NOTE: This originally appeared on A Fantasy Reader.
Memorial Day twenty-eight years ago was unquestionably the most devastating day of my life.
My mother and father had been divorced for years, and my father usually picked me up on Wednesday night for dinner and then had me on the weekends. Right before Memorial Day Weekend, he called and told me has wasn’t feeling great but he still hoped to pick me up on the holiday, since it was probably just a cold.
While my father didn’t exactly partake in what most people call “exercise,” he was still active, working on his old jeep or boat, fixing one thing or another in the house, doing photography shoots, wrangling me. But he also ate what his stomach told him to, and didn’t exactly have the healthiest tastes—he was the kind of guy who liked Velveeta and Spam sandwiches on Wonder Bread. What? That isn’t a type, that was just him? Well. There you go. He also drank fairly regularly, and smoked. Not a great combination.
Still, he was generally (and surprisingly) healthy as a horse, and wouldn’t go to the doctor unless a bone was sticking out of his body or he was bleeding out his ears. And maybe not even then. Stubborn as all get out, and that surely is a type, as I know all too well, as I fall in that camp, and karmically enough, so do my daughters.
And more than anything else, when my dad told me he was going to do something, he did it. So I fully expected he would rebound and get better and pick me up. I didn’t hear from him that morning, and while he was sometimes late, and this was still the era before cell phones (yes, that WAS an era), so I shouldn’t have been worried, I was. I couldn’t explain it, but I had the awful feeling that something was wrong.
I called his house, hoping to get my stepmom, and she didn’t pick up. And for some reason, that’s when I absolutely knew. I told myself it was crazy, he wasn’t that late, everything was probably fine, but somehow I just knew for a certainty that I was lying to myself and that the worst had happened.
When I called my grandmother’s house to see if she knew anything, it was confirmed immediately, as she picked up and couldn’t put two sentences together. I don’t even remember who took the phone and told me the news, my stepsister or stepmom, only that someone was crying when they said that my father had suffered a massive heart attack. He was dead.
The rest is a blur. I dropped the phone, walked aimlessly as I started to cry, and then as the enormity of the news hit, I grabbed my nephew’s baseball bat, ran out of the house, and started bashing nearby trees until my hands were slick with blood as my skin tore open and I collapsed for a time in the bark and broken branches.
I’d lost people before. My grandfather and aunt both died from cancer. But I was young and didn’t comprehend much besides the way those deaths impacted others and made them incredibly sad.
And I would lose people after. My brother died from severe complications due to a rampant case of diabetes when I was 18, my grandmothers and uncle died as the years rolled on, and most recently, my mother a handful of years ago.
But as terrible as they each were in their own way, losing my father at 14 had the most impact on me. It wrecked me for a time. Indiana Jones was the only one who gave him a run for his money in the hero department (I bought the fedora, leather jacket, and a 14 foot bullwhip even), but my father stood above everyone else. I was old enough to know he wasn’t infallible, but he was insanely smart, terribly funny, gentle and patient and strong. My father was and always would be my hero. And losing him right on the cusp of 8th grade graduation, at a time in my life when I probably needed him the most, well, words can’t adequately describe the devastation or the depth of loss.
What does any of this have to do with fiction? Well, a lot right now, as it happens. At least my fiction.
I’m going to try to avoid spoilers, as my immediate reaction to people spilling the beans is the desire to punch them in the nose. But just to be safe, if you haven’t read Scourge of the Betrayer or Veil of the Deserters, you might want to stop reading as I slyly try to allude to aspects of either books without, you know, actually coming right out and spoiling anything. I like my nose.
When I first started Bloodsounder’s Arc, I knew there was going to be violence. Battles, skirmishes, duels, sieges, pitched battles.—they would all appear on the page at some point. And I was committed to presenting those things as realistically as possible. I know not all readers even like battles—some of them fall asleep the first time a sword is drawn, or consider fighting something to be endured until the next great character moment or plot twist arrives. And there are some readers that love action in their novels but prefer it to be the stuff of legend or high fantasy, with heroic champions wading into the mix, dispatching foes by the hundreds, or wizards going mano y mano while riding griffins of the wind itself, hurling eldritch fury at one another, tearing the fabric of the universe asunder in the process.
