Keli Gwyn
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Visiting Graveyards to Add Life to Historical Fiction

People often shy away from graveyards, but I’m different. I’ve spent many an afternoon meandering through pioneer cemeteries in California’s Gold Country where I live.

Since I write historical romance novels set in the area, I find cemeteries to be a source of information as well as inspiration. Where else can you find so many poetic testimonies to love all in one place?

The moving inscription on the headstone above, written for 19-year-old Elizabeth by either her grieving husband or one of the many headstone verse writers of the time, reads:

There’s a void, a painfull void
That nothing here can fill
T’was God’s decree let me forbear
To murmur at his will.

As I amble through the oak-studded grounds of a pioneer cemetery, I’m transported to the past. The brave folk of yesteryear come to life in my fertile imagination. Through the words their loved ones had etched on their headstones, I learn about the hearts and souls of those who helped settle the Golden State. Story ideas run through my mind like the gentle breezes rustling the leaves overhead.

One of the things that strikes me when I stroll through the cemeteries is the fact that the pioneers didn’t just note how many years a person had lived on the headstones. Often they included the months and days as well, proving they valued each day greatly.

Being a member of the Weepy Women’s Club, I tear up when I read some of the poignant inscriptions. The hardest to bear are the ones written or commissioned by parents who lost a child at a young age. Without the benefit of the vaccines and medications we have today, disease often swept through towns, claiming the lives of many. It’s heartrending to come across headstones such as the one below, which marks the gravesite of two children from one family.

A headstone conveys several aspects of a person’s life. I’ve seen many that mention the deceased’s country of origin, such as the one for C. D. Augusta above. They pioneers survived long, arduous journeys to reach the West, but their ties to the countries or states from which they’d come were strong.

A person’s faith was often evidenced, both in the verses as well as the symbols. On Augusta’s headstone, a finger points heavenward as well as to the words, “Gone to rest.” The parents who lost their two sons had two lambs carved into the stone. Affiliations to the Masons or other fraternal organizations were noted at times, too.

Social status was also conveyed. Those with money could afford marble slabs or even obelisks, such as the one pictured above. Others opted for less expensive concrete. Saddest of all are the simple wood planks that have all but rotted away over the past century and a half. I imagine those to be graves of miners who died with little to nothing after having come to California in search of the fortunes that never materialized.

I took the photographs in this post during a trek through the cemetery in the Gold Rush-era town of El Dorado, California, in which my debut novel is set. I used facts gleaned that day in the story, which add to the emotional depth and authenticity.

Death was an inescapable part of life during the 1800s. Our ancestors dealt with it differently than we do. We tend to gloss over a loss and move on as quickly as possible. The Victorians didn’t. They mourned deeply and openly, having what we today would almost classify as obsessive and unhealthy methods for grieving. At times I think their ways of handling loss, although perhaps overdone by our thinking, might have helped them deal with the darker side of life, which they saw on a regular basis.

One thing is certain. Our ancestors loved deeply and left a tremendous legacy.

• • •

Have you ever gone “on location” to do research for a story?

Do you avoid cemeteries, or do you find them a fascinating tie to the past?

Do you have tales from your ancestors that you’d love to put into a story one day?

Keli Gwyn

16 Comments

  • Erica Vetsch says:

    Yes, I’ve gone on location for a story.
    I LOVE wandering old cemeteries.
    Yes, there are some family historical ideas that I’d love to put in a novel someday.

    The most poignant cemetery I’ve ever wandered is the Orphanage Cemetery at the Minnesota School for Dependent and Orphaned Children in Owatonna, MN. Heartwrenching.

  • Great post and pics Keli! I find inspiration in cemeteries as well. In fact, I revisited a cemetery earlier this week to get a fresh picture in my head for rewriting a scene — only to find that a pair of trees I had written into the scene have since been removed. Now I have to decide if I keep the trees in my story or not. Hrm!! But I do find going on-location to be a great way to feed my imagination.

    And yes, I do have an ancestor tale to tell someday — my great-grandparents’ love and loss story.

  • I LOVE visiting old cemeteries. While visiting my daughter and son-in-law in Pennsylvania in 2010, we found an old cemetery outside a church that had so many grave sites from the cilvil war. Some of the statues and towers were amazing. I could certainly hear many stories coming from those graves.

  • the writ and the wrote says:

    I’ve never gone on location for research, although that would be amazing. I’m fascinated by cemeteries and the past. When I was in Alaska several years ago, one of the stops on a tour we took was a cemetery – I felt like I hit the jackpot.Funnily enough, I like reading scary stuff, but watching it sends me under the covers.

