Inspired by Tragedy

It is an unfortunate truth that the most interesting tales are mid-wived by tragedy.  No one is interested in a book or a story about the hundred of airplane flights that take off and land safely each day, or of the thousands — millions — of honest transactions and interactions which occur among our fellow human beings in any given hour. It is, rather, the stories that have an element of the poignant, the violent, and the sorrowful that pique our interest. One could cite many reasons for this and from several sources, be they psychological or religious. When we hear of a child gone missing or an acquaintance’s loved one passing, we may feel sorrow but we also feel, to be honest, a kind of shame of relief that the tragedy is not our own, even as it haunts us. Winston Churchill is credited with saying “Nothing is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.” Just so.

I believe that this is particularly true of those of us who read and write fiction in the mystery, thriller, and horror genres. Ironically, my favorite book of this type is a work of nonfiction entitled WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP by Michael Lesy. WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP is not a narrative. Lesy compiled photographs taken by Charles Van Schaick in and around rural Jackson County, Wisconsin in the late nineteenth century, and interspersed them among hundreds of transcribed newspaper clippings from the same area to create WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP. The result is a disturbing and unsettling collection of bizarre events which appear unconnected but which taken together seem to document a rural hive madness. To name but a few: the elderly mother of an imprisoned man commits suicide in a particularly dramatic fashion; a respected family man with a reputation as a hard worker dies of an overdose of morphine, leaving only a cryptic note; and a man seeking cheap transportation finds his trip unexpectedly ending in a gory tableau.

The dark beauty of the book for a reader or a writer is that one can open it and random and be enthralled, horrified, and inspired. With regard to the latter, that isn’t just me talking and/or opining. WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP has inspired everyone from Stephen King (he cites the book as the inspiration for his story “1922”) to musicians (Static-X named an album after the book) to late night cartoons (the cult classic series The Heart She Holler). The transcribed newspaper accounts are quite short; if you’re seeking inspiration and in a writer’s group, you could pick an account at random and throw it into the group just to see what each person creates from the spark. I’d be willing to bet the breadth of Jackson County and all that is on it that the stories would be wildly divergent.

WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP has gone out of print a couple of times, but it’s currently readily available for sale off- and online thanks to the fine folks at the University of New Mexico Press. Whether you need a prod creatively, desire inspiration to appreciate your current circumstances, or just want to be quietly horrified, you should check this book out. Oh, and there’s a movie too, which is quite good as well. But we prefer books, don’t we?

My question for you: have you experienced — either first or second hand — a tragedy which has had a long-term influence or affect upon your writing and/or your life? That haunts you, inappropriately and without warning? Be as general or as detailed as you wish. I don’t want to go into detail about mine, but it involves running with a stick. I didn’t let my poor kids run or walk with anything sharper than a limp noodle in their hands as a result.


20 thoughts on “Inspired by Tragedy

  1. As always, Joe, your posts are through-provoking. A few days ago, a writer friend and I were talking about stories coming out of tragedy. We’ve both been through life-changing accidents/illnesses, major financial sacrifices to clear our names, and betrayal by family we should have been able to trust.

    We came to the conclusion that we write crime fiction b/c, at least within the confines of our books, we can control the outcome and destiny that we can’t control in our everyday lives. The guilty who got away in reality finally receive their comeuppance in our stories. Fiction gives us the opportunity to find justice that’s all too rare in life.

    Running with a stick, huh? Years ago, I was carrying Thanksgiving dinner across the street to neighbors and slipped on black ice. Broke my back in two places…but saved the pumpkin pie!

    • Debbie, you’re welcome, and thank you for your kind observations as well as telling your own story…yikes! You must have quite the strength of character to shake off a pair of spinal fractures. Keep up the good work!

  2. Good morning Joe,

    Yes, I agree with Debbie. Your posts are always thought provoking and instructional.

    As pondered your question, I realized that my defense mechanism of trying to forget the pain of the past is strong. I had to think for awhile. But, from my own experience and talking to friends, I believe that the most painful experiences/tragedies are the conflicts and injustice that happen around the death of a parent. It seems that most families descend into conflict that leave members scarred and bitter for life. At least that has been my experience. And I have to admit that the bitterness I live with has been used to create well-disguised antagonists who do receive justice in the end – usually painful and horrific justice. There, I’ve said enough. It’s time to close the door again on those memories.

    Thanks for a great post.

    • Good afternoon, Steve,

      Thank you for your kind observations. I have to say, your post today is better than mine. Thanks for sharing. I’ve seen that family disintegration occur over and over. The commonality doesn’t make it any less painful for the participants. I admire the way you have risen above it and exhibit such patience and good will. Thanks for the example.

  3. Joe, it’s not difficult for me to picture the event. The sudden death of my wife of 40 years sent me into a tailspin. When I thought about turning my journaling into a book, an encounter at a writer’s conference (with one of the Kill Zone authors) started me on a road to writing that not only resulted in my non-fiction book, The Tender Scar, but ten published novels of medical suspense. Yes, I have to agree. Tragedy can give rise to writing. Thanks for this post.

