Using current events in fiction.

Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

Pandemic. Lockdown. Quarantine. Protest.
#BlackLivesMatter. #DefundThePolice. #WearAMask.

Think back to the Before Times – you know, like last February. Did any of these terms and hashtags resonate? #BlackLivesMatter is the only one I’d heard of, but now we have this whole new vocabulary.

And it’s….awkward.

I know many authors are struggling to get words on the page, and others who are no longer struggling, because they’ve given up. It’s just too hard to tap into their creativity when it feels like the world is falling in around them. I’ve also seen debates on social media about the appropriateness of writing quickie quarantine romances to try to capitalize on our new reality.

Kinda gives the “forced proximity” trope a whole different spin.

For discussion’s sake, let’s say you do have the spoons to write, but you’re wondering how much of our current quagmire should make it on the page. As a first step, it might be worth considering what people want to read. Maybe they do want that quickie quarantine romance. Or maybe they want Shauna’s fantastic dystopian Ash & Ruin series or any of the books on this Goodreads list of Current Events Fiction.

Or maybe they want something as far from reality as possible. (How ’bout hot&naughty elves? Kasia Bacon‘s Order series – starting with The Mutt – is a whole lot of fun.)

But, some of you might say, if I write about current events, my book might soon feel dated or people will forget what happened. Those are valid points, but I like this rebuttal by Brandi Reissenweber in an article from The Writer Magazine:

Keep them (current events) fresh and meaningful long after they’ve passed in the same way you keep any events in your fiction fresh and meaningful: Lash them with urgency to the experience of one or more characters.

For example, I found one of the best descriptions of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in Royal Street, the first book in Suzanne Johnson‘s Sentinels of New Orleans urban fantasy series. Not only did the author nail the details – she lived in NOLA during Katrina – but her characters had a life or death stake in the events, which made for a real page-turner.

One thing to consider, though, is that Royal Street was published in 2012, about seven years after Katrina. I’ve never asked, but I’d imagine it took Suzanne some time to organize her reactions to the disaster in a way that made sense. In a WaPo article that speculates on what post-pandemic fiction will look like, Chris Bohjalian makes a useful comparison with post-9/11 fiction. He points out that it was 2005 before the serious novels dealing with 9/11 began to be published.

….it took novelists a little more time to shape the nightmare into a story. After all, how do you make something up when the truth is so unspeakable? So wrenching?

Good questions.

The pandemic, with the horrific costs associated with it, is at least as profound an event as 9/11, with arguably greater consequences. The concurrent shifting social paradigms around race and racism are equally significant, though I’d caution all writers who want to explore those issues to make sure the story is theirs to tell. It’s going to take years for creatives to wrap their arms around this phase in our history, and there may be some who’ll never be able to revisit this time, even in fiction.

Is there territory between a quickie something-something that grabs the headlines and runs, and a deep and thoughtful examination of our lived experience? I’d argue that there is. One of the series I’m co-writing with Irene Preston features a character who used to be a cop but quit the force. In part because of that character, I’ve made an effort to read about the whole #DefundThePolice movement and those ideas are definitely influencing his backstory.

Times are hard, and I’ve got it better than most. The stress, the isolation, and the endless conflict have to color what we’re able to create, if not squash our creativity all together. Take care. Be gentle with yourself. Use the grist of these days in any way that makes sense to you.

And wash your hands.

(In his WaPo article, Chris Bohjalian mentions several books on 9/11 that he considered “important”. Here’s another link to the article in case you’re curious.)

Bon Voyage!

New Orleans
Is it possible to have a crush on a city?

By the time you read this, I’ll be in New Orleans. It’ll be my first visit, and one I’ve been looking forward to my whole life – or at least since I read The Vampire Lestat. While we’re there, I want to walk along Bourbon St and see Marie Laveau’s grave and eat bignet’s and drink chicory coffee.

Wow! Travel cliché much?

Seriously, though, I told my daughter yesterday to expect me to move slowly so I’d have a chance to absorb as many of the sights, sounds, and smells as I could. So I’d have time to talk to the person serving my coffee, to memorize their accent (unless of course they’re a college student from Brooklyn, which could also be cool, but in a different way). And so I’d have time to learn by heart the place I fall in love with a little harder every time I read about it.

I’m not 100% sure, but I think my first literary exposure to New Orleans did come from Ann Rice. (And yes, going past her house is definitely on the to-do list.) The city is almost another character in Lestat and in Interview With A Vampire, and it’s an even stronger presence Feast Of All Saints, her novel about the gens de couleur libre, or free people of color, a class of black and mixed race people who carved out their own cultural place between the white upperclass and slaves. The city in that story is gorgeous and mysterious and vicious, a perfect fantasy to fall in love with. (Apparently it was made into a movie in 2001…might have to check that out…)

Another of my favorite series set in a similar version of New Orleans are the Benjamin January books by Barbara Hambly. The first, A Free Man Of Color, tells the story of a physician and music teacher whose skin color makes him particularly vulnerable to a murder charge because the document declaring him a free man is as fragile as the paper it’s printed on. The mystery is well-constructed and the period details are amazing. I almost want to go back in time and live in that Creole world.

Almost.

A more recent – and tremendously fun – New Orleans appearance happens in Definitely Dead, book six (I think) in Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire mysteries. Sookie’s cousin Hadley is killed (and that’s in the blurb so not a spoiler) and Sookie inherits her estate, which turns out to be more than she expects. New Orleans is hot and sexy and so is Quinn, the were-tiger who’s along for the ride. This is one of my favorite Sookie books. Hmm…might have to bring my copy along to read on the airplane.

And I can’t forget one of the best books of any type describing Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Royal Street by Suzanne Johnson begins a couple days before Katrina hits, and gives you an insider’s view of the storm and the people who survived it. The paranormal elements are fun (especially the very crushable take on Jean Lafitte!) but the real story is the city and her resilience. Royal Street is the first in the Sentinels of New Orleans series, definitely in the auto-buy section of my bookshelf.

So even if you’re not lucky enough to have a midwinter trip to The Big Easy planned, put some Kermit Ruffins or Harry Connick, Jr on your stereo and crack open one of the books on my list and have your own little vacation. And if you have a favorite New Orleans book that I should take a look at, leave a recommendation in the comments. Or tell me about a city you’ve got a crush on…

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Liv