Writers and death

That I should rise and you should not.

I’m somewhat under-slept, as I had an ambulance call-out, and then spent much of the rest of the night with my littlest cat, who was in some distress.  This did not end well, which leaves me less coherent than my usual incoherence. I’m tired and somewhat emotionally drained.

It’s been a rough period of partings for me. I had to deal with death first hand as a young conscript medic back before the dinosaurs went extinct, and the older you get the more often it seems to happen. I’m as soft as goose-grease, but it had to be dealt with, and as well as you possibly could – not only because the death of any man diminishes me, but because the living need you. That’s doubly true if you’re the one either deciding they have to die or doing your best to prevent that. They don’t need you less-than-competent because of emotion.

Like anything, you either deal with it or fail to, but if you deal with it there are various degrees of how well, and of what cost there is to yourself. I compartmentalize it, and can at the time usually cope. My Volunteer Ambulance work needs that now, just as my younger soldier-self needed it.

Funerals, where, honestly I don’t have to be the guy trying to keep someone alive are different. They’re a time to weep.  And I wept for the early passing of a friend last week – the guy who told me the story that inspired CHANGELING’S ISLAND. Today brought one worse for me: the littlest cat had to take her last sad ride to the vet. She was approaching 19, kidneys failing, and she was in distress.  We’ve been aware it was coming – but as soon as there was discomfort and distress we could do nothing to fix or even really ease – it was time. That was the single best thing we could do for an animal that loved and trusted us. It had to be done, loyalty calls for doing the best for them, no matter how it upsets you.

Still, Kipling was right. We give our hearts to dogs (and cats) to tear.

Death of course is very much part of much of what we write.  Basic rule of thumb, if you’re not a person with emotive mental problems, and you find the writing of the close up of death not particularly disturbing – you’re not doing it realistically. You may – depending on what you’re writing and who your target audience is, be doing it ‘right’.  Not everyone wants a book to leave the scars of their mother or best buddy’s death ripped open afresh. The murder victim in many of the classic whodunnits was often built into the sort of character the reader felt needed killing.

On the opposite extreme: some fantasy seems to involve bloody and gory death – even of comrades, that would have — if they were real– have most people fleeing in haste, throwing up or weeping in a fetal position. I sometimes wonder –reading these bits – whether vicarious death is the nearest either the writer or their audiences have ever come to it. It’s a market, but one I battle to write for. Too soft, I guess, but I am what I am.

But – like it or not, between these extremes writers do deal in emotional ‘manipulation’ (they might be puppet masters, or they might be as much manipulated by their own characters as I often am). Part of this is binding the reader to the character: and part of that is putting the character through the same emotional reactions as the reader (and writer) may well have experienced themselves. It’s not a particular joy to write (or if it is, dude, you need help) and it is the closest the writer comes to stripping themselves emotionally naked to the reader.

It’s also a balancing act: enough and you leave the reader identifying with the grief and sadness (or rage) of the character dealing with it. Too little and the character (and the dead) become mere cardboard redshirts. And too much (and may be just something about a scene or character that strikes a chord – maybe one the author never knew existed – with the reader) One of David Drake’s stories did that to me. Too much and a little too soon – maybe 20 years on.

I know I’m not great at it. I save my characters and their beloved companions entirely too often to ever be a ‘great’ author. But I know that’s a place that can make that difference between comfortable and great. Whether you can go there, or want to, is a question I can’t answer for you. But if you do: it’s not something you can make up, not something you can fake. That’s a piece of your naked emotion out there, and it’s going to hurt.

Give your loved ones – be they human or a dog or cat that extra bit of love today. I miss my friend Pete, and my little wussy-pussy, Robin, never happier than when cradled and purring in your ear. I cannot do that now. It’s a good idea while you have that time.



  1. I’ll gently rise, and softly call,
    ‘Good health and joy be to you all!’

    A bit over a month ago, my wife called me to check on the dogs, because only one of them had come in when she called them. I found the other lying limp in the back yard, past resuscitation or pain. She was young (not even two), but she’d been increasingly surly, antisocial, and neurotic (even for a yorkie-poo), and her knee had been bothering her for months. The kids helped me bury her under the tree where she last lay down, and my wife (once a confirmed cat-person who hadn’t even WANTED a dog before I got the deceased) took it hardest of all. Two days later we returned from the pound with a three-month-old “mix” who imprinted on me right away. It’ll be rough to lose this one when the time comes.

