It was an extraordinary statement among all the startling statements I’d been listening to over the last few weeks. You’d heard the news cycle: Infection rates. Projected deaths in the United States. Government cover-ups in foreign lands. The television drenched us with one horrific piece of news after another.
But as I stood in my kitchen watching the now famous infectious disease expert from the NIH, Anthony Fauci, talk about Covid-19, there was one statement that stood out from the rest.
“We may never shake hands again.”
Being the writer I am, my imagination fast-forwarded to a world with no hand shaking. I imagined myself greeting someone new or an acquaintance I hadn’t seen in a long time. I normally offer my hand. It’s a gesture that speaks so much without any words.
Throughout history, a handshake was used to signal a person didn’t have a weapon.
In modern times, it serves as a warm greeting, or a show of equality (rather than a bow or curtsey). It’s especially helpful in the professional world.
Personally, I use it to set boundaries. Because I’m short and friendly, strangers I’ve just met sometimes have the urge to hug me out of nowhere. I’ve gotten used to it over the years, but if I can get a handshake in before an attempted hug, it helps avoid being squeezed by someone I don’t know. (I’m a fan of hugging otherwise!)
My mind reeled: what would take the place of handshakes? An elbow bump? Hardly seems professional. A fist bump? I mean…can you picture it? “Mr. Jones, so nice to finally meet you in person!” Fist bump. Ugh. Couldn’t fathom it.
Round and round my mind went, trying to imagine a world without handshakes.
And then my mind drifted toward my creative projects.
Like fingers flipping through a rolodex, I inventoried the scenes in my current projects where my characters shook hands. If the project were to come out in 2021, 2022, 2023 or beyond, and someone shook hands after the gesture disappeared from our society, it would instantly look dated.
I’d been through this before, and it’s an important part of writing in modern times.
You’ve seen movies where the character pulls out a flip phone. It instantly dates it now, doesn’t it?
Back in the early 2000s, I had a bad stroke of luck with Martha Stewart. I’d created a series of books in which my main character, Ainsley, looked up to Martha Stewart and patterned her whole life after her.
Seemed harmless enough.
Until Breaking News! Martha Stewart goes to jail!
In the middle of editing the book, I had to go back into the project and address the fact that Martha Stewart now had a felony. I mean, who could’ve predicted that?
Things can change. And fast.
From the time my book Skid was published to the time it was made into a movie, SkyMall magazine ceased to exist on airplanes. Several scenes in the screenplay and book included a character who is taking her stress out by impulse shopping at 30,000 feet.
In the end, we decided to leave it in because of the massive rewrites that would’ve had to take place, and most people were familiar with SkyMall but not everyone knew it was out of print.
9/11. That affected all kinds of literature. Remember when people could greet you at the gate? No longer a thing. Had to change a scene in the book I was writing.
With every current piece of creative work, it’s difficult to figure out what our world will look like after this pandemic, isn’t it? And because books often take one to three years before they go to print (at least with traditional publishing) it’s nearly impossible to look ahead when there’s an earth rattling crisis.
So. What to do?
My first piece of advice is: don’t sweat it. But while you’re playing it cool, here are some thoughts about maneuvering through your Work in Progress (WIP).
No matter what the world looks like in the aftermath, there is no way that the pandemic won’t be a part of our culture, our vocabulary and the way we live our lives. There’s no use ignoring it and pretending it didn’t happen. It will go down in the history books and be studied for years, so wherever it’s appropriate, reference it.
That said, if you can, avoid it. Unless the book has to do with the actual pandemic, be subtle about how you reference it (like your character might squirt hand sanitizer while before the pandemic you would never dream of mentioning it) but refrain from overtly referencing it (like everyone everywhere is wearing masks).
In traditional publishing, your editors will be able to guide you on how to adjust your manuscript to fit their publishing house policies regarding fiction and the pandemic. Believe me, there will be some in-house meetings about it.
If you are self-publishing, keep in mind that you have the option to go in and change a few things if you need to, even once it’s published. That’s the handy thing about electronic publishing.
I believe for the most part that readers will ignore whether or not you’ve hit the bullseye on how you’re depicting the pandemic. They’re more interested in the story you’re telling and many fiction readers use books to escape reality—even the reality of the pandemic. They might be grateful that it’s not mentioned at all.
By the way, if news that SkyMall went bankrupt triggered a sudden urge to impulse buy weird stuff, you can still find them at SkyMall.com.