My Last Pre-Pandemic Novel

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Ventura, CA, May 24, 2020

It was oh so nice to be out on the beach last weekend with my wife and daughter, strolling the shoreline, listening to the waves, taking in lots of fresh ocean air. We were in our favorite beach community, Ventura, and everybody was in a good mood—including law enforcement. Our first encounter as we walked toward the water was with a deputy sheriff on a dune buggy. She said, “How you all doing?” I raised my hands in a victory gesture. “I feel the same way!” she replied.

There were kids and babies and hipsters and oldsters. Everyone was respectful of distance, and smiles and nods were plentiful (face coverings outdoors are not mandated in Ventura County). Still, there were restrictions. No sitting on blankets, no lollygagging on dry sand.

Which leads one to wonder what form the post-pandemic society will take. That thought is ever on my mind as I hereby announce my last pre-pandemic novel.*

My fifth Mike Romeo thriller, Romeo’s Stand, has just been published. If this is your first foray into Romeo territory, know that you can read the books in any order, so now’s as good a time as any to jump in.

Yes, this is the last time I write a contemporary setting without reflecting the beliefs and practices that will emerge after lockdowns cease. Some weeks ago I wrote about how fiction will change in the coming years. This is especially true in my town, Los Angeles. Our heads are spinning out here over new rules and regs regarding churches and beaches and dining inside once again. (I’ve really missed Musso & Frank Grill, a Los Angeles institution since 1919, and a favorite spot of famous movie stars and L.A. writers ever since. Ditto Langer’s Deli and their #19, the best hot pastrami sandwich in the world—which includes New York—since 1947).

I can’t imagine a contemporary American novel published in 1946 or ’47 that didn’t even mention things like returning GIs and the post-war economy. We don’t have to make post-pandemia the centerpiece of our novels, but our scenes, to be authentic, will have to include little details like the waitstaff at a restaurant wearing masks and gloves…and perhaps mannequins made up to look like customers! Distancing rules will be enforced at large gatherings, at least for the foreseeable future (speaking of which, I miss a packed Hollywood Bowl and Dodger Stadium).

So what about this latest Romeo, published in the midst of our herky-jerky re-emergence? Your clever author has taken care of that with this opening:

We were an hour from Las Vegas when the plane began to shake.

It was a few weeks before the word pandemic became ubiquitous on our collective lips and America closed up shop with a massive case of the heebie-jeebies. The people on the plane were blithely breathing each other’s air and coughing into their fists. The tourists and players in Vegas were bumping shoulders and sharing dice at the craps tables, unaware that their favorite playground would soon be as empty as a politician’s promise.

We move on to an emergency landing in the desert, a small town with secrets and a nasty sheriff. Then things turn ugly. Which is the wrong way to turn things on Mike Romeo.

You can pre-order the Kindle ebook here. (I sometimes get emails from sad Nook and Kobo readers, and remind them that they can download a free Kindle app for their phone or tablet.) A print version will soon follow.

*However, I reserve the right to write historical fiction—perhaps adding to my Kit Shannon series. I may even try something speculative. One thing I’ve found during this lockdown is that, for short and flash fiction at least, my inner Ray Bradbury/Rod Serling keeps wanting to come out and play. One of the formative books on my writerly journey was The Illustrated Man, which I read in junior high school. And one of my favorite TV shows growing up was The Twilight Zone.

[Rod Serling voice] “Picture if you will a writer, confined to his hovel and wondering what to write next. In a moment he will decide to try something unlike anything he’s written before. But when he submits the book he won’t be hearing from an editor. He’ll be getting a long and detailed message directly from … The Twilight Zone.”

So let’s make this the question for today: Have you thought about writing in a different genre? If so, which one?

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60 thoughts on “My Last Pre-Pandemic Novel

  1. My genres (so far) are mystery (detective-PI), science fiction (adherence to physics) and science fantasy, period western (1860-1910), action-adventure, and thriller. Most of my novels have a strong element of psychological suspense and most have a strong element of romance.

    • You’ve already got quite a palette there, Harvey. The combo of psych suspense and romance is always potent.

      I read a Piers Anthony quote recently, to wit, that science fiction is the literature of the possible, and fantasy is a literature of the impossible. That must make for some debate over what “science fantasy” really is.

  2. Yes, Jim, and I am doing it. A supernatural love story!

    Good luck with Romeo’s Stand and enjoy the day. I cued up “Ventura Highway” by America while reading your post.

