A man was hit by a train in my town today. No one knows why he walked in front of the oncoming fright train as it barreled through Flagstaff early this afternoon. We’ll probably never know for sure whether he thought he could outrun it or if he intended to die there on the tracks.
Life is full of these little stories. For a writer, the scraps of details we receive from the news aren’t enough to satisfy our hunger for the full story. Mystery writers in particular are famous for skimming the police logs for strange burglaries and unsolved murders. This very scenario — a man hit by a train — was the inciting incident of a novel I started working on in November.
We rip stories from the headlines all the time. But when is it appropriate to do so? How long must a real life tragedy lie fallow before the seeds of fiction can be sown? I think fiction is a great way to wrestle with and explain the unpleasant accidents and cold realities of life and death. It allows us to process tragedy and maybe find meaning in the inexplicable. At what point is it okay to fictionalize real world headlines? Where do we strike that balance? I’m not sure I know.
Some things are too painful to face immediately. It took years before novels set around the events of 9/11 were published. Surely the Newtown shootings will eventually make their way onto bookshelves and maybe even the man who stepped in front of 5,000 tons of steel and screeching wheels today. Writing and reading about death can help us prepare for it in our own lives. When times are darkest is when art is needed most.
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Jonny Eberle is a writer and photographer in Flagstaff, AZ. You can find him on Twitter at: @jonnyeberle.