Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Using Genealogy For Story Realism

by Anita Mae Draper

Since last summer, I've been posting a series of 1911 Courtship letters on my Author Memories blog. This came about because I needed material for my blog and happened to find a box of 100 yr old letters and postcards my husband, Nelson, inherited upon the death of his father. Ethel's treasure box, as I call it, is from Nelson's grandmother and once opened, filled me with wonder. Included is a letter with an ivy leaf which Noah had taken from Bruce's Castle while on a tour of duty during WW1. The leaf is still soft and supple.

Ivy leaf taken from King Bruce's Castle, England, in March, 1918

I have no idea how the leaf was preserved because a leather address book from WW2 was dotted with mold and a few of the letters were mildewy.

Mildew covered 2"x3" (when closed) leather address book c1940-45

The deterioration disturbed a deep sense of preservation for Ethel's treasures. The box had sat on the top of Ethel's slant top desk for 9 yrs before I pulled it down and discovered the treasure. Once I got over my wonder, the question became what to do with it all. I would do my best to care for it until it was time to pass it to our children, but how to share it with the extended family? And that's when the idea of posting the 1911 Courtship letters to the Author Memory blog began. I've been posting one a week since last July, and I'm only half through, but the benefits are an ongoing delight on a couple different levels.

First is the familial aspect. Since starting this courtship year with Ethel and Noah, we've made 4 contacts through my website. They run the gamut from a 2nd cousin in Ontario, and a 3rd cousin in California, to a 3rd cousin 1x removed, and a family friend in California who wrote that she always thought she was related in some way.

The next benefit is for the richness the genealogy research has brought to my writing. Genealogy isn't only searching through microfiche and dusty old ledgers. Websites like,, and to name a few, are easy to work with and have loads of resources. But they each have different qualities and resources, so don't spend money on a membership until you try the various sites for free and see which appeals to your needs.

How did finding new relatives help my writing? By helping me create 3D characters in a realistic fictional world. Even if you're writing contemporary, you can use the census records to create backgrounds for your main characters and deepen their world.

Census records don't have much information prior to the middle of the 19th century, and they aren't available after 1940 in the US, and 1911 in Canada (1916 on the Cdn prairies), but that leaves 50-60 years where you can gather facts like these for each decade, although all facts aren't on every record:
- Names in use by age
- Occupation/Trades
- Type and size of dwellings
- Religious denominations
- Ethnicity
- Employment of domestics for indoor work
- Employment of laborers for farm/outdoor work

If you like the stats on certain people, put their info in the search box and suggested info for them - or people with similar names - will show up. Suggestions will be census records from other years, marriage, military, birth and death records. If you're using, you may find photograhs, stories, wedding records, wills, and even journals of their life.

Your next step is choosing faces for your characters. Contemporary writers often pick their characters' faces by choosing public figures like actors, sports figures, etc.

As a historical writer, however, I like choosing old black and white photos because they help me seal the character in history. In this sample from The Nelson and Anita Draper Family Tree, the images are in color as well as black and white because that time period is where I have the most photos. I'm hoping to change that as I contact more family members and share photographs with them.

Part of The Nelson and Anita Family Tree c2013

But even in the centre of the sample above, you can see Cecil's newsboy cap from the 30's, and beside him, Sadie is wearing those trendy glasses from the 60's. At the end of that middle row, Christie is wearing the huge glasses from the 80's. The clothing of the three males below Christie is hidden, but if you click on their profile, you'll see Cliff on the left in his WW2 uniform, while the 2 boys have 1930's summer fashions.

If you see an image you'd like to copy for your own use, contact the tree owner and ask permission. Usually, the people who don't want to share their images and information set their family tree settings to private viewing, but that doesn't negate the fact that you need to seek permission before copying.

Another place to look for character faces are the private ancestry sites which feature photographic galleries. Some of these sites have hundreds of unnamed images where someone has bought old photographs and/or albums at estate sales and then posted them into a gallery in the hopes that someone will claim the image for a fee. These ones usually aren't dated, either, but if it's just a certain face you're looking for, you might find one you need.

Once you have your character names and faces, dwelling and location, you want to build their world. By far, the easiest way to do this is to research a newspaper written in your location. For example, my 1911 Courtship letters are centred around 2 locations: York County in Ontario, and Grand Coulee in Saskatchewan. Although there isn't an old Saskatchewan newspaper available, I'm blessed to have access to a digital version of the The Newmarket Era, a weekly newspaper which features homey news from York County in Ontario. The site has digitized about 30 historical Ontario weeklies and they're available on-line at no cost. Although some were short-runs, I can read issues of the Era starting in 1863 up to 2010. A Google search for historical newspaper in the location of your setting should let you know if you can access such a treasure.

