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 www.ancestry.com, www.familysearch.org, and www.myheritage.com 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
- Type and size of dwellings
- Religious denominations
- 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 ancestry.com, 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 http://ink.ourontario.ca/ 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
- diseases and medical practices
- word usage (kids for children, OK for okay)
- 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 http://www.anitamaedraper.com/