Friday, September 25, 2009

To Read or Not To Read Part 5: Morbid Inspiration

My husband and I have been spending a lot of time in cemeteries lately. Not because anyone we know has died (thank goodness), but as tourists. That might sound ghoulish, but it was not our intention.

In the last month we've been to Arlington National Cemetery, Christ Church Burial Grounds in Philadelphia, and Lafayette Cemetery, pictured above, in New Orleans.

Comparing the three cemeteries is like comparing apples and oranges. Arlington National Cemetery is 200 acres of pristine and uniform graves. It provides a snapshot of our national history. Did you know that the property once belonged to Robert E. Lee? I particularly enjoyed the section where the nurses are buried. Hundreds of women who served during war time. Their names alone are worth the trip - Phoebe, Constance, Betty, Gertrude. In comparison, the Christ Church Burial Ground is 2 acres with some 4,000 graves, including five signers of the Declaration of Independence and victims of the 1793 Yellow Fever outbreak (I've added Laurie Halse Anderson's FEVER to my TBR list). The Lafayette Cemetery in New Orleans is unlike any other cemetery (well, any cemetery above sea level). In New Orleans, tombs are used. So walking through the cemetery is like walking through a town - row upon row of tombs dating back to 1833.

So, what the heck does our morbid fixation with cemeteries have to do with writing?

I've been reading a lot of ghost stories lately. As part of my work for VCFA, I have to read roughly ten books every four weeks. For the last packet, I read all ghost stories. For the packet due in October, I'm reading stories that have Death as a character. Why? My current WIP is a ghost story and I've never written a paranormal story before. So I need to learn how others have done it.

Some of the books I've read in the last month are:
GHOSTS I HAVE BEEN by Richard Peck
GHOSTS OF KERFOL by Deborah Noyes
RUINED by Paula Morris (which prominently features the Lafayette Cemetery).
SKELLIG by David Almond (not really a ghost story but a GREAT book)

What I've learned from all this reading is that there are as many types of ghosts floating around in writers' imaginations as there are writers, and comparing them is like comparing cemeteries - apples to oranges. Some ghosts are menacing and scary and kept me up at night (THE GHOSTS OF KERFOL), some are loving and kind (THE GRAVEYARD BOOK), some are helpful (THE KILLER'S COUSIN). What it means is that I can have my ghost be any kind of ghost I want her to be. The only rules that exist for ghost stories are the ones created by the writer for their specific world. The ghosts must be true to that created world.

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you'll know that I've had a change of heart when it comes to reading YA. I never used to read it. Now, it's ALL I read. I read with a highlighter in one hand and stack of post-it-tabs in the other. When I'm done with a book it's marked all up and has all kinds of papers sticking out of it. I learn something from every book I read, even the ones I don't particularly like. The really good ones inspire me. And, the cemeteries have inspired me as well - through the ambiance of their hallowed ground and the voices of all those souls. After visiting all these places it is easy to believe in ghosts.

So I wonder, if I find inspiration from graveyards and ghost stories, where do other writers, whether you're writing contemporary, historical, sci-fi, whatever, get their inspiration? What are you reading and what have you learned?


  1. I also never read YA until Harry Potter (oh, that's MG isn't it) and Twilight. Now I pretty much only read YA, there are so many good recommendations on writing blogs that I want to read!
    I've actually been to Arlington Cemetary and Christ Church cemetary but it was in 7th grade for a school trip. I remember being in awe of both though!
    Good luck with your ghost story!

  2. Funny, I was reading mostly YA and have recently switched to mostly MG because that's what I write. I visited a cemetery in Ireland this summer and for some reason it didn't feel ghostly AT ALL. That's interesting. Now I''m wondering why.

    Another "ghost" book you might want to add to your list is EVERLOST by Neal Shusterman. I love your observation that ghost stories only need to stay true to their created world. I find it's the same with the fairy stories I've been reading lately.

  3. Kelly, Is HP MG? I guess it started that way. Both cemeteries are worth a second trip.

    MG, I LOVED Neal Shusterman's UNWIND. I'll have to read EVERLOST. Thanks for the recommendation.

  4. I think Lafayette Cemetery in New Orleans is one of the the most dripping-with-atmosphere places I've ever been. It's too bad that parts of it need restoration - at least that was the case when I was there about ten years ago.
    But with everything else that needs attention in that city, I don't imagine the cemetery is too high on the politicians' minds right now. Perhaps some ghosts should begin haunting certain people? Is there a story there? :)

  5. I second the EVERLOST recommendation. And where do I get inspiration? Whenever I close a book and say,"Damn, that was good!" I've got WHEN YOU REACH ME as next on my TBR pile. From all I hear about that, I will be inspired.

  6. Gale - Yes, the Lafayette Cemetery is in dire need of restoration. There are quite a few people in NO working to restore all the cemeteries, but as you said, there is so much there still damaged from Katrina.

    J.A. - WHEN YOU REACH ME is on my TBR pile as well, but that pile is growing. I'm beginning to think it's like an editor's slush pile and I'll never get through it all.

  7. Meg - First off - one of my most memorable moments during my trip to Paris was my visit to Pere Lachaise cemetery. I was there when Jim Morrison's bust was still there - seeing all of the grafitti surrounding his grave actually inspired me to read his bio. Interesting and wacky stuff!

    As for my reading - I read all over the YA board. Paranormal is wicked hot right now and it fascinates and inpsires me. I love to see how writers carry off the fantasy part. I'm also reading mysteries, which is a genre I'm not often drawn to, but I'm enjoying it.

  8. Robin - I've never been to Pere Lachaise. It's on my list, along with touring the sewers, next time I go to Paris. Really. The sewer tour is supposed to be fascinating. And I would guess, could be VERY inspiring.