ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the tag “Killing your darlings”

Killing my darlings

Archer, James, 1823-1904; La mort d'Arthur

James Archer, Mort d’Arthur

The drawback about writing books set in the past is that any ”real” character one decides to include is dead. There is no ambiguity there, no leeway for twisting things slightly so that the person in question gets to enjoy some years of sunset and peace before passing on—not if the facts unequivocally state that on this date so-and-so died in this way.

Invented characters also die. Not necessarily because I planned it that way, but rather because all of a sudden their character arch took a turn I wasn’t expecting.

Accordingly, I have had to write a lot of death scenes, and I must admit I find these very difficult to write—especially when I’ve bonded with the person about to expire. Not even when I dislike the character I’m about to off do I find it easy – a case in point is the scene in my series The King’s Greatest Enemy where Hugh Despenser is executed. It is difficult to feel anything but compassion for a naked man about to die a slow and painful death in front of a howling mob.

Death is not always violent. Death is also a part of life—even if us modern people have little exposure to it. Not that long ago, generations lived closer together and chances were most children would have seen dead people before they entered their teens. Back then, people died at home. These days, we mostly die in hospital, monitored by beeping machinery that suddenly stops beeping.

One thing I always spend a lot of time considering is in what POV to write the death scene. In some cases, the choice is self-evident: if the character hasn’t been a POV character previously I’m not about to drag my reader into his/her head to live through the final moments of life. It would feel contrived, somehow. But there are deaths where I have a choice: should I depict it from the perspective of the person dying or from the person watching?

Seeing as I have no experience of dying (and I really prefer to keep it that way for quite some more years, thank you very much), writing in the POV of the person about to pass comes with challenges. How cognisant is a dying person of the fact that they’re about to die? How much does it hurt? Is there fear, anger? Or is there a point at which one simply gives up and goes with the flow?

A Newfound Land-Facebook Shared Image“What day is it today?” Magnus asked Alex a few days later. He craned his head back to look out at the pale blue summer sky.
“Midsummer’s Eve.”
How apt, Magnus thought, to die on the longest day of the year. He lay in silence, listening to the sounds around him. Sounds of life, of continuity: Samuel’s soft snuffling from where he slept in his basket only feet from his ear, David’s piercing screams from outside, and Agnes’ low soothing voice, shushing him. In the distance he could hear a horse – probably Moses – and there were birds, and hens cackling, and the ubiquitous sound of young, vibrant beings, his grandchildren, tumbling around in the summer afternoon.
He recognised the tread of Matthew’s feet on the kitchen floor – there was that damned plank that always creaked – and from beside him came the clicking sound of Mrs Parson’s knitting. He listened some more and heard that one sound was missing. Alex was holding her breath, and that meant she was trying very hard not to cry. He moved one hand in her direction and immediately her fingers closed over his.
“It’s not too bad,” Magnus lied. It was fucking terrible! Whenever he opened his eyes, it was like having a red-hot needle poked through his tender cornea, so he preferred to keep them closed. Behind his eyelids swirled blacks and blues and the occasional dash of bright vermillion and orange and sometimes – thank heavens – a soothing green, and then it all began again and he was in so much pain that sometimes he could feel each individual strand of hair as a hurting, aching extremity. 
He heard Matthew enter the room, hesitating for a few seconds before pulling up a stool to sit beside Alex. It almost made Magnus laugh; like a lit de parade, the adults of his family converging to watch him die. He twisted his face towards the twilight that hovered outside the small window.
“I always knew,” he said.
“Knew what?” Alex asked.
“That I’d die at dusk.” Soon he’d be dead, and never again would he see the trees or the clouds, never would he walk over fields, brush his legs through knee-high grasses. Not that it mattered. Nothing mattered except for the pain that inhabited his head, the humongous effort it was to keep on breathing. Air. He needed air, and he sucked and sucked, but nothing seemed to reach his lungs. No click, click, click from his right-hand side; instead, Mrs Parson’s hand closed over his, her breath warm on his cheek as she leaned over him.
“Go with God, Magnus Lind,” she said, and he heard it in her voice that any moment now he’d be dead, and he didn’t want to be.
In Magnus’ head, things happened that were frightening and awe-inspiring – like being high on something far more potent than marijuana, his brain dissolving into extraordinary fireworks. Everything was spinning; he saw bands of shifting colours and he shot forward through time and there was Isaac – in Stockholm, Magnus noted with pleased surprise. He was dragged backwards in time, he whizzed past Alex, and there was his Mercedes. He squinted because he’d never seen her so old, but there she was, her dark hair a beautiful silvered grey covered by a lace mantilla, and he realised she was back in her time, living out her life, and all of him shrivelled in panic. I don’t want to die if she’s not there waiting for me! Idiot, his brain jeered, no one’s waiting for you – you don’t believe in the afterlife, do you? No, Magnus Lind, this is the final curtain call, and soon… No! Magnus shrieked in protest at God, at the bursts of light that were falling like confetti in his head.
Hands on his arm, someone kissed his cheek, dragging him back to a glimmer of real life. With an effort, he opened his eyes.
“Alex? Lilla hjärtat?”
Pappa.” She clasped his groping hand and held Magnus as he began the final fall from life. It no longer hurt. It was all a soothing cold that was like rustling silk over his poor, aching brain. It grew dark. The spinning slowed to a gentle twirling and he could no longer hear, but he could still feel Alex’s hand in his.
It grew even darker and it was very cold but it didn’t matter because now there was a growing point of light and in it he saw Mercedes. She was young, her hair fell free down her back, and she held out her hand to him and smiled.
“Mercedes?” he whispered.
Estoy aquí,” she murmured. “I’m always here, amor mío.” (A Newfound Land)

