Friday, June 3, 2011

A Slightly Morbid Source for Writing Inspiration

Very German, no? (These were my great grandparents.)

It started when I took a folklore class in college. For that class I had to collect several rubbings from area tombstones in a semi-Indiana Jones fashion. Although we weren't tracking down any famous or valuable historical relics we were collecting samples of educational value. We had earlier learned some of the symbolism of the most common images to be found on tombstones.

For example, did you know that the inclusion of the image of a broken rose bud almost always indicates it is a child's grave? It makes sense once you think about it, but like many people, I hadn't stopped to ponder the graves of anyone but my own relatives - until I took folklore.

I additionally find that some epitaphs make great story starters. But even an unusual gravestone, or an unusual name can make the wheels churn in my head. What were they like? How did they die? And more importantly ... what happened during their lifetime?

In my hometown there is a rich immigrant heritage, largely due to the coal mines that existed there for several decades. Because of this, a visit to the local graveyard is now a goldmine for names of Italian, German, Hungarian, Irish and other origin.  I could look up sources for immigrant names elsewhere I'm sure, but what is also fun about this source is that the names are often variations of those I've heard spoken aloud when I was small. I would want to be careful how I use any of them - so that no one thinks I'm writing about their dearly departed grandmother - but slight alterations or mixing and matching would allow for some authenticity and local flavor to leak into my stories.

Don't knock it til you've tried it! See if your local graveyard sparks any ideas for you.

- Suzanne


  1. I used to ride in the car looking into other cars wondering what the lives of those people were, what their story was. I guess this is a posthumous version of that.

  2. Cemetaries are good places to research your family history, too. That's why my parents wanted a grave and a tombstone even though they were giving their bodies to science.

    Kathryn Page Camp

  3. Useful blog, no bones about it. You never know what kind of information you'll dig up; it might breathe life into a dead manuscript. You can add texture to a scene, possibly giving it a grave mood.

    After reading this, I feel like I should go to the grocery store and buy a frozen pizza. What brand of pizza,you ask?

    Seriously, this is a great idea. Thanks.


  4. My secret is out! I thought I was the only one who cruised cemeteries looking for names and ideas. I've done that for years, since high school (and I'm an old grandma). Cemeteries fascinate me because each person has a unique story and there are just so many "what ifs" there!

  5. Yes, the secret is out. Mary, I've often spent time finishing overheard bits of conversation in public places or imagined the lives of people just walking by. I do think visiting graveyards is an extension of that. Having the years right there makes picking popular names from a specific time handy too! And Kathryn, the true reason I took that picture is because I'm adding it to my family tree on :) Jeff - your comment made me laugh. Always good to have a little humor in the graveyard. And Karla, it's nice to know I'm not alone! Thanks everyone. It just goes to prove that writing inspiration is truly everywhere ...