In grad school, I had an internship at a small rural hospice in Michigan. There, I learned the importance — and effect — of anniversaries. The date of a death can affect families, friends, and communities for years.
I know it’s worked that way for me.
A few days after the glee of the New Year, thoughts of
and becoming an orphan,
shove aside my natural optimism.
Among the most important anniversaries I mark are:
January 6, 1978. That’s when my stepfather died. My sense of invincibility died that day, too.
February 11, 1999. My mother died. Nothing prepared us for her quick demise. The shock of it left me reeling, unsure I could depend upon anything fully again.
I’m writing about this today because of wonderful recent entries on the blog NakedAuthors. There, Patricia Smiley and James Grippando wrote personal essays about their aging parents.
In reading their posts, I realized, yet again, the slender line we mystery writers tread. Most of us touch upon deaths frequently in our work. But ours are exciting versions, not the thick sadnesses that envelope hearts when the reality of those losses hit anew. For people who write with humor that line squiggles upon itself and tangles in unexpected ways.
Often, I find myself feeling like I’m walking on a balance beam made of gelatin. How can I respect the gravity of death, of murder, while grinning at the amusing ways Sasha unravels the clues?
It’s during these first two months of the year that I stumble most, feel least sure.
During Malice Domestic last year, I was on a panel with guest of honor Robert Barnard. During the discussion, I said something about not thinking one could make death funny (Yeah, yeah, I know it can be done; I was going for a deeper point). Later, Barnard took me aside and said, "Young lady, you can make anything funny."
The problem is, right now, I’m not laughing. I don’t want to make death funny. To me, it’s not. It’s real, difficult, and empty.
I lost my mother when I was ten, my stepfather when I was 16, my uncle in 1975, my aunt in 1980 and my father about five years ago. Their cumulative loss has a lifelong mourning attached to it for me. There are so many unanswered questions that I will never know the answers to or understand. But my life goes on.Thanks for the post.
Iden,I wondered about writing this post. It’s not cheery.
But sometimes, we writers need to be reminded about our subject matter and how nonfictional people feel.
I’ve lost all of my “parents” including my godfather — just two months after Mom.
Even so, I’ve noticed that, for me, Jan. and most of Feb. are much more melancholic than the rest of the year.
Luckily, my bday comes near the end of Feb. and I’m such a sucker for celebration, it kind of knocks me out of the depths of despond 😉
Death isn’t funny. Or cool. Or entertaining. Or compelling.
Make no mistake – What we as writers do is make characters funny, or cool or entertaining. We simply them put in and around death because there is nothing larger for a human to deal with than death.
In Hollywood, one of the first questions asked by network and studio executives when they hear a series or movie pitch is:
“What are the stakes?”
And the answer every screenwriter wants to give, the trump card of all answers is “The stakes are life and death.”
We put our characters in situations where life and death is on the line because that’s what’s compelling – to watch them act and react to situations.
But death itself is simply death.
Guyot,Thanks for putting this so eloquently.
Life and Death — yes, these are huge stakes.
But what about the murder mystery, the puzzle? In many of these works, the emotional power of death or murder to be solved takes a backseat to the protag’s wit or ingenuity.
I’m not saying this is bad.
I’m just saying that during certain months of the year, I really notice the trend and wonder.
Pari, thank you for your openness on this.
I think most everyone has at least one day of loss in their lives. I’ve been blessed with not having to experience much yet. I know it’s coming. I try to make sure that I celebrate always. I talk to my parents daily, and see them as often as I can. I don’t ever want to look back and say that “I should have…”
Actually, I guess that’s the goal for all of my life, to never look back with regret.
That said, I have a lonesome day too. I get in a funk and often don’t know why, then realize what the date is. I think it’s our heart’s way of reminding us. It’s a good way to create depth in our characters as well.
The end of February will be here soon.
“Thick sadnesses.” You got that right.
I read a book a couple of years ago in which the villain killed several of the protagonist’s friends. The sleuth opined, “That’s it. Four friends dead in one week is just too much. Now I’m mad.”
So was I. Mad at the author who treated the loss of four friends with such a shallow and cavalier attitude.
