Keeping Time: a Guest Post by Alexandra Y. Caluen

There’s a group on Facebook for self-published authors that I follow, and recently there was a discussion about a crowd of Amazon reviewers who piled on to criticize an author for not accounting for the coronavirus pandemic in her book, which was set (at least in part) in 2020. The book in question was published in 2019.

Writing into the future is inherently risky, for this very reason. If you are writing fiction that is not fantasy or sci-fi, eventually real life is going to catch up with your book. And then, if you’ve created a scenario that real life has blown out of the water, your book is instantly and painfully flawed. Maybe not irretrievably so, but take it from me: fixing that kind of thing goes beyond ‘line edit.’

Last year, I wrote a novella in which all the action took place between December 2019 and May 2020. I always intended to hold publication until real life caught up with my story. Well, real life torpedoed my story. One of my main characters is English, the other is American; they fell in love in England and were going to get married. Except: they couldn’t. The registry offices closed in March. Ceremonies weren’t being permitted again until August.

But what if a person is in England on a six-month tourist visa? What if they got engaged in April, but even filing with the registry isn’t possible until August, and there’s a 28-day waiting period, and the visa expires in August, and there is a six- to twenty-four-month backlog of demand for ceremonies, and getting the visa extended looks like a nightmare? What if there are other compelling reasons to get married within the year? Meanwhile, what if the whole reason they met was because the English guy was in America … on a twelve-month ‘M’ visa? Meaning, he could go back to America, for purposes which might well include getting married. In – for the sake of argument – Las Vegas, where chapels opened up in May.

Time is of the essence, especially when a visa is involved. It wasn’t realistically possible to keep my American in England indefinitely, so I had to come up with something else. The novella remains in the holding pen. In fact, the wedding – which was meant to be the final turning point of the story – has precipitated so much change that the project is probably now a novel. Because if these guys decide to get married in America (spoiler alert: they do), they then – even though they intend to reside in England – must remain in America until a lot of new paperwork is done. Which, guess what, takes time. Time in which both of their lives are in flux, which means story happens. They might not make it back to England until sometime in 2021.

Time is always important in fiction, because it takes time to do things. Travel is not instantaneous. Finishing a degree takes anywhere from two to six years, on average, depending on the degree. Building a house takes months (or years). Which means fiction that is about people doing things has to take into account how long it will take those people to do those things. Thus it’s very possible to write something in 2019, which is about people doing things mostly in 2019, but in which those things reach their natural conclusion in 2020 … and which then turn out to be things that couldn’t possibly have happened.

Also written last year was a full-length novel, set in 2020, about two of my recurring characters (Andy Martin and Victor Garcia of Exposure, The Ghost of Carlos Gardel, and Never Enough). So much rewriting. It’s a good thing I like those guys.

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