The below is a guest post from my daughter, Siobhan O’Brien Holmes. She is a developmental editor of children’s and YA fiction, specialising in the magical, mysterious and downright macabre. I thought some of you might be interested to read her tips on writing horror for young readers. This post is republished from her blog at Writer and the Wolf.
Hey, horror fans! We all know that not much beats the eerie atmosphere of an empty cemetery in the middle of the night. They’re dark and shadowy, spookily silent and totally empty – you hope!
It goes without saying that cemeteries are a breeding ground for ghosts seeking closure (you knew that, right?) but they can make a fantastic setting for your middle grade or YA story even if you’re not writing supernatural horror. There’s a literary and cinematic heritage attached to graves that acts as shorthand for terror – think Pet Sematary, Night of the Living Dead, Carrie, The Woman in Black – so they can get people shuddering from the offset, even without a paranormal encounter. But that doesn’t mean you should be lazy about it; a flimsy graveyard backdrop isn’t enough to build atmosphere and tension on its own. First you need to be sure it makes sense as a setting in your story (why are your characters there? What does it add to the plot?), and then you’ve got to paint that setting for your readers. Most children and teenagers will have been to a graveyard at some time and they’ll have a picture of it in their mind straight away, so you don’t need to describe every detail. Just give them enough so they can feel the hairs stand up on the backs of their necks and imagine walking through that dark landscape with your characters.
How do you do that? Here are a few tips and resources for fleshing out your middle grade or YA cemetery setting.
Visit a cemetery
The number one port of call when you’re trying to describe a setting is to go there and see it for yourself. No amount of second-hand advice can beat first-hand experience of a location. Walk around and make notes, not just about what you can see but how it makes you feel. You’ll spot things you’d never discover just from looking at photos.
When I was researching for a middle grade novel I was writing, I walked around my local graveyard and noticed how a lot of the graves were grouped together by date or country; there’s one row of headstones, for example, that were all erected in the 1890s – the Victorian patch – and another row where mostly Irish people have been buried. I saw some graves with dead flowers that obviously hadn’t been visited in years, next to gleaming headstones adorned with freshly placed roses. And I always read the names on headstones and make a note of the ones that grab me (not literally – arghhh!). I love the old-fashioned names in particular.
You don’t need to feel guilty about visiting a graveyard for research if it’s open to the public – I often walk around my local cemetery with my toddler because it’s such a peaceful spot – but you do need to be respectful. There may be mourners visiting relatives’ graves or even burial ceremonies taking place, so follow some basic etiquette:
- Only attend during visiting hours (these will be posted online or on the cemetery gate)
- If you’re going by car, drive carefully. Usually pedestrians and drivers share the same path so go slowly and watch out for people
- Don’t stare at mourners or funeral processions and definitely don’t take their photo. It’s never okay to take pictures of anyone without permission.
- Give people their space, particularly if there’s a funeral taking place
- Keep your voice down so you don’t disturb people visiting friends’ and relatives’ graves
- Don’t touch or lean on headstones or pick up items left on a grave. Once, I was halfway out of the cemetery when I noticed my son was carrying a teddy bear. It said ‘DAD’ on its tummy. I was utterly mortified and had to spent the next ten minutes working out which grave he’d taken it from.
Beyond your local graveyard, you can look up lists of the best graveyards to visit in your town or country. For example, here’s a list of the spookiest cemeteries in the UK, and here are five graveyards around the world that offer guided tours. You’ll find thousands more with a quick Google search.
Read The Rural Setting Thesaurus
I adore both The Rural Setting Thesaurus and The Urban Setting Thesaurus and I think every writer should own a copy of each. It lists the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures you can expect to find in almost any setting, and even offers ideas for character interactions and conflict that might occur there. I’ll include a few excerpts here but you’ll need to buy the book to read the section in full!
Sights: Wrought iron fences and gates, a paved driveway winding between the graves, a chapel, sun-blanched stone angels, carved headstones (marble, concrete, or granite in hues of white, black and grey), a mausoleum, cordoned-off family burial plots […]
Sounds: Mourners crying or sniffing, people speaking in low voices, whispered prayers, the rustle of dead flowers being removed, the snip of shears, a broom rustling as a maintenance worker sweeps an area clean, lawn mowers, cars and hearses rolling to a stop […]
Smells: Fresh-cut grass, hot stone, newly turned earth, floral scents from flowers left on graves, perfume or aftershave, smells associated with the seasons (crisp air in the winter, rain and rot in early spring or late fall, the smell of new plant growth in the spring and summer)
Sensations: A cold headstone, the thud of one’s shoes against the walkway, heels sinking into the grass, the numbness of grief, a rusty wrought-iron fencepost, chalky dust from a stone marker, dead flowers crinkling in the hand […]
People commonly found here: A graveyard custodian, clergy members, close family or friends, mourners, vandals, visitors […]
You’ll find tons of YouTube videos that will take you on a tour of a cemetery. Take a look at these for starters:
Listen to music and sound effects
When I’m trying to write an atmospheric scene, I love listening to ambient music or sound effects to help get me in the right frame of mind. If you’re working on a spooky graveyard scene, think about the sounds your characters might hear and pop them on YouTube or Spotify while you write. Here are a few examples to get you started:
Read how other MG and YA authors did it
They’d reached the tip of Cemetery Point. It was a high, rocky spot of land, pounded by the ocean on one side, gnawed by the currents on the other side where the water of the sound met the ocean. A crumbling stone wall enclosed the cemetery. Inside the wall, a crazy dance of weathered gravestones and monuments waited. And just outside it stood Cyndi. She turned and gestured grandly. Beyond her, where the graveyard began, was a huge pile of driftwood
‘Welcome to Cemetery Point’, intoned Cyndi.
