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 . . .
Friday, May 02, 2008
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Isn't death part of life? It seems like it would be hard to never write a story where someone dies. I've never killed anyone mid story yet, but I usually start with someone having died in the recent past. One of those things I need to work on. There has to be other ways to start a story :).
What a funny story (well, funny as only a story about killing off one's fictional character at the age of 14 can be...)
I remember hearing David McCullough talk about the day he had to write about the end of John Adams' life. He was completely devastated and he and his wife had to take a little mini vacation for him to get over the grief.
I loved hearing about the story you wrote as a teenager. How dramatic! I'm sure at 14 I'd have written about a girl with a crush on the cutest boy at school. Oh wait--I still write those stories. And so far, in my stories, only 1 person has died, and she was a great-grandma...
I wrote a novel when I was 16 and one of the two main characters died. Of course, she did. What teenager can write a story without someone dying?
In my first novel, I killed one of my main characters. I didn't kill him, he did something incredibly heroic and stupid and got himself killed. He even had a spot to fill in the second half of the book, which I then had to re-outline because of the glaring vacancy.
I wept for him. I could hardly type for the tears as I watched the scene unfold. I grieved him for days. He was my favorite, how could he go and do something like that?
The good news is, from his death sprung another character that was not planned - and one who turned out to be crucial to the last half of the tale. So I guess it was a trade off.
I think it's pretty cool when you can get so invested in your own story that you grieve. Now my goal is to make sure its well written enough that every one who reads it later weeps, too.
You're right - we're a weird bunch...
It all depends on how we view death, since the next life is a far better place. You did them a favor, Annette--although in a book is the only place you can get away with such rationalizing :-)
I think I've chosen to write for a younger crowd so I won't have to kill anyone. I'm a coward, I confess.
As if I needed any more proof that we were separated at birth! I've got a worse record than you do; I've killed someone in every single piece of fiction I've ever written.
Hmmmm, you've never seemed to have a morbid fascination with death in my view! Maybe writing is your one outlet for it--a catharsis of all the deaths you haven't experienced. :)
In my book Roses and Daisies I killed a little girl in the first chapter. Actually it was in the short story which evolved into a book because I wanted to see what the consequences were.
I cried. I cried everytime I had to read it over.
And people who have read my book cry too.
I must have done it right.
Ha! I've never ever ever thought about any such thing from the writer's point of view! Oh, sure, I read all sorts of books where people die, but I'd never really thought that maybe the author of the book was mourning their loss too! You've completely opened my eyes here!
So far, I've been lucky. I haven't had to kill off anyone! Okay, maybe a bug or two, but no one of any consequence!
Nice blog; I enjoyed it. And thanks for stopping by my page and leaving a comment.
What kind of person am I? I never feel guilty killing off my characters. Though I will say when they killed Chris ODonnell's character in Fried Green Tomatoes, I was very upset. Still am, as a matter of fact.
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