For most of my thirties, I didn't have to work. My husband's position as a video game programmer paid our bills and I was fortunate to have the time to do anything I wanted. During that period, I engaged in various craft-type pursuits--most notably, jewelry making. I flirted with making a career of it, but I just didn't have the business gene required to really make a go of it.
|18k gold and tourmaline ring by Holly West, 2008|
Truth be told, I was just biding time until I finally decided I was going to get serious about writing fiction.
But besides making jewelry, there was one hobby I had during this time that helped to launch me toward writing. Inspired by an older friend who'd completed a genealogy of his own family, I undertook a year-long research project, during which I wrote detailed genealogies of each side of my family.
I wasn't interested in seeing how many generations I could go back. It didn't matter if I was descended from Julius Ceasar--that sort of thing seemed irrelevant to my own life. My aim was to go back just a hundred years or so and learn my ancestors' stories. Why did my great-great grandparents leave Germany to come to America? What did my great-great-great grandpa do to support his family? Where did they live? Indeed, how did they live?
As it turned out, it was like hunting for buried treasure or solving a mystery. I discovered clues by scouring census reports, ship manifests, military (and even prison) records, and asking questions of my relatives who were still living.
|Portion of the 1920 census that includes my great-great grandmother, Mary Ann Rebecca Baker Mansir Yorba.|
1) During the depression, my grandpa on my mother's side, the oldest of eight children, drove everyone from Oklahoma to California in an old station wagon with a mattress tied to the top of the car. He got pulled over for speeding on the way.
2) My great-uncle, Jeff Daniel Horn, was left to raise four young children when his wife died unexpectedly. Shortly afterward, he brought the children to my great-grandmother to babysit. That very same night, he was hit by a car and killed, leaving my great-grandmother to raise the kids alongside her own. My guess is that he committed suicide that night, but we'll never really know, will we?
3) Using the 1910 census, I learned that my great-grandparents were employed by the same household before they were married. From this, I guessed that this must've been how they met. My great-grandmother died in 1918 of typhoid, when my grandmother was only five years old, and previously, no one knew this story.
4) My grandpa on my father's side was a bit of a scoundrel. As a youngster, he and his brothers would pull schemes like selling used motor oil as new, calling it "Midnight Oil" to their unsuspecting customers. My short story, ONCE A LOSER, is loosely based on his family. You can download a copy of it free by signing up for my newsletter.
5) When my great-grandpa on my father's side passed away, my uncle remembers going to the house where he'd lived and the relatives were storing beer in the ice under the bed that the body was laid out on.
Perhaps these tidbits are only interesting to me because they involve my own family. But what I learned from writing these genealogies, beyond the facts and figures, is that everyone has stories like these, and that they provide the sparks for larger stories. They are building blocks, if you will, or little details that give depth to our history and to our writing.
I'm curious: have you done any genealogical research? And referring to Kristi's Sunday post, what sorts of real-life stories do you use in your fiction?