Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Solving a Different Kind of Mystery

by Holly West

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?


Dana King said...

I have not, though I have an aunt who has traced my father's side of the family back a few hundred years, even going to Ireland for research. Among the things she learned are we have an ancestor who was an ardent abolitionist and raised his own regiment to fight for the the Union in the Civil War. On the other hand, we also have one who killed his wife with a dung fork.

Aside from some great family history, you have tidbits that can be used in various ways in stories. This was time well spent on multiple levels.

John McFetridge said...

These are great stories, Holly, great characters. Thanks for sharing.

Unknown said...

I'm lucky enough to work in the local history section of a library, so spend much of my time helping people with their family history research. It always fascinates me how often they come out with these incredible stories - about love and loss and heartbreak and secrets. Lots of potential material!

Holly West said...

My brother-in-law has a terribly dark family story: his great-grandfather murdered his wife, two of his children, and then himself. My BIL's grandfather only survived because he was at school that day. That sort of family history effects generations to come, I think.

angie Brooksby said...

When I was a teenager I became interested in one side of my families history, the other was already published. Stories including shooting over a one meter stretch of land and a carriage ride across the entire US with savage indians attacking, were there.

The other side , I discovered had been researched back until 1350 and is celebrated yearly.

Definitely great story material.

Great post!