Paper Graves – being authentic when exploring character’s grief

Grief is an emotion which cannot be contained within a set amount of time, nor within a range of reactions, as it is experienced by individuals in widely divergent ways. Generally it is those writers who have experienced a loss close to them, if they then choose to share it, who will then be able to convey the myriad of emotions surrounding a grieving character. However, just as one does not need to have traveled to Greece to be able to describe its beaches or tavernas to an extent that their readers believe the setting, so too, arguably, a writer need not have experienced a close friends’ death in order to allow their characters to display grief in an authentic manner. By understanding the effect grief has on a family’s/social unit’s physicality and emotions, a writer can then explore ways to portray this in their chosen genre’s manner.

The western world, as a general rule, is not culturally set up for grief. There are few instances in which we accept or deal with it – for the most part, death is a secret and a dreadful surprise and shock for which no-one is equipped or prepared. Death tends to be surrounded by family emotional outbursts of guilt and loss; generally ending in arguments and misunderstandings.

For the most part, there are no rituals or formal acceptance of death or the time after a passing, especially with mainstream society steering further away from the stayed religious doctrine. If there are no religious or sanctioned rituals, then it leaves huge holes within the psyche of the individuals and this can lead to some interesting reactions and habits for characters to indulge in (and writers to focus on detailing).

The intensity of grief instantly brings all the past hurts and woundings to the top and is often fuelled by regret and guilt. Those grieving will tend to alienate those who are near and dear and become consumed with the event. If the person who passed on had been ill or old, there can be waves of relief and thankfulness that their suffering has ended. Though this is often replaced with guilt for feeling this.

Its important for writers to understand the complexities of the emotional roller coaster grief can have on an individual in order for them to authentically describe and convey it in their words.

There are technical challenges within writing about grief which other formats such as film or the creative arts are able to portray in more easily accessible methods for its audience. Don’t let this stop you from exploring ways to express grief and the process of bereavement. Grief is not naturally static and writers tend to find it difficult to convey it without getting bogged down in overly complicated descriptions of windswept moors or flapping curtains.  A writers challenge is to be authentic to the emotion but to also move the narrative along.

In understanding the relationships and interactions of grief, writers can then begin to weave their craft around the theme. Structure can reflect the grief in its various forms. Your story could begin headlong rushing into events with everything seeming a blur, the detachment and disjointed conversations from those around the characters; the jaggered edges, the rawness of the emotions through conversation and action. Your text can appear spontaneous; keeping it close or near to engage the readers’ emotions. A story can then slow down into the stillness of acceptance, utilizing imagery or metaphors. As an example from a number of novels which feature characters dealing with grief, water is often used as it holds a great deal of symbolism surrounding death and grief.

With many grieving characters there is the need to go back and touch things as a way to remember the passed one or to capture the moments shared. Grief is also full of secrets. A writer can use these to introduce backstory through flashbacks or explanations.

The keenest loss is the loss of senses – the touch and smell of the person who has passed. This can be a great tool utilized by the writer. Tactile and aromas have sturdy anchors within peoples’ minds and will bring the reader closer to the text.

When writing about or portraying grief, things other than the emotions the character is experiencing can reflect their journey. Details of clothing (in some cases a meticulous care or in others a slovenly approach), the environment, particularly the weather, the order and tidiness of the house or places of work can echo how the character is dealing with bereavement and grief without actually telling your readers.

With grief there is the muteness and immobility of the person deeply entrenched in the emotion. However, there is also the drudgery and dreariness of just getting on with what is left of life and the loss of joy and the profound sadness. Anyone who has had an Italian or Greek widow as a neighbour or relative will understand the stoic nature and identity grief can take on for years after the passing. Characters who cling to rituals can become hermit-like, though this can be broken as the accumulated grief explodes as anger and all ritual or normality of routine is thrown away.

Writers, desperate to portray their characters’ emotions in an authentic manner, often steer clear of writing too extensively about grief as there are too many hackney and tired interpretations. Grieving characters experience a range of emotions and none can be classed as “normal” as grief, intrinsically, is individualistic. It is a time of consideration, consuming all physical and emotional time where the character is often unable to do anything else but stare.  Even if a writer has no direct experience with grief, by using the experiences they currently have, coupled with a keen empathy of humankind and their observations skills, it is still possible to depict a character whose grief is raw and real and will connect with the audience as authentic.

