Today on the site, please welcome Randi Triant, author of the recently released A New Life, to talk about writing fiction from loss. First, here’s more on the book:
Where her sister’s life ends, hers begins.
Tibbie Dyer, an impulsive, forty-three-year-old journalist, fears there is more to the story when Sandy, her gay, older sister, drowns in a boating accident off Cape Cod. As Tibbie hunts down the four survivors, she must confront her own sexuality and strained relationship with Sandy as she finds out whether it was an accident or murder. Soon she is deeply entangled not only in the secrets behind what happened, but also in the damaged lives of everyone else involved.
Luke Blackmore, Sandy’s sexually harassing boss and the boat’s owner, remains at the Manhattan publishing company where Sandy worked. But Penelope Blackmore, Luke’s manipulative daughter and ex-vice president, has fled mysteriously to a deserted mill town with Hayden Pierce, Sandy’s photographer ex-girlfriend. Myles Small, the publisher’s former graphic designer, with his bad stammer and coke habit, is barely surviving in a rundown train boxcar near the accident scene. One by one, Tibbie ferrets out what these survivors are hiding until the shocking conclusion of what it costs her to learn the truth about her sister—and herself.
And here’s the post!
No one can survive life without tragedy. Some of us even get more than our fair share. Thirty-four years ago, I got mine. I answered my telephone to be told that my eldest brother had died in a boating accident in upstate New York. He drowned, but there were five survivors. I knew at once it would be the defining moment of my life. Yet, how to write about it?
I needed distance before I put pen to paper, so I waited a few years before I wrote a memoir piece about it and my ensuing insomnia and fear of water called “Swimming to Sleep.” It was published in a glossy literary magazine out of the South and was a finalist in a literary competition. I thought that was the end of it.
But it wasn’t.
The fact that there were survivors kept me up at night. My brother had died trying to swim for help when the boat capsized. I began to wonder how the five survivors were able to go on with their lives in the aftermath. What those lives were like.
Then, I realized I wanted to write a story about that. About the what if. That’s the question that fiction (as opposed to memoir) deals with. What if I found those survivors? What would I do then? I didn’t want to do it myself, but I could imagine someone—a fictional character—doing it. My recently released LGBTQ mystery, A New Life, does just that. Tibbie Dyer, an impulsive, forty-three-year-old journalist, fears there is more to the story when Sandy, her gay, older sister, drowns in a boating accident off Cape Cod. As Tibbie hunts down the four survivors, she must confront her own sexuality and strained relationship with Sandy as she finds out whether it was an accident or murder.
I began by asking the question that writers ask themselves when they start a story: That happens and then what? And then? Unlike my own relationship with my brother, I decided that Tibbie’s relationship with Sandy would be fractured for years before the accident, after Sandy came out as a lesbian. But I didn’t want to write a coming out story. Or did I?
At first, I was more interested in delving into the question of how we deal with loss so differently from each other, especially if we are estranged from the person we lose. After someone we love dies, some of us return to our lives, bevering away, within a few days. Others take years, even decades to fully enter life again. Some of us dull the pain of loss with alcohol and drugs. Others decide to train for a marathon. All of that is fodder for characters in fiction.
And what about fictionalizing the different types of guilt we feel after someone we know (or love) dies, especially after an accident? From “I should’ve told her how much I loved her” to “I wish we hadn’t had that argument the last time I saw her.” The different shades of guilt can be as plentiful as our good memories. All of this is to say that loss can be incredibly rich material for developing a character.
I always begin my novels or short stories by writing out character sketches. I want to know not only my characters’ favorite color, but also what motivates them. What has wounded them in the past. What they love. What they fear. Who or what they’ve lost. As I began writing such sketches for Tibbie and Sandy and the other four characters in what would become A New Life, I kept asking myself these questions: How did Sandy’s death change them? What do they feel guilty about in connection with the accident? Because that’s what loss is: gut-wrenching change and guilt.
By the time I finished Tibbie’s sketch, however, I realized I’d been wrong: this was indeed her coming out story, fraught with guilt from her estrangement from her sister. I’d never come out to my brother. I thought I’d have plenty of time for that, but I wouldn’t. As a character, however, Tibbie doesn’t stand in for the me that never was. Her journey discovering her sexuality is all her own.
In the end, the persistent question of “what if” propelled the story along. What if Tibbie tracked everyone down? Would she have any kind of resolution that would allow her to go on without her sister, with her new life? Decades after my brother died, I have at least an imagined answer.