I Can’t Write the Future Anymore

On March 10th, I began the third draft of my novel-in-progress, Winter’s Rage. Unlike my two previous mystery novels, this story shifts between three viewpoint narrators and two time periods. For reading ease, I placed a header at the start of each chapter with the narrator’s name and the story month and year. For the main storyline, the date was January, 2020. But this March I thought, since the book won’t be published until next year, why not reset it in 2021 to make the novel more contemporary? Later, I could insert any minimal changes needed or specifics to highlight that future date. I had done this easily for my earlier books to help bridge the time gap between starting a novel and its publication. In fact, draft #2 of Winter’s Rage was written months before January 2020.

So I changed the headers for my first few chapters to January 2021, started revising, and realized I couldn’t do this. In March, the effects of COVID-19 hit Canada with full impact. International travel shut down. Empty shelves, lineups and changed protocols appeared in grocery stores. Museums, restaurants and group activities closed. Each day brought a new development that I hadn’t considered the day before. I couldn’t predict what my world would be like the next week, never mind ten months in the future.

Even now, three months later, I don’t know what daily life in January 2021 will be like in Calgary, my home city and the setting for my mystery novels. Will we have a vaccine or cure for COVID-19 by then? Probably not, but if I assume this and a miracle happens I’d have to significantly change any story I’d write now. And if COVID-19 is still with us, what rules, guidelines and customs will Calgarians experience in January 2021? Will schools be open, or will students continue to study online? Will we all be wearing masks? In lockdown or moving about fairly freely, keeping our social distance? What percentage of people will be working from home, or be unemployed? Will our economy have collapsed, flattened or revived with a renewed flourish? Will national and international travel be open? Will Canadian snowbirds travel south, as usual, to warm, sunny destinations or hibernate at home?

We can all make guesses, but no one is sure enough about life in Calgary next winter for me to portray it in the novel I’m in the process of finishing now.

I returned to the first chapters of Winter’s Rage and reset the date to January 2020, when I and many others lived in the old normal, oblivious to what lay a month or two ahead. As I revised my manuscript, ordinary behaviours I’d included struck me as strange in our current time. Characters shake hands when they meet for business. Some touch people who don’t live in their own households. I’m sure they often stand closer to each other than two metres (6.5 feet or, in Canadian terms, about the length of a hockey stick).

Paula, my insurance adjuster sleuth, visits insurance claimants in their homes. No one thinks twice about inviting her into their living room. In an early scene, Paula helps a claimant prepare hot chocolate in his kitchen.  The man is 85, recovering from heart surgery and at high risk for serious complications from COVID-19. He and Paula pass each other mugs, utensils and the can of chocolate powder without hesitation. In these details, my novel and others set at the start of 2020 will chronicle our society immediately before everything changed.

Too close

Winter’s Rage is book three of my murder mystery series. Since the first and second novels were set in fall and summer, the one thing I know about book four is that it will take place in spring, to complete the Calgary seasons. Since it won’t be published for a couple of years, I’d expected to set the story next year or later. Then I thought, with no travel on the horizon, I might have time to start the first draft this summer, writing by hand on my back yard patio. The novel could take place this spring, while we’re experiencing the height of COVID-19 restrictions. Why not portray this unique time in a fictional murder mystery story? The current social mood even fits what I have in mind for Paula at this point her life. Uncertainty. Fears. Isolation from loved ones.

But how can I have dramatic interactions between Paula and suspect strangers when everyone with something to hide has the perfect excuse to tell her, “Stay away, I won’t talk to you in person?” How does an insurance adjuster/detective do her job without meeting people face to face? I’d better start researching this before life returns to a new normal and people forget the details of this peculiar time we’re living through.

Social distancing on Hunchback Hills, Alberta. In the past, my hiking club would squeeze together for a group photo