Suspense in the Time of Corona
In early March, I began writing a new story—another domestic suspense, this time about a home invasion. An armed and masked man, forcing his way into your home, holding you and your children captive… It’s a terrifying premise, right? One we see all too often on the news. If you’re anything like me, you might even know someone it happened to. That’s the charm of the genre, I think, that the premises feel so grounded in reality. You read them and think, that could happen to me.
But as the days marched on and my word count grew, a dystopian reality was brewing outside my four walls: a pandemic, bowling the world over with death and destruction. Anytime I would come up for air and flip on the TV, that was where the true terror began. Forklifts to move piles of bodies. Food banks with lines that stretched for miles. Worry for people I love, people who I am only allowed to see on my computer screen. Suddenly, inexplicably, a home invasion wasn’t the scariest thing that could happen to my characters, or to me.
I know I am not alone. Everyone is touched by this pandemic. We are all figuring out how to survive it the best way we know how. But for my suspense-writing friends and me, it presents an interesting conundrum. How does the scariness outside influence our writing and suspense in general? How does COVID-19 play out in our plots, if at all? I polled some of my author friends to find out.
Liv Constantine, bestselling author of The Wife Stalker (May 19)
“We were in the final stages of editing our fourth book when the pandemic hit. We were fortunate to be able to immerse ourselves in our work and be able to partially escape from the turbulence and anxiety surrounding us. Because we didn’t have to come up with something new during this time, we believe we were able to continue our writing with little interruption and were even able to turn our manuscript in early. A wonderful book tour for our new book had been planned for May, which of course has now been cancelled. We were so looking forward to connecting with readers and bookstore managers as well as other authors and are trying our best to do so virtually, like the rest of the world. The one thing this has taught us both is to never again take for granted the privilege of enjoying the company of others.”
Danielle Girard, bestselling author of White Out (August 1)
“The stories I love most are about normal people in extraordinary situations, something I think we’re each experiencing now as never before. We are teaching our own children math and science while working full-time, managing the stresses of how long this will last, what normal will look like afterward, while we continue day by day. At their core, my books have always centered on a character’s personal journey, in a thriller setting. The isolation of “social distancing” has only reinforced for me that what I want to write about—what I want to read about—is normal people in extraordinary circumstances. Because right now, that is every single one of us—normal people in a truly extraordinary situation.”
Heather Gudenkauf, NYT bestselling author of This is How I Lied (May 12)
“I was just finishing my current work in progress when the pandemic reached the United States. COVID-19 has had such an all-encompassing impact on our lives and I knew I wanted to reference it in my upcoming project. In the future I imagine we will be gifted with pandemic stories that chronicle the strength, perseverance and heartache that people have had to endure. As for suspense novels, I anticipate that many a crime will be veiled by the social isolation, uncertainty and chaos that have come to be associated with these very strange times.”
Catherine McKenzie, bestselling author of You Can’t Catch Me (June 9)
“Corona has definitely affected my writing process. Writing contemporary fiction is a challenge now in a way it wasn’t before. Since we are still in the middle of it, we don’t know what the world will look like on the other side and so it’s hard to incorporate in a book that will come out in 2021 or 2022.
At the same time, not addressing it feels odd too. Case in point: in my current WIP (summer 2021) title, the main character thought she had the flu a year before (i.e. now) but it turned out to be something else. Should she think she had corona? Is it better just to ignore and avoid? Haven’t decided yet.”
Hannah Mary McKinnon, bestselling author of Sister Dear (May 26)
“After over a week of Covid-19 induced “the sky is falling” panic, I found writing gave me the incredible gift of escapism. Instead of obsessively watching the chaos on the news I slipped into my fictional world and caused pandemonium in my characters’ lives instead. No doubt it’s something to do with the psychological aspect of being in control. Having said that, with each book my writing has got darker, so I’m not sure I can attribute my more murderous ways in my current work in progress to the pandemic, although there are elements of claustrophobia…”
Hank Phillippi Ryan, bestselling author of The First To Lie (August 4)
“What haunts me is the uncertainty. My deadline for the new book does not move, but the world changes every second. At this early moment, my new book begins with the main character in a crowd of people. Do I change that? I have decided – – for today at least – – that the world of my book is the world of my book. For today am being stubborn about not changing it to reflect the pandemic. You are always safe in a story, right? I may change my mind tomorrow.
Might I refer to it, in passing? If someone says: I think I’ll stay home by myself. And then someone else says: didn’t you get enough of that ? That could work. But right now we have no way of knowing what to do. And since I have a looming deadline, it feels some days as if I am writing in molasses.
As for suspense in general? Nothing I read seems as scary as real life. We read thrillers to be – – thrilled. What’s happening now is so much more intense and devastating that I’m finding it difficult to get lost in a book. What I have noticed though, is that quality is increasingly recognizable. When a book is exquisitely written, and the story riveting, my brain can forget reality. When a book is not so good, I can’t focus on it at all.”
Wendy Walker, bestselling author of The Night Before (September 15)
“When the quarantine began, everyone posted stories about wearing pajamas all day. They told them with fear – this can’t be what the future holds! And yet, this has been my life since becoming a writer.
But while nothing had changed with my wardrobe, everything had changed in my mind. Fearing for my children’s future created unprecedented anxiety. When I didn’t know what else to do, I went to my desk and wrote a novel that captured these unsettling emotions.
I still have anxiety. But something calmed inside me. I felt a glimmer of hope that I still have some power over my life. Even if I still wear my pajamas all day.”
Ask us again in a year, and our answers will certainly have changed. But what we all have in common is that writing—and books—will always feel like a welcome escape.
Kimberly Belle is the USA Today and internationally bestselling author of six novels, including her forthcoming domestic suspense, Stranger in the Lake (June 2020). Her third novel, The Marriage Lie, was a semifinalist in the 2017 Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Mystery & Thriller, and a #1 e-book bestseller in the UK and Italy. She’s sold rights to her books in a dozen languages as well as film and television options. A graduate of Agnes Scott College, Belle divides her time between Atlanta and Amsterdam.
Keep up with Kimberly on Facebook (www.facebook.com/KimberlyBelleBooks), Twitter (@KimberlySBelle), Instagram (@KimberlySBelle) or via her website at www.kimberlybellebooks.com.