No, it’s not as morbid as it sounds. Since this month’s themes is mysteries, I wanted to feature a setting that works for that genre as well as many others. Don’t think cemeteries can work as writing inspiration for more than mystery and horror? Read on!
Walking a Cemetery
I’ve walked through cemeteries usually with two purposes in mind: to get a sense of the history of an area and to look for unusual names for characters. A large cemetery is also a quiet place to walk and plot not worry about traffic.
On my visits, I’ve noticed a very sad trend. If I spot a tombstone that stands out from the surrounding ones, regardless of how old the grave is, it usually honors someone who died young. That gets me to thinking. Who was this person? Why did he or she died so young, What happened to their family?
Those thoughts can run through the mind of my main character (MC). Perhaps a teenage boy has the job of mowing a cemetery. He notices an unusual tombstone and begins digging into the past to discover what he can about the person buried there.
If I write a parallel story about the person who died–maybe he’s a teen who lived around 1900–I would have a time-slip novel with complimentary storylines in two different time periods.
Twice, I’ve taken my kids to lay flowers on the graves of relatives from my mom’s side in Shinnston, West Virginia, during Memorial Day weekend. I’ve written about how important that experience is to me and for me to share with my kids. That can be the inspiration for my MC to connect to his family or to dive into family history.
We often run into relatives when we stop. Last time, it was my mom’s first cousin and her husband. A chance encounter like that can forge new family bonds for my MC. Or maybe bury the hatchet on a long-running family feud. Or the spouse of my MC learns more than he ever wanted to know about his wife’s more distant relations.
Any genre will do.
Any of the inspirations from above can be tweaked to apply to a romance or mystery. The teen researching the interesting headstone enlists the shy, smart girl in his class to help him. They discover the young person who died was the victim of an unsolved murder. And someone lets them know he wants it to remain unsolved.
I have a special fondness for mysteries featuring cold cases or buried family secrets or both. The skeleton in the closet may be a skeleton in a coffin. I like the idea of a cemetery being a symbol for long-buried secrets. Then the detective, whether amateur or professional, can finally bring about justice after so many years.
One thing I learned about cemeteries in my area is that if I want to know who is buried where, it’s not as simple as visiting “Find A Grave”. Churches used to maintain many of the smaller cemeteries and kept the records for them. During a cemetery walk, led by a librarian from our local library, she said the Baptist church that had started the cemetery we were visiting burned at some point, losing their records for the locations of the graves. She mentioned that three mausoleums were built into the hillside along the edge of the cemetery, but she couldn’t find out who was buried there.
The hillside was now thickly overgrown. On a later visit, I found all of them. I didn’t get to close because two of the mausoleums were open. I didn’t know if anyone was still buried in them. But those mausoleums sent my imaginations spinning.
What if the key to a mystery was finding the grave of a particular person? What if the records had been burned in a church fire? How would the detective find it?
Or what if on Halloween night, some teens dare each other to enter a mausoleum that one of them knows is open? What if they find a very recently killed body?
Writers, how would you use cemeteries as writing inspiration? Readers, can you think of a story that used a cemetery as something other than a setting in a horror story?