Writing Good Grief

I was recently reminded by my own ineptness that the grief of loss has no timelines. Nor should it in telling a tale, most especially a tale of murder. For each murder done, someone grieves for the dead, be it the detective, the killer, or the friend. And this grief displays itself in action, the resolve to find the killer, the need to hide motive, and, perhaps, revenge.

The protagonist (detective or innocent) is called upon to develop a relationship with the dead whether the loss is personal or not. As the protagonist wades through the suspects to resolve the central mystery, each character brings their hurt with them. They have all suffered a loss and so are at some stage: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance/hope. Since each step along the path takes as long as it does, any given character may be in any stage at any time, offering endless possibilities to the storyteller.

The framework of grief is one piece of the scaffolding for my military family saga The Cooper Quartet. In Dead Legend (Book 1), two boys are left adrift by their father Mac’s death. The oldest son, Byron, sixteen when his Navy pilot father dies, quickly moves on to bargaining while keeping one foot firmly planted in denial. The younger son, Laury, hits anger and stays there for twelve years. Each of the four thrillers in the saga moves along the continuum of loss toward growth and forgiveness.

From Dead Legend: Navy Pilot LT Byron Cooper

“Let’s get out of here.” Byron shucked dollars out of the right hip pocket of his slacks as he stood.

“Mac doesn’t come to you?”

Byron grabbed Chloe’s arm. His hand felt hot on her flesh. “Yes. Tonight—with you—with everyone. Happy now?”

Marine First Sergeant Laury Cooper

Laury took the photograph that Vincent held out to him. He put two fingers between a pair of cigarette smoke caked blinds to let a ray of sun splash the picture. His eyes locked on the blood smeared down the leather bucket seats of Mac’s MG and wouldn’t let go. When the shock passed, he fixated on Mac’s right hand extended as though he had been gripping the gearshift knob the moment before. Laury’s hands shook, sweat rode up his back and down his armpits. He ran a hand over the lengthening stubble on his head.

Grief is not simple. It is recurring, a memory at the oddest moment, a moth in the morning. It is not a thrown-off phrase (My fiancé died in the war). Loss haunts us, it should haunt characters as well impacting their judgment and actions.

From Head First (Book 2):  LTjg Robin Haas (their cousin)

She clamped the rounded pewter ends of the POW bracelet she wore tighter on her wrist then traced the name and date with her fingers, LT Harry A. Stillwater, 10/5/68. Four years, two months, and fourteen days, in that time he had been Killed in Action, Missing in Action and now was a Prisoner of War. At least, they thought he was.

Who really knew? Robin had gone to North Dakota to Harry’s funeral, sobbing with the sisters Harry adored, the mother he treasured and the father he idealized, trying the while not to crawl into his empty grave. Yellow roses made her cry. A-6s made her cry. Even Gunner, their tabby tom cat, made her cry.

Throughout it all, characters must remain true to themselves. Good grief in a story might be silent to raging but it must always be organic. And in so being, the character’s action or reaction to any element may surprise, revealing a new facet or changed state that alters the reader’s perceptions and the resolution of the story.

From Don’t Tell (Book 4): Kate Van Streain Cooper (Laury’s new wife)

Each afternoon, she checked out a chaise from the nut-brown beachboy at the kiosk as he ran his eyes down her long limbs. They would skim over the inked drawing between her shoulder blades, still fresh after a week, and follow the Chinese characters tattooed on her spine to her dimple. Feeling admired, she languished by the water in her chaise, alternately reading Michener’s Hawaii and dozing. She opened her eyes at each passing shadow expecting to see her husband smiling down at her, his azure blue eyes blazing beneath his long dark eyelashes.

Good grief hovers below the surface of the plot, providing motivation and color. It remains just out of reach, shading the past and the future. A character in its own right. In The Cooper Quartet, it takes two brothers four books to come to terms with their father’s loss. In the process, their lives are changed forever by the Vietnam War and the actions they take to protect each other and their families.

4 thoughts on “Writing Good Grief

  1. This is a thought-provoking post and I love the examples given. Thank you, Dawn, for posting it. It will stay with me.


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