Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Experience: the best way to learn to write

Are you squeamish?

I'm not. I once watched (perhaps a little too intensely) as an emergency room doctor stitched an inch deep gash on my daughter's thumb. Before he started he told me I could wait in the hall if I'd be more comfortable and I laughed and laughed (not out loud though).

You're probably not squeamish if you're a fan of my Marshall House books. I tend to write certain autopsy scenes in great, unforgiving details. A professional reviewer once called my style "unsympathetic". It can be quite a shock for any readers who are used to Agatha Christie or other mild whodunit writers. I've received a few negative comments regarding this particular style, enough to make me question whether I should tone it down. In the end, after reflection, I don't concede. I merely tell the story as it wants to be told.

 I don't set out to make things extra gruesome and I certainly wouldn't want my books to be fluffed up. I like to think my style represents the Victorian culture in that death was all around them and they didn't shy away from it. Some loved it and all it's salacious details. Others dealt with it and moved on, knowing they could not run from it. Death made an impression on every parlour (where the dead where laid prior to burial) and in every dark corner in every back alley. In an age when germ theory was still in it's infancy death came to everyone; young, old, sick and healthy. It did not discriminate.

I learned how close death was to us all as a 22 year-old newly married mother of one with another on the way. As the result of a car accident on a wintry road every single member of my family looked death in the eyes. I nearly lost my baby and my husband in that horrific crash and I am forever changed by it... but that is a story for another day.

Today I want to speak about an experience I had last night that presented itself as a responsibility to another family member but ended up being an opportunity to better myself and my writing. My daughter needed to complete an assignment for a senior high school chemistry class. Students were required to interview someone who works in the field of science. While most students chose to interview relatives, nurses, engineers and the like, my daughter wanted to give herself a bit of a challenge and chose to interview a funeral director.

I was asked to come along to film her while she asked her questions. It was a mundane task that I thought would at least get me a ballot for the "Mom of the Year" award. Never in a million years did I expect her interview subject to take us in the room where three bodies lay ready for their funerals. His intention was to show us the chemicals he uses and some of the devices at his disposal. It was a highly educational experience in more than just chemistry.

I had never seen a dead body other than relatives and I will admit I was taken aback. I repeat, I am not squeamish. The sight of the dead bodies did not affect me. My shock came more from the fact it had never occurred to me that we would be permitted in that space, that sacred space for the dead. The more I thought about it though, the more I realized how many others interact with the dead on a daily basis; doctors, nurses, police officers, medics, soldiers, anyone in funeral services, pathologists, medical examiners, archaeologists. I mean, death is all around us, and I, a full time author who writes about murder and death on a daily basis, have been so sheltered from it.

I write my stories, and conduct my research without ever having to witness it or touch it. My books seem so sterile now, so abstract. The Victorians knew death. Infant death was common, diseases had no cures. Daily life was one big gamble. Anything could take you out.

So what exactly has changed? We have medicines now, vaccines. We have experienced leaps and bounds in the medical field. We understand the impact of diet like no generation before us, as well as environmental impacts (smoking and work environments). We have instituted seat belts, helmets, air bags, and any number of other safety protocols, but even with all that there are no guarantees. Daily life is one big gamble. Anything can take us out.

Like I said, I'm not squeamish. The room did not jar me because of the bodies in it. The longer we stood there, talking and asking questions, the more I understood what had been missing from my writing. (There's a circle of life analogy somewhere here, but I'm purposely avoiding it.) We spent the better part of twenty minutes in that room which was only a quarter of the time we spent at the funeral home. We were given a tour of the offices, the casket showroom, the consultation rooms and the chapel. So many questions were answered and at times our guide must have wondered who the student actually was (guilty).

All in all, I am grateful for this experience and the time our host granted us. I think  my views on death, and my manner in writing about it, will change going forward. But I have no intentions of changing the tone of my books, not unless I decide to write a romance. In that case the gothic, murderous undertones might be a bit too much.

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