So what have I found perusing old issues of The Newmarket Era? Well, of course, the news. I read the article where they announced Florence Nightingale's death along with a biography of her life. I've read about the Boer war, the Mexican war, and European wars. I felt the writer's grief while reading of Queen Victoria's death, and their anger at the cost of the upcoming coronation. But mainly, I've clipped snippets of these:
- Market prices (eggs, flour, wheat)
- Shipping containers (sacks or barrels)
- types of fabric and fashions
- gardening/farming practices
- entertainment, fairs and circuses
- catastrophes
- diseases and medical practices
- word usage (kids for children, OK for okay)
- transportation
- common household dangers

That last one is a biggie because I never knew how dangerous it was to live at the turn of the 19th to 20th century until I read the Era:
- daily train and streetcar fatalities
- skirts catching fire
- children scalded/burned/trampled
- too many accidental shootings
- death from animal incidents
- barns struck by lightening

I clip and save the snippets so I can play the What If game with them in some future story. So many disasters are avoided today because of safety regulations that weren't in place 100 yrs ago. Such a waste of human life. Such a harsh, demanding life.

The Newmarket Era. May 26, 1911 - Page: 2

Crafting your story around real people who faced events and disasters of your chosen period in time while help your story shine, and what better place to start than with someone's family tree. Or maybe, like me, your very own.

Have you dabbled in genealogy? Would you like help getting started?


Anita Mae Draper is retired from the Canadian Armed Forces and lives on the prairie of southeast Saskatchewan, Canada with her hubby of 30 plus years and 2 of their 4 kids. She writes stories set on the prairies of Saskatchewan, North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. Anita Mae has semi-finaled in the Historical Romance category of the ACFW's 2011 Genesis contest and finaled in the Inspirational category of the 2011 Daphne du Maurier, the 2011 Fool for Love, the 2011 Duel on the Delta and 2009 Linda Howard Award of Excellence contests. Anita Mae is represented by Mary Keeley of Books and Such Literary Agency. You can find Anita at


  1. I love what you're doing with the letters, Anita Mae. And I'm thankful for the people who have diligently worked on geneology for so many years and created such vast treasures of resources online.

    I hope to get a lot of my family items online as well. I have an amazing resource in digital form I use for one of my story series. It is like a phone book before phones and lists all homeowners in one part (It's a Post Office Directory) and in the other half everything is listed by business. It includes things like steamer schedules and the names of people in different departments of the local university. IT's truly priceless for research!

  2. This is great, Anita. I love genealogy. I had to stop doing it when I started school, but now that's finished and I can get back to it.

    So - very cool find: I've been working on a new historical, and the other day I came across my genealogy box. Imagine my surprise when I discovered I'm descended from one if the historical figures in my book. :)

  3. Yes, Debra, old directories are an excellent resource. As the fore-runners of the Phone book, they give lot and concession numbers (the address) for farmers, or the location if the person lives in a town or village.

    I have access to directories from 1837, 1870, etc for Toronto and York County, and others locations across Canada through different websites which have digitized these little books.

    I even saw one on ebay the other day except they wanted $35 plus shipping for the ratty copy. And why would I want it in that condition when I can use a search box to find names faster online.

    Thanks for sharing that with us.

  4. That is cool, Suzie. I hope you find enough time to work on your genealogy as well as your writing.

    And speaking of historicals, although the Old West has always been my 1st choice of setting, because of the 1911 courtship letters, I'm gravitating to the first couple decades of the 20th century in my stories. Probably because I've absorbed so much detail, it's almost like an alternative reality.

    Thanks for your input, Suzie.

  5. Wow. Fascinating as always, Anita!

    Those letters are really a treasure. I have a box of letters my dad sent my grandmother during his time in WWII, and they're a neat little snapshot of history. Yours sound fabulous!

    Thanks for sharing. :)

  6. Great post, Anita Mae. I love reading about what you've learned and how it's affected your writing.

    I am a bit of a genealogy junkie--I use genealogy research as a reward for myself--and it's given me help with background for stories, too. When poking around on a non-genealogy site for family stuff, I found a township census from 1880 that said how much land every body owned/rented, how many pigs, chickens, cows, farm implements, etc they had--it was quite detailed.

    Through my genealogy, I've also read about some pretty touching love stories, some sad losses, some glories and some embarrassments. I've also uncovered a few secrets: pure fodder for novels! Sometimes life is so strange, nobody would buy it as fiction.

  7. My parents know a good bit about our genealogy. All my great grandparents were actually alive when I was born, and I have clear memories of a few of them. I spent a lot of time at the home of my last surviving great grandfather and most of the antiques from his home are now with my parents. I inherited one of the bedroom sets.

  8. Have you thought of what you'll do with the letters, DeAnna?

    I'm making a pdf copy of all the letters as well as the diaries Ethel wrote later on in life. I'd like to put them all in ebook form and hand them out to her descendants. I'm not sure how to do that yet though because I'm scanning each 3-4 page courtship letter separately. So far, I don't know of a way to easily combine all the pdf files into one long ebook and fear I may have to start over.

