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Use Genealogy to Enhance Your Writing

Kim's great-grandmother doing the wash - San Diego 1906
Kim’s great-grandmother doing the wash – San Diego 1906

With the popularity of shows like Who Do You Think You Are, Finding Your Roots and Genealogy Roadshow, compiling a family tree has transformed from a hobby for grandparents and history geeks to a mainstream pursuit. The shows illustrate that true connection happens when someone in the present gains insight about themselves by learning how traits, personalities, attitudes and even phobias have passed down through generations.

Names and dates are secondary. It’s the stories that move us.

I grew up with tales of an adventurous young artist who made a catastrophic attempt to fly off a barn roof, contracted a tubercular hip, became a cowboy in pioneer Montana, traveled with Calamity Jane and was adopted by an Ojibwa chief. My grandmother occasionally slipped and referred to him as ‘Daddy.’ Beaming with pride, she recounted each tale while we sat surrounded by paintings of trees that laughed, danced, grieved and embraced—tangible proof that her hero had once been a flesh and blood man. I saw echoes of his face when I looked in the mirror, from the set of my eyes to the bump on the bridge of my nose. I’ve long sensed myself being watched over, guided, and sometimes cajoled into writing my work-in-progress, a novelization of the scandalous relationship that led to Carl Ahrens’ downfall in the art world.

I was lucky enough to have my story handed to me. Yours may take some digging to unearth.

I Don’t Write Historical Fiction. Why Would I Look to the Past for Story Ideas?

Telegram from PM Mackenzie King
Telegram from PM Mackenzie King

Solving a Mystery Can Come With Great Rewards

The best (and worst) thing about genealogy is that the answer to one question often leads to more questions. You can spend months, even years, burrowing down rabbit holes that lead right back to where you began. Sometimes, though, persistence and creativity can reap literary gold. For example, while trying to locate the house–still standing–where my 2x great-grandparents lived, I turned to 1880 census records. There was Edgar C. Niles, town physician of Philmont, New York. His wife, Sarah, was listed below along with their infant daughter, Helen. (My great-grandmother, Martha, would not be born until 1882.) The eight-year-old boy residing with them gave me pause. Who the heck was Homer VanBuren? My curiosity soared when I spied the ‘B’ in the column indicating race. Homer was not a servant or an assistant to Dr. Niles. His occupation: schoolboy. I had to know what had led to such unconventional circumstances, so I put out inquiries on every genealogy board I could find. A descendant of Homer’s contacted me months later. While listening to the story of my family’s great kindness to this gentleman’s grandfather, a novel plotted itself in my head. (This will be my next manuscript.)

First-Hand Accounts/Voice

Many of us have a pack-rat in the family. Befriend that person! They know every skeleton in the closet, and will likely be thrilled to divulge proof that Granny Henderson’s mother was indeed half Cherokee or that Uncle Joe didn’t actually die in the hospital. Well, not the typical kind of hospital anyway.

Coming from five generations of pack-rats, I wasn’t shocked to find oddities like my great-grandmother’s health insurance card, three telegrams from Canadian PM Mackenzie King and, no joke, the registration papers for a dog who died in the late 1960s among our family papers. Deep in one box, I happened upon a file folder containing over fifty original letters written between 1836 and 1850, likely unread by anyone for well over a century.

Jackpot!

One of many original letters from the 1840s
One of many original letters from the 1840s

Despite having been passed around for 150 years, the ink was clear, the paper barely yellowed, each page infused with the pleasant mustiness of an antique bookstore. Most were addressed to my 3x great-grandmother during her teen years. What makes them remarkable, other than proof that crushes and gossip dominate the conversations of young women no matter the century, is that few girls received formal schooling in the 1840s. These rural New York farm girls, all Quakers, wrote more eloquently than most college seniors today.

Even better, it turned out that two of “Martha’s” friends had traceable histories.

The first, a gentleman named Charles Scholefield, was neither a relation nor a suitor, making the correspondence between them perplexing for the time. Young Charles, who filled pages with romantic descriptions of sunsets and treatises on why the white men were wrong to treat the Mohawk so poorly, later became one of the first legislators from Oneida County, NY. He was a celebrated lawyer, devilishly handsome, married a seventeen-year-old at age forty, and was a Major in the Civil War.

The second, Amanda Akin, was a woman both of her time and beyond it. She didn’t hide behind formality in her letters. She was frank, teasing, feisty, and her voice rang clear in every word. I’ll be vague about her story–she may appear in a future novel–but I will say that the Civil War, Walt Whitman, the Alcotts, and Abraham Lincoln come into play.

Names

If nothing else, census records offer writers unique character names. Surnames like Bottenhagan, Cuthwolf, Dunfrund, and Frithogar would be perfect in a fantasy novel. How about Godfrey Lothier III? He happens to be my 24th great-grandfather, but I’ll share.

Successful Novels Inspired by Ancestors/Family Stories

Here are just a handful I know of:

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys [1] – This heart-rending novel was inspired by the author’s family’s stay in Lithuania during the Stalin era.

The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks [2] – This debut novel was inspired by the love story of his wife’s grandparents.

Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford [3] – While the story is fictional, the author was initially inspired by the “I am Chinese” pin his father used to wear while growing up in the United States during WWII.

Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler [4] – This duel time-line debut novel was inspired by a family story that Kibler’s grandmother had fallen in love with a black man in her youth. In 1930s Kentucky.

The Velvet Hours by Alyson Richman [5] – Alyson Richman has openly said that her grandmother, who recently passed, lives on in her latest novel. (In case you are curious, she bestowed her grandmother’s elegance and eye for beauty on Marthe de Florian. I asked.)

Letters From Home by Kristina McMorris [6] – McMorris’ debut novel was inspired by her grandparents’ relationship and correspondence during WWII.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe [7] – This novel deals with the Salem Witch Trials. Katherine Howe happens to be a descendant of two characters in the book, Elizabeth Proctor, who survived the trials, and Elizabeth Howe, who did not.

Over to you now. Have any of you found story inspiration in family lore? Would you consider re-imagining an ancestor’s life? Do you know of other novels inspired by family stories?

About Kim Bullock [8]

Kim has an M.A. in English from Iowa State University. She writes mainly historical fiction, though has also contributed non-fiction articles to historical and Arts and Crafts publications in both the United States and Canada. She has just finished The Unfinished Work of M.A. [9], a novel based on the rather colorful life of her great-grandfather, landscape painter Carl Ahrens.

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