Our books and characters can still be funny and upbeat or scary and dark, but please, please, let’s make them credible.
J.T.,I’d wish you never to experience the death of loved ones — but that would mean something I don’t want to contemplate.
Louise,I notice this kind of tendency in my own writing at times — especially in first draft. Those are the times when Sasha isn’t witty; she’s just plain obnoxious.
This is interesting to ponder.
In my recent revision, it occurred to me that everything was screaming for one minor character who played a sort of key part to die. I had resisted that all along, while at the same time everything around it, all the other layers of the book, were written almost “as though” that death had occurred.
But it was emotionally hard to do.
Once I did it, though, it was clear to me – the main characters all suffered losses earlier in life that led directly to this event. The ripples from this particular death were already in the rest of the book – they just didn’t make good sense b/c there was no current “loss” to trigger them or make them real.
This is muddled as I write it, but it makes sense in my head. 🙂
On a personal level, I have not experienced much death, nor the death of a parent. It is getting closer though, and I know it will have a huge effect on my life when it does.
I know the anniversary effect well – both personally and via clients. It is amazing how powerful it is, and how often we don’t anticipate it but figure it out anew when that time of year rolls around again.
It isn’t easy to throw off a mantle of sorrow when we remember the loss of our loved ones. For me -the best remedy is to remember the good times with them. I’m not one to easily recall specific dates, so in that sense – I guess I’m lucky.
But Pari – I’ll celebrate the end of February with you – I’m next door – the first week of March. And we’ll smile together. In fact, we’ll have a special drink at LCC (good excuse, right?)!
For me, the difference is the victim. If he or she is universally hated, it doesn’t effect me at all and I can enjoy the humor or the puzzle. But if it was a sympathetic character, then I find myself emotionally involved and jokes and levity would seem out of place.
Of course, at times an author can go too far and suddenly I am feeling sorry for the victim when even family isn’t upset they are gone.
Another good way is kill the person early before we get to know them. Or make them a virtual stranger to the main character so there’s no emotional attachment. Of course, with cozies, that becomes tricky because why would the main character investigate the death.
Just some thoughts from a reader.
Billie,I suspect you see the anniversary phenomenon frequently in your practice. I was really taken aback when I realized this was happening in my own life.
Elaine,You’re right about celebrating the present. The annivesary experience certainly isn’t universal; that’s the other thing I learned in hospice.
And, regarding our birthday drinks — yes, let’s celebrate at LCC and again and again and again.
Mark,This is exactly what I was hoping for “from a reader.” I also agree. One of the challenges in writing a traditional mystery is how to handle death and its effect on others. I like that challenge most of the time.
For me, the victim is key. His or her life needs to resonate with the reader and the sleuth.
Those who’ve done it well in humorous mysteries are you, Pari, Sue Ann Jaffarian, Bill Fitzhugh, and then a whole list of others who are more in the black comedy arena.
Naomi,Thank you for the vote of confidence.
I agree that the victim has to have consonance with the reader.
The sleuth might get involved for other reasons though. For Sasha in BELEN, it was family pressure. As the book progressed, Sasha grew to like Phillipa . . . to respect her.
Uh, Pari? Three ‘agains’ are about my limit. ‘Back in the day’ – I’d just be getting started. Besides, Guyot owes me four beers.
Wimp? Really. Okay – you’re on. I get my hollow leg out and take it with me. You shall rue this, Ms. Taichert. 🙂
I’m not scared of you.
Remember, I earned my latest belt in Tae Kwon Do breaking two boards.
Now, that’s not a . . . threat . . . I just want you to know who you’re dealing with, Ms. Flinn. 😉
You gals drinking to Feb./March birthdays must hoist one for me at LCC. Leap year baby who at this point in life is pretty content to not even be an adolescent yet, if you count the real birthdays. 🙂
I swear this year it’s going to be pomegranate martinis on the 28th AND the 1st just to cover all my bases.
W. H. Auden
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,Silence the pianos and with muffled drumBring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overheadScribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,My working week and my Sunday rest,My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.For nothing now can ever come to any good.
Pari, lovely post about a touchy subject. Can death ever be funny? Only with the willing suspension of disbelief. Still, it’s a tricky business to pull it off.