At the end of The Vespertine, Saundra Mitchell’s 2011 novel, 16-year-old Zora Stewart—a vibrant, stylish city girl—lost her fiancé, Thomas, in a shooting. In Mitchell’s new novel, The Springsweet (which you can read now on Figment), Zora has left glamorous Victorian-era Baltimore for a new life on the parched prairies of the Oklahoma Territory. There, she discovers she has an extraordinary power . . . and comes across two men who might be able to help her move on.
How do you write a character who’s grieving—and make that character both believable and compelling? Read on for Saundra’s advice.
Interested in taking Saundra’s tips to heart? We have a little writing challenge for you: Imagine a character who has lost a best friend. In 100 words or fewer, write that character’s reaction to the news. The Figment editors will choose four winning stories (based on quality, creativity, and relevance to the prompt) to feature on the Figment homepage. Read the full promotional guidelines here, and tag your work mitchellchallenge by 4p.m. ET on 4/27 to be considered.
Young-adult novels are about firsts. There are, of course, the familiar first loves and first kisses—but in my new novel, The Springsweet, I had the opportunity to talk about a different kind of first: the first death.
Unlike other first losses, the first death is also the first, fixed point of permanency. It can’t be undone; there’s no second chance. You can’t bargain with it, reason with it, or make it better.
When you break up with your first love, that person can go on to become a friend or an enemy, a fond memory or a rekindled opportunity. But when your first love dies, that is something we have to learn to accept. So for me, writing Zora’s journey in The Springsweet was very much an exploration of that.
Even though we meet up with Zora a year after her fiancé’s passing (and the conclusion of The Vespertine) she hasn’t moved in all that time. She stubbornly insists on continuing the plans she had with him, even though he’s no longer there to experience them.
Because death is a hard topic, writing about grief can be equally hard. A book should be a conversation with a reader—if not entertaining, then at least compelling. But grief is intensely private and inwardly focused.
It’s repetitive, as well. It consumes your thoughts, and not just with mourning a lost future. You replay your last moments together. You judge yourself: should you have said “I love you”? Are you tormented because your last shared words were cold and hard?
Finding balance in a story about grief is important. Too much grieving and everyone walks away—who reads a book just to feel bad? But at the same time, too much cheer and laughter makes your character look callous and shallow.
Because the early stages of grief are so intense, I admit—I cheated with The Springsweet. By starting the story a year later, a reasonable amount of time had passed for Zora’s friends and family to start pushing her to move forward.
That’s right—forward, not past. Because that was something else I thought it was important to explore. If we’re lucky, we all love more than once in our lifetime. And it’s important for young women to know there’s nothing wrong with that.
Moving on doesn’t make you cheap or easy. Someone who loves you now shouldn’t be threatened by the people who loved you first.
First love is glorious. It’s an incandescent, extraordinary experience. But it also usually ends (though thankfully, not usually on account of death). The first time you discover you can love again is just as powerful and encompassing.
And that’s what I kept in mind while I was writing Zora through her grief and into her future in The Springsweet.
Don’t forget to submit a story for Saundra’s writing challenge. Tag a hundred-word reaction to terrible news with mitchellchallenge by 4p.m. ET on 4/27 for a chance to be featured on the Figment homepage!