Friday, March 13, 2015

Celebrations and Inspirations

With St. Patrick’s Day just days away, Emancipation Day coming up on April 16, and Cinco de Mayo on May 5, I was thinking about various observances that can add richness to our writing, inspire a story (or stories), and open doors to our own pasts. What begins as research for a book may end up a journey into our ancestral roots—or vice versa.

Great-great-grandfather John Unversaw
thwarted attack on Union munitions
depot during Civil War.
In the late 1990s, I wrote a family genealogy after interviewing elderly relatives, reading old wills and documents, and searching a newspaper morgue in an Indiana town. Decades ago, obituaries offered a wealth of information about the deceased, and I learned a lot from them that no one had ever told me. Old newspaper photos and pictures long stored in relatives’ attics added faces to the accounts. The book grew to over 80 pages.

As a small child, George
Clements, M.D., came to the U.S.
from Ireland with his mother,
my great-grandmother.
Back to St. Patrick’s Day. One of the curiosities I discovered involved my great-grandmother, who arrived with her young son from Ireland in the mid-1800s and soon thereafter married my great-grandfather in Pennsylvania. (I hadn’t known any of my relatives came from Pennsylvania.) After futilely searching several ships’ manifests and lacking the knowledge to trace her in Belfast, I finished the book based on old obits, documents (some well over 300 years old), and stories passed down from one generation to the next. Today, inspired by commercials for Ancestry.com and gifted with the time offered by retirement, I want to try to trace my great-grandmother and other relatives from the Emerald Isle. No doubt, a new tale—one never imagined in my early writing days—will spring from that search. I can hardly wait to get started!

Have you researched your family history and been inspired to write a story (fiction or nonfiction) based on your findings?

Linda Lane and her editing team mentor and encourage writers at all phases of the writing process. To learn more about what they do, please visit them at www.denvereditor.com.

11 comments :

  1. I don't write historical fiction but I find the ancestor search interesting. My uncle did a search and got back as far as when Pennsylvania was still called Penns' Woods but never continued the search for our European origins.

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  2. Because I don't write historical fiction either, I've been thinking about ways to incorporate some fascinating tidbits from the past into modern-day settings. Perhaps a twenty-first century character might allude to a physical attribute, a particular trait, or even an unusual interest that, according to family history, has been passed down from generations past. Based on some articles I've read on personality and attitudes actually being a part of the DNA, I'm letting this idea incubate to see if it might hatch into a killer tale.

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  3. I spent two years on a genealogical treasure hunt. No one really knew anything about our families. It was addictive. It resulted in a book I put together for the family: A History of the Gills. There were many fun anecdotes, but my favorite treasure is that my great-grandmother was the daughter of Old Joe Clark of the folk song: Fare ye well, Old Joe Clark. I would love to hear that story firsthand. Old Joe had a wife and kids, they are joined by my Gr-Gr grandma and her kids, and Joe has three kids with her. Then in the final census I could find, the two wives were living together! There were so many anecdotes that would make excellent story seeds. I do warn people, once you start the hunt, you will find it hard to quit!

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    1. Yep, very hard. That's why I had to let my life slow down a bit before embarking on an all-out search. I do have one advantage: My great-aunt wanted to join the DAR, and she traced my dad's family back to France in the 1600s. A lot of data on that branch of the family, which ultimately settled in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, exists, and we have numerous unmet relatives, some of whom still live in that area of the country.

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  4. After searching my family history, I was thinking more about changing my name than writing about it!

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    1. A time or two I've even considered that. Love your fun comments, Christopher! :-)

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    2. Me too. You always make me laugh, Christopher.

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  5. Maybe 8 years back, my cousin got a call from the husband of our grandmother's sister's granddaughter. He lived in Israel and was doing genealogy research on that part of his wife's family. My grandmother's sister settled in the UK, but he had information on where my grandmother was born--Lithuania--her siblings we knew nothing about, and even a picture of the boat on which my grandmother and grandfather came to this country, along with their names on the register. I have copies and made some for my kids. We found out things we didn't know. We never knew anything about our grandfather as he died in the 1919 influenza epidemic. Since this man who called worked for one of the British airlines, he went all over the world doing his research. Wish we knew more, but it was enlightening.

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    1. While I've heard interesting reports about family histories found through ancestry.com, I've had limited personal experience with it -- only a little-used trial period some years ago. Nonetheless, I've been bitten by the genealogy bug, and I'm going to give it another go. We'll see what I can learn about those who came before and the times they lived in, as well as what grist I can find for my writing wheel.

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  6. I wanted to use an old Scottish family name from my father's side in my story. Then I decided to move my story from Maryland to Scotland. Very-long-story-short, the history of my father's grandmother's clan inspired me to move the story again, this time from Glasgow, where I'd first envisioned it taking place, to the north coast of Scotland, where the clan is historically situated. The story has also changed immensely and, I think, has more depth because of the snippets of real clan history that I'm able to include.

    I've also included a visit to the area on my bucket list of Things To Do Before I Die.

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    1. I'd love to read your story, Suzanne. Please let me know when it's published -- or if it already has been. Contact me through www.denvereditor.com. Thanks! :-)

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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