Genealogy, Character, and Worldbuilding

It’s no secret that I love genealogy. I often say if I wasn’t a writer, I would have been a professional genealogist. The excitement of the chase and the thrill of finally finding that piece of evidence that proves a relationship would enthrall any mystery lover.

And it’s not just my family I enjoy researching. I will jump in and help anyone trying to solve a brick wall. Most genealogy buffs seem to share this insatiable urge to research, as evidenced by how willing people are to help others in many online groups.

Tonight I get to share some of the passion I have for genealogy with the South Jersey Writers Group. I’ll be talking about how my family history habit has crept into my writing, in the areas of character development and worldbuilding.

I’m a bit nervous about presenting,  but I am eager to share with this group. I’ve met some of these writers in other venues, and they are always warm and fun. I’m looking forward to a good discussion with them.

Do you have a hobby that invades your writing?

DNA & Genealogy: Finding cousins, connecting family

I recently have been getting involved on the DNA side of genealogy. It is a science, so there’s a lot to learn. Fortunately, I have always liked science. I am new to this, so I have barely scratched the surface of what there is to know.

So far, I have found about 20 “cousins” and how we connect in our family trees. That’s always exciting! They have ranged from 2nd Cousin 1x Removed to 8th Cousin 1x Removed. One of my new connections is actually a branch of the family that my mother’s family lost touch with some 55 years ago! The older members of our family who remember each other are still alive, and are happy to be back in touch.

DNA is confirming my paper trailThe other exciting thing about DNA is that it can confirm your paper research. Finding matches with these other cousins has enabled me to confirm many of the lines I have been researching for years. The red parts of the fan chart below are ones that I have found DNA matches for. In case you’re wondering, most of the unproven lines are Irish. Either my relatives haven’t tested, or there aren’t many left to test. For instance, I know that my Sutton family largely died out several generations ago, so any remaining Suttons will be quite distant from me.

I was hoping to solve a mystery 185 years in the making. In 1839, the Bergin family emigrated from Ireland to Australia, but left their 7-year-old daughter Johanna behind. I have a Johanna Bergin that would have been the right age, from the right area in Ireland. Research suggests strongly that she is the left behind girl. I have been working with an Australian descendant of her brother, and we had hoped that DNA might prove the tale. However, he and I didn’t match—which doesn’t prove anything, because we are just on the line where as cousins we might not share DNA even if we are related. I am trying to have him move his DNA to another website where my mother’s is, in hopes that a closer generational distance will unearth some DNA connection.

Many people do DNA testing for the fun of finding out their ethnicity. It can be fun to see, but keep in mind that the ethnicity estimates are just that—estimates. They will vary from company to company, as the algorithms are different, although they will be mostly similar. I got a good laugh over 2 tests showing me having <1% Oceania/Melanesia ethnicity when my parents don’t show any DNA from there.

There is a danger in DNA testing, though. In forums online, an amazing number of people who test have found they are not who they thought they were. Many find out that their father wasn’t their father, or their full sibling is only half. It can also shake out family secrets from farther back, when you don’t match anyone from, say, a grandparent’s line, but do match a whole bunch of names that aren’t on your tree. While the ethnicity is only an estimate, the actual DNA doesn’t lie.

I am enjoying exploring my DNA, and expanding the family as I do so. Hopefully, it will help me break down some “brick wall” ancestors at some point—although it hasn’t yet. I look forward to learning more about this science and my family!

Can DNA prove my royal link?

When Surnames Die

Over this long weekend, I dove back into genealogy with a frenzy. I expanded my tree in several horizontal directions, I cleaned up some of my files (but many more to go!), and I sent emails to potential “cousins” to see if we could find our common ancestor. Much of my work this weekend has pushed the surnames Campbell and McFarlin, and has springboarded off of DNA results suggesting possible matches.

