Just how far back into your past can you reach to find new ideas for writing? Family history (genealogy) is the second most popular hobby in America, making it easy to find information online. Have you ever considered using stories or unusual events that happened in your ancestors’ lives in your novel? As writers, we must always be willing to look for new and creative concepts. When writing fiction about ancestors, you can balance facts with imagination.
Learning about your ancestors can be a treasure trove for character building, plotting, settings, and so much more. One of the most famous examples of an author using his progenitors in a novel would be Alex Haley when he wrote Roots. But did you know Nathaniel Hawthorne loosely based The Scarlet Letter on his strict Puritan ancestors? Or that Emily Bronte in the gothic novel, Wuthering Heights, based the unusual and imbalanced character of Heathcliff from an ancestor?
Our ancestors’ stories often hold potential for great plot lines. You can write their stories as historical fiction, or bring their experiences forward into contemporary times or even the future. It’s possible the struggles your progenitors experienced on the Oregon Trail or settling a new land may be the very same experiences a colony in space may come up against. If you’re an American, then its more than likely you have immigrant ancestors. Often their stories are full of learning, strife, hate, fear, and misunderstandings from both the country they left and the one they settled. Assimilation is usually not easy. Finding the motivation behind these issues might be where a story lies.
You can find ideas on how to create well-rounded and interesting characters from people in your family tree. Experiences, hardships, and relationships make us different from one another. Rarely are people all-good or all-evil. Create fully dimensional villains by thinking of the worst person in your family then round them out with at least one redeeming quality. People are always more complex than they seem, as your characters should be. From one of my ancestors I formed a character who steals from his mother, lies without hesitation, has alcohol and drug abuse issues, and has spent time in prison for crimes you shouldn’t speak of in polite society. Yet, he’s partially redeemed by his sensitivity and the memories of his family he holds close to his heart.
People’s life experiences shape them. Find out social, economic, religious, and political backgrounds. Did they grow up in a big family, or were they an only child? How much education did they receive and was it traditional? Were they illiterate? Did they love the earth and farm the land? Did the family carry traits from their homeland brought to the country of immigration? Did their name spelling change? Did they have to learn a new language?
Interviewing the oldest living relatives in your family is a good place to start. Ask what they remember about their parents and grandparents. Writing about family members means researching clues to figure out what kind of life they led, who they loved, how they loved, and what they did with their lives.
To find your ancestors, you could use family history websites such as ancestry.com, chroniclingamerica.com, cyndislist.com, and archives.com. Some of these websites can help you track down living descendants of your ancestor’s siblings. It’s a great way to find photos because people usually didn’t keep their own portraits, but gave them away to family members. A face is worth a thousand words—let your imagination go wild and write those thousand words from your ancestor’s likeness.
Old census records can be valuable information for how many were in a family and what their occupations were. And it’s amazing what can be found in a courthouse. They hold records of births, marriages, deaths, and so much more. Court records can help you find drama about relatives who were criminals, but also those who were victims. Land records could demonstrate an ancestor’s lifestyle and wealth. Perhaps they didn’t own land, but instead followed the migration to uncharted territories of the Wild West.
Researching and writing about your ancestors can help you come to respect them for who they were and the paths they chose. In knowing who your ancestors were and writing about them, you can shed light on their adversities giving their experiences significance and perhaps new insight. Transform them into characters that suit the needs of your story. You could even write yourself as a fictional character searching for his or her past and unlocking family secrets. Don’t forget to leave room for your imagination to take your readers to new and interesting places.
For more than twenty years Ora Smith has taught family history classes at conferences and given individual instruction. She received her Master of Arts in Nonfiction Creative Writing at Wilkes University. She also writes fiction and recently won the 2017 Phoenix Rattlers contest for historical fiction. You can connect with her through her blog Writing About Ancestors, Facebook, Twitter