  2. I’ve been avoiding the issue, myself. Generally I don’t feel that the stories with a lot of death in them were improved by their body count, nor was I improved by reading them. Since I’ve been writing, no one has died except right at the very beginning, and then off-screen. We never meet them, so they aren’t really ‘real’ except by report.

    I didn’t bring them into the world to die, so they won’t. Death is not entertainment.

    1. Incidentally my dog Spike moved on from this mortal world of ours 11 years ago. He lives on as a character the size that he used to think he was in life. A Golden Retriever as big as a polar bear. Fears nothing, takes no shit from anybody, looks after his humans.

      Having him be a character makes me feel a little better about losing him. He can still have adventures.

  3. Condolences from me, as well.

    Our dogs are getting on in years, and the time they have left has been weighing on my mind a lot lately.

  4. I love David Drake’s writing, but the Hammer Slammer series reads too much like therapy to me to be actually enjoyable per se. What I call a once read. They are also mil-sf as horror, which is its own thing, and I hadn’t twigged until recently that was the case.

    As a former medical professional I’ve had to deal with patients dying. It’s not easy. And I’m a real softy as I made myself cry when writing a scene where one of my characters died. It’s a fine line at times, and as always I have no real answers.

    1. Two of the hardest scenes for me to write were the death of a character, and the death of a horse. The character scene eventually went into the great clipping file when I opted to end the series two books early. The horse scene still gets to me if I re-read that book.

      I had to set down Brad Torgerson’s first short-story collection because the stories were too good and too affecting. I wasn’t in a place physically where I could let myself respond to them (doctor’s/dentist’s waiting room).

  5. Condolences, Dave. It’s hard to do our duty to critters we love, some times. Most of my friends are older than I am, and I dread the days that will eventually come.

  6. I grew up on a small farm where animals came and went according to their usefulness. As a result, I’m not so much a “pet person”. However, I can commiserate with your loss of a friend. I still remember my first dog, all these many years later.

    As for writing and death. I think for me it’s important to have a reason for killing off a character. I’ve read more than a few books where a character that I liked was killed off in unnecessarily frivolous ways that didn’t further the story. It pretty much destroyed the story for me.

    On the other hand, I’ve read stories where a character dies in a way that is completely in keeping with the character’s personality, and had meaning within the context of the story. While it can be sad (and I might have shed a manly tear… don’t tell nobody), it didn’t destroy the story for me.

  7. I miss every single one of the ones who went. I dread the passing of the current ones, particularly Havey-cat, who I realized halfway through a sleepless night where he tried his fuzzy best to make me feel better is the BEST INTENTIONED cat I ever met. A bit of a nurse cat.

  8. So sorry for your losses Dave. Deepest condolences. Three weeks ago we lost our Labrador female. Apple was a great lady but same with the kidneys/renal failure and distress and then etc.

    Frankly I’d rather have had minor surgery without an anesthetic. It wouldn’t hurt as much as this.

    GodSpeed Apple, Pet and Robin.

  9. My sympathies for your loss. I lost my last dog Zack over ten years ago. It still tears me up inside to this day. He succumbed to his wounds three weeks after a coyote attack. I was in college at the time. I feel like we were granted a week of grace before he passed where he seemed to be healing and perking up. I got to say goodbye. He died three days after I went back to my apartment in the city. We inherited Zack from my dad after we lost him to cancer and it was like losing him a second time four years later.

    Bernese are best, even though I don’t know if I could ever own another one. Big dogs leave bigger holes.

    I’m living with my mom again because I had to move quickly for work. I get a kick out of watching my mom’s 12 year old lab jumping up to see if I’m keeping up on our walks through the tall grass. She has an inoperable tumour in her neck and moments like that are precious.

    I’m going to ridiculous lengths to find a scotch collie pup while the old girl still has enough bounce and wiggle to put up with one. My family would rather I get a free rottweiler from them but I wound up liking the mama more than her pups and she wasn’t available.

  10. Losses make our writing better . . . but I could do without. Except the only way to do without dealing with the death of a four-legged friend is to never have them in the first place. And that is a greater loss, even if we fail to recognize that.

    I think the main reason I’ve had my favorite wizard invent an elixir of long life is to avoid the inevitable even in fiction.

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