Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Writing about death

Death is a natural part of life so it should be no surprise that it makes an appearance in a writer’s work. I knew that I was going to have to refer to it at some point in The War Wolf as this is a book about violent events and violence often ends in death; especially when there’s a battle!

There are several approaches that one can take with regards to this subject and it all depends upon the nature of the death that you are writing about. The Battle of Fulford Gate gave me two kinds of approach. The first was a more objective account in which large numbers of men meet in combat and a significant percentage of them died. The removed nature of the account actually results in a kind of distance being achieved between myself and the often undefined characters that I am writing about. I did put in the occasional more detailed account of someone dying horribly on the point of a spear but these were largely cameo appearances.

The more subjective accounts came when I involved the characters that I had defined, moulded and developed. In this instance I actually found the writing more emotionally charged. I don’t know if that came across to the reader, no one has actually mentioned it yet, but for me the scene in which Hereric commits the ultimate act of courage, sacrificing himself to save his lord, honouring his death-oath as a huscarl, meant a lot when I wrote it. I wanted it be heroic and not just another bloody event. When I thought about it I was humbled by what I imagined to be the courage of a man who accepts the price of his own loyalty on a field of battle will be his death. To stand there before your enemies knowing that you will not live beyond the encounter and yet not shirk from it; that is true bravery.

There are other deaths, however, and they are not all as brave. In my new novel Eugenica, a work currently in progress, I wrote a scene where a young girl dies as the result of a severe beating. I found actually writing the scene surprisingly easy, I thought that I might have had a problem with that as I have no experience of visiting such violence on another person, but it flowed from my keyboard. The real emotional response came after the beating when she is rescued by a friend and dies in the company of what few other friends she had. That actually got to me. I remember reading an interview with J. K. Rowling in which she admitted to crying over a death scene that she wrote for Harry Potter, I don’t think that I was too impressed. I was wrong to have that attitude. When you invest time and effort into a character they do come alive and start to live in your imagination, then you kill the off and although they never leave you they are never the same either.

What I discovered was that it was not the moment of the death of the character that I had a response to, it was the impact that that death had on the other characters. In For Rapture of Ravens I had to deal with the aftermath of the Battle of Fulford Gate and one of the characters has to grieve for her husband. I’ve attended my share of funerals so I was able to set the scene well enough, I think, but what came out as I wrote the dialogue surprised me. I think it is one of my better moments of writing but I’m going to have to wait for the book to be published to verify that.

Art imitates life, they say, therefore so should writing. In life the moment of someone’s death can be terrible, painful, quick; slow, observed by a crowd or go unknown. The moment of death is not the part that provokes the real emotional response; that comes as part of the realisation that this person really has died. It is the reaction of one human to the demise of another. We are largely empathic beings and we feel the hurt of another otherwise would a reader be affected by the death of a person who is just a figment of the writer’s imagination?

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