Field research – cemetery visit #1


It is freezing cold here today.  But hey, we survived the polar vortex!  The polar vortex totally played with my mind.  The other day the temperature reached the mid-teens and I thought gleefully for a moment that it was so warm I didn’t need a jacket.

During days like today, I like to think of happier, sunnier times, like last autumn when I began visiting cemeteries.  I’d come up with the germ of an idea for a novel that heavily featured cemeteries.  The problem?  I never went to cemeteries.  Chalk it up to a typical fear of death and a lingering childhood aversion to walking on the dead.

I thought I’d be able to gloss over the setting at first and dive into the characters.  My plan was to rustle up a rough draft and fill in cemetery details later.  When I sat down to write, however, I found I couldn’t get a handle on anything – characters, setting or plot.  So, I hit the road.

True confession – whenever I’m stuck on the page, I look for distraction.  Rather than surrendering to Netflix, I visited a cemetery and congratulated myself on finding a distraction that I could write off as work.


Several details stand out from my first visit.  The humidity, the towering pines, he dark tangle of forest beyond the stones.  A spider scurrying over gray marble and a cannon inexplicably placed in the middle of the grounds.  (Were they worried a rival cemetery would attack?)  I got burrs on my jeans and when I got home, I felt the urge to wash cemetery dirt off my feet.  I noticed that many of the graves were decorated with flowers, statues and even a few wind chimes.

Suddenly I had the opposite problem when I sat down to write again – I had too many details that I wanted to cram into the novel.  But I also had  a sense of setting and how my characters would interact in that setting.  Score.

Barrier to the page: Can’t get a handle on the setting?

Solution: Stop streaming House of Cards on Netflix and immerse yourself in the closest thing to your setting that you can find.

(We’ll talk about how to immerse yourself in hard-to-visit and/or imaginary settings in an upcoming post.)

Discussion: If you’re a writer, where do you find inspiration for developing your settings?  If you’re a reader, what makes a setting memorable for you?

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