If my characters keep dying, does that make me a serial killer?

A week ago it happened.  It was happily writing along.  One character was telling a story about a situation to another character.  I thought I knew what happened.  I was writing it after all, but then, when the character finished telling the story, he let it slip that not just one, but TWO other characters had died. I had absolutely no idea this was coming; he just spit it out.

I actually teared up as I was writing it, but I couldn’t change it.  It had to happen that way even though I didn’t realize it until it actually happened.  It worked with every part of the story and added a whole new level of emotional trauma for the main character who had been listening to this depressing saga.  While I hate drama and guilt in my life, they’re good for characters to deal with; it just makes everything a little bit, or even a lot, worse which ultimately makes a story more interesting.

When I started this whole process, I thought that maybe one character would die and only if they absolutely had to.  I don’t like death . . . at all, but apparently, murder is becoming my forte.  Several more of my characters have managed to, well . . . pass on, and I’m not even writing a thriller.  Nope. It’s historical fiction, and I’ve learned through research that staying alive in the 1840′s was hard work. In fact, I seriously question if I could have suvived the Oregon Trail and lived to the ripe old age of 42 which I am now. My great-great-great-grandmother survived it with seven children, the smallest of whom was just one, and I have the utmost respect for her and every other woman who managed the trip.

People, especially kids, died frequently on the trail.  Wagons ran over small children who fell or jumped from them as they bumped across the land, guns accidently went off, men drowned trying to get their cattle across rivers, cholera and other diseases took people by the thousands, and criminals were hung.  I think the worse part of all of this death would be getting back into the wagon and leaving the grave site of a loved one, especially a child, out there in the middle of nowhere.

In almost every diary I’ve read, there is mention of the number of graves sites passed. Many people would count the graves and keep a tally as to how many they saw in a day which I find a little odd.  I guess its a testament to not only the way of life, but also how boring the trip would be.  I whine if I can’t get a good radio station after twenty minutes of a road trip or if one of my electronic devices runs out of battery, so I can imagine that if I had to walk 2000+ miles over a six month period with no radio, tv, or (God forbid) iphone, I’d probably find whatever thing I could to entertain myself as well.

Apparently all this tragedy I have read about in my research sunk into my brain which decided (without consulting me) that a few more characters had to die to make this story real. Thankfully (or maybe not), my brain is a compost pile which takes all the random facts I discover, heats them up, turns them over, and then refurbishes them as parts of my story.  It would just be nice if my brain could prepare me for the tragedy it cooks up when I’m not paying attention. I’d like to have a little time to prepare.

Where do scenes come from?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I’ve spent the last two weeks taking notes and writing down ideas anticipating the day I’d have time to sit down and write something.  After working probably 75+ hours over each of the last two weeks (sometimes being a high school teacher and coach can suck every second of every day and every ounce of energy from me, and I write nothing, including my blog), I finally spent much of the day on Sunday actually writing and putting those notes into action, fitting all the little pieces of the puzzle into scenes that hopefully tell a good story.

Where did the scene ideas come from? Let me share:

  •  Historical research – a good half of my novel takes place in 1847 on the Oregon Trail. I love research and history, so writing this part has been fun.  Some of the interesting facts I have discovered that I couldn’t leave out of the story include the existence of a library at Fort Hall, Idaho.  A “mountain man” refers to it in his journal and his visits to get books.  Another is that Indians used porcupine quills tied together with rawhide to brush their hair.  There are numerous little details like this that I find fascinating.  I don’t know if they’ll all find their way into the final draft, but I’ve enjoyed finding them and figuring out how to include them without slamming the reader with history.  I don’t want a reader to read a passage and think, “wow, that scene was written merely for that random piece of trivia.” I want it to flow but also to reflect some of those details that make history so interesting to me.
  • Planning – some scenes I’ve just had to plan from beginning to end following classic scene structure.  What are the characters’ goals? What is the action? What is the major conflict? Who’s going to talk to whom? And finally, what is the disaster that will finish the scene and raise the stakes for everyone?
  • The muses come to play – this is my favorite.  When I sit down, I almost always have a general idea of what I want to write or where I want to go, but then as I start to write, great things start to happen.  Events that I haven’t planned occur.  Characters have great conversations or arguments.  Wise and witty words pop from their mouths. These are days when I feel like a writer.
  • Stories or conversations I hear – yep, if I know you and you tell me something funny or crazy or I’m with you during a noteworthy event, I figure its fair game.  I wonder, “how could I tie that in”? These are not stories that completely change the plot, just little things.  For example, last week I was shopping with one of my students for supplies to run a concession stand, and the store didn’t have any more of that disgusting nacho cheese sauce.  (If you don’t think it’s disgusting, put it in your crockpot for six hours with HS kids ladling it all over the sides, and then try to wash the crockpot.  You won’t ever eat it again.)  Anyway, as I was panicking over the lack of nacho supplies, he looked at me, grabbed his phone and said, “Don’t worry Mrs. Isaman, I’ll just call my Sysco lady.  She’ll take care of us.” You’re Sysco lady? For those of you who don’t know, Sysco is a restaurant supply company.  The entire conversation sounded like some sort of nacho drug deal.  The Sysco lady pulled the products for him (nacho cheese and hot dogs) and dropped it in the shed for him to pick up later. I’m not kidding. To explain, his mom is a caterer and he has worked for her for years, hence, the Sysco lady, but it was really funny, something that will probably appear, somewhere, someday in some piece of writing.
  • My own crazy life – Have you ever said or written something and as soon as it came out of your mouth or appeared on the screen, you felt sort of surprised that you knew that, shocked by your own wisdom, but then you thought about it, and realized why you knew it?  You knew it because you lived it, not the exact situation but the feel of it.  That might sound strange, but I think reaching middle age has given me something to say.  I’ve lived half of a life, and I’m comfortable sharing and reflecting on it.  I wasn’t even five years ago.  This is the part of the scene that isn’t just the conflict or the action, but the explanation of it, the why.  The part when the character reflects on what has happened or what will happen.  It’s the character part of the scene.

Where do your scenes or ideas come from? I’d love to hear.