    The problem I'm having with the diaries is that they're all 30-50 pages and if I miss a page, or find out after that a page wasn't straight, I can't just tuck in a new one. I have to start from the beginning again. As it is, each one takes about a couple hrs to scan - probably because I'm a perfectionist and want the pages straight. LOL

    But I was wondering if you'd given any thought to scanning yours?

  9. Oh, I know, Susie. Some of the stories I read in the Era even seem too strange for fiction.

    That's great about the 1880 township census. Yes, those finds are a wealth of information for your story, but more than that, if you use similar details and someone (an editor, etc) questions you on the validity of your facts, you have the proof to back it up.

    Good job!

  10. Dina, isn't that a treasure! Well, I guess it would depend if you're using the same 100 yr old mattress or not, eh. LOL

    We were gifted Grandma Ethel's slant-top writing desk as a wedding present although we married 2 yrs after her death because Nelson used to do his homework on it whenever he stayed with her while his dad was serving overseas.

    We brought one drawer and photos of it to one of those travelling Antique Roadshows several years ago and the dealer was quite taken with it. Although it's very simple in construction and made with plain old pine, he said it was a perfect example of early Canadian furniture of the 1880 era. Ethel was born in 1890 and I wonder sometimes if the desk was handed down to her as a wedding present in 1912. I sure would like to see it in one of the old photos these new relatives are sending me.

    Thanks for sharing, Dina. You sure set me off on a tangent.

  11. You know, I hadn't thought about it, Anita. I suppose I should. I would hate to not make a record and then have something happen to the originals.

    Good idea!

    My favorite is the v-mail. :D

  12. DeAnna, that's my biggest fear... that we have a house fire or something and I lose the treasure.

    Some Canadian census records from 1870 are missing because of a fire.

    And recently, one Historical Society building in Minnesota burned down and all the records and artifacts were lost. I almost cried when I read that.

    I hope you do digitize the letters. I'd love to read them.

    Thanks, DeAnna.

  13. We've dabbled in genealogy in the past. I joke that I quit just when the Internet made it easy. Heh. However, I started when I was a teenager, so my grandparents were still alive.

    My husband's family still has a couple of Civil War letters and diaries. Alas, most of them were destroyed in the 1930's by a relative who didn't appreciate what she had. One of the ones that survived is g-grandpa Chase's letter he wrote at the beginning of the war to the father of the young lady he married after the war. I like to tease my dh -- "How come you didn't write my family a letter asking if you could marry me?"

  14. V-mail is something they did to try to reduce the bulk of mail back during the war.

    A service man would write his letter on a v-mail form, it would be microfilmed (I believe) and then the rolls of film would be shipped back to the States, much more compact than thousands of letters.

    Once it was back in the States, the letters would be printed out and mailed to the recipients.

    They're probably about 1/4 the size of a real letter, and the paper is kind of slick like old fax machines used to use.

    Here's a great article about it:

  15. hey anita
    missed this yesterday (today is Thurs). i have loved seeing all the letters you've been posting.

    i've clipped news stories in the past for story ideas - i just never considered going way back in time to do so, but that's a great idea.

    as always, your post is a treasure trove of information that is uber interesting and creative.

  16. That's cute, CJ. And that letter is a keeper for sure.

    That's the thing about keeping old things, eh... it's not an old treasure when it's new, and if we kept everything with the mindset that it would be a treasure down the line, we'd all be hoarders. (shiver)

    I can only believe that what survives is all in God's plan and there's a reason we still have it. Which brings me back to my situation... and DeAnna's... of sharing what we have to those who need to know what life used to be like.

    Thanks, CJ.

  17. DeAnna, thank you for bringing the V-mail to my attention. I've never heard of this. Yes, I see how it would save space.

    But it seems impersonal. I remember receiving a typed newsy letter from a relative one Christmas back in the 80's and thinking I wasn't important enough to receive a handwritten note. LOL. How arrogant, eh.

    The website about v-mail also explains why I have so many letters from Noah to Ethel, but none from her to him. I thought it was only because his lockbox had been broken open and the contents stolen - twice. But it makes sense that home letters would be destroyed before a battle.

    Great info. Thanks!

  18. Thanks, DebH. Knowing that you're a visual person, I can see you clipping fun and interesting artwork too.

    The Newmarket Era doesn't have many actual photographs* - and what they have are dark and murky - but they have excellent drawings. You can see the years when cartoons became trendy because the papers have several of them on the front page, but then they are tapered down.

    Of course, I don't 'get' some of the 100 yr old jokes, but others seem so modern it's scary.

    *The exception to the above is that photographs used in the ads for miracle cures are excellent. I wonder why.

    Thanks for stopping by. And what do you mean it's Thurs today? Already? Eeeps!


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