Last weekend, I attended a one-day writing class in Green-Wood Cemetery organized by the literary magazine One Story. The class was the first of a series of site-specific writing courses taught by Hannah Tinti, One Story co-founder and author of The Good Thief.
For those who have never had the opportunity to visit Green-Wood Cemetery, it’s well worth the schlep to Sunset Park. The cemetery is Brooklyn’s largest historical landmark and includes the graves of dozens of notable Americans, from Leonard Bernstein to Jean-Michel Basquiat. Unsurprisingly, it is the perfect spot to be inspired.
Class began in the Green-Wood Cemetery Chapel (designed by the same architecture firm behind Grand Central Terminal) with instruction on how to create characters based on gravesites and a review of basic storytelling pointers (more on both later). After the lesson, we explored the cemetery on a guided tour with historian Tom Russell, who offered background on Green-Wood and its inhabitants. We visited famous graves and learned details both somber (many of the victims of the 1876 Brooklyn Theatre Fire are buried at Green-Wood under a memorial marker in a circular mass – that is, with heads touching) and uplifting (Green-Wood is home to several feral parrots that escaped a shipment to John F. Kennedy International Airport in the 1960s).
After the tour, students were to explore the cemetery and put the character building techniques from Tinti’s lecture to use. These are three hard-and-fast pieces of writing advice I took away from the entire experience:
1. Use Headstones to Build the Skeleton of Your Character
Nathaniel Hawthorne was notorious for wandering the graveyards of Salem, Massachusetts and using names from the headstones in his writing. Gravesites can be rich with factual information about the deceased — and not just name, date of birth and the year of death, but family relations can be divined from nearby graves as well. Now you can piece together family drama, whether someone died young or lived to old age, whether they married someone much older or robbed the cradle. Even the quality of stone and design of the tombstone can indicate economic standing.
The creative possibilities are endless. These details are great starting points to building the skeleton (ZING!) of a character or story, especially if you’re drawn to a particular time period and yearning to write some historical fiction.
2. Dress Your Character Up in a Superhero Costume
This may stray from the graveyard theme, but it stays true to the Halloween spirit. After pinning down the basics, give your characters some dimension. Tinti had a playful method for accomplishing this: Borrow the dynamics of superheroes. With a brief questionnaire, we considered: What is my character’s costume? (What about their appearance stands out?); What is their origin story? (Where did they come from?); etc. The superhero character study can also help ensure characters are balanced, having both superpowers (things they are good at) and weaknesses.
3. Study Obituaries for Character Inspiration
Tinti shared an obituary from The New York Times for sideshow performer Melvin Burkhart as an example of memorable, multifaceted character description. The obituary begins with Burkhart’s reputation as “The Human Blockhead,” a man who could hammer nails and spikes into his nose for the enjoyment of audiences. But the piece doesn’t just portray Melvin as “a freak”:
Mr. Burkhart urged good taste in a tasteless business. ''We would never get up there and just say, 'Come in here and see a horrible person,''' he said on National Public Radio. ''You wouldn't say, 'You're going to see a girl with no arms.' ''
The proper approach, he said, was to proclaim, ''You're going to see the armless wonder who does fantastic things right before your eyes using nothing but the tootsies on her feet.''
By far the best detail is a man who hammer nails up his nose would ever say “tootsies.” This isn’t just what makes Melvin more interesting as a character — it’s what makes him human.
Obituaries also provide the perspectives of loved ones and relatives, like Burkhart’s daughter’s comment: “He was here to make people smile.” The downside gleaning character from obituaries is that you have to assume or imagine weakness. (Burkhart may not have had much time for his family with all the travelling he did for his job.) But once you’re aware of such omissions, it can actually serve as an advantage, egging you on to wield your creative license.
One final thing: This may have been left out of One Story’s course for being too obvious, but I wondered, Why not use Green-Wood Cemetery as a setting for a story? As I jotted down names of the deceased in my notebook, I couldn’t help dreaming up stories about people who visit cemeteries just for kicks. Green-Wood is rich with gothic architecture, sprawling hills, winding paths and a view of New York City. It creates a mood immediately. If any setting has the power to inspire your writing, why not get to the source and run with it?
Freddie Moore is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her full name is Winifred, and her writing has appeared in unFold, The Leaf Unturned and Italics Mine. As a former co-president of SUNY Purchase’s Cheese Club, she’s a big-time foodie who knows her cheese.
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