The drawback about writing books set in the past is that any ”real” character one decides to include is dead. There is no ambiguity there, no leeway for twisting things slightly so that the person in question gets to enjoy some years of sunset and peace before passing on—not if the facts unequivocally state that on this date so-and-so died in this way.
Invented characters also die. Not necessarily because I planned it that way, but rather because all of a sudden their character arch took a turn I wasn’t expecting.
Accordingly, I have had to write a lot of death scenes, and I must admit I find these very difficult to write—especially when I’ve bonded with the person about to expire. Not even when I dislike the character I’m about to off do I find it easy – a case in point is the scene in my series The King’s Greatest Enemy where Hugh Despenser is executed. It is difficult to feel anything but compassion for a naked man about to die a slow and painful death in front of a howling mob.
Death is not always violent. Death is also a part of life—even if us modern people have little exposure to it. Not that long ago, generations lived closer together and chances were most children would have seen dead people before they entered their teens. Back then, people died at home. These days, we mostly die in hospital, monitored by beeping machinery that suddenly stops beeping.
One thing I always spend a lot of time considering is in what POV to write the death scene. In some cases, the choice is self-evident: if the character hasn’t been a POV character previously I’m not about to drag my reader into his/her head to live through the final moments of life. It would feel contrived, somehow. But there are deaths where I have a choice: should I depict it from the perspective of the person dying or from the person watching?
Seeing as I have no experience of dying (and I really prefer to keep it that way for quite some more years, thank you very much), writing in the POV of the person about to pass comes with challenges. How cognisant is a dying person of the fact that they’re about to die? How much does it hurt? Is there fear, anger? Or is there a point at which one simply gives up and goes with the flow?
“What day is it today?” Magnus asked Alex a few days later. He craned his head back to look out at the pale blue summer sky.
How apt, Magnus thought, to die on the longest day of the year. He lay in silence, listening to the sounds around him. Sounds of life, of continuity: Samuel’s soft snuffling from where he slept in his basket only feet from his ear, David’s piercing screams from outside, and Agnes’ low soothing voice, shushing him. In the distance he could hear a horse – probably Moses – and there were birds, and hens cackling, and the ubiquitous sound of young, vibrant beings, his grandchildren, tumbling around in the summer afternoon.
He recognised the tread of Matthew’s feet on the kitchen floor – there was that damned plank that always creaked – and from beside him came the clicking sound of Mrs Parson’s knitting. He listened some more and heard that one sound was missing. Alex was holding her breath, and that meant she was trying very hard not to cry. He moved one hand in her direction and immediately her fingers closed over his.
“It’s not too bad,” Magnus lied. It was fucking terrible! Whenever he opened his eyes, it was like having a red-hot needle poked through his tender cornea, so he preferred to keep them closed. Behind his eyelids swirled blacks and blues and the occasional dash of bright vermillion and orange and sometimes – thank heavens – a soothing green, and then it all began again and he was in so much pain that sometimes he could feel each individual strand of hair as a hurting, aching extremity.
He heard Matthew enter the room, hesitating for a few seconds before pulling up a stool to sit beside Alex. It almost made Magnus laugh; like a lit de parade, the adults of his family converging to watch him die. He twisted his face towards the twilight that hovered outside the small window.
“I always knew,” he said.
“Knew what?” Alex asked.
“That I’d die at dusk.” Soon he’d be dead, and never again would he see the trees or the clouds, never would he walk over fields, brush his legs through knee-high grasses. Not that it mattered. Nothing mattered except for the pain that inhabited his head, the humongous effort it was to keep on breathing. Air. He needed air, and he sucked and sucked, but nothing seemed to reach his lungs. No click, click, click from his right-hand side; instead, Mrs Parson’s hand closed over his, her breath warm on his cheek as she leaned over him.
“Go with God, Magnus Lind,” she said, and he heard it in her voice that any moment now he’d be dead, and he didn’t want to be.
In Magnus’ head, things happened that were frightening and awe-inspiring – like being high on something far more potent than marijuana, his brain dissolving into extraordinary fireworks. Everything was spinning; he saw bands of shifting colours and he shot forward through time and there was Isaac – in Stockholm, Magnus noted with pleased surprise. He was dragged backwards in time, he whizzed past Alex, and there was his Mercedes. He squinted because he’d never seen her so old, but there she was, her dark hair a beautiful silvered grey covered by a lace mantilla, and he realised she was back in her time, living out her life, and all of him shrivelled in panic. I don’t want to die if she’s not there waiting for me! Idiot, his brain jeered, no one’s waiting for you – you don’t believe in the afterlife, do you? No, Magnus Lind, this is the final curtain call, and soon… No! Magnus shrieked in protest at God, at the bursts of light that were falling like confetti in his head.
