The Big Idea: Mindy Klasky
Online dating has never been more popular — Especially since COVID hit, and dating in person is now kind of… dangerous. So how do you fall in love during a pandemic? Author Mindy Klasky tells us how love isn’t the only thing in the air in her newest novel, The C Word.
About ten thousand years ago (or, er, during July 2020—one of the first victims of the coronavirus was my sense of time…) a group of romance-writing author-friends and I were chatting online about how to write contemporary romances set in 2020 and beyond. The group was almost evenly split. Half said that, going forward, they would include the coronavirus as an element in their plots. Half said their romances were meant to be escapist fantasies; therefore, they would never include references to a worldwide pandemic.
My new series is called Love in the Age of COVID. So you know where I fell in that debate. I actually decided to go all in—my contemporary romance is a romantic comedy. But my decision to include the coronavirus in The C Word launched a number of challenges.
First, and most easily solved, I needed to research basic timelines of real-world information about the virus. When, exactly, did it emerge in Wuhan, in the States, and in Washington, DC (where my story is set)? What advice did the Centers for Disease Control offer about wearing masks on which dates? How did various businesses—especially Major League Baseball (my hero is a pitcher)—implement safeguards?
I’m a plotter; I plan my books before I write them. I structure my plot with multi-colored Post-It notes stuck to a wall in my office, an arrangement that ultimately looks a little like a serial killer’s murder wall. For every book, I track the heroine’s story (green Post-Its) and the hero’s story (purple Post-Its), along with two or three major sub-plots (for The C Word, blue, pink, and yellow notes). Once I’d committed to writing about the coronavirus, I added two more colors to the mix—magenta for pandemic dates relevant to the general public and chartreuse for dates relevant to baseball. All of the notes included scribbled dates, so I could track, for example, how many days had passed since my characters’ first kiss, job loss, and mask requirements.
Second, I needed to integrate COVID into my storyline. Very quickly, I realized that the coronavirus functioned as a character in my novel. Each of my flesh-and-blood characters reacted to the virus in a different way. Some considered it an existential threat. Others thought it was merely a bogeyman and could be safely ignored. Those attitudes led to realistic conflict throughout my story.
In fact, the virus functioned somewhat like a villain in the structure and unfolding of my plots and subplots. The coronavirus “character” helped me solve one of the major challenges in writing a contemporary romance: keeping the heroine and hero apart for a reasonable portion of the plot. In the modern world, most people aren’t as shamed by societal expectations as they were in the Regency era. People are allowed to—indeed, expected to—discuss their emotions and desires, dissipating minor misunderstandings before relationships rock off their foundations. Omnipresent cell phones and computers obliterate storylines that hinge on missed connections. It can be close to impossible to keep a couple apart for 100,000 satisfying words.
But the pandemic allowed me to resurrect credible barriers. The need for social distancing replaced the ton’s aggressive social regulation. The danger of infection presented a threat as dire as a stalker or a determined ex-lover. The coronavirus gave my contemporary characters realistic reasons to act (or not to act) in ways that complicated their emotional relationship.
Third, I needed to thread a political needle, deciding how much to write about the government’s response (or lack thereof) to the coronavirus. Moreover, with a book set from March 2020 to June 2020, I needed to weigh addressing the Black Lives Matter movement. Too much political talk, and I risked alienating nearly fifty percent of my potential readers (more, actually, because even readers who agreed with my own liberal politics would likely rebel against having those beliefs shoved down their throats, page after unremitting page, in an otherwise-feel-good romantic comedy.) Too little political talk, though, and I would come off as a Pollyanna. Or worse, as someone who was intentionally avoiding the life-or-death implications of catastrophic governmental mismanagement of the virus.
I opted to let facts speak for themselves. At three different points in my novel, I included short chapters with facts and figures quoted from government documents—executive orders and coronavirus statistics and similar data. While my main characters don’t state their political affiliations directly, their actions convey their consistent belief in science and modern medicine.
After I finished drafting The C Word, I distributed it to my usual trusted beta readers, asking them, in part, to concentrate on how I handled the politics. Three betas responded, saying I’d struck a good balance. But one delivered a critique of how my characters, one in particular, reacted to George Floyd’s murder. That beta noted that one character’s inaction was an expression of white privilege; he could afford to do nothing because he was not directly affected by the death. Ultimately, I reworked multiple chapters, sharpening my approach while remaining true to that character’s essential nature.
Looking back at that March conversation with my writer friends, I can now see that both sides held merit. (There were good people on both sides…) Writing a contemporary romance—especially a romantic comedy—in the age of COVID was a challenge. Some readers may find The C Word too weighty, not enough of an escape in our challenging times. In fact, one of my usual beta readers declined to read it, in part because she found the book’s premise too stressful as she grappled with potential illness in her own family.
Nevertheless, real people have continued to meet and fall in love during the past year. Some of them needed to work harder than ever to achieve their well-deserved Happy Ever Afters. All the more reason, then, to celebrate Love in the Age of COVID.