  • i have gone on location, and i’ve totally meandered through old cemeteries, too, taking pictures. i really enjoyed the cemeteries in and around boston, salem, and that area, though i’ve not (and likely won’t) write a book needing that information. fascinating post, keli.

  • Rhonda says:

    I really enjoyed your post. I also find cemeteries as a major source of inspiration as a writer. It may seem morbid at times, but like you, I focus on the amazing stories that lie behind the inscriptions written on the tombstones. Amazing. Thank you for sharing.

  • Most of my novels take place in settings that are familiar to me, so I haven’t needed to do much location research. I do a lot of online research for other kinds of details… illnesses and their medications, features of a vintage motorcycle, etc.

    I’ll bet the above mentioned cemetery in Alaska is Skagway’s Gold Rush Cemetery where Soapy Smith is buried. I’m not one for visiting cemeteries very often, but my DH and I discovered an abandoned one where my great grandfather and family were buried, and that was a great find during my genealogy search. I took *lots* of photos, too.

  • I LOVE old cemeteries. Always have. When I was still in grade school, a cousin and I wandered off from a family event into a cemetery and went around reading tombstones. I didn’t understand why the grown-ups were upset! (Okay, once I was a parent, maybe I did.)

  • It’s late here and I am just catching up with you, Keli. Oh yes, I grew up in the same neighborhood as one of the most famous cemeteries in the world. Green-Wood: http://www.green-wood.com/2010/photo-galleries/

    Look at her pictures and read the story of the wild parrots, the famous ghosts and dignitaries buried in her magestic grounds. Thirty years ago, my husband’s cousin and his family were the caretakers and lived on site.

    Millions have come to take tours, do rubbings of famous stones and as children, well who could resist, we have fun sneaking through the gates and playing hide-and-seek behind the stone monuments and giant family burial houses. I must say with tongue-in-cheek that the living frighten me much more than the dearly departed. Every time we went to Dutchess County from Brookyn, my mother took us on a tour of her families burial sites. In the old days they also put glass enclosed pictures of your loved ones in the center of the headstone.
    Great places for inspiration and tons of wonderful research. Thanks for sharing your story on this ghostly weekend 🙂

  • candidkerry says:

    Hi Keli,

    At the time I wrote my first WIP, I lived in the book’s location (Cape Coral, FL). That helped a great deal with setting and details of the surroundings.

    Like you, I LOVE investigating cemeteries. I, too, am fascinated by those who came before us and their lives. I drive by a cemetery each day to pick up the boys from school, and I often read the headstones as I stop at the 4-way stop next to the cemetery fence. One of the headstones had the years of 1850s-1930s — in Florida! I just can’t imagine surviving the oppressive summer heat without air conditioning! 🙂

    Thanks for this post. I wrote a post about cemeteries, called Grave Danger. 🙂 Here’s a link in case you get a moment to read. http://candidkerry.wordpress.com/2011/03/03/grave-danger/

    Take care!
    Kerry

  • I always wondered if I was strange, Keli, because I, too, like walking through old cemeteries. There’s an old one less than a quarter of a mile down the road from our house, and before the last two tornados took out many of the tall, stately oak trees, it was actually a very lovely, serene place. A few of the tombstones date back to just after the Civil War era and I sometimes walk around studying the names of the souls who’ve passed.

    I think visiting the locales where our novels are set lends authenticity to our stories.

  • I think cemeteries are fascinating! But the children’s graves makes me want to cry too.

  • Gorgeous photos! Thank you for sharing–yes, that one with the two boys is a tearjerker. Bad enough to lose one child, but two…

  • Loree Huebner says:

    Love the photos. Thanks for sharing.

    Sometimes, Eric and I walk through this old, old cemetery in a nearby town. One time, we ran across a section of graves that was all babies or little children. So many of the small stones had beautiful inscriptions, and some were just markers for the poor…but they were all dated – died: 1918. As soon as my hubby saw the date, he knew it was the influenza outbreak.

    There must have been 40 tiny graves there. All children from all walks of life buried next to one another. A few of the graves had flowers or a pinwheel…so someone still comes by and remembers them.

    Great post, Keli.

  • Carla Gade says:

    I love to walk through cemeteries, too. I enjoy genealogy so much – it doesn’t matter if they are my own ancestors or someone else’s! It is a great place to go for story inspiration and also to find unique names for characters. Fun!

  • A very nice post, indeed. Living in New England, I get the opportunity to walk through some very old grave yards with stones going back to the 1600’s and they are often far more moving than anything set down in granite today. Back not so long ago, the people who commissioned grave markers wanted you, the accidental reader, who was beneath their feet and how much they were missed and by whom. Now, it’s so often just a first name, last name and dates. I think that is a great loss for future generations.

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