The moon went behind the clouds, and the rest of her sentence came hollowly out of the dark. ‘Happy Halloween.’
They stood silently for a moment. Then, ‘Decent’, Dade said, and went forward.
The Cemetery by D.E. Athkins (p30)
Now I’m not saying Point Horror is the pinnacle of excellent writing but these authors really knew their teen audience. What I particularly love in this passage is how blasé the characters are about this spooky cemetery. They’re drunk kids acting grown up, ready to party in a secluded spot: nobody’s prepared to admit they’re scared of a little graveyard. I think this is a great example of the importance of considering how your characters will interact with the setting.
Personally, I’d have been terrified to sit in a dark graveyard at night when I was 16, but I would have found it exhilarating, too – I’m a big horror fan and I still believed in ghosts back then. Unfortunately I wasn’t cool enough to get invited to illegal parties; I had to settle for under-18s discos which were scary in a different way.
There are also some nice phrases in this passage that build atmosphere, like ‘a crazy dance of weathered gravestones and monuments waited.’ I love this idea of the gravestones waiting for the teenagers because it’s gives life to the cemetery and implies something sinister is lurking, ready to pounce. Point Horror gets a lot of flack for its flimsy characterisation and minimalist writing style but they were bestsellers for a reason (I devoured them when I was at school) and if you hunt through the books you’ll find great inspiration for scary scenarios and valuable insight into how children and teenagers might react.
‘Have you ever heard this one? When you drive past a cemetery, you have to hold your breath. If you don’t, the spirits of the newly dead can get in your body through your mouth and then possess you.’
Zach shivered, the hairs along his neck rising. Without meaning to, he imagined the taste of a ghost, like an acrid mouthful of smoke. He spat in the dirt, trying to untested the idea.
‘Ugh,’ Alice said into the silence that followed the end of Poppy’s story. ‘You made me hold my breath! I was totally just trying not to inhale. Anyway, we already passed the graveyard – shouldn’t you have told us the story before we passed it? Unless you wanted us to get possessed.’
Zach thought again about the night before and the feeling of something right behind him, breathing on his neck, something that was about to reach out and grasp for him with its cold fingers. The story was like that, grabbing hold of him and promising that he’d think about it every time he was near a graveyard.
Poppy kept smiling. She made her eyes really wide and spoke in a flat, affectless tone. “Maybe I’m not Poppy anymore. Maybe I didn’t know not to hold my breath and I learned the hard way. Maybe a spirit possessed me and now it’s warning you, because it’s too late. The spirits are already inside yooOOooouUUuu—”
‘Come on, stop,’ Alice said, shoving Poppy’s shoulder. They both began to laugh. Leo laughed nervously along with them.
‘That’s why it’s a scary story. Because you can’t do the one thing that would protect you—you’ll never know if you held your breath long enough or let it out too soon. And you can’t hold your breath forever.’
Doll Bones by Holly Black (p39)
I adore that passage because I grew up on urban legends like this, telling scary stories at sleepovers and trying to scare my friends and younger cousins before bedtime. This is a great example of the associations children might have with a cemetery – evil ghosts waiting to possess you if you come too close. When writing about a group of children in a graveyard, think about how they might try to scare each other and joke around to cover up their own fear. In Holly Black’s scene, the children act as though Poppy’s story is childish and silly, but look at how Zach is affected by it.
Consider how young characters would interact with the setting
Dark, empty cemeteries are unsettling for most people, but children and teenagers will have their own unique reactions to the setting. Think how a twelve year old might feel walking through an empty graveyard, listening to the rustling of the trees and the creaking of signs in the wind. How might a sixteen year old’s reaction differ? Their background will affect their responses: is your main character religious? Has a loved one recently passed away? Do their parents believe in ghosts and often warn them against disturbing the dead? And consider how they got there in the first place. Graveyards are usually locked at night. Did they hide inside while the caretaker closed up, or did they break in? It’s not an uncommon spot for groups of teens to meet up in secret, far from prying parental eyes. Think about how a child or teenager would cope with accidentally being locked inside a cemetery. Would they think it was cool or would they be petrified?