Hands on his arm, someone kissed his cheek, dragging him back to a glimmer of real life. With an effort, he opened his eyes.
“Alex? Lilla hjärtat?”
“Pappa.” She clasped his groping hand and held Magnus as he began the final fall from life. It no longer hurt. It was all a soothing cold that was like rustling silk over his poor, aching brain. It grew dark. The spinning slowed to a gentle twirling and he could no longer hear, but he could still feel Alex’s hand in his.
It grew even darker and it was very cold but it didn’t matter because now there was a growing point of light and in it he saw Mercedes. She was young, her hair fell free down her back, and she held out her hand to him and smiled.
“Mercedes?” he whispered.
“Estoy aquí,” she murmured. “I’m always here, amor mío.” (A Newfound Land)
When it comes to violent and painful deaths such as that of Hugh Despenser, I prefer to describe them from the POV of someone watching. This is partly because this gives me room to properly depict just how the person dies—a man being castrated probably registers little beyond a wave of pain—but also because the images that fill my head when I try to sink into the POV of the condemned person are too black, too full of fear, making it difficult to write coherently about it.
Sometimes, the obvious turmoil lies with the bereaved. This is definitely the case when a child dies. As a mother of four, writing the death of beloved children is among the most difficult things I’ve done. It is far too easy to envision the pain and grief that would follow in the wake of such a loss. And yet, if you write historical fiction children have to die. It is unrealistic otherwise, as child mortality was high and few were the households spared such losses.
Adam found Kit by the stream, in the little hollow that was their miniature Garden of Eden. He smiled at the memories of his Kit naked in the summer grass, of the way she laughed when she splashed through the shallow waters of the pool. She wasn’t laughing now, sitting huddled just by the water, her thick winter cloak draped like protective armour around her.
“Tell me about her,” Adam said, sinking down to sit beside her.
She didn’t reply at first. Instead she sat staring at the water, now and then sending a pebble flying to land with a soft plop.
“There is nothing to tell. She is dead.”
“But she lived before she died, did she not?” Adam had seen dead infants before, but never one of his own, and grief rushed through him. He’d had a daughter, but she was dead and he had never seen her nor held her. Something of his pain must have coloured his voice, because Kit turned her head to look at him, her heavy hair lying like a mantle down her back.
“She was bald, but I could see she’d be fair – like you.” She gnawed at her lip. “She never opened her eyes. She lived for one pitiful day, and not once did she open them. So I don’t know if they were blue or green or brown or grey. All I know is that she had long, fair lashes, and that when I held her, her eyelids fluttered, as if she was trying to open them but couldn’t quite find the strength to do so.” Her voice broke. “I knew the moment I saw her that she wouldn’t live.”
“Oh, Kit,” he said, taking her hand. “I am so sorry I wasn’t here – for you and for her. And I swear that had I known, I would have come, no matter what the prince might have said.” He tightened his hold on her fingers. “In my heart, you always come first. You know that, don’t you?”
“Not always.” She kept her gaze on her lap, her posture stiff and unyielding.
“I…” He cleared his throat. “I do not have the luxury to order my life. If I had, I’d never be parted from you, never spend a night without you in my arms.” He caught a flash of blue from under her lashes, the only sign she was listening to him. “This is home,” he said softly, “this place, this house, but most of all it is you. You are my home and my life, and every day I spend away from you is a wasted day, a day I pray will pass as quickly as possible, that I might return to you all the sooner.”
She glanced at him. “Quite the troubadour.”
“No.” He tugged at her hand, and she shifted closer. “It is the truth.” He reached out to smooth at her hair. “As the queen once said, you are the sun in my existence. What man prefers stumbling about in the dark to standing in the brightness of a sunbeam?”
There was a muffled sound he first assumed to be sobs.
“The brightness of a sunbeam?” Kit lifted her face, her mouth quivering – with laughter. It bubbled from her, and then she was no longer laughing, she was weeping, and Adam gathered her close, pressing his cheek to her head. (Days of Sun and Glory)
When writing deaths, I also spend a lot of time wondering about the role of faith. While we live in an agnostic age, where most of us go to our death without the comfort of believing in a hereafter, my characters belong to earlier times, where God’s existence was a given (Back then, those who questioned God were given the task of proving he didn’t exist. Today, we’ve turned it around and demand those who believe prove that he does…) But even if you did believe in God, I imagine losing someone you loved was difficult. It always is, the grief and loss standing in proportion to just how much you loved them. And however strange it may sound, it doesn’t help if the person dying is an invented person. Rather the reverse, in fact, because added to the grief is a huge portion of guilt. After all, in the microcosmos of my imaginary world it is I who spin the threads of fate – and cut them.