DNA can be amazing, when you figure out the connection. One of the reasons I have done the DNA is to try and connect with other family members who may have information on my “brick walls” where I am stuck. One of the DNA tests you can do (if you are male) is a Y-DNA test. This test looks at the Y chromosome, passed from father to son in a direct line, and therefore allows you to trace back your surname. While it is handy for confirming surnames, it is not always helpful if you don’t know what surname you are looking for (such as if you are an adoptee).

Obviously, to do this test, you have to be a male descendant of the surname in question. Which leaves me out, but I have done Y-DNA tests on Campbell, Gans, and Douglas surnames from relatives. If I wanted to trace any other family surnames, I would have to find living male descendants. This can prove problematic, as surnames died out more often than I would have thought. I have found this twice in my recent research, once in the McFarlin lineage, once in the Sutton lineage.

First, we have the McFarlins, who may not be totally gone, but are very rare if they still exist. Keep in mind that I am only speaking of my particular “line”—the McFarland Clan is still going strong. My McFarlins started with Edward and Jane. After Edward died in Ireland, ALL of the children and Jane came to America. I wanted to see if I could find a living McFarlin, so I traced down.

Edward of Ireland had 3 sons: Robert, Edward A., and John. A promising start. Robert had no children, Edward A. had 3 sons, and John had 2 sons. So now we’ve got 5 carriers of that Y. Edward A.’s 3 sons broke the chain—William had no children, Edward A. Jr. had 3 girls, and John H. had one daughter. So that leaves the elder John’s 2 boys to carry the torch: John Robert and Henry Francis. John Robert had no children. Henry Francis had 2 sons who are possibly still living, and at least 3 grandchildren of unknown gender. If there are any McFarlin males out there, they are a literal rare breed.

The Suttons are completely gone in my line. Once again, the entire family came over to America and from there lost the surname. James Sutton had 4 sons in Ireland, one dying as a child. The remaining 3—Nicholas, John, and Patrick—all came to America. Nicholas had 2 sons, but one died in infancy. John had no children, although he raised Nicholas’ children after Nicholas died. Patrick had 2 sons. So in that generation, we have 3 Y-carriers. Nicholas’ son Gilbert had no children. Of Patrick’s 2 sons, James had 1 girl, and Nicholas had no children. In my Sutton line, the name went extinct in my grandmother’s generation.

While this dying of surnames stinks for Y-DNA purposes, it got me thinking about how this could play out in fiction. There is some pathos in the idea of a character being the last of a name (not necessarily the last of a lineage, as the women’s lines may have continued). If this was the last of a royal name or a founding father lineage, it could be sad—the end of an era. Perhaps this character would fight to pass the name on. Or perhaps, in a twist, he wants the name to die with him, because of some curse or evil deed in the past. It’s an interesting concept to play with.

Do family names play a role in your story?

Research and Citations: Save Time, Get It Right From the Start

Cover of Kerry Gans' The Warren Family of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and their Ancestors, a genealogy research bookI’ve written a family history book for my father’s side of the family, and I am now at work on one for my mother’s side. The book for my father’s side took forever, but not because of the writing—because of the research.

Obviously, genealogy takes a lot of research. Over 20 years I have documented evidence from everything from tombstones to letters to photographs to legal documents for birth, death, and marriage. I have a genealogy program where I enter all the data, and cite my sources for each data point.

The problem? My citation entry proved insufficient.

Marriage Certificate of Mary Hobson Warren and Daniel LeinauAs I wrote my father’s book, putting the data into readable prose fell smack into my wheelhouse. But I wanted other researchers of those lines to have a fully sourced genealogy at their disposal. When a genealogist finds a source (such as this book) where you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, that provides a paper trail, and has sources so you can judge for yourself the reliability of the data, it’s like striking gold. I wanted to give this information to people gift-wrapped, as a way of paying forward all the help I had gotten from those who researched before me.

Family Bible birth entry for Isaac Kite, 1754Since citation-supported research was a main goal of the book, I needed to have clear citations for every piece of data. I found in going back into the data that I had often been lax in my citations. While more prevalent in the early days when I often didn’t know better, I also found other places where I had taken shortcuts.

