Using Genealogy to Write a Novel

gambleThree of the four books I’ve written have been “on assignment.” I was given circumstances (Log Cabins, Christmas, Texas, Pioneers, brides) and concocted stories to fit.

It wasn’t particularly difficult for me–I just had to visit my family history, Pioneer Stock, to find pertinent information.

Genealogy can provide your family with plenty of discussion topics and can serve as excellent training for writing an historical novel. Click to Tweet

I spent five years in genealogical and regular libraries digging up information about my family lines. From that experience, I gained a number of skills:

* How to use microfilm and microfiche machines.

*How to document  information.

*How to use library catalogues.

*How to engage librarians to research the most arcane questions with delight.

Looking at family trees taught me:

* how to recognize patterns.

* how to question dubious material (is it likely this woman was 75 years old when she gave birth?)

*how close in time we really are to our ancestors.

I often remembered my US History teacher, Mrs. Klocki, who used to shake her head at our fantasy novels. “Read history. The stories are not only more fantastic, but they’re also true.” Click to Tweet

American history looks completely different when you can put names to events. One of my forbearers, Thomas Ballard, watched his wife Ann lined up with other women in front of stocks during Bacon’s Rebellion (he’d sold Nathaniel Bacon a cow just weeks before).Bruston Parish plaque

Another group hiked through the Cumberland Gap into Tennessee where they sailed the rivers and battled the Indians. One book I consulted described the macabre story of a woman sending her ten year-old son out to milk the cow. She next saw him when a native American rode his horse around the clearing waving a pole with her son’s head on it.

That wasn’t my family, but it was a window into the danger those brave people faced every day while just trying to make a living.

It puts me and my first-world problems to shame.

But a massive family history like Pioneer Stock (225 pages; over 900 end note citations) also provides plenty of fodder for stories, particularly if you write historical fiction.

logcabinWhen the opportunity arose for A Log Cabin Christmas Collection, I remembered my ancestors in 1836 Texas building dogtrot cabins and dealing with native Americans–who had much less sadistic streak.

Because I’d spent so much time with land records hunting the Hanks family of Tennessee and Texas, I understood what some of the problems would have been for those families while they built their log cabins. I incorporated the issues, and several family members, into the story.

My most recent novella, “An Inconvenient Gamble,” part of Barbour’s A Texas Brides Collection, took parts of my Duval family history and included one of my Hanks ancestors, James Steele Hanks–the one who rode around Anderson County, Texas for years surveying property.

The Duvals have a tragic story of the 1867 yellow fever epidemic. My particular ancestor, Ballard (named for the above ancestor!) was the youngest son in the family and doesn’t appear much in the historical record–possibly because of his youth.

Fort Delaware

Fort Delaware

We know he served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. His next older brother was a prisoner of war–and spent some time with other Anderson County soldiers at the Union’s Fort Delaware prisoner of war camp.

Ballard married an equally young woman eighteen months after he returned from war and worked on the county roads. He died of yellow fever six months after his marriage.

My great-grandfather (Ballard) was born eight months later, a posthumous child.

I’ve thought of that young wife often–Sally was her name. In the Reconstruction of the South following the war, when everyone was broke and society had turned upside down, what did it mean to find herself widowed and pregnant? Who would have cared for her? How did she manage?

I explore what that might have been like for a woman like Sally in “An Inconvenient Gamble.” I use my Hanks ancestor as a surveyor who brings to her ranch a man who had spent time as a prisoner of war in Fort Delaware.

I even gave him, sadly, a besetting sin from my family.

While I didn’t write specifically about my Duval family, their story gave me the sympathetic heart, understanding, and history to put a new tale into place.

All because I did my research 15 years ago and wrote it up.

Do you have family stories that would make an historical novel? Click to Tweet

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