    • Richard, thanks so much for sharing. I can’t even begin to imagine what you went through (and are probably still going through in The New Normal). It’s a terrific example for all of us. Thank you again.

  4. I agree with Debbie. Your posts always make me think, Joe, and I love that. Throughout my life I’ve endured several tragedies, each devastating and long-lasting. I’ve come way too close to death on more than one occasion, and I lost my entire family by age nineteen, except for one brother. The past has impacted my life on several levels. I don’t take anyone for granted; I make sure to always tell my family how much I love them, and I cherish my friendships. I’ve never written about the tragedies I’ve endured, with the exception of the final moments of my mother’s life, which were harrowing. The flash fiction piece, entitled Haunting Memories, tore me up inside, but I also found it cathartic, even though I fictionalized the story. How can’t the ripples from the past not affect the present?

    • Sue, thank you for your kind words. And I am stunned by your story. I am constantly trying to remind myself of my many, many blessings —there is so much I reflexively take for granted — while trying to remember how quickly everything (a heartbeat) everything can go wrong. Thank you so much for sharing.

      Also…for our friends who may have missed the news…Sue’s new novel, CLEAVED, was just published this past week and is available for Kindle!

  5. It is not a recent tragedy that haunts me. It’s the horror that ran through my great-great-great grandmother’s life. I have mentioned in various times in various places.

    My great-great-great grandmother survived two massacres by federal troops: the Sand Creek Massacre perpetrated on the Cheyenne people by the mounted, federalized Colorado Volunteers under Col. John Chivington, who was also a minister, and the attack by Custer and his 7th Cavalry on the sleeping village of the Cheyenne leader Black Kettle, at the Washita River.

    These are Chivington’s words relating to Indian people: “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! … I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians. … Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice.” He did his best to honor his words at Sand Creek.

    After the Sand Creek Massacre, my great-great-great grandmother followed Chief Black Kettle to Indian Territory. If I interpret that ways of the Cheyenne people correctly, she walked all the way. On the morning of November 27, 1868, Black Kettle’s camp was asleep, an American flag waving over his camp; he had been told that if he flew an American flag, he would be safe from attack by the U.S. Army. Not so.

    My great-great-great grandmother suffered the loss of friends and family twice. I carry those wounds for her.

    Legally, I am one-half Creek, and one-half Kiowa. My Cheyenne heritage is only a 64th, and perhaps less, but I always mention that I am Creek, Kiowa, and Cheyenne to honor her.

    Bygones are bygones, and forgiveness is a tenet of Scripture.

    But one of the things that haunts me is portrayed–stretched out–in Dustin Hoffman’s movie, Little Big Man. That morning attack by Custer is a portrayal of his massacre at the Washita River. In the scene, Jack Crabb/Little Big Man has gone to Old Lodge Skins’ tepee to gain some comfort and perhaps comfort the elderly, blind Old Lodge Skins, when the attack occurs. The screaming of terrified women and children, and the killing of the men, women, and children is stark and haunting. Then Sunshine, carrying her and Little Big Man’s newborn son, runs for her life toward the river while Little Big Man screams at her to run. To no avail. She is shot dead. As she falls, you can see that the baby’s face is one big bullet wound.

    In the several times I saw the movie when it was playing in theaters, the audience was deathly quiet after that scene. No one was eating popcorn or drinking Coca-Cola. There were no whispers or laughing. A couple of times, one or two people were sobbing. But the death scene settled across the audience like a black lace shroud, scary, suffocating. I think each of us who watched scene could hear or sense the beatings of our hearts, it was so quiet.

    It is that quiet that continues to hold me. My great-great-great grandmother was saddled with the responsibility to tend to the wounded and the dead. She helped with the funereal tasks for members of her camp twice. In 21st Century terms, there was no movie production company detail to clean up the mess. There was only she and the others to put away the lives of people they loved, perhaps people whom they didn’t like. They prepared their beloved leader Black Kettle and his wife. And the children. And I’m certain she did this while crying as she recognized each friend, each child. Her tasks were those carried out through the centuries by wives, sisters, and their beloved, of their massacred dead.

    In the dark quiet aftermath, my grandmother continued to live, to push on, and to do good for her family.

    She would expect that of me, I’m sure. It’s a legacy I try to keep.

    • Thank you for sharing, Jim. That is a stunning story, worth repeating again and again. The scene you describe in LITTLE BIG MAN when Sunshine and her baby are murdered is, honestly, the vignette I primarily remember from the movie. I literally jumped out of my theater seat and yelled “No!” when I saw it. Your great-great-great grandmother must have had exemplary force of will to go through what she did and keep moving ever forward. An example for us all. Thanks again.

