Friday, August 21, 2020

Opinion: Learning from Now - On Using Current Events in Your Fiction • by Eric Dontigney


Photo by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash
As a semi-regular participant in writers’ conversations on social media forums, there has been a lot of talk lately about whether or not to incorporate the Coronavirus Pandemic into novels and short stories. As a general rule, I’ve discouraged this idea. It’s not because pandemics necessarily make for bad fiction. Pandemics often form the core or background of post-apocalyptic or dystopian fiction.

What makes those pandemics work, however, is that they’re usually vague or based on a historical precedent. You can say that a mutated flu virus or Ebola virus or smallpox virus wiped out 90% of the human population and most people won’t blink an eye. Why? Because we know that those viruses killed a whole lot of people in the past. So, it’s not a stretch to think that a mutated version would lead to mass death on a global scale.

The Coronavirus is a different beast. Yes, it has killed a lot of people. Around 760,000 have died from it globally at the time of writing. While that is a chilling number of deaths, the 1918 influenza pandemic killed an estimated 50 million people globally. Yet, the 2.5% mortality rate of the 1918 influenza pandemic is lower than the current 5% mortality rate of the Coronavirus pandemic. (For an interesting look at why mortality rate calculations vary so widely during a pandemic, check out this article from the World Health Organization).

The 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic death tolls aren’t as dramatic at around 11,300, but the overall mortality rate was a staggering 40% overall. Mix into consideration the especially grisly manner of death and it’s not hard to see why people consider it so frightening. Smallpox, which plagued humanity since time immemorial, had a mortality rate of around 30% with that rate going up dramatically for children. An estimated 2 million people died from it in 1967 alone before immunization all but eradicated smallpox by around 1980.

So, what makes the Coronavirus a bad candidate for inclusion in contemporary novels? For one, it’s not over yet. Including an ongoing pandemic in your fiction is a great way to render your fiction dated and/or inaccurate. Take a quick look back at fiction from the 80s. It’s peppered with novels and short stories featuring AIDS stand-ins that brought the world low with their death tolls. While AIDS is serious, the lack of information available at the time renders most of that fiction borderline silly. After all, the main solution to that particular apocalypse is having safe sex during random hookups.

Another thing that makes the Coronavirus a poor choice is that it doesn’t scare people the same way other historical pandemics have scared people (even if it rightly should). Those 80s AIDS stories worked because the virus frightened people. The Coronavirus doesn’t even scare people enough to make everyone wear a mask in public. So, unless your whole novel is about isolation and ennui, the Coronavirus doesn’t pack a great emotional punch. Plus, most writers lack the in-depth knowledge about virology and epidemiology to write well about an ongoing pandemic. This isn’t to say that you can’t cherry-pick some useful general information to include in current or future novels.

You can use the US government response to the pandemic as the basis for how a fictional, science-hostile administration fumbles the ball in response to a pandemic. You can use the responses of other nations as the basis/comparison for how to handle a pandemic well. You can use the sometimes hostile US public response to any kind of preventative measures as the basis for how education or, more critically, gutting education funding creates a populace of people wholly incompetent to face a pandemic. You can drill down even further into this one and explore how not giving people a solid science education undermines their ability to even function as adults in the contemporary world. You can use what’s happening now as the basis for exploring the global financial implications of a pandemic. After all, predictions for the global cost of the pandemic range from $3.7 trillion (in a best case scenario) to $87 trillion (in a worst case scenario).

You should use information you glean about governments, economies, societies, and education in relation to a pandemic as fodder for your work. You shouldn’t be basing anything around the Coronavirus Pandemic specifically. The fear response is too nebulous or non-existent, so there isn’t a good emotional hook. It’s ongoing, which means anything you write now could be wrong in two weeks and probably will be wrong in two years. As Bruce Bethke often advocates, you should extrapolate from what you see now and build fiction around that extrapolation.


Eric Dontigney is the author of the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One.  Raised in Western New York, he currently resides near Dayton, OH. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally at

Eric’s last appearance in our pages was “Lenses,” in Stupefying Stories #21, and his paranormal mystery novel from Rampant Loon Press, The Midnight Ground