HDQ02ef126bf225e1545b51ecb2094efd20When it comes to violent and painful deaths such as that of Hugh Despenser, I prefer to describe them from the POV of someone watching. This is partly because this gives me room to properly depict just how the person dies—a man being castrated probably registers little beyond a wave of pain—but also because the images that fill my head when I try to sink into the POV of the condemned person are too black, too full of fear, making it difficult to write coherently about it.

Sometimes, the obvious turmoil lies with the bereaved. This is definitely the case when a child dies. As a mother of four, writing the death of beloved children is among the most difficult things I’ve done. It is far too easy to envision the pain and grief that would follow in the wake of such a loss. And yet, if you write historical fiction children have to die. It is unrealistic otherwise, as child mortality was high and few were the households spared such losses.

Adam found Kit by the stream, in the little hollow that was their miniature Garden of Eden. He smiled at the memories of his Kit naked in the summer grass, of the way she laughed when she splashed through the shallow waters of the pool. She wasn’t laughing now, sitting huddled just by the water, her thick winter cloak draped like protective armour around her.
“Tell me about her,” Adam said, sinking down to sit beside her.
She didn’t reply at first. Instead she sat staring at the water, now and then sending a pebble flying to land with a soft plop.
“There is nothing to tell. She is dead.”
“But she lived before she died, did she not?” Adam had seen dead infants before, but never one of his own, and grief rushed through him. He’d had a daughter, but she was dead and he had never seen her nor held her. Something of his pain must have coloured his voice, because Kit turned her head to look at him, her heavy hair lying like a mantle down her back.
“She was bald, but I could see she’d be fair – like you.” She gnawed at her lip. “She never opened her eyes. She lived for one pitiful day, and not once did she open them. So I don’t know if they were blue or green or brown or grey. All I know is that she had long, fair lashes, and that when I held her, her eyelids fluttered, as if she was trying to open them but couldn’t quite find the strength to do so.” Her voice broke. “I knew the moment I saw her that she wouldn’t live.”
Days of Sun and Glory-BookBub“Oh, Kit,” he said, taking her hand. “I am so sorry I wasn’t here – for you and for her. And I swear that had I known, I would have come, no matter what the prince might have said.” He tightened his hold on her fingers. “In my heart, you always come first. You know that, don’t you?”
“Not always.” She kept her gaze on her lap, her posture stiff and unyielding.
“I…” He cleared his throat. “I do not have the luxury to order my life. If I had, I’d never be parted from you, never spend a night without you in my arms.” He caught a flash of blue from under her lashes, the only sign she was listening to him. “This is home,” he said softly, “this place, this house, but most of all it is you. You are my home and my life, and every day I spend away from you is a wasted day, a day I pray will pass as quickly as possible, that I might return to you all the sooner.”
She glanced at him. “Quite the troubadour.”
“No.” He tugged at her hand, and she shifted closer. “It is the truth.” He reached out to smooth at her hair. “As the queen once said, you are the sun in my existence. What man prefers stumbling about in the dark to standing in the brightness of a sunbeam?”
There was a muffled sound he first assumed to be sobs.
“The brightness of a sunbeam?” Kit lifted her face, her mouth quivering – with laughter. It bubbled from her, and then she was no longer laughing, she was weeping, and Adam gathered her close, pressing his cheek to her head. (Days of Sun and Glory)