  • I had vague citations: “Tombstone.” Well great, except I didn’t say what cemetery. “Marriage License.” Whose? Issued where?
  • I found incorrect citations: “Scotland Birth Registry.” No such entity exists. I either meant the Scotland Old Parish Records, or the Scotland Statutory Records Index (depending on the date).
  • I had no citation at all. This baffled me the most because I clearly did not make up the information. I got it from somewhere. Often it required me to dig through the information I had to finally find the source.

Screenshot of genealogy database program for organizing researchSo the biggest time-suck writing my genealogy books is the source citations. I often have to stop and track down the original source so I can properly source it. Then I have to fix it in the genealogy program before I add it to the book. The upside, of course, is that when I am finished the books my genealogy database will also be in tip-top shape.

What does this mean for your writing research?

I know most of you are not writing genealogy books. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from my mistakes.

  • If you write historical novels, have a database where you list every historical detail you use and where you found it. That way you can defend that detail if needed, and it gives you a go-to list for more in-depth research if needed.
  • If you write contemporary novels and people helped you out with details of setting, character, or culture, write it down. In the many years it can take from first draft to publishing, you may forget who told you what, and when it comes time for the acknowledgements, you don’t want to forget someone.
  • If you write fantasy or science fiction, track every bit of real science or history you used to inform your world. Not only will you be able to discuss and defend your points, you can then go back to those sources later to see if there are updates to the science or cultural history that you can use in future books set in the same world.
  • If you write thrillers, mysteries, or police procedurals, you’ll need insider knowledge of the justice system and perhaps technical knowledge for things such as planes, submarines, and weapons.
  • Another advantage to all these research notes is that you can use that information to support blog posts and presentations, non-fiction works about the same subjects, and as resources to refer readers to if they want more information.

We writers pull information from everywhere, and we collect data on a wide variety of subjects. We need to know where all that research comes from. Don’t waste time later having to go back and retrace your steps to double-check a detail. Get it right from the start.

Do you keep track of your research? How do you organize the data and sources?

Christmas Cards

Today I am embarking on the yearly Christmas Card Ritual. Addressing cards, writing notes, signing names, putting in photos, sticking on stamps… A time-consuming and hand-cramping past time.

Card Birds Still, I like the tradition. It’s a way to keep in touch with people I might not otherwise connect with, especially with those not on Facebook or other social networks. I also find some of the artwork on the cards to be beautifully evocative of the Christmas spirit.

1936 - HS Warren & Clara McFarlinWriting Christmas cards also connects with a long tradition—and anyone knowing my genealogy interest knows I like tradition. So I was pleased to find several Christmas cards sent out by my great-grandparents, Harold Stites and Clara Warren, among papers given to me by my relatives. All the cards displayed in this post are theirs.

People these days are creative with their cards, enclosing newsletters about their year in review, and customizing the photos on the cards. A writer friend of mine composes a newspaper with stories of the goings-on at the North Pole, pulled from the major news stories of the year. While I enjoy getting the photo cards from my friends and family—and my aching hand would welcome not having to write so many notes and sign so many cards—I am old-fashioned. I like my handwritten cards.

As I have gotten older and lost people I loved, I have come to cherish the fragments of handwriting I have from them. Handwriting is so individual, so personal, that seeing a familiar script is as powerful as hearing their voice. There is a life to handwriting that is lacking in printed text—even though the printed text is often more legible, especially after the first 20 or so cards!

For me, nostalgia pervades the act of Christmas card writing. As I look at these cards from my great-grandparents, I see a reflection of who they were. They were stylish dressers, as demonstrated by the nattily dressed candy canes on one card.

Card Top Hat

My great-grandmother played piano and organ, as well as composed music and hymns, as shown on the card of the angel playing the piano. In fact, my great-grandmother’s apartment grand piano sits in my living room right now.

