I think I was fourteen at the time. I’d gone with my mother to the BYU bookstore, where she agreed to buy me a binder for my writing. It was a rosy pink with “Brigham Young University” in silver on the spine. The binder still sits on a shelf in my office.
Once home, I eagerly filled it with notebook paper, then plopped onto the living room couch and began scribbling.
I had no concrete story idea; I was just in the mood to write. I began with an image and went with it: a little girl walking through a meadow where her imaginary friends lived. I’m sure the idea was a direct result of the fact that at the time, I constantly poured over the work of L. M. Montgomery.
In the brief story, the girl greets the fairies and other mythical creatures and bemoans how she has no other friends. The other children mock and tease her. She feels welcome only there with her magical companions. As I wrote, I discovered that the girl also has a serious illness and rarely gets to go out to her meadow.
She lies on the ground, hidden from sight by the flowers above and around her. Then she closes her eyes and whispers, “My dears, I’ve come to join you.”
A perfectly melodramatic story for a teen to write. But overdone as the two-page ditty was, the ending hit me with a bolt of lightning. I closed the binder and stared at it, feeling not a little shaky.
A little girl was dead, and I had killed her.
It didn’t matter that she was fictional, that she hadn’t ever really inhabited this world, experienced life, or had a family to mourn her passing (I worried about her poor mother—would she be able find her daughter under all those flowers?). In those few minutes I’d lived with her on the page, she had been real to me.
The sensation was odd—a creative rush combined with the sensation of intense guilt almost nauseating in its strength. The little dead girl seemed to haunt me for days afterward. I’m sorry, I wanted to say. I didn’t mean to kill you. I didn’t know you’d die. It took a week or two to get over the guilt.
Then I had my first dip into research. I had to figure out what she’d died from, so I cracked open one of my mother’s many reference books and read up on various fatal illnesses that could strike children. For reasons I don’t recall, I settled on aplastic anemia, a disease I knew nothing about save for a brief description written in tiny text. The fact that a child minutes away from death wouldn’t be in a position to frolic in a meadow was pretty much irrelevant to me.
Since then, I’ve killed many fictional people, but I’ve reached the point where I no longer take responsibility for their deaths. I grieve when they die; they’re my friends, in a way. But it’s not my fault. Sometimes characters, just like people, die.
About a year ago, after reading At the Journey’s End, a man in my neighborhood came to me and said, “What is your problem with death?”
Confused, I asked, “What do you mean?”
“By the end of the first chapter, three people are dead.”
At first I was taken aback. THREE? No way. I thought back. One person dies in the prologue. One in the first chapter. Oh, wait. Two. Yep. That makes three. But both deaths in chapter one were real historical figures. I didn’t kill them. They really died on that day in history; I just told about it.
As if that made it so much better.
So I thought back to my other books. Lost without You has a mother already dead before the book begins, which is pretty much what the plot revolves around. Plus a little girl’s kitten dies. Oh, and a man dies in the girl's presence. Almost forgot that one. At the Water’s Edge has two deaths. And House on the Hill? Several pretty major deaths, plus a dog.
Wow, I thought. I do have some kind of fascination with killing people off.
The best response I could come up with for my neighbor was, “Rest assured, no one dies in my next book.” I paused to double-check, thinking through Spires of Stone just to be sure—did anyone—or anything—die in it? Even a cat or dog? A mouse? Nope. No one dies. Phew.
However . . . I can’t say the same for my upcoming Tower of Strength. Sorry. It does have two deaths, plus one more in the back story that we don’t see. My obsession with the end of life is apparently quite healthy.
But I’m innocent! I swear, I didn’t kill anyone in that book. It’s not my fault, and I won’t feel guilty over it.
Okay, so I still cried writing about them.
Goodness, we writers are certainly an odd lot . . .
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