Four Rubbings began with a dream. Not an “I want to write a novel” dream. More like a vivid mental movie followed by the overwhelming feeling when I woke that this was too good a story to let crumble away. I wrote the dream down on a wrinkled piece of paper I pulled from my nightstand. In sleepy, crooked scrawl I wrote something like, ‘Kids rub tombstones on Halloween night and their simple action causes a ripple effect in their lives and the spiritual lives of those buried beneath the stones.’ The story felt hopeful and terrifying all at once.
Over the months to come, life happened. I raised kids, tended pets, volunteered, created art, keeping the dream close at hand, and it whispered to be nurtured, too. I bought a notebook and wrote the book title across the first clean white page. I printed off images of what the ghost forest looked like in my head (lichen dripping off of low-hanging oaks.) I sketched. And then life interrupted again. Four Rubbings had to wait.
When I was finally able to carve out regular time for my project, I began by identifying the tombstones the kids would rub. I traveled to the Mendocino coast in northern California and toured a handful of old cemeteries with my father and our dear family friend, Jerry. Jerry, I found out as we drove from place to place, as a former minister had buried a few of the people we were visiting. I snapped pictures, and my father snapped better ones.
At the end of those days, I made a handful of sketches and noted names that stood out to me. Ettore and Kujala were among them. I wrote out the infant chapters of the book and called them ‘scenes’ because I am a visual creature. The book unfolded for me like a reel to reel movie of old.
Home again, I continued to visit cemeteries, twenty-five in all. Every time our family traveled I coaxed my husband and kids into a visit to the local boneyard. Each one was distinct, a personality as tangible as yours or mine. Some were austere, cold and prim. Others were neglected places, screaming for me to roll up my sleeves and push back the layers of brambles and moss that hid the gravestones. A few made me feel uncomfortable. And one I found inaccessible, but I promise to try again soon.
The research became the thing with me. The cemeteries taught me so much. I saw how people honored the deceased, what customs were culturally and religiously significant, what things were considered taboo and mostly how we attempt to preserve the memories of our loved ones for future generations. What I learned became the backbone of my novel. I found the story would only progress at the pace of the research. As the stories behind the cemeteries were revealed, the novel progressed.
I’m an expert on burial customs now. I can tell you which cemeteries had the same stonecarver shaping tombstones for which families. I can tell you why the grass refuses to grow on some plots and flourishes on others. I can share with you the significance of the symbols etched into the stones. I can weep with you over the graves that lie unmarked. I can tell you of the cemeteries that locals are fighting to save and preserve after lying overgrown for centuries. I have come to know so much. But, what I’ve learned reveals as much about the dead as it does the living. And that is the stuff Four Rubbings is made of.