the story behind the story: beauty in death

Warning!! Dead bird photo below, so if you’re squeamish or offended by dead creatures, look away now.


I’m a bit obsessed with death at the moment. Not in a morbid, depressing way, but in a circle-of-life kind of way. I drew the death tarot card, which excited me greatly and I spent ages journalling situations and habits in my life that need to die off so that new situations and habits can be formed. I’ve also been re-reading Staring at the Sun: Being at Peace with your own Mortality*, and I blew this month’s petrol budget on animal skulls. So I can’t drive anywhere but I do have a beautiful (ethically-sourced) roe deer skull in front of my fire. There’s no escaping it – we can’t have life without death.

I’m blaming the onset of autumn, and the prospect of Hallowe’en, which has turned every pound shop into my idea of shopping heaven (skulls and ghosts and zombies everywhere!!). My interest in all All Things Dead has prompted me to go back and work on a draft of a story I wrote as part of a creative writing class earlier this year. Beauty in Death, is about a young woman who takes photographs of dead birds as a way of dealing with the death of her partner. It’s set on Holborn Head, which is just across the bay from where I live, and was inspired by a dead bird I found while walking the headland myself.

Now, unlike my story character, Carla, I wasn’t mourning anyone, but I found this particular carcass so interesting. Here’s an excerpt from the moment that Carla comes across the bird.

Now, at her feet, lay the remains of a gull. She’d never seen anything quite like it; body and head stripped to bone, spine still intact, a row of gangly vertebrae like a question mark. Yet the wings were feathered and fresh, spread open and upward like an angel, as if the bird had just fallen. She photographed the delicate body feathers which lay scattered around the carcass, as if had been plucked, then she photographed the body itself. It was grotesque, like some sort of ritualistic sacrifice. The work of crows, possibly? She crouched and stared, entranced by it’s curious mix of beauty and decay. Like autumn.

Just goes to show that inspiration can be found in the most unusual places. It also demonstrates how we can take things that happen to us and make them happen to our characters. The words above were more or less what I thought when I saw the bird, but my reaction was simply to take a photograph and move on. The impact that it has on Carla, is very different.

I’ve since entered Beauty in Death into the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2018. Wish me luck! (And there’s still a couple of weeks to go, if you want to enter too!)

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2 thoughts on “the story behind the story: beauty in death

  1. Seeing a nearly dead gull was a small part of the inspiration for my latest novel. Sadly that one had plastic wrapped around its legs, so couldn’t fly or walk properly and was likely to starve (we did try to catch it so we could untangle it, but no luck).

    • Oh no, the poor thing. We get a lot of gulls caught in the net at work, they guys try to free them if they can, but often its just not possible, and its not a nice thing to witness.

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