I Have Become the Timebound
by Robert Mangeot
I’ve been reading essays by authors struggling to write our COVID-19 world. I can relate. We’ve had a social discontinuity and a still-unfolding tragedy. Life is different now than it was mere weeks ago, and things will change a lot more before the outbreak’s waves subside. Some parts like vaccination regimens we can predict and, in our writing, take license on those details. Most of the near future seems beyond my realistic guess, in life and on the page.
Lately, I’m finding it hard to focus. I can’t read my in-progress stuff without it feeling bound to a past age. Historical, no matter how current the intended setting.
An example: A few years ago, I finally sold a sci-fi/caper blend about an easily distracted scientist pursuing high-tech uses of spider silk. The caper didn’t work initially because I tried setting it in our then-current times. But the plot depended on modern science and some cloak-and-dagger, none of which–in those first drafts–were believable when drones and cellular signals and security cameras can track our GPS-precise movements. The story only clicked once I dialed it back into the Cold War, pre-smartphones and satellites but with ever so much cloak-and-dagger. I’d misplaced the idea in time.
Those tricks may not help anymore. Even if I’d solved that story’s tech problems, a post-COVID-19 setting introduces fresh plot holes. International travel will happen very differently once we get traveling again. Personal–and collective–tracking via everyday tech will grow more sophisticated, more prevalent. And is there a regional flare-up causing a lockdown or extra infection precautions? Sure, I could show or signal as subtext that any virus situation is fine for the story moment. But can I skip past that? I don’t know yet. There’s this inescapable thing about super viruses. You can’t ignore them or their lasting impacts.
I’m cutting my own hair while we shelter in place. I won’t ask my wife to try, for the same reason I dread her asking me: Neither of us have the least talent at hair cutting. I’ll grab the CVS clippers and do the hack job myself, and I alone will be to blame.
Our house is a 24/7 quarantined mishmash of workplace, retreat, and writer’s studio. We call out the latest developments off CNN. We had to buy toilet paper direct from an international distributor. We cut up a Christmas tree skirt for makeshift masks. And we’ve been hugely lucky. School, graduations, weddings, and life events of all sorts have been disrupted. These are minor things when people are suffering physically, economically, emotionally. Still, I’ll take my 2020 experiences forward into the new normal. Every character set in COVID-19’s wake will have their own baggage and backstory.
Perspective will help. We don’t all have to sketch the Spanish Flu’s scars unless our characters live in its decades-long wake (done well in Downton Abbey). We don’t have to account for the much more recent 2009 H1N1 pandemic’s impacts unless central to the piece. With some breathing room, the self-haircuts and toilet paper intrigues should take their place in lore and even bring a laugh (think Monty Python and the Plague). I hope so. We’re a fair bit away from the space and security that allows for other than graveyard humor.
I don’t mean to be doom and gloom. If we honor who we’ve lost, our new normal could bring us deeper human bonds, a chance to assess income inequality, and a better grasp of what it means to be “essential.” Hell, we might finally get smarter at outmaneuvering the ever-adapting flu.
I’ve also read posts by an author or two worried that COVID-19 plots are too raw for fiction. I disagree. Fiction has tackled many tragic and difficult subjects, and soon enough we’ll read terrific works that help us understand exactly this 2020 outbreak and its consequences. Fiction isn’t going to shrink or crumble, and neither am I. I’m just bound in time a while.
Robert Mangeot is a writer, teacher, and sandwicher. A counter of things. He lives in Franklin, Tennessee with his wife, a cat-beast named Zelda, and this other ginger cat with plans all her own.
His work appears in various anthologies and journals, including Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, The Forge Literary Magazine, Lowestoft Chronicle, Mystery Weekly Magazine, The Oddville Press, and in the print anthologies Mystery Writers of America Presents Ice Cold: Tales of Intrigue from the Cold War, Not So Fast, the Anthony-winning Murder Under the Oaks. His work was named a finalist for the Derringer Awards and also won contests sponsored by the Chattanooga Writers’ Guild, On The Premises, and Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. He proudly serves as the outgoing president for the Middle Tennessee Chapter of Sisters in Crime and as the current Vice President for the Southeast Chapter of Mystery Writers of America (SEMWA). He teaches short fiction and will happily debate its whethers over beverages of choice. When not writing, he can be found counting things or wandering the snack food aisles of America or France.