The Cozy Timeline vs. Real World Events (and a giveaway)

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, today pondering, not for the first time, the difference between book time and real time. Cozy mysteries and contemporary romances, two of my favorite types of reading, have this is common: they are set in the present in the “real” world, but with a caveat or two.

Both genres generally avoid making references to current events, especially politics. Pandemics haven’t come into consideration before, but ongoing wars are usually ignored. In part this is to avoid “dating” the story. It’s also because a book is written long before its publication date and even longer before most people will read it. Writers can’t predict the future any better than anyone else.

Clive Cussler tried to find a way around this by putting a dateline in his novels that was a few years ahead of their publication date. That was fine when they were new, but I recently reread Flood Tide, published in 1997 and set in 2000. In 2020, the ability to suspend disbelief was much more difficult—I knew for a fact that the apocalyptic events the author described didn’t really happen.

I’ve never done a survey, but I suspect that many novels, unless they are historical or futuristic, go out of their way to avoid telling the reader what year it is. That said, writers generally need to have a calendar of some sort in mind when they map out their plots. What month the story is set in makes a difference. So does the choice of a day of the week when it comes to creating certain scenes. I was very aware of this in writing A Fatal Fiction, if only because I happened to be writing a story set at exactly the time of year I was experiencing in reality.

I have a timeline for the series. I know in what year Mikki Lincoln was born, when she married, and when her nephew, who has a role in this story, was born. In fact, all the continuing characters in the series have somewhat detailed life stories in my notebooks, not only to flesh them out, but also so that I have a quick reference guide to how old they are and when the major events in their lives occurred. That still gives me some choice when it comes to the date of each novel. In my Liss MacCrimmon series I once let five years pass between books, mostly to let fictional time a chance to catch up with real time.

A Fatal Fiction was (mostly) written in the spring of 2019 for release on June 30, 2020. While I was in the early plotting stages, I realized that using 2019 as the year of the story would put Easter and Passover and Maine’s Patriots’ Day in the same week, a coincidence I could utilize in the story. Then serendipity came into play. In addition to weather forecasts and reports, I had access, by way of a Facebook group, to daily posts that include the weather in the town that is the model for my fictional Lenape Hollow, New York. As much to amuse myself as for any practical purpose, I decided to make the weather in my novel match reality. Since I was already doing this with things like phases of the moon, it didn’t strike me as too weird.

Okay, it was a little weird. But it was kind of fun to start a new scene, taking place on a new day, and discover that Mikki was going to have to do her sleuthing while ducking rain showers. I took a few liberties when the story demanded it, but overall I let reality have its way.

Now here we are in 2020 and I’ve just finished writing next year’s Deadly Edits mystery, Murder, She Edited.  Once again, I never say what year the story takes place in, but the clever reader in July of 2021 and later will find it easy enough to figure out that it is set in the summer of 2020. That brings me to a dilemma many writers are facing right now—how much reality should we include in what is supposed to be escapist literature?

The book was due on my editor’s desk today, well before anyone can say with any certainty what the summer of 2020 will bring. At the moment, my text makes no mention of the world-shaking events that have taken place during the first half of 2020, but it can still be revised before publication. The real question is, should it be?

Leave your answer to that question, or any other comment you’d care to make, in the comments section below or at my Kaitlyn Dunnett Facebook page and you’ll be entered in a drawing to win one of three Advance Reading Copies of A Fatal Fiction. Shadow will pick the winners at noon on Friday, June 5. Unfortunately, I can’t ship books outside the US right now, but I’d still love to hear from international readers.

With the June 30, 2020 publication of A Fatal Fiction, Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett will have had sixty-two books traditionally published. She won the Agatha Award and was an Anthony and Macavity finalist for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries and the “Deadly Edits” series as Kaitlyn. As Kathy, her most recent book is a collection of short stories, Different Times, Different Crimes, but there is a new, standalone historical mystery, The Finder of Lost Things, in the pipeline for October. She maintains websites at and A third, at A Who’s Who of Tudor Women, contains over 2000 mini-biographies of sixteenth-century Englishwomen.


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30 Responses to The Cozy Timeline vs. Real World Events (and a giveaway)

  1. jbettany2013 says:

    This is a difficultly a lot of writers are pondering right now. If a novel is clearly set in the summer of 2020, it’s hard to avoid references to world events, simply because they are having such a huge impact on how we live and where we can go (I’m in the UK). If the pandemic or another event is an integral part of the plot of your novel, you have no choice. If not, then I would tend to steer clear or minimise references to the pandemic. Until we understand more about how the whole thing works out (and is, hopefully, resolved), it would mean writing about something unknown… something still in flux that could easily change.


  2. Monica says:

    I’d leave the pandemic out unless you’ve spent a lot of effort focusing on the actual time the story takes place. I can’t remember ever reading a book where I lost interest because something historical took place at the same time and it wasn’t mentioned. But, reading mysteries that try to be topical often comes off as ‘trying too hard to be topical.’ (I think here of the Golden Age mystery writers still publishing in the Sixties who tried to add swingers and psychedelic drugs to their stories which then fell far off their usual standards by blaming the whole storyline on someone’s ‘bad trip.’)

    And, because we have no reference point to look back on, it could go spectacularly wrong to give the pandemic even a bit part. Not to mention the escapism the books will provide!