I get it: realistic battles are absolutely not everyone’s cup of grog. But that was the kind of story I wanted to tell, doing my best to put the readers right there in the middle of the chaos with Arki, feeling arrows whizzing past or thunking into a post right near his head, watching armor fend off blows the way it was intended, but also feeling and seeing the terrible results when it failed to. I wanted it to be as visceral as possible. And even in Veil, where memory magic features prominently, it’s not the stuff of fireballs and lightning storms of even Otto’s Irresistible Dance, but more subdued, even when it is sometimes deadly. My objective was to paint the battles as they actually occur with armored men and women trying desperately to kill each other, even when magic is in the mix.
I didn’t want to revel in the violence or gratuitously heap more terrible details on more terrible details like a pile of severed limbs outside a surgeon’s tent (see, that was unnecessary!). At no point did I try to glamorize it, or escalate it with the intent of turning stomachs. That said, I wanted every bit of combat to feel weighty, real, significant.
But I also knew that if I was going to write about these hardened soldiers and the harsh realities of what it’s like to stab or bludgeon each other to death, I couldn’t shy away from the aftermath of that either. There are wounds, casualties, and deaths of course, and a complete shortage of healing potions or potent clerics wandering the battlefield rescuing anyone. No one is completely safe. But just as important, I wanted to show the emotional wounds. It would feel dishonest to portray combat as realistically as I can and then fail to explore the personal impact this has, both on those who deal in it, and those who lose someone.
Since the narrative funnels though Arki, he of course wrestles with everything he sees, completely out of his depth, not trained for warfare, especially the kind waged by the Syldoon soldiers, who are the ultimate pragmatists. His sensibilities frequently clash with the company he keeps (hopefully in engaging and compelling ways), but more than that, I wanted him to both experience and witness grief.
To paraphrase the good captain, there are a variety of griefs—loss of love, trust, honor, home. It is always about loss, dealing with absence. The most terrible being the loss of life, as it is irrevocable.
One old fiction workshop sawhorse is “write what you know.” But taken literally, that would mean every college freshmen short story would be about hazing, beer bongs, condoms breaking, tests flunked, procrastination, and homesickness. There are plenty of ways to know something—obviously first-hand experience is a primary source, but you can also witness things, research things, and simply imagine your way into situations based on good intuition or instincts. So I don’t presume to be any more equipped to write about grief than any other writer simply because I’ve experienced some. But it has made its way into my writing, and no place more keenly than Bloodsounder’s Arc.
In Scourge, one character loses another, and I tried to capture this as truthfully as possible. But the aperture on everything widens a bit in Veil—worldbuilding, magic, intrigue, characters—and this holds true for grief as well. Much like the portrayal of violence itself, I didn’t want to wallow in grief or let it dominate the narrative or anything. But I tried to capture it as honestly as I could, as several characters have lost people close to them, recently and deep in the past. As Arki gains the trust of the members of the company, becomes more embedded, he is privy to more of their stories, the things that shaped them, damaged them, maybe even strengthened them.
While I never saw a relative murdered in front of me, and I’ve never lost a friend in the middle of combat, there are different ways of “knowing” as mentioned, and I did the best I could to make these moments feel as authentic as possible. But I absolutely know what it means to put loved ones in the ground or scatter their ashes, and I drew on that as much as I could, trying to render it realistically as these characters revealed and shared their own pain in various ways.
And for the first time in my life, I used fiction to directly deal with losing my father, to infuse that loss into something I created. Twenty-eight years is a long time—the absence is no longer sharp and crippling, but I still vividly remember it, and I wanted to use that in my portrayal of characters who also deal with tremendous grief.