I have made a career out of looking back. As an historical novelist, my relationship to the past is that of a forager, searching through the foliage for the hidden nut, the unpicked berry, the mushroom that has sprung up. I take that nut or berry or mushroom and make it into a story that gives us a way to relate to the past.

Normally I take the long view, visiting a period far enough back that it has context: we know what came before and after, and how important (or not) that place and time and person and event were.  For instance, my recent novel A Single Thread is set in the early 1930s, when the characters don’t yet know that a second war is on the way. Readers and I know, though, and that knowledge profoundly affects how we think of the story and the characters.

Now, though, we are all consciously living through a major historical event whose social, political and economic fallout is likely to be felt for a long time. But we have no perspective yet: no idea what comes after, or how we might view the coronavirus pandemic in a year, ten years, 100 years.

As a writer, I could just ignore the crisis and stick to the distant past. I am currently working on a novel about Venetian glass beads, set on the glassmaking island of Murano and spanning the 15th to the 21st centuries. Is that any longer what people will want to read, though? As a reader, I am struggling to stick with any novel right now. Historical novels make me feel like I’m looking through a telescope, while contemporary books seem irrelevant. Both are locked in their own worlds and trivial concerns, and can’t possibly touch our unique set of circumstances. While the coronavirus is drastically reshaping our lives, writing about 1490 Murano feels out of step. Instead I keep thinking about the contemporary section of my novel. How are the Muranese doing now? How would my characters cope with this lockdown? Is it crass to use the situation, or impossible not to? How can anyone write now without Covid-19 becoming a part of the world being created on the page?

On the other hand, if I do write about it, will it date? Are things changing too fast to maintain the longer view a novel requires? My feelings about what is happening now change from day to day; what I write on Friday feels banal on Monday, because I’ve already moved on. How can I possibly get a handle on history when it is so slippery right now?

And should I even keep writing? Maybe I should just set down my pen. Many of us are humbled by the “essential workers” list, and look at delivery men and corner shop clerks with new respect. They are our immediate lifelines to the outside world; not novelists, at least not at the moment.

Nonetheless, I write, if only as self-help. I may not be able to control the virus, but at least I can control my response to it. With my novel I’ve abandoned the 15th century, skipped hundreds of unwritten pages ahead, and begun working on the contemporary section, with my heroine responding to the pandemic at the same time as we are. For now I am treating the present as if it’s the past, putting a frame around it to bring order to the chaos. None of this may stick. In a year or two, once we have a bit of perspective, this part of the book may be inappropriate or naïve or irritating. I may bin it. That’s ok. There’s something powerful and cathartic about kicking Covid-19 into the past tense, turning now into then.