A lot of people, I might even go so far as to say most people—including me—lead pretty boring lives, all things being equal. We have certain routines with kids and spouses and work and bills, and other things that add structure to a day. If you commute to an office every day, chances are that office is in the same place day after day, week after week, year after year. When I had a daily commute I used to sometimes drive in the direction of work even on weekends, my body following that prescribed route from muscle memory. I’ve now been working from home for a full decade so I no longer auto-pilot my way to Renton, but I have a new set of routines around when I do certain daily tasks. I have a pretty good idea what tomorrow is going to look like, and there’s very little surprising about what’s happening today. It’s Tuesday, Fantasy Author’s Handbook blog post day, so, ah, look, here I am Tuesday morning, writing this. This is how days can bleed into each other so that, as Virginia Woolf wrote in “The Death of the Moth,” “One is apt to forget all about life, seeing it humped and bossed and garnished and cumbered so that it has to move with the greatest circumspection and dignity.”

That all might sound boring and predictable, and certainly doesn’t do much to inspire a great fantasy, science fiction, or horror story idea. Stories are, really by definition, the exact opposite of that. They may start with an entirely ordinary person going on about their entirely ordinary daily routine but then Gandalf shows up, or Dad says we’re moving to Arrakis, or that fog bank has… something in it. Stories are about the stable world suddenly being destabilized in some way. Sophie Haigney touched on this in “An Elegy for the Landline in Literature”:

Uncertainty is invaluable in fiction. It is often what makes reading a novel so pleasurable: the instability of the world that we enter; the sense that something is going to happen, though we do not know what; the promise that what we imagine might, in fact, unfold. The mechanics of this uncertainty have often required certain objects: the broken-down car, the doorbell, the unopened package.

Okay, then COVID-19. That upset some daily routines, and for a lot of people, didn’t it?

It’s Tuesday, September 15, 2020 and the west coast of the United States is on fire. The air quality where I live is still in the “dangerous” zone. Over the weekend it was “hazardous.” We went out on Saturday and in the middle of the afternoon I could look up at the sun and stare directly at it, a pale mauve circle in the sky—that’s how thick the smoke was. I got a picture of it…

Issaquah, Washington, Saturday 9/12/20, about noon. See that tiny little dot almost dead center?

That’s not normal.

Is this the start of a horror story? Or the third act twist of a horror story? I hope it’s the third act—that means it’s almost over.

Is this me continuing to flail around in a desperate attempt to find something positive in what we’ve all come to know as, simply, “2020”?

Sure, maybe. And why not?

This year has given us all a lesson in the plot twist, whether or not we wanted it or particularly needed it. Some massive immovable force has lumped itself down in the middle of our lives, exposing us to literally life-threatening dangers, and we’re left to scramble around trying to make sense of it. COVID was an inciting incident, a plot device, a twist, a coincidence that started a billion stories.

That’s a billion stories by people who now have been granted a better understanding—whether we asked for it or not—of what it feels like to be a perfectly ordinary person in imperfectly extraordinary times.

And, maybe, sheltering from viruses and smoke, we’ve also been granted the alone time to turn that feeling of cosmic powerlessness into a few weird stories of our own, since, as Jean Cocteau wrote in The Eagles With Two Faces (L’Aigle à deux têtes): “Nothing worthwhile is created in the bustle of the world, so I shut myself off from it in my castles.”


—Philip Athans


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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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