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?
- Not every story will be grounded in the past. You may get the kernel of an idea from a historical reference and alter details to fit a present day story-line. Novelists do this all the time when they write updated versions of classics. If a story can’t work in the age of smart phones or, for that matter, automobiles, it might lend itself to a duel timeline, fantasy, or dystopian novel.
- Nothing stops you from combining your aunt’s childhood trauma, your grandfather’s years as a POW, your second cousin’s extreme aversion to itchy fabrics, and your own inability to whistle into a single character. Writers often borrow traits from people they know. Why not cast a wider net?
- The face in that faded photograph might be exactly the one you imagine for your heroine. Use it.
- Where did you get your stoicism in the face of an emergency? Why have you always been deeply religious (or not)? Why do tears spring to your eyes when you hear bagpipes played? Why have you always felt compelled to protect homeless animals? From whom did you inherit your pale green eyes, and do you see the world as they did? The answers may touch nerves you didn’t realize you possessed. You may discover that your voice echoes that of one or several who came before you. Will you be inspired to follow the same path or avert disaster while you still can? Is there a crime you wish to expose or a tarnished legacy you hope to restore? Why? Such introspection can lead to a story that’s uniquely yours, one that comes as much from your soul as your mind.