Card Piano

Card BallsThe cards they chose reflected my great-grandparents’ taste—beautiful, elegant, and joyful, full of the things they cherished most: home and family. Maybe someday I will try the new-fangled customized photo cards and give my hand a break, but for now I choose to follow the tradition of my great-grandparents.

And maybe, if I am lucky, some of my cards will be found by my great-grandchildren among the precious papers saved by my descendants.

Card Doorway

Writing Process Relativity

Last week I wrote about how time is relative. Specifically, I noted that I can accomplish about 4 times as much work in a child-free hour as a child-full hour. I’ve since noticed that the writing process itself is subject to the time-warping effects of relativity. Some parts fly past, some drag–even if they take exactly the same amount of real time.

I don’t do much in the way of outlining and prewriting (although I am trying to do a little more with my latest WIP), so that doesn’t take me too long. I think if I tried detailed outlining I would find the process tedious and draining, which I why I steer clear. While I admire the authors who can write a scene-by-scene outline, I just cannot get the passion for basically writing the book before I write the book. If I tried, that would be a part of the process that would seem to move at a snail’s pace for me.

Some writers say the first draft drags for them. For me, the first draft is fits and starts. Some days the words flow so fast I lose track of time, I am so immersed in the story. Other days the words don’t come and every time I look at the clock it seems the hands haven’t moved. But even though this is one of the physically longer time frames in the process, it does not move slowly for me. I tend to make steady progress, so I feel good about it.

The revision is where time relativity really can come into play. I find large-scale revisions such as moving scenes, deleting scenes, writing new scenes or new parts of scenes to move quickly. I have more of a big-picture brain, so I enjoy this part of the process a great deal. Probably why it seems to go quickly for me.

It’s the small-scale edits that drag for me. The typos and the grammar and the punctuation and the sentence-level structure. Grammar-type issues such as punctuation have never been my strong suit, and, although I am learning, it is still a struggle. The reading the book out loud edit always takes a long time, but it is completely necessary for me. One time I found that my global search-and-replace had failed to change my protagonist’s name in 4 different places. I never would have caught that without reading out loud. My mind, when reading silently, had inserted the correct name all the previous times I had read it–and I was on the 7th major revision at that point!

I don’t know about you, but when I get to the revision stage, I make a list of all the things I need to do. For a while, this list grows instead of shrinks, since often changing one thing will lead to more changes further downstream. Then the list seems to stall, as if I cannot check off anything no matter how hard I work. But then a miracle of relativity happens, and one day I look at my list and there’s only one or two things on it! I experienced that with the non-fiction genealogy project I am working on for my family. Just this weekend I looked at what had been a very long list, and realized I was on the second-to-last thing! What a thrilling moment to finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.

How about you? Which parts of the writing process fly for you, and which are like pulling teeth?

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Contents and Endnotes and Index, Oh My!

I’m embarking on a new venture—non-fiction. It’s a whole new world.

As you may know, I am heavily into genealogy. Several years ago, I compiled all my data into a prose format to distribute to my father’s family (I’m still working on writing out my mother’s). Now, I have more information, and I am updating the book. But this time, I am working on it with an eye towards a wider audience.

Now, I know that genealogy books do not appeal to the general public. However, to that sleuth searching for their family, for that one missing link, a book about their line is pure gold. I cannot thank enough the people who have helped me on my quest, nor can I fully describe the joy of finding a treasure trove of well-documented information.

I want to give others that “family tree high.”

My intention is to fully source the book with endnotes and citations, so anyone reading the book will know the primary source of the information. Wherever possible, I will include pictures and scans of those sources. And I will put it online for as reasonable cost as I can so that others can access the information easily. I also intend to donate copies to local historical societies and/or libraries with genealogical collections. I want this information to be found.

But writing this book is much harder work than I thought.

Not the content itself—writing about each family lineage and couple is pretty easy, as it is chronological and all the information is right in front of me in my genealogical database. It’s the rest of the book that’s making me a little nuts. Like the Table of Contents. And Endnotes. And Index. Oh my.

