BackStory: Three Questions with Barbara Buckley Ristine
Author of Faerie Coffins
What inspired you to write this ‘Faerie Coffins’?
I spent a day in the Scottish National Museum in Edinburgh, and I was fascinated by an exhibit about the miniature coffins discovered on Arthur’s Seat in 1836. I took about a dozen photos of the exhibit because I knew I had to write about them one day. There are a number of theories about how these coffins came to be buried on Arthur’s Seat, but I thought the coffins and their miniature wooden figures looked like children’s playthings. A year later, I was in a writing workshop when the young girl narrator’s voice came to me, and I saw a way to write this story. Children often imitate what they witness adults doing, and I imagined these children processing their grief through play.
How much research did you do while writing and editing this piece? Did you discover anything that surprised you?
I found several magazine articles that gave some historical context to the coffins, and then I read about resurrection men, the infamous grave robbers Burke and Hare, and nineteenth-century Scottish burial customs, which were surprisingly elaborate in some ways. During the height of the grave-robbing era, families took extensive precautions to protect the graves of loved ones. Iron cages, called mortsafes, were erected to enclose coffins. In some graveyards, they built stone watch-houses where armed men would stand guard for several nights until the corpse was sufficiently putrefied to be useless as a medical cadaver. Some watch-houses were equipped with fireplaces and gun loops beneath the windows to allow the men to shoot at intruders. I imagine a lot of whisky was consumed by the watchers during the long chilly nights.
How important is historical accuracy to you in your own writing?
I love historical research because it can lead me down unexpected paths.
Although writing fiction means making things up, historical accuracy is very important because I want to portray an accurate sense of the past, even in a piece as short as this. I always have a fear that I might get something wrong. I can spend months and even years reading about a particular period in history.
Barbara Buckley Ristine fell in love with history and stories as a child, but waited decades to become a writer. Her work has appeared in the 2020 National Flash Fiction Anthology, Milk Candy Review, The Westchester Review, and Mojave River Review, among others. She lives with her family in northern Nevada. Find her on Twitter @renobarb.
Photograph of Arthur’s Seat by David Monniaux (GFDL), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.