    • There was certainly a free wind blowin’ through our hair that day, Joe.

      And love stories, supernatural or otherwise, are always welcomed by readers. That’s why a romantic subplot can (should?) exist in any genre. Heck, even in the hardboiled world of The Maltese Falcon, Sam falls for Brigid. Of course, their love story is not HEA, but it makes the book stronger because it’s there.

  3. Our histories do seem to cross, JSB. I once interviewed Buster Crabbe at Musso & Frank’s. And I surfed C Street in Ventura. But I digress…

    For me, it’s Historical Fiction to Historical Fantasy. Moving closer and closer to The Twilight Zone.

    • Wow, Buster Crabbe at Musso’s? Fantastic! Old Hollywood, glory days.

      Yes, I think I’m ready to open a small office in The Twilight Zone Building.

      • MUSSO’s: and you wouldn’t believe all the Old Hollywoodsters who dropped by the table to pay their respects.

        If you had a way to insert images here, I’d let you see the wonderful portrait of Buster that Matthew Rolston shot for us.

  4. My current novel was started before the pandemic, and there are no dates mentioned. It’s a slight genre departure for me, neither a true mystery nor a true romance. Yes, there’s a mystery, and yes, there’s a romance, but they’re not following all the tropes and expectations, because–and maybe it’s because of the pandemic–I could make a lot of “bad things” happen to my characters. Yes, there are conflicts and complications, but they’re more easily resolved than in my other books.
    Plus its set abroad, and I didn’t want to deal with anything that would involve legalities and law enforcement, which my American characters wouldn’t be involved in.
    I admit I’m avoiding Facebook as much as possible because my blood pressure can’t take it, but from the few posts I’ve looked at, people aren’t looking to read pandemic books. I know I’m not eager to write one. And trying to write a post-pandemic book? We’ve still got too far to go to know when–or if–that will be, and what the world will be like then.
    I was going to write this book as a simple romance, but the mystery element insisted on coming through. Maybe the next one will stick to romance.
    I won’t get into my feelings about Kindle only here. That’s another topic entirely.

    • A good move to avoid FB in times like this, Terry. Every so often my wife and I have to declare a “no news day.” We seem much happier on those days.

      I read something in PW recently about agents and editors not wanting pandemic fiction, as people are tired of it and don’t want to read about it.

      As for my current WIP, it opens in a bookstore (that has somehow survived) in Los Angeles…and I’m guessing about what things will look like. When it comes time to edit, I can tweak as needed.

    • I’m not clear about the so-called “mainstream genre” and what moves a story into that genre. Does your current WIP, neither a true mystery nor a true romance, move into that genre?

      As to my genre of choice–I’ve mostly done mysteries/crime stories, but they’re all multi-genre is some way or other. One is definitely a “romantic mystery/suspense.” The other is very much an “identify-quest” (coming-of-age? bildungsroman?) as well as a cold-case mystery.

        • Sorry, Eric; didn’t see the comment. I’m making the (wild) assumption that a romantic mystery is less “suspenseful” than a romantic suspense. When RWA ‘defined’ romantic suspense, it encompassed all sub-genres of mystery, as long as the story held true to the romance genre expectations. I think Amazon came up with ‘romantic mystery’ or ‘mystery romance’ as a way to avoid it conflicting with reader expectations of what a romantic suspense should be. The current WIP has an underlying mystery, but it’s not a crime to solve, and no dead bodies. But there’s a relationship that develops between h/h, and it gives the requisite promise of a HEA.
          Does that help at all?
          As for mainstream…I have no clue what that really means. Literary?

  5. Thanks for the notice of the next Romeo thriller. I just bought it and look forward to reading it when it is released.

    The genre question: I started with thrillers, but three years ago switched to middle-grade fantasy. I wanted to write a series for my grandchildren, so included them as secondary characters. I call it Grandpa fiction. Set in the “enchanted” forest of Cedar Heights, where I grew up and the grandchildren now come to visit, filled with Indian magic, flying barrel carts (train carts), and the magic Mad River, I describe the Mad River Magic series as HP meets Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in rural Ohio.

    I thought about you last night while watching the news and the riots. I hope you and your family stay safe and healthy.

    • Thank you for the thoughts, Steve. It is indeed heartbreaking to see what’s happening in my town, and in the other hotspots around the country.