My version of Word (2007) insists on creating my Table of Contents for me. Which would be very nice if I could figure out how to do that. It’s got something to do with “Styles,” but I have yet to get the details right. I need to sit down and figure it out because once I do, Word will supposedly update the Table of Contents as page numbers change. But so far it has been a headache and I long for the days of the old Word where I could do it myself without my computer freaking out and trying to think for me!

The Endnotes are fairly easy—soooo much easier than on a typewriter!—but I had forgotten what a pain it is to cite every fact on a page. Haven’t done that since my Master’s Degree ten years ago. However, citing everything has been a wonderful way of double-checking my sources within my own database and finding holes I still need documents to fill.

Then there’s the index. What a Herculean task! As far as I know, there is no shortcut to doing this in Word. I have to go through each page of the manuscript and enter each name into my Index database, along with the page number. And if I end up adding or deleting things and those page numbers change, what a headache to go in and fix! If anyone out there has and helpful hints at this, please leave them in the comments.

So there you have it—my latest project. It’s growing alongside my fiction works-in-progress. I’m juggling this book project, two fiction WIPs, several short stories, the weekly blogging, and querying for a third fiction project. I’m kinda busy! But I prefer having multiple projects—it keeps me from getting burned out.

Do you switch between fiction and non-fiction? Does it help keep you balanced?

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Farewell to Aunt Marge

I didn’t think I’d be writing another one of these so soon, but on Friday my great-aunt Marge passed away. She had just turned 90 a few weeks ago, and thankfully she went peacefully.

Farewell, Aunt Marge. I am glad you are reunited with Uncle Ed, your soul mate for 64 years, your sisters, and your parents.

Aunt Marge had a bubbly spirit. I can’t think of her without hearing her laughter. She always seemed to be laughing. Vivacious is a perfect word for her. Even when health issues began to crop up, her lively personality shone through.

She was by far the most positive person I ever knew. No matter what happened, she saw the good in it. Aunt Marge simply had a deep faith that somehow everything would come right in the end—things would work out for the best, even if we couldn’t see it at the time.

Aunt Marge also had a serenity about her. Perhaps it came with age and wisdom, or perhaps it, too, stemmed from her faith. We never spoke about religion together, but her faith was tangible in her calm acceptance of life and all its ups and downs.

Aunt Marge is, however, responsible for my genealogy addiction. Probably a decade ago, we visited her, and she mentioned that she wished she knew where the Warren line of the family had come from. She handed me my first piece of genealogy—her application to the Daughters of the American Revolution—and my obsession was born.

I am sorry that I was not able to trace our Warren name back to its roots. I lost the trail in 1811 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. So I do not know where they originated. They could have come to Nova Scotia directly from England, Ireland, or Scotland. A more interesting scenario would have them have come to America prior to the Revolution—many New England families who wished to stay loyal to the Crown left New England and went to Canada. The New England Warrens, who came over on the Mayflower, were prolific, so it is not impossible that this was a branch that fled.

Her interest in genealogy reflected her overall attention to family. She loved her family, both immediate and extended. Whenever we visited, she always asked what we were doing. She would listen attentively, and you knew her lively mind was taking it all in. Like me, Aunt Marge seemed eager to learn a little about everything, which is one thing that kept her so young at heart.

Aunt Marge was one of the kindest, most sincere, and genuinely loving people I know. I do not know if it was a grace that came with age, or if it was a hallmark of her generation, but I said similar things about her husband and sister, who left us on the same day last year. Aunt Marge was the last of her generation in my family. She takes with her the experiences and wisdom of an age that has long past and will never come again.

Hopefully, though, her values of family and faith, of love and laughter, will remain—passed down to her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Aunt Marge never failed to touch the hearts of everyone she met. She bore her trials with grace and dignity, celebrated her good fortunes with pure joy and gratitude, and loved life and her family with every fiber of her being.

I will miss Aunt Marge, and can only hope to live up to the high standards she set for us all. I will remember her, and whenever I do, those memories will be accompanied by her bubbling laughter.


