>Grave Ruminations

>Hi, I’m Pati Nagle, your alternate Gal Friday. I write mostly fantasy with some science fiction here and there and oh, yeah—historical fiction under my alter ego, P.G. Nagle. It’s an honor to be included in the Mad Genius Club, among such august company. Or should I say October company?

I’m delighted to make my debut on Halloween, as it’s my all-time favorite holiday. Since we’re talking about process here, and in honor of the day, I thought I’d share some pictures from my recent visit to St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 in New Orleans. Take a stroll among the tombs with me while I muse about writing and inspiration.

My love of the fantastic goes back to my childhood, and Halloween has always been a big part of it. As a kid I loved planning my costume every year, dressing up and running around the neighborhood, the whisper of snow in the air, the dark shapes of other kids haunting the streets. All that was far better than the candy.

As an adult I love handing out candy to cute kids, seeing their costumes, carving pumpkins and lighting candles, decorating the house, and just reveling in the change of seasons. I also love the traditions of Dia de los Muertos, which is widely celebrated in the Southwest.

In New Orleans, the same celebrations are held under the name of All Saints’ Day. I’ve been to this fascinating city numerous times, for both writing conferences and research for my novels. This trip was for pleasure but inevitably I did things that can be considered research, including taking a graveyard tour. At the moment I’m not working on a specific project involving a cemetery, but who knows? It’s possible that just walking around a place like this will inspire a story.

That’s a fiction writer’s reality. Always soaking up information, never knowing what will bubble up to the surface later and appear in a novel. This is as much a part of the process as sitting down in front of the computer, at least for me.

As I was going through these photos, even though I took them only a couple of weeks ago, I noticed details that I hadn’t registered during the tour. Like the fact that most of the tombs in the first picture above are marble, and most of the tombs in the second one are brick. Other than that, the photos are similar, kind of a nice matched pair. Maybe these two “streets” could be home to two rival clans of vampires.

See what I mean? Anything could come out of this. My answer to people who ask where I get my ideas is, everywhere.

My camera has been my trusty research tool for as long as I’ve been publishing. I never know what I’m going to wish I had recorded later, so I take lots of pictures whenever I’m someplace interesting. (Whoever invented digital photography, bless you.)

As I was walking through the cemetery, listening to the tour guide, my brain was gathering information on a lot of different levels. The camera is the brain’s auxiliary, capturing far more visual detail than I can remember. Consciously, I was mostly grabbing at impressions. Oo, that looks cool—take a picture. Interesting anecdote—take a picture. And while I’m soaking up images, the brain is asking questions.

Which of these two tombs is the real burial place of Marie Leveau—or does it matter? Was she buried somewhere else altogether? Both of these tombs are visited by hundreds of people a year, who mark the tombs with three “x”s and leave offerings to Madame Leveau, hoping she will grant their wishes. She has become a something of a voodoo goddess. Our guide was skeptical about her being in either tomb.

Is there a way to do DNA testing on the tombs’ contents to prove whether she’s there? Probably not, is the answer to that one. The dessication of remains in these tombs is pretty thorough due to the heat of the tropical climate. (Our guide compared it to baking a turkey in a 120 degree oven for a year.) Even if a useful bit of bone were found, it could belong to any of the family members whose remains are in the tomb. The whole process of storing remains in these cemeteries is fascinating (and, as our guide pointed out, environmentally sound—a very efficient system).

There’s one more thing about excursions. Not only do I collect information on them, but I also soak up atmosphere. Even in the daytime, this cemetery has a distinctive feeling. (Note: it’s locked up at night, and it’s dangerous to visit alone, because of predatory criminals. If you visit, go with a tour. You’ll be safer and get a lot more out of it.)

This is a place of reverence and respect for ancestors, but at the same time a place of decay. Tombs with long lists of names carved in marble stand beside tombs where no markings have survived, and whose occupants are no longer known. Remembrance and the forgotten, side by side.

Note the Mardi Gras beads hanging on the ironwork around these tombs. How does that make you react? Does it seem disrespectful, or is it an uplifting expression of joie de vivre in a place of death?

Who might have put those beads there, and why? What would the tombs’ occupants think of such tribute? Here’s where I start thinking about characters, situations, events. These are the bricks (or marble blocks) from which stories are built.

I ask a lot of questions on research excursions, most of which don’t get answered at the time. All of it is fodder for the writing.

—Pati Nagle


  1. >Hi Pati,Thanks for the tour. 😀 Cemeteries and graveyards are always fascinating. I remember one of our more fascinating fieldtrips for history class in high school was to the local city cemetery. It was huge. We lived in the coal, steel and wine belt (inner New South Wales, Australia) at the time, and there were a lot of mine accidents, colliery accidents, and just plain epidemics and the usual illnesses, etc.Currently, we live in Rhode Island here in the USA and have taken some of our visitors to Swan Point Cemetery in Providence. I have lots of photos of the tombs, headstones, statues, what-have-you, but one has always held my curiosity. It is an eight foot tall elegant plinth based around a brick heart: but every facet that held a name or date of its occupants has been chipped or chiseled off. Sad for the family, however old it may be.HP Lovecraft is buried at Swan Point, and we’ve taken people to visit his grave. We also used to attend the graveside reading on Lovecraft’s birthday for a few years until it was banned by the curator. The crowds got too large. :-(Cheers,MariannePS: I have a bunch of photos!

  2. >Yes, I like cemeteries a lot. There’s a great one in Santa Fe where a lot of the folks I wrote about in my Civil War novels are buried.

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