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Sean Madden describes how to use the COVID-19 pandemic as inspiration in fiction writing.

By Sean Madden


In the early days of COVID-19, the spring of 2020, I distinctly remember driving around town with my young family, with no particular destination in mind; the mere act of leaving the house was daring in and of itself. I was thinking, “I want to write about this—this strange and singular moment in time—but I don’t think I can do that right now.” Writing about the present was a moving target—a rapidly moving target—and the best I could do, it seemed, was to take notes on the volatile day-to-day and trust they would serve me well in the future.

Then in 2021, I started work on a short story, the idea for which I had been mulling over for years. At that time, I had no plans for the story to refer to the pandemic. I could see the opportunity for integrating COVID into the story, but I vacillated on whether or not that integration could be done well. It seemed too premature, and daunting to boot, so I didn’t even try. I kept the pandemic out of my story, and I succeeded at this, but—quite to my chagrin—only for a while. After completing about a third of the story, I realized—rather painfully, mind you—I couldn’t circumvent the pandemic and still bring the story to its full potential. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt my story would have to respond to the pandemic if it was to exist at all.

About nine months later, I finished “To the Land of Funk,” which Copper Nickel published in fall 2022. Here are a few things I learned from the experience of writing the story that might aid other writers who are either contemplating or are already writing COVID-inspired fiction.

The first step is to discern whether or not incorporating the pandemic into your story makes sense for the story you’re telling. Before I started writing “To the Land of Funk,” I completed a story called “Dry January,” which I had begun writing prior to the pandemic in late 2019. When COVID hit and upended our normal lives, I temporarily stopped work on the story, mostly because it no longer felt relevant. The present moment felt like the only moment that truly mattered, and it felt false, maybe even naïve, to write about a world that no longer existed and may never exist again. But after a while, the desire to write—to write something, anything, regardless of time and place—became too strong to ignore, and I resumed work on “Dry January,” leaving the pre-COVID milieu as is. There were instances along the way in which I considered reimagining the story as a “pandemic story,” where COVID is a central theme and colors everything (e.g., plot, setting, dialogue), but I kept coming back to the wisdom that a story should only be as long as it needs to be. And to me the story was already so thematically complex, and inherently comic, that to add COVID as another layer would have been ill-advised. There was nothing funny about COVID in 2020, and practically speaking, adding COVID as another ball to juggle would have made the story feel bloated. So, I had to be discerning about whether or not my story demanded or otherwise would have benefitted from including COVID at all. And it turned out that the answer was no. My story would take place in January 2020, a pre-COVID time in America, and that was perfectly fine. And perhaps it goes without saying, but I’d wager at least some writers out there need to hear that it’s still fine, in our post-pandemic world, to write stories that don’t respond to the pandemic. We have permission right now, as ever, to tell stories about other moments in history, or about other worlds. Those stories are as worthy of being told as any.

If you are going to write about the pandemic, though, you may require a unique approach. When I felt the compelling, rather burdensome need to incorporate the pandemic into “To the Land of Funk,” I knew the challenge before me: my story would need to authentically reflect and respond to the present crisis without coming across as maudlin, superficial, or sterile, or read like an opinion piece masquerading as fiction. At the time, I was reading George Saunders’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, and it was his thoughts on Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose” that helped me strategize how best to approach the challenge I was facing. What I determined, after some nights spent staring blankly at my computer screen, was that to write about the pandemic, this moving target, I would need to bend reality to my purposes, the way Gogol does. My approach would be to intentionally flout aspects of what Saunders calls “consensus reality,” or “the set of things about the world that we all pretty much agree to be true,” (p. 276) but still signal to the reader in subtle ways that the story is set in a COVID-era climate (e.g., characters wearing masks). I did this by minimizing overt references to COVID by avoiding words like COVID, pandemic, and virus, and imbuing my fictive world with its own set of “psychological physics” (p. 277), or internal logic. This was the only way I could truthfully and convincingly address the reality in which I was living and write about some of the COVID era’s major social, political, and public health issues, such as unemployment, eviction or the threat thereof, the wealth gap and class divide, and the limitations of our healthcare system. This approach allowed me, in general, to write about the pandemic, this experience we are all so intimately acquainted with, and yet keep the reader in a place of vulnerability. Writing outside the bounds of consensus reality enabled me to create a reading experience, a fictional dream, that replicates the vulnerability COVID made all of us feel in 2020, when our lives suddenly became very small and stifled, and the future felt vastly uncertain.

Take calculated risks. The approach I took with writing “To the Land of Funk” should not be misinterpreted as the best or only approach to writing COVID-inspired fiction. Right now, someone out there somewhere is writing a great, COVID-inspired story, where COVID is explicitly mentioned, and consensus reality is strictly adhered to. Indeed, COVID literature has arrived; many well-known authors have already released novels that deal with COVID—Jodi Picoult, Susan Straight, and Emily St. John Mandel, to name a few—and I suspect others will follow suit. Every writer is going to have their own pandemic story to tell and their own particular approach to telling it. But I implore you: whatever approach you take, try something new. It took me nine months to write “To the Land of Funk” because I felt emboldened to experiment and push myself to do things I had never done before. I was committed to spending the necessary time to get it right. “To the Land of Funk” features dream language, two different character perspectives, multiple POVs (including the rarely used first person plural and second person), two different tenses (past and present), as well as intertextual references to the Fisher King legend, the Great American Songbook, and T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” It is a story infused with what Saunders calls Multiple Superimposed Weirdness Syndrome (p. 280), or the succession of one intentionally weird event after another. With “To the Land of Funk,” I dialed strangeness up as much as I could to mirror the strangeness of life in 2020. My advice to aspiring writers who are aiming at the now quite stationary target of the COVID era is to explore new structures and techniques. Take your pandemic story for a drive and get out of your comfort zone—you might just hit the bullseye.



Saunders, George. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. New York: Random House, 2021.