**Please note this post contains a spoiler for The Royal Companion**
I grew up religious. Not the ‘I go to church on Sundays’ kind, the hardcore kind that consumes you and separates you from others. When I left home at seventeen, I stepped away from it because I needed to see who I was without it. Turned out I was a bit of a mess. I was quite lost for a number of years while trying to navigate a life without tight boundaries, probably dangerously so if my partying habits are anything to go by. I was trying to figure out where I fit in a world I had been told my whole life was ending, whilst living with the guilt of turning my back on God. I’ll admit, I was tempted to return. It would have been so much easier. The problem was, I started to realise that the “truth” I had been raised on was a collection of perfectly crafted lies. Remember when Dorothy pulls back the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, seeing the man behind it? That was me, and you cannot un-see it. Imagine my devastation after spending my entire childhood with guilt every time I broke the rules when I slept over at a friend’s house who was not in the religion, participated in forbidden celebrations, played a team sport, liked a boy. Or when I decided I wanted to go to University to learn things the bible could not teach.
My eldest brother left home, and the religion, when I was young. He figured it out about the same age I did. My sister left soon after, and then eventually my parents did as well. One brother remained in it. One brother remains in it. This brother was my best friend growing up. He looked out for me in ways I could never share here in this public space. He let me sleep in his room because I was terrified of the dark and hated sleeping alone. Before we went to sleep he would always pray for both of us. His prayers were so long I would often fall asleep before he had finished. He took his beliefs seriously, but he also had a lighter side. To this day he remains one of the funniest people I have ever known.
The problem is, people within the organisation are not meant to associate with people outside of it. It’s a grey area for family and those not baptized. My brother spent a number of years hoping (and no doubt praying) that I would find my way back, until the day I admitted I had not fallen away, but rather stepped away with my eyes wide open. What happened then? He did what he had to. He said things that burned through my lungs. He told me we can never be close, that our kids will never grow up together, that his bond with God is thicker than blood. I had just given birth to my second son. He was two weeks old. To say it knocked me seems inadequate. I have not seen my niece and nephew since. Occasionally my kids see photos of him and their cousins and ask questions that tear at me, because I know he would have been an awesome uncle–one that made them laugh.
Readers of my first series might feel the weight of that grief. It has shaped the story into something darker than I had intended. Looking back at the first book, I see trails of it everywhere. I see it in the impossibility of Aldara and Tyron’s relationship. I see it in the rules that confine them. I see it blatantly when Aldara is separated from Kadmus at the gates of Archdale, as she watches his blank, resigned face through the portcullis and cries for the first time since being sold. Later I see it when Hali is sent to Onuric and Aldara is forced to face grief once again, pondering the question ‘How do you grieve the living?’ It was a question I struggled with. It’s a question I still struggle with.
Jeff Goins said in a blog post, ‘Write with pathos. Write with passion. Write true.’ This is what is required of good writing and why it’s so painful. We are revealing parts of ourselves that many of us would rather hide. So why does Goins suggest that we not hide our scars but show them? Because it helps us to heal. It’s cathartic. Your notebook or laptop can be a confessional booth and counsellor, hearing your pain and allowing you to process it in a creative way. We heal not by avoiding discomfort, but by leaning into it with honesty.
Goins also suggests that writing your pain helps to heal others. Sharing the painful parts of your story is about more than just you. Others may identify with certain pieces of your pain and find healing. When you share your story, you help those people go through the same cathartic process you’ve experienced.
‘This is an act of bravery, which is why it’s so hard.’
I receive a lot of emails from readers telling me that they care deeply for the characters I have created. I suspect this connection does not stem solely from the love the protagonists share, but their demons. Grief. Robert Frost famously said, ‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader’. I have written many scenes through tears. There is a scene in The Common Girl that knocked me flat for a few days. But the best part about fiction is that you get to rewrite histories and create better outcomes. You are in full control of your character’s happiness.
So if you are a writer reading this post, pour your pain into your stories and let your characters overcome the obstacles you struggle with. It will not only help to heal you, it might just heal your readers. One story at a time.