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Headstones, copyright law, a writer’s workplace...and coincidences.

“Hey Holger, Why don’t you read one of my books sometime,” I suggested innocently. “No, I don’t zink zo…too deprezzing.” “What are you talkin’ about? No, not depressing. Inspirational. And, they’re actually kinda funny.” Holger shook his head from side-to-side and we went back to guzzling, I mean, zipping our Augustiner Bräu in the comfort of the open-aired Biergarten with only heaven above us.

What was Holger so afraid of? Heaven only knows. Oh, well. No problem. Whatever. He’s not alone though. Come to think of it, nearly everyone’s got an issue with that particular one. It’s sorta like the “Lord/God/King” of all fears; the fear of dying. That’s why I wanted to write the teen novel, DON’T BE AFRAID OF HEAVEN (2005). I wrote it as a tribute to my cat, Samantha, for having to put up with me for ten years. She taught me to be unafraid of heaven. I’ll never forget Samantha. I will never forget creating DBAOH and the unique writing process that went with it. “Yippie-yi-yo-k…(well, you know the rest).” Yes, just me, the tumbleweeds, the sagebrush and the Silver Terrace Cemetery in Virginia City, Nevada.

Every day, just as the Pony Express traversed its way through the Carson Pass, so did I. I had work to do, people to talk to…except most of the time they never answered back. Nearly every one of them checked out about a hundred years earlier. That’s OK by me, I didn’t pay ‘em no nevermind. Back, back, back I went…searching for the most tucked away, secluded gravesite I could find. Right there, on the outskirts, I made a new friend. Meghan Fitzsimmons, my new writing partner, but she never knew it. Luckily there was a bench right next to where Meghan was buried. In the spring and summer of 2003, I’d sit there and write my (handwritten) 10 pages a day. I loved every minute of it. Just me and my buddy Meghan.

On my trek to, and back from, the wooden-gated entrance of the cemetery, with a metal sign hanging above that read,

Stop and read as you pass by,
As you are now, once was I,
As I am now, You will be,
Prepare for death and follow me,

I’d stop to look at the various headstones contained within. As a writer, I paid particular attention to these words scripted in the 1800’s; beautiful poems, tributes in verse. Who wrote them? These words? And, would it be OK to borrow a few? It wasn’t my intention to plagiarize; I was looking to add a bit of authenticity to my fiction.

Months passed as I moved onto drafts two, three, four and so forth. More and more I began to realize that I’d included a variety of original epitaphs in my manuscript, listing real people and the dates they were born and died. Oh, crap. I had to figure out once and for all who, exactly, owns the rights to headstone text. Hallmark? :-) I let this dilemma slip outside my head for a moment, and began to do what I always did whenever I needed to solve a problem. I went for a walk along the paths of Lake Tahoe’s east shore, where I was living.

As I was strutting my way through the woods, a couple came up from behind me. No, not stalkers. They asked where the trail ended. I told them. Then, I don’t know what came over me, it just came out of my mouth, “I’m so confused. Do you have any idea who writes what appears on headstones? Who in the world owns the rights to stuff like that?” Answer: “My goodness. I’m a copyright lawyer.” Spooky sh--, right? Explanation: It doesn’t matter who wrote it or where the copyright was registered, if it was at all; it was written too long ago (1850’s-60’s)…public domain now. Whew!

When a writer paraphrases, no concern. But, when a writer uses text verbatim, make sure your bases are covered. In this lawsuit-happy world where copyright infringement violations occur daily, look after your a--. I’m not at all keen on this sometimes fear-inducing phrase, but, “Better safe, than sorry.”

Epilogue: It had been years since I last visited Virginia City and the cemetery there. In 2005, I became a European citizen, but I went back to the U.S. for a visit in 2007. What did I miss most? Lake Tahoe, duh. While staying in nearby Reno during the late-fall to see a Go-Go’s concert, I began driving to Mt. Rose to go to the lake, but an early, hazardous snowfall made me detour to a lower elevation. Instead of heading southwest, I headed southeast. To Virginia City.

Wouldn’t that be nice? To walk through that cemetery once more. So I did it. No one else was there. A little eerie. I tried to find that one spot I always went to. In the far distance I could see the bench. As I approached, I read the headstone I had seen so many times before. Meghan Fitzsimmons, a young mother who had died in her early-thirties on October 06, details I hadn’t really noticed before. Oh, my God. I had to look at my BlackBerry to double-check. Yes, today’s date: October 06.

Without flinching, I knew to thank Meghan right then and there, for letting me sit on her bench all those times. Meghan’s site was in disarray at this point, appearing as if no one had visited her in years. I tidied it up the best I could. I will never ever forget Meghan Fitzsimmons. It was always soothing and tranquil when I sat next to her. Meghan reaffirmed to me that the process of writing is the gift itself; what happens thereafter is gravy.

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This is syndicated from CLINT ADAMS BOOKS blog.

To learn more about Clint's recently-released occult crime novel for adults, THE SEVENTH RITUAL, his upcoming non-fiction book, STORIES ABOUT FACING FEAR: THE INTERVIEWS and his series of teen novels, please visit his website: Stories About Facing Fear.

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