The_Triumph_of_Death,_or_The_Three_Fates

The Three Fates

When writing deaths, I also spend a lot of time wondering about the role of faith. While we live in an agnostic age, where most of us go to our death without the comfort of believing in a hereafter, my characters belong to earlier times, where God’s existence was a given (Back then, those who questioned God were given the task of proving he didn’t exist. Today, we’ve turned it around and demand those who believe prove that he does…) But even if you did believe in God, I imagine losing someone you loved was difficult. It always is, the grief and loss standing in proportion to just how much you loved them. And however strange it may sound, it doesn’t help if the person dying is an invented person. Rather the reverse, in fact, because added to the grief is a huge portion of guilt. After all, in the microcosmos of my imaginary world it is I who spin the threads of fate – and cut them.

No, no, no! Please don’t die! – of the constraints imposed by reality

I write historical fiction, and as such I am a big fan of knowing my period and the important players of the time. However, my first series featured a time-traveller and her 17th century husband, a couple affected by what was happening round them – Matthew Graham is obliged to uproot himself and his family and leave Scotland due to the religious persecution in the aftermath of the Restoration in 1660 – but they were never anywhere close to the centre of things. This allowed me a lot of freedom when plotting their lives and adventures – albeit that I do have real-life characters flitting in and out.

EHFA Isabella_and_Roger_Mortimer

Isabella and Roger – IRL (hmm, like a century after the fact)

My new series also features fictional characters. But this time round, I’ve tied their fate to that of the movers and shakers of the time, and suddenly my writing is populated by far more characters who did exist than did not.
“I should hope so.” Roger Mortimer pours himself a goblet of wine and reclines on one of the window seats that have, just by magic, popped up in my head. “It is us that are truly interesting.”
Well, excuse me for not agreeing 100%, Lord Mortimer! Well, okay: I am fascinated by Roger Mortimer – have been, since a certain Mr Wilmshurst (one of my first history teachers) summarised the story of Queen Isabella and Roger.

At the time, Queen Isabella came as a fresh air, proving to everyone in the class room that not all medieval ladies were meek and submissive. In actual fact, I think very few were: it suffices to look around at the women that surround us to realise submissiveness is not necessarily an ingrained female trait. But you see, no matter how tough as boots Isabella was, I never really warmed to her. I did, however, warm to Mortimer.
“He would not have given you as much as a glance,” Isabella says from where she has joined Mortimer by the window. She twirls, showing off her perfect figure. Everything is perfect about her – but there’s something hard and calculating about her, and I’ve always felt she could have done more to save her lover from his fate.
“My fate?” Mortimer stands up, and beside him, Isabella is as dainty as a foal beside a stallion.
“Well, you know,” I say, squirming a bit. “You die.”
He gives me a humourless smile. “I know. I was there, remember?” His hand rubs at his neck. “I was hoping you’d apply an alternate history approach.” .
Ah. But I already do – sort of – and one can only play with the facts so far, unless I aim to recreate an entirely new historical setting, which I don’t. So I clear my throat and shake my head. “Sorry. Facts are facts.”
“Are they?” His brows shoot up. “So you know everything about me and Isabella?”
“Umm…” Obviously not. It’s not as if these two were kind enough to leave me huge diaries to read. And even if they had, who’s to say that would be the truth. The truth is never much more than a perception – unless we talk of the hard facts, such as “he was born then, died then.” Died. Gone. An irrefutable fact.

I’m going to come clean here and say I have a major, major problem when my characters – invented or not invented – die on me.

1280px-John_Everett_Millais_-_Ophelia_-_Google_Art_Project

Dead – very dead (Ophelia by Millais)

Now, when it comes to invented characters, the savvy writer can keep a careful eye on the character’s development and the plotline so as to ensure death is not the only option. Close shaves at times, but not death. Not yet. Preferably not ever – or at least not in any of the books I intend to write about this character. Some characters take matters out of your hands by being quite contrary and end up dead anyway, but such misfortunes can be avoided when dealing with imaginary peeps.