  6. Whoa, where should I get started on this one? From my own biological tree:
    *During a Sunday picnic by a local river, a father takes some neighborhood boys for a boat ride, plus his five-year old daughter. Something happens and the boat capsizes. Several boys drown, but the father rescues his daughter. The family is haunted forevermore.
    * During a time of widespread vigilante violence, a man sets another man on fire and escapes justice by crossing a river. The incident is passed down in family lore by way of an extremely ugly sounding limerick.
    * A man is beheaded and both parts are left on a railroad track.
    * (I’ve shared this one before, but it still tickles me). A woman shoots her married lover twice. Shooter and victim eventually get married.
    Never a dull moment in this clan! 😎

    • Kathryn, that is GREAT STUFF! You could do entire novels around each of those examples (and I would love to hear the limerick sometime). If you have more, maybe you could do a compilation along the line of WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP titled LOUISIANA DIRT NAP or something. Wow. What are your family reunions like? Thanks so much for revealing that side of your ancestry!

  7. Great post, Joe. I have had my share of tragic experiences, like everyone else. I lost two brothers and both parents to heart problems. Problems I seem to have inherited. As a former pastor, I conducted funerals for the families of murder victims, abuse victims, and one man who accidentally shot and killed his three year old son while cleaning his handgun. I’ve lost good friends to car accidents and my best friend recently to cancer. But the only experience I’ve put into a story was my memories of my great grandmother, who at age 98 suffered abuse while living with an alcoholic uncle of mine. As a boy I used to visit her and listen to her tales of coming to Missouri in a covered wagon. She died in 1970 while I was serving in Korea. I incorporated the experience in a short story that hasn’t been published yet.

    • Thank you, Dave. I can’t imagine a gig tougher than being a pastor, and I salute you for all the good you did while in that position. And the story about your grandmother…I’ve been frequently visiting a friend who has been confined to a rehab center over the past few months and the opportunities predators have with the elderly and/or infirm are hair-raising. Thank you for sharing and providing us all with food for thought and opportunity to appreciate our own lives. And please let us know when that story is eventually published.

  8. I have experienced many losses in my life. Some by death, others by circumstances. It resulted in me having a difficult time getting close to anyone. I felt if I really cared about someone, I would lose them one way or another. So, I kept everyone at arm’s length. It was very hard for me to trust anyone and was the beginning of my introvertive nature. I have plenty of online friends and a roommate, but still do not have many close friends. Writing is cathargic to me and hopefully I will be able to bring these emotions to my writing.

    • Writing would, I think, be a good outlet to express feelings such as that, Rebecca. Thank you for sharing. And good luck with your efforts.

  9. Oh! Reading about WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP gave me the shivers. (Not an easy thing to do…)

    I’ve always been haunted by the death of my grandmother’s first husband. I didn’t even know she *had* a first marriage until after she died at 89 years old, because she would never speak about it. His family didn’t like her very much, for some obscure religious reason, I think. They hadn’t even been married a year when his appendix burst. The doctors didn’t diagnose him correctly and he died the next day. His family shunned her completely after his death, and I believe it hurt her deeply. My grandparents’ marriage always seemed tense to me, and I’ve always wondered if her first marriage wasn’t one of the reasons. Silences speak louder than words.

  10. Laura, I’m STILL finding out things about close relatives that I didn’t know. It’s fascinating, isn’t it? Thanks for sharing your grandmother’s story. It’s almost like one of those Russian nesting dolls, with a story within a story within…

    There are parts of WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP that remind me of you. But don’t tell anyone.

  11. I don’t think any of us go unscathed in our lives by events which shape who we are or who we become.

    After suffering from severe depression a number of years ago, such that I could not get out of bed, I found writing turned my world from upside down to right side up. If I wrote stories taken from my personal experience as fiction I could change the outcome of the events which had spiraled me out of control.

    During my first marriage I walked in on my husband and my best friend getting it on. I quietly back out of the room and left our house. When I divorced my husband I never told him what I had seen. I left with our baby, a suitcase of clothes, and nothing more. I wouldn’t even take child support from him. It was dirty money. That one event motivated me to be a success at ever job I ever had. It also left me distrustful of women as friends, something I have never gotten over. To this day I don’t have and don’t trust most women, so I have no female BFF’s. My best friends have always been of the male persuasion and no other man has ever let me down, including my current husband of thirty-six years. Also, I never told my son why I divorced his father. I figured at some point in his life he would see firsthand the kind of man his dad was, and I wasn’t disappointed. That one event taught me to be strong, to work my butt off at everything I attempted, and to remain self-sufficient just in case.

    I was also sexually assaulted while on a date and never told anyone because I thought it was my fault, but I learned I was wrong when I began working with Victim Services. To this day I still run into this man, but I’m able to deal with it because in a story I wrote the outcome was much different. Let’s just say in my fictitious version I was more prepared, and he didn’t walk away unscathed.

    I could go on and on with stories that shaped who I am today; I think we all could. But, as writers we hold our heads high and reshape the outcome of these life-altering events through our writing, and we are in the end victorious.

  12. Thank you for sharing those very painful episodes with our audience, Anon, as well as your walking through that valley, so to speak, and coming out the other end, strengthened though not unscathed. Certainly that’s an inspiration to us all. Keep writing and don’t stop!

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