      Re: Middle Grade Fantasy, I actually wrote one a few years ago and, through a teacher I know, got several 10 year olds to be beta readers. Talk about honesty! Very cute. One review said, “The story was OK, but Mr. Bell uses the word ‘butt’ too many times.”

      The book is still sitting in my virtual drawer, wondering if it will ever see the light.

  6. Jim, ingenious how you handled the time stamp for the new Romeo. Ordered it and look forward to reading it.

    My latest book is set in 2017 during Hurricane Irma. I’m not inclined to move forward into the ugliness and uncertainty of today’s world. Call me an ostrich but I don’t want to write about it and I don’t want to read about it.

    Historical fiction is beckoning, probably WWII era. I expect people living in the 1930s and ’40s had many of the same fears we feel today. But there’s comfort in knowing how the world turned out after that cataclysm.

    • Debbie, I love the WWII era, and have always wanted to write a book set in that period. So go for it!

      My favorite movie of all time (tied for #1 with Shane) is The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). My dad was an extra in the film.

  7. Both my series take place before 2020, so I won’t need to worry about pandemic elements in my thrillers. If I get the urge to write a standalone, I’ll deal with it then. For now, I don’t want my fiction laced with the “new normal” regulations. I read to escape to real life. But I get it, I really do. While other writers waver between “to mask or not to mask” I’ll stay in my historical true crime bubble. 😉

    • Sue, just before I published my last standalone, Last Call, I added some dialogue in the beginning where a character talking to my MC mentions that some sort of virus may be coming out way…her dad, she says, is an epidemiologist. I’ve already had a couple of emails from readers who liked the way I slipped that in there.

      The desire to “escape” is, I suspect, stronger than ever among readers. I’m all for escapist fiction, in any form.

  8. Just picked up my pre-order copy of Romeo’s Stand. Can’t wait to read it.

    When taking a break from westerns, I’ve been working on modern noir PI piece with a twist—my first attempt at the genre. It’s kind of fun after working on a white-hat western.

    • Douglas, thanks for the order. I love a good Western. Indeed, my Mike Romeo character is based, in part, on Paladin, the character played by Richard Boone in the classic show Have Gun, Will Travel.

      • Although I am too young to remember the show when it originally aired, I catch Have Gun, Will Travel occasionally on Saturday mornings and now that you say that, the similarities between him and Romeo jump out.

  9. Hi, Jim

    Congrats on the new Romeo novel. I pre-ordered it and am looking forward to the read. I just released the fifth and final book in my Empowered series, Empowered: Hero. It’s an interesting time to release a book, especially one that deals with the end of the world as we knew it, albeit not from a pandemic.

    I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been wanting to write an actual mystery for some time, set at a library. I have other ideas for mysteries, but I’ve been wanting to use a setting I know well, after working at a public library for 32 years before retiring last December. Very likely it would be a cozy mystery, given the subject/setting and likely protagonist, though I have thought about making it an amateur sleuth without the cozy part.

    Your link reminded me that I’d commented then about “recent historical fiction as a new genre of sorts in response to the pandemic. In the case of my library mystery, I’d already been drawn to the idea of setting the book back in the late 1980s when I started at the library, or the 1990s, and then, in subsequent novels, working my way forward in time. So much changed and evolved at public libraries in the time I worked there: computerization, the internet, immigrants from the Middle East, Somalia, Russia, China, the rise of homelessness, the way in which the library’s been used etc.

    I love history (I have a history degree and snuck alternate history into my Empowered series), so the chance to write a library mystery from a recent historical perspective is very alluring.

    Thanks again for another great post!

  10. Ventura beaches, ah, yes, ninth grade spring I stepped on a bee at the surf line. Toes itched for a week.

    My shift in genre involves a shift in time as well, from 3200 BC to 1947. Safely free of pandemicisms (how abouddat?) but a constant involving an empowered woman in a man’s world. The research is loads of fun but rigorous writer discipline is required. Got a great helper from Joanna Penn’s podcast with Will Storr explaining the need for identifying a specific character flaw that drives the action. Opened up huge vistas.

    As a happy owner of the entire Mike Romeo collective, I’ve purchased his new venture. Not a beach read, for sure. I’m at 2,000 feet in the Sierras. But who knows? Maybe Zuma Beach next year?

    Be well, be safe.