  3. Ann says:

    My first thought was if you bring the pandemic into this current book you should then tell what the outcome is in the following book. Depending on how this whole COVID-19 pans out you may then need to continually reference it for the next few books.


  4. bereksennebec says:

    Since most of what I’m writing these days falls into the short story category with dark humor/horror flavors, what’s going on currently is too much of a temptation to ignore. I do understand the what year dilemma. I wrestled with it in my one published YA fantasy and have tended to keep it vague in a number of written or partially written manuscripts since.


    • kaitlynkathy says:

      Hi, John. All sorts of disasters work better in fantasy, sf, and horror. Kim Harrison has a wonderful series based on the premise that an epidemic caused by eating tomatoes resulted in paranormal creatures (vampires, weres, witches, elves, etc) taking over the world because most ordinary humans were wiped out.


  5. Dee White says:

    When I’m reading contemporary mysteries, I tend to prefer not knowing much, or anything, about current events. Sometimes it can’t be avoided, but it’s much easier to suspend disbelief if I’m not thinking “wait a minute, that happened several years ago” or something similar.


  6. Kay Garrett says:

    In my opinion, since you are writing your story in that time frame, I would at least mention it or have it play some small part in the story. After all, if you are wanting to make it accurate enough to the time frame to mimic the weather, wouldn’t world events play a part in that story too. Doesn’t mean you have to dwell on it or it play a big part, but leaving it out would be like leaving out the events of the first man on the moon in a story based on the year that big event happened. This horrible situation we are in has had as much if not more effect of the world as a whole than that monumental event and the events seem like they will be ongoing. Meaning it could also be a small thread in future books – hopefully a cure being found – which couldn’t be if not addressed on the front end in some way.

    Thank you for fabulous opportunity to win an ARC of “A Fatal Fiction”! Shared and hoping to be one of the fortunate ones selected.
    2clowns at arkansas dot net


  7. Diane Morgera says:

    Thank you for the challenge! Now that you mention it, as a reader I prefer not to be distracted by current events, unless it is somehow relevant to the story. For example, if a person discovers something while she is confined to the house, you could mention briefly why she is confined. But as a reader, I don’t really want to know. Hope that makes sense!


    • kaitlynkathy says:

      It does, Diane, and I expect there will be quite a few books in the next couple of years that make use of just that situation. Isolating characters in a small group can lead to all sorts of complications!


  8. Autumn Trapani says:

    Hmmmmm…this is a good question. My immediate thought is that for now it might be good to just mention things like gathering in smaller groups or social distancing in passing. I think readers will notice if it is overlooked all together, since it is affecting everything we do and would affect Mikki’s sleuthing. Congratulations on the new release. SO glad this series is continuing!


    • kaitlynkathy says:

      Thank you. The manuscript of the one set in the late summer of 2020 is now in my editor’s hands and I expect we will discuss how much or how little to reference things as it goes through the editorial process. Of course, by then we’ll also have a better idea of how things do turn out this summer. It doesn’t have any large gatherings in it, but she does go to the grocery store and a cafe and the library—places people in the real world will still, I expect, be wearing masks. The town upon which Lenape Hollow is based has been particularly hard hit by COVID-19, more so than surrounding towns.


  9. Cynthia Blain says:

    As to writing about this pandemic my opinion is why not?! It is our new reality just like previous “wars” before and it’s changed many lives and everything connected to daily life. I don’t know how you could NOT write about this time of our lives with the world having been changed so drastically. It’s just my opinion and either way I know everyone will love your release next year.

    Thank you.
    Cynthia B


    • kaitlynkathy says:

      Thank you, Cynthia. If I were just writing the book now, I’d certainly find it hard not to reference what’s going on in the real world, but except for polishing, it was written in 2019, before we had any clue what was coming. It’s hard to know what to change and what to leave alone. There’s also the problem of referencing the real world without getting into political issues. If Mikki goes into a restaurant wearing a mask and someone else isn’t, even if she doesn’t say anything, you know she’s going to be thinking things that probably have no place in a cozy mystery.


  10. Carol Knudtson says:

    No, when I’m reading a book sometime in the future I definitely do not want to be reminded of this. Make believe people in a make believe place shouldn’t have a pandemic. Thanks for the giveaway!


  11. kaitlynkathy says:

    Thanks for your comment.


  12. Marla B says:

    I think it’s fine to leave current events out of your book. Many of us read to escape, and we don’t want to be reminded of what we’re actually living through right now.


  13. Judy says:

    Yes, put in the 2020 happenings.


  14. Carol Alden says:

    If you don’t it would be science fiction. It’s life as we know it now. If anything it is a challenge. How to solve a mystery with everyone wearing a mask! A real whodunnit.


  15. Kathleen Chrisman says:

    I think many people are reading as a way to allow their minds to escape the overwhelming crisis we are currently living through. I don’t think you need to add it into the book. If you feel you should I would suggest small references, such as grabbing a mask as she heads for the door.


  16. Lorrie L Montgomery says:

    So many good points here. I think it would be difficult to give the events of 2020 the proper attention without radically changing your story. A passing mention would just be weird in my opinion. Our world is changing and future stories that you write might reflect that but for now you have already written this book. I am looking forward to it. Thanks for your books!


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