Someplace in the World

WorldGlobesShariStories happen someplace in the world, but not just anyplace. Someplace special where I will take you. That’s the purpose of writing about specific locations and periods and incorporating them into our stories. We writers take our readers to places they may never have been at times they couldn’t have traveled. Try to imagine Khaled Hosseini’s young runner, Hassan, chasing a blue kite down the sidewalks of Parkway Avenue in Trenton, NJ rather than across the snaggletooth alleys of Kabul, Afghanistan before the revolution. Doesn’t have the same panache.  Or consider Charles Dickens’ famished Oliver Twist begging for soup from the cafeteria lady at the school lunchroom instead of the miserly master of a workhouse in 1800’s London. Not nearly as desperate. Floating in a hot air balloon over Albuquerque is a daily errand compared to the heart stopping thrill of racing around the world for 80 days at the imagination of Jules Verne. You can’t gallop the Pony Express in Manhattan or mush the Iditarod in the Everglades.

The places where our stories happen are as important as the characters that people them and the events that energize them. When well realized, each complements the others and creates memorable images that propel the plot. More, the plot is possible because of those locations. Even if you have never visited Kabul, Trenton, the Great Plains, Nome, or hitched a ride in a balloon gondola, you have a sense of the roiling sky above, the smell on the street, the sounds pummeling your ears, the motion that nearly makes you sick. Ignore location in your books and run the risk of readers dismissing your work. “Where in the world does this take place?” you can hear them ask, and if they do, you have failed.

How then, to include a genuine scene of the exotic or extinct in your story, to be in that place at that moment when you’re potatoing at your computer? My own stories have begun as much in a place as with a hero and a quest. They are lock stepped into a setting as distinctive and essential as The Great Wall is to China, into a period as horrific as the Inquisition is to 15th century Spain. The Inlaid Table was born in a shtetl in Poland between the two world wars and otherwise would have been a laminated TV tray. Where Did Mama Go? is as fastened to the current  zeitgeist of Alzheimer’s discourse as cell phones are glued to teenagers. The Tree House Mother would only have been a description of a backyard fort were it not for the twisting narrow roads that confounded fire departments when Lemon Heights burned in the 1960’s.

Our house was only a few miles from the center of that inferno. I remember the billowing black smoke that rained ashes on the flatlands where we lived. If there is an authentic voice to the fire in my story it’s because of a bit of luck forged years before. My parents were longtime friends with a couple who lived in the hills.  When the fire combusted, our family worried for everyone but we knew who we worried for the most. They were safe and their house stood, as it turns out, but many years later the woman proved an amazing source of first hand information. I recalled a lot about that week but I hadn’t been in the hills, a foot from flames. She had.

I phone-interviewed Anita for hours over several days and met with her in a restaurant where I could sense the anxiety she’d felt all those decades past. She told me things no one had reported, details that gave flesh to a skeleton of an event. About the lost fire trucks, the panicked horses, the police coming around twice to warn people to evacuate, the water department manager who stood on the roof of the building and watched the fire leap ridgelines.

Then she brought out a packet of newspapers in a plastic sleeve, an entire journalistic rehash for two weeks of detailed reporting, and allowed me to take them home. Studying those papers was a boon I couldn’t have planned. Small town reporters know that a once in a lifetime opportunity to write up something other than football scores and broken hydrants is to be mined for every ounce of fool’s gold and diamond dust, because it might be the only chance to move out of the minor leagues up to the real deal. The local newshounds honed their skills with attention to detail, accurate fact collecting worthy of the FBI, and local color so neon that everyone knew exactly who’d been interviewed and which houses burned. Thank you one and all, you young cubs, and I hope you went on to bylines and columns of your own.

I studied the papers, I re-wrote my notes, I pondered, and had plenty of true life detail to write into my otherwise fabricated story. My hero, a figment of my imagination, got sidelined by horses fleeing down the road. She gave directions to lost firemen. I know from personal experience the acrid scent of smoke, how hot are raging flames, but the frightened horses and lost firemen – that was the contribution of my friend, Anita. She doesn’t write stories but she remembered.

Do whatever you need to gather first person evidence. If you can’t interview Columbus or visit Spain, scour diaries, census records, personal letters, almanacs, ship registers, train schedules, old maps, and supply lists. Snoop where snooping will unearth something useful, even though you won’t know how useful till you’re writing. Get those facts and thread them into your story so your reader will smack his hand against his head and declare, “Feels like I’m right in the middle of this.”

Be well, friend.