Genealogy Overload

I finished my middle grade fantasy, and have begun sending it out to agents. While I’m waiting to hear back, I have several other projects to work on (as most authors do). However, I like to take a little time between writing projects to get a non-writing project finished, or at least well-started.

My current project is a Genealogy Database of all my scanned and filed documents. (Update: 1,234 files entered, 241 more to go from my side of the family.) But the genealogy information never stops coming!

I squeezed in two short vacations in the past few weeks. The first, with my husband, also involved visiting 3 cemeteries in Delaware to find my ancestors. The second, with my mother and daughter, also involved 3 cemeteries—this time in New York. So now I have photos and cemetery records to add to my database.

I got a huge surprise in the mail, too. The day after I got home I received a package from my aunt. It contained a scrapbook of my ancestor Capt. William M. Wooldridge, who died in 1863 from a disease contracted while fighting in the Civil War. There are at least half-a-dozen contemporary newspaper articles outlining his artwork, architecture, and inventions. It also had articles about his marriage and some of his Civil War action.

I have found that this is how genealogy goes—droughts and floods. For long periods, every attempt to research will meet with a brick wall. Then suddenly evidence and data will fall into your lap. Sometimes it’s a response to a forum post I put up years ago. Sometimes it’s the opportunity to visit cemeteries or other historic places. Sometimes it’s an unexpected package from a relative. Then one clue leads to another and sometimes an entire wall falls.

I haven’t reached a breakthrough with all this new data, but I have tied up some loose ends and rounded out my data for several generations.

Genealogy is much like writing. You know that feeling when the words are coming so fast you can’t keep up? When the story is rolling and you are high on the exhilaration? When new data come in for my genealogy, I get the same excited rush. And when it leads to a breakthrough, I actually get giddy.

Maybe that’s why I love both writing and genealogy—the unexpected highs more than make up for the long stretches of routine, nitty-gritty hard work.

Do your hobbies complement your writing? Or are they polar opposites?

Organizing Chaos: Reclaiming My Research

I live in a state of organized chaos (don’t most moms of toddlers?). I am not a person with an empty desk at the end of a workday (or pretty much ever). My folded clothes reside on the floor for several days before they find their way into the drawers. And my piles of papers survive until I can’t stand to look at them anymore.

But here’s the thing: as disorganized as it looks, it is organized to me. I can find things. It all makes sense to me on a basic level. So there is a method to the madness. And the things that seem most disorganized are the things that are lowest on my priority list—things that can wait a while before I get around to them. My folded clothes can wait until I finish my blog posts for the week, for example.

And I am meticulous where it counts. Appointments on my calendar are not only written down, but color-coded. My finances are computerized and updated. My writing projects are ordered and backed-up regularly. My editing changes are tracked via spreadsheet and color-coding (and sometimes graphed for good measure). My queries are tracked similarly. To-Do lists are kept and updated daily (or as needed).

You see, I can only keep so much in my mental organizer before I get brain fatigue. So I focus my organization skills (which are pretty sharp when I bring them to bear) on the most important things in my life: keeping my family and writing obligations. Other things can wait until I have time to get around to them.

Unfortunately, I failed to bring my organization savvy to bear on my genealogy research. I have been doing genealogy for about 15 years, and have amassed a huge amount of data. When I began, I had no idea how complex genealogy could get, so established only a rudimentary organization scheme. 15 years later and over 2,000 files later, I have no idea what I have, or where of several places I have it. I know I have duplicated research, thus wasting time. I have just started a database, where I can sort everything out, find and delete duplicates, and then re-organize the files into a cleaner and more intuitive organizational scheme that will make things easier going forward.

I learned a great lesson from this genealogical tidal wave: Start a database from the moment you start researching a topic. When I research for future books, I will definitely do this, and thereby save myself a great deal of time and headache trying to find or confirm research.

How do you keep your research in order? Any tips to share?

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