever the present is). That last, I feel, might be fatal. I’m a writer not a clairvoyant.
Pretend it never happened
Ignore Covid altogether and write as if nothing’s changed. Costa and Co are still bickering away in Rome. Vos and Bakker going through another case in Amsterdam. No masks, no Covid, no acknowledgement the world’s different at all.
Will that work? I honestly don’t know and right now I’ve no intention of finding out.
It’s been a busy year getting all these projects together. I need a break to think hard about what, if anything, I write next. Maybe it’s time I stepped back from this whole strange business for a while until perhaps I understand better what’s happening not just to society but to publishing during these extraordinary times.
All I’m sure of is that, as the headline says, I no longer know what to write. It’s a tiny and minor inconvenience compared to many of the horrors people are going through right now. I’m dead lucky that’s the worst thing I have to deal with.
I suspect I’m not the only writer in this state of strange suspended animation. We’ll get through it, of course, because the world always needs stories, fables that make us look at ourselves through a different light. Until I have some clearer idea of where that light’s coming from, and what it reveals, I suspect I’m going to stay stuck in story limbo.
There are worse places to be, and brighter, younger folk than me will solve this riddle before I do I’m sure.
For my part I can guarantee you two more stories to come, both very different.
After that… who knows?