    • Ah, Zuma. That was my beach, Dan. Many a summer day spent there frying my Scots-Irish skin (which I am paying for with semi-annual visits to my dermatologist!)

      Hard to know which would be a better place to write fiction a beach house, or a mountain cabin. There’s a hilarious episode of Dick Van Dyke where he goes to a cabin to finally write his novel…and everything goes wrong, including him getting stir crazy.

      • Zuma Beach! Lifeguard Station 6! Oh, I laid a strong, lifelong foundation for my melanoma surgery and various squamous cell divots while spending sunscreen-free days there. Well worth it, a great way to spend summer days, and occasional “ditch days” from Agoura High. Maybe a tad more than occasional…

        Looking forward to the Romeo read, Jim.

  11. Jim, the question of how to deal with the pandemic in our fiction relates to the perennial balance fiction seeks between escape and confrontation. I just read a review by John Wilson of Connelly’s latest (Fair Warning). The former editor of the now defunct Books & Culture calls Connelly a “historian of the present,” and references his treatment of the opioid crisis in Two Kinds of Truth as well as his use of DNA testing in Fair Warning. He summarizes:

    “Many current crime novelists regard themselves not simply as storytellers but as historians of the present, telling us what is “happening” with an immediacy and an imaginative depth that “the news” can’t match. Michael Connelly has been doing that for a long time, even before it became fashionable, and there is no one who does it better.” (https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2020/05/historian-of-the-present)

    • Eric, thanks for the link to the Connelly article. I look forward to reading it, and “historian of the present” sounds right on for him. That’s the way I view my own work, too. Los Angeles is so rich with history and controversy (like, even at this very moment) that I want some of that in the books, but not necessarily as the main plot.

  12. I don’t think you can stop writing until you know how things’ll pan out~ but you can, as was said above, “time stamp” with subtle (and not so subtle) hints and details ~ things’re in such flux currently that by the time you’ve finished typing “CURRENT DAY” on the top of page one you’re already writing historical fiction…

    As a fam, we were in air transit the weekend before things shut down, and the writer in me noticed a few masks and how generally more talkative strangers were – and have been since. I’ve also noticed the distinct decrease in air traffic over the house – to the point of realizing when I hear or see the first one. Likewise, as we open up here in Jawjuh, the slow but definite increase in traffic.

    All this to say that in the same way traffic jams, clothes, music, etc. “date” and “flesh out” a scene/setting/story now, these same details will say “2020” as much as long hair, beads, and the Byrds say “1968”.

    As to a different genre ~ it’s been a while since I traveled to the final frontier in a galaxy and dimension far, far away, so Sci-FI has been nosing around the edges… or in movie parlance, I may be headed somewhere Back to the Future…

    • Sounds like a good travel plan, George. My wife and I recently re-watched Back to the Future. It is so good, so tight, so fun. But of course it has details that date it, too, like when Marty orders a “Pepsi Free.” That joke doesn’t work for anyone born after 1980!

  13. I love the Romeo series and just pre-ordered Romeo’s Stand. Can’t wait to dive in.

    I would like to write historical fiction set in the early twentieth century deep south. However, realist that I am, I need to continue my novel education writing cozy mysteries for a while.

  14. Crime, of course. Enough of these women’s fiction, life lessons, lovey-dovey, pie-in-the-sky endings already. Give me the bloody knife, the head in a box, or a bar fight gone wrong. Y’all inspire me…

    It’s fun to think about and try some opening lines, like, “Now what should I do with the bloody thing? Dumpster? The lake? No, they just found a severed arm out there last year. And that guy’s in jail now.”

    Come to think of it, wasn’t it Freud or someone who said, “Don’t be afraid to explore your darker side.” Hmm…well, might be a ways off, but I might try it. 🙂

    • Deb, that’s a great opening line. I’d read on, for sure.

      Early on in my writing life, pre-publication, I began doing something Dean Koontz used to do in his early days—the first line game. I’ve got a file full of them, and a few have led to actual books (like Framed). It’s fun.

      Freud. Meh. How many novels did he write?

  15. James, two of your how-to books are on my nightstand as I type. I have found them invaluable in my writing. My first novel, as yet to be published, is a genre I couldn’t really nail down and so I have called it a “speculative future thriller.” It is set nearly one hundred years in the future. Yet, because of the political paths taken, progress stopped and moved backward along the way. So it is not science fiction. It is also not any more dystopian than the reality in which we currently find ourselves. My short stories have been more literary fiction than anything like this novel so why I ventured in that strange direction is still very much a mystery to me. The thing is, as days and months go by, it seems more truth than fiction. I’m not sure that is a good thing. But there it is.

