Saturday, March 21, 2020

Writing in the "Age of Plague"

When Daniel Defoe published his novel A Journal of the Plague Year in 1722, people did not think it was a novel at all, but an actual account of events in the year 1665. If anything, they considered Defoe (who would have been five at the time) as the editor, and that his editorial contributions were minimal. The book was even more detailed than the celebrated diaries of Samuel Pepys who actually wrote during the Great Plague (1665-1666). In the work, Defoe mentioned real neighborhoods, real people and even wrote about individual houses.

The book was well received when published and was still well regarded in 1780, but by then it was considered a realistic novel. This is a tribute to Defoe's research skills, for he read hundreds of original documents and interviewed oldsters who had lived through the calamity that struck London, adding to it his own childhood memories. Of course, not every literary scholar and historian considers the case closed on whether or not it's a novel. It lacks the structure of a novel, reads like a memoir and carries a gravitas greater than many historical accounts of the period. The question will probably never be settled.

It's been 298 years since the publishing of the book, 355 years since the setting of the novel, and modern readers probably don't know that Defoe wrote anything other than Robinson Crusoe (another book taken initially as real history), and even fewer remember their history lessons about the Great Plague. Of course, that may change a bit now that we find ourselves beset by the pestilence out of China, which now goes by the name of COVID19 (it's a trendy thing, giving everything an easy-to-recall acronym or portmanteau designation). Being stuck inside for a few weeks, some people might actually pick up that history book they kept from high school, for some reason.

A few years ago, I had a series of dreams that I converted into plots for novels. Pulling a novel out of a dream is nothing new for me, but this was unusual in that it happened over a two-month period and resulted in about forty different plots. The genres were varied, from science fiction to crime to fantasy to western. When I have more ideas than I can immediately do anything with, I usually jot down the idea, include some mnemonics (to jog my memory later) and sketch a few rough ideas as to characters and setting. This time, however, I gave the stories titles, wrote detailed plots and extensive characterizations, and developed cover ideas using GIMP and Canva. I also typed out the first several pages of the story so I could hit the ground running if/when I came back to it.

After finishing the fifth DCI Ravyn novel, Murder Amongst the Rushes, I thought it was time to take a brief vacation from dark and legend-haunted Hammershire County and pursue a few other projects. I looked in my files and saw that Behind Thick Walls, an amalgamation of the Crime and Post-Apocalyptic genres was the most developed of the stories. It seemed to me that with a working cover, a complete list of characters with full biographies and about a dozen pages of the novel written, it would be a fairly easy matter to dive into the project and get going. And so, in early November 2019, I started work on the novel and wrote in the beginning blurb...
"...but there was nothing natural about the plague that swept the world, seemingly in the twinkling of an eye. Earth’s peoples went to sleep in a time beset by wars and rumors of war, secure in their empires of technology and commerce, and awoke to an Age of Plague."
And then, as I worked off and on on it (personal and family situations prevented a concentrated and sustained effort), I found events in the real world warping to mimic the fictional situation. Oh, there were differences, of course. The story is set in Mexico and COVID19 is nowhere near as terrible as the plague in the story, at least not yet. And, while it seems we need only wait out COVID19 (as we did Spanish Flu, Asian Flu and SARS), the plague of the book ("Rot") seems to be the gift that keeps giving.

When I first started, I drew a measure of inspiration from Defoe's book, Pepys' diaries, and the crime novels of Elmore Leonard. As the year turned, and we entered January and February, I discovered my fictional inspiration pushed aside by the news of the day. And now, with California on lock-down for the foreseeable future, I find myself writing about a society beset by plague while living in a society beset by plague. Am I (are we all) trapped in a meta-novel? If so, I hope the cosmic writer is not as cavalier with characters, as I often am.

Hopefully, we won't hear the sound of a Typewriter in the Sky...

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