The problem is compounded when dealing with people who did live – and die. Unless you’re aiming for alternative history – as my pal Roger so helpfully suggested – in which you could, f.ex., keep Harold alive at Hastings while having William eating dust, writing about real-life people is constraining.

“Harold?” Roger snorts softly. “He was a Saxon savage. With William came order and structure. No William, no Henry II, no Eleanor of Aquitaine, no Edward I, no Edward II.” His brow furrows. “Not that Edward II would have been a major loss to mankind.”
“Whatever,” I tell him, wanting to clap him over the head for his disparging comment about Harold. “My point is rather that real life characters such as you were born, and then you DIED.”
And once these historical people reach their best by date, no tweaking of the plotline will help – there they lie, as still as a rock and with as much animation. Truth be told, they were just as inert prior to being included in the ongoing Work-in-progress, but once you start breathing life into a person, they become your baby, sort of, and we don’t like it when our babies die.
Roger Mortimer gives me an amused look. “Your baby?”
“Figuratively speaking.”
“Ah.” He glances at Isabella, who has moved off to study her reflection in a pool of water. (My head is very roomy, okay?) “Not baby in the more modern sense?” He winks.
Sheesh! My cheeks heat, and darkly handsome Roger Mortimer throws back his head and laughs. Well: I’ll get my revenge – sort of – by sticking to the actual dates, so come December 1330, this vibrant, forceful and extremely ambitious man will be lying in an anonymous grave somewhere. Right: I need to take a little break and fortify myself with a gulp or two of tea. Roger – who is quite the gentlemen when he wants to be – pats me on the back and tells me not to feel too bad about killing him off. After all, most of his contemporaries were of the opinion he deserved it. This he says with a crooked smile, and I know his ignominious death still rankles.

My conversation with Mortimer is interrupted by the sudden appearance of Adam de Guirande, my very invented hero who loves Mortimer as a father – even if at times he doesn’t like him or his methods much. If I am upset by the thought of Mortimer’s death, it will eviscerate Adam.
“It will.” Mortimer’s dark gaze follows Adam’s progress towards him. “So we don’t tell him. Not yet.”
“Not yet,” I promise.
Mortimer moves off with Adam, doing one of those elegant fade aways my characters often do when they desire some moments of privacy. I revert to my morbid musings regarding the demise of characters.

One of my main gripes with George R. R. Martin’s Game of Throne series is that he keeps on killing people off. No sooner have I developed a relationship with one of his main characters, and he offs them. I have still not recuperated from Ned Stark’s beheading, let me tell you. Now, if I feel so bereaved, I can only imagine how bereaved he feels. Or maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he maintains a professional distance to all his imaginary creations – but I don’t believe that, as anyone with half a brain cell can see how much of himself he has invested in his books and characters.

Still, Martin has the option of keeping them all alive. Had he wanted to, the entire Stark family could still be sitting in Winterfell, expressing that “winter is coming” in between bickering about whether to worship the Seven, the old goods, or the fire god. Not necessarily the most riveting of stories, but he could have aimed for a Happily Ever After seeing as he invented the Starks.

Had George R.R. Martin been writing about William Wallace, Happily Ever After would not even be an option. After all, we all know how Wallace died, and there was nothing happy about it. (And while I break out in hives every time I see Mel Gibson depict Wallace wearing a kilt, I must give him plus points for that awesome death scene.)

Edward_Burne-Jones.The_last_sleep_of_Arthur

A very dead Arthur (Edward Burne-Jones)

It’s very frustrating to know from the beginning you’re going to have to kill off some of your protagonists – just because they happen to have a fixed death date. Alternatively, you end the story before they die, but sometimes that isn’t an option. In the example of William Wallace, there really is no point at which we can have him riding off into a rosy sunset, leaving his future fate to be determined by the reader.

No, William Wallace had no Happily Ever After, and neither did my Roger Mortimer. I sigh and press the heels of my hands against my eyes. Shit: Adam de Guirande will never forgive me for this, for allowing him to develop such strong bonds with a man I knew from the beginning wouldn’t be around to grow old. But that, dear readers, is one of those things us writers have to deal with. Still: I wish…

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