    • So it is not science fiction. It is also not any more dystopian than the reality in which we currently find ourselves.

      Well put, RLM. And yes, fiction can certainly be “truer” in a deep sort of way than what we are spoon fed. So write on.

  16. I’ve long been fascinated by mixing genres. The possibilities of cross-pollination are endlessly surprising. The June issue of Mystery Weekly Magazine will feature my short story “The Calculus of Karma,” a mash-up of science fiction and detective fiction. So yes, venture out into different genres. You may like — even love — the results.

    • Congrats on the short story publication, Mike. And you’re so right, the possibilities are endless. We can (should) take a risk and see what happens….

  17. A friend called yesterday. She and her husband went to North Myrtle Beach to open up her parents’ beach house on Memorial Day. The beaches were so full she never even went out because Covid would kill her with her health issues. People weren’t even trying to stay apart. Between behavior like that and the justice marches in the last few days, we are so screwed. I’ve decided I can only trust myself so I’m staying home except when I have no choice to go out.

    Writing a wide range of genres isn’t something I’d recommend if you want to sell lots of books because most of the readers you cultivate won’t follow you. And readers are very hard to cultivate.

    In the last forty years, I’ve written multiple genres and subgenres as I followed traditional publishing market trends– supernatural suspense, science fiction adventure, paranormal romance, reincarnation romance, science fiction romance, category romance, romantic adventure, fantasy, mystery, and romantic suspense.

    I’m published in science fiction adventure, reincarnation romance, science fiction romance, romantic adventure, fantasy, and romantic suspense. A majority of the readers never followed me.

    • Marilynn, the safest place on Earth to be right now is in the sunshine at the beach, so no worries.

      As for trying different genres, it can be a rejuvenation. Short fiction is especially good for this. It makes your writing stronger for when you return to your own genre. It’s fun. Sometimes that’s reason enough.

  18. How about this:

    Ex-detectoive Corbin Thomas and his father live in an apartment in New York. Both have tested positive and his father is showing symptom. They are quarantined. Other tenants have come to him to look into the disappearance of George Carter, the superintendent. How does he do it?

  19. Historical Fiction would be my other choice.

    These days I see The Twilight Zone through the lens of topical history. Remember the armageddon episode? (Remember when we worried about being able to survive the big one in our bomb shelters?) The Bank Teller just wants to read, so on his break he steals away to the Bank Vault, and the atomic bomb is dropped while he is sealed away. He comes out to total distruction. Then he finds books. He’s happy to be alone with endless time to read—until he breaks his glasses.Then he needs people.

    • That episode is consistently rated most memorable on lists of Twilight Zone episodes.

      My personal favorite is the second episode of the first season, titled One for the Angels, about the pitchman and Mr. Death.

  20. At last!! I’ve been waiting for this one. I pre-order books from maybe three continuing series. This is one of them. 🙂

    And Trestles to the south, Rincon to the north were my beaches. Loved to watch the surfing. After I gave up trying to do it myself. In the days of the 9’+ boards…

  21. I never got into surfing myself, Justine. Except for body surfing. I love doing that. My big brother was the surfer in the family. He even had a Woody!

    • Oh, a Woody, I’m envious! I gave up body surfing after seeing somebody get trounced at the Wedge in Newport. Of course there was a hurricane off Baja so his judgment was questionable. 🙂

  22. I’ve had the most success with humor, romance, inspirational, and much to my surprise, horror (did that one on a dare and won a prize for it).

    I put aside my dystopian because way too much was coming true, to the point where the kids were saying “Did you send someone your script?” I started to feel felt as though I was in a Twilight Zone episode. (My favorite episode is The Hunt).

    So now I’m working in fantasy where families get together for the holidays and have a good time. There may never be a market for it, but it’s keeping me sane during crazy time and for that I’m grateful.

  23. I think I heard a kindred spirit of Joe Gillis in Mike Romeo. Well played.

  24. It is interesting to hear what is happening in the US with regards to this virus and lockdown. Congratulations on your new novel.

  25. Puts things in perspective. In a way, all my unpublished novels are now historical fiction though I thought I was writing contemporary fiction.

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