Trigger Warnings for the Modern Reader

The first time I ran into the idea of trigger warnings, I was working on revising my first (and eternally unpublished) novel, and writing a second (or third, or fourth, or fifteenth). I was on the NaNoWriMo forums, talking to people I didn’t know particularly well, whose names I no longer remember, and who were probably not writing in the same genres as I did.

And somewhere in the conversation, someone “suggested”–with more than a hint of self-righteousness–that I should put a warning sticker on my book.

I took it as a joke. Something like those parental advisory stickers that used to come on music, back before music came off the internet. And why wouldn’t I? I mean, the title of my book was something like “Slicey-Dicey Serial Killers of Death,” the cover–if it had gotten that far–would likely have shown a dead woman (or some portion thereof), and it would certainly have been shelved under murder and mayhem in the bookstore or library.

What more warning could you possibly need?

That was before e-readers. Back then, the question was pretty simple. Trigger warnings, yes or no? And since publishers mostly only publish one version of a book at a time, a little debate, and then everybody gets stuck with the same answer.

Now, to be quite honest, I don’t just not want to be trigger warned, I very much want to not be trigger warned.


We’re not talking about some over-arching trigger-police running amok in the libraries, stamping things with stickers, anymore.

When I read a book, more often than not, I read it in my preferred font, at my preferred size, and that impacts… exactly no one other than myself. When I buy a book, I frequently do it in an internet store that remembers my previous purchases, and makes individual suggestions. When I search for a book–on Google or in the store, itself–the ads I see aren’t the same ones you see. And there are parental controls on my devices, even though my only child uses a litter box.

Everyone sees their own internet.

Trigger warnings don’t have to be a sticker on the front cover, anymore. They don’t have to be front and center, spoiling the book for everyone. It is not a zero sum game.

They could be–like my preferred font– a personal setting either on a sales website or on your e-reader, itself. People who need them see them, and I don’t. You could even use it as a marketing tool. (that little red exclamation point means they’re there, if you want them.)

And they could be incredibly detailed.  Wanna be warned about abuse, but not be told in advance that Beth dies? Fine. Set your reader settings that way.  Want your warnings up front, or chapter by chapter? There could be a setting for that.

It’s time to move on. We’re at a point where we could easily move from static, one-size fits all trigger warnings to customize-able trigger controls. And put the reader in control.


Where I Went This Week

I don’t think you can tell what this is from the picture, but I’ll give you a hint. We’re not looking at the house in the background. I spent the better part of a morning looking for this place. It’s not a secret, but it does take a history buff to remember it exists.

A different angle might help? Okay.


Maybe not. But this one should give you some idea. If you’ve read my blog for long, you already know I like to visit old cemeteries. And this… in the middle of a nice suburban neighborhood… this is a cemetery. It’s one of five cemeteries used by my state’s mental hospitals over the past two centuries. This one was in operation from 1929-1957. There are two hundred fifty people buried here. After that, the state returned the patients whose bodies were not claimed to their home counties.


The last row of graves still marked.

The stones are all but identical, the ones that haven’t sunk back into the ground. They each bear a patient number and nothing else.

Institutional Gravestones

Institutional Gravestones






A garter snake by one of the stones.

A garter snake by one of the stones.

A few years back, a memorial was added. It’s identical to one in the other hospital cemetery I’ve been to, and I would guess there are similar monuments in all five cemeteries.

For all that was, and all that might have been,

For all that was, and all that might have been, grant us rest and peace.


Picture from earlier cemetery (1872-1928)

There are roughly 10 grave stones in the 1872 cemetery. Some of them are contemporary with